Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2015), Synchronicity, Edition Assemblage
With Illustrations by Sita Ngoumou
ISBN 978-3-942885-95-9

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2012), The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, Edition Assemblage
ISBN 978-3-942885-22-5

otooIs this German literature? Sharon Otoo is not a German writer. She is, according to her page and the book cover, “a Black British mother, activist, author and editor;” and both books under review are written in English. There is a German version of both, published more or less simultaneously by the same publisher, who is headquartered in Münster, in North-Rhine Westphalia in West Germany, but they have both been translated by a person other than the author (Mirjam Nuenning). Otoo lives and works in Germany and is involved in German debates on racism and refugees. She moved to Germany in 2006 and immediately became involved in activism involving blackness in Germany. I recommend reading this interview. This year, she won the Bachmannpreis for a brilliant story, written in German, which was clearly, to pretty much any competent observer, the best text in the competition, despite some excellent work by the other competitors. The two novellas under review are a cultural hybrid, written in English by a writer with English education and sensibilities, but set in Germany and informed by the sharp observations and brilliant details of a critically observant person living in this country. German literature written by Germans of German descent is pretty dull these days, with a few notable exceptions. Too much of it has been nurtured in the two big MFA mills, too much of it is blind, privileged pap with nothing at stake. Otoo’s books are brilliantly aware of traditions and contexts, of how assumptions and narratives intersect. Synchronicity is a near-allegorical tale of migration, community and adulthood and extends the promise of Otoo’s debut. The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, a book about heartbreak, racism and migration. Both books are written with a sharp stylistic economy that never lapses into flatness, a skill that is as rare as it is commendable. If German literature is to have an interesting future, then it is not young writers writing clever postmodern 1000 page books with nothing at stake or MFA mill products with their self-congratulatory emptiness. It is writers with a migratory background who inject fresh energy and purpose into a literature that has grown rather tired. Otoo does not identify as a German writer but it is German literature that most stands to profit from her growing body of work.

otoo doppelSynchronicity is a multi-layered, but straight-forward story of community and family. Everything else, all the magical realism, all the bells and whistles, are woven around this core. Blackness and migration is a tale of fighting to belong. In the much more knotty and fragmented Things I am Thinking…, the protagonist explains that, being “the only black girl in a London suburb” she “quickly leaned that trouble could be avoided if [she] acted white.” This thinking is continued and expanded upon in Synchronicity – while the first novella used the personal as a mirror and medium to reflect (and reflect upon) political aspects, combining heartbreak with thoughts of alienation, this second novella is more deliberate and careful in discussing migration by offering us a set of metaphors on the one hand, and tableau of characters who all relate to the protagonist along an axis of power and nationality. The more streamlined nature of the second book derives to a great part from the genesis of the book as a Christmas tale written in 24 daily installments and sent to friends and family. The idea of turning it into a book came later, which explains why the two novellas are so different in construction. Things I am Thinking… is written in fragments, with a narrator who keeps going back and forth in time, to reveal some things and hint at others. The chapters all start mid-sentence and each chapter is preceded by a “shrapnel,” an emotionally charged quote. The book only makes sense as a complete construction, there’s no way to write that kind of book by coming up with daily installments. And yet the linear nature of Synchronicity is also not a sign of Otoo’s development, because her Bachmannpreis-winning story is exceptionally well constructed, with cultural, historical and theoretical allusions coming together to create a story that is deceptively simple, a story that needed to be mapped out in advance. I suspect when we look at Otoo’s work in a few years, after she has written the novel that she’s writing now (and won the Chamisso-award that she’s practically a shoo-in for at this point) and edited some more books, that Synchronicity will stand out as a unique part of her oeuvre. An unusual work by a writer of uncommon talent.

glossaryIt is important to note what an incredible progress the author has made since her first novella, despite that book’s high quality. Things I am Thinking… is a dense realist book that is fairly low on allusion and high on clarity of observation. The prose is lean but effective throughout, sometimes leaning a bit towards the journalistic. The real achievement of the book, however, is not the writing or the observations, per se, it is the author’s skill of connecting various elements of her narrator’s life in meaningful but subtle ways. I am sure the author is aware of various aspects of political philosophy, from Foucault to Critical Race Studies, but she wears that knowledge lightly. This is the philosophical version of “show not tell.” The book’s story is about a Black woman who lives in Germany. She has broken up with her husband Till, who is also the father of her child. She has friends of various ethnicities and origins, among them refugees. She has increasingly become disillusioned with the reality of Germany, which is expressed particularly well in the narrator’s attitude towards her husband’s name

So it was a matter of great inspiration to me, meeting Till on my year abroad in Germany. Someone with a surname so unambiguously of the country he was born, raised and lived in that I thought: how sexy is that? And I knew I had to make it my own. This however didn’t stop other officially suited white ladies in cold offices from saying “Wie bitte?” and asking me to repeat myself – like they were disappointed because they had been expecting me to be called something resembling Umdibondingo or whatever. Several months after we were married, I discovered that “Peters” was also the surname of a German colonial aggressor and although I didn’t begin to hate it then, I stopped adorning myself with it.

Otoo pulls off a rare trick – her book is dense and cerebral, but it has a story to tell, as well as a narrative and political urgency. Everything in the book has a purpose and is connected to everything else, but it never feels like Otoo is simply having a postmodern game on. This is not the place to unravel all the book’s plotlines and trajectories, but suffice to say that she manages to see how the different ways power shapes and controls us intersect and collaborate. And her protagonist, who has learned to accommodate various demands of power, is now crashing against the walls of the well-built house of German racism and economics because her personal life implodes. The word “shrapnel” is well chosen for the quotes preceding the chapters because the impression I got reading the book was that heartbreak, a fundamental personal emotion, functions like a bomb that explodes in the middle of a lifetime of accomodation and struggle. The book itself, while not framed explicitly as a text written by the protagonist, feels like an attempt to assemble the shards of a life, where one betrayal has damaged personal, professional and social relationships.

otoo innen1The aspect of migration is not central to Things I am Thinking…. We learn that the protagonist is British, but migration is experienced more through the eyes of the refugees we encounter in the book like Kareem, of whom the author remarks that he “has this matter of fact, nothing-to-lose air about his person. Years of being an illegal immigrant in an unwelcoming country will do that to you, I guess.” Much of the alienation that we learn about is the kind that happens when you look foreign and live in a racist country:

Berlin is a place where anything goes, and you can wear whatever you like, but if you are a Black woman in the underground, be prepared to be looked up and down very very slowly. I cannot tell you how many times I have glanced down at myself in horror during such moments to check if my jeans were unzipped or if my dress was caught up in my underwear. White people look at me sometimes like I am their own private Völkerschau. Staring back doesn’t help. It counts as part of the entertainment. Entertainment.

We get hints sometimes as to how a hybrid identity can develop with migration, such as when the protagonist recounts the criticism her “auntie” leveled at her: “she was truly shocked when she first realized that I had not raised Beth to hand wash her own underwear every night.” The reason for “auntie”’s outrage is the question of identity: “just because she has a whitey father, doesn’t mean she’s not Ghanaian!” The protagonist is not so sanguine about these matters, more interested in negotiating a Black identity in Germany, dealing with the shifting fortunes of being married to someone named Peters, and with the difficulties of establishing trust and loyalties in this country when you’re viewed as foreign.

otoo innen 2Synchronicity, on the other hand, is primarily dedicated to these questions of heritage and migration. There are basically two stories, layered one above the other, in the book. One, the surface-level story, is the one of Charlie Mensah, known as “Cee,” who is a graphic designer who, one day, starts to “lose” her colors. This is meant quite literally. For a couple of days, she stops being able to see certain colors, with one color absconding per day. Blue, red, green, etc., until just gray remains. The beautiful illustrations by Sita Ngoumou provide a lovely background to this contrast. This is challenging to Cee, who is a freelance designer, with a big and well-paid project coming up, and who has suddenly lost the use of one of her most important faculties. Eventually, however, the colors return, one by one, albeit in a different form. This, so far, is the story as a realist narrative would describe it. There are smaller plotlines woven into it, such as Cee falling in love, and her conflicts with her client, but basically, this is it. The other story is the one concerning heritage and identity. This loss of colors is not some disability, not some virus or sickness, it is a process of maturation that happens to all the women in her family. The “different form” that colors are regained in is what the author calls “polysense,” a special form of synesthesia. And this is not all that is different about the women in Cee’s family. They are also all women who don’t reproduce sexually. They are parthogenic, which, as Cee explains, “means we have children alone – that our bodies are designed to become pregnant completely by themselves.” This is not some science fictional theory, although it echoes such science fictional worlds as the planet Whileaway in Joanna Russ’ feminist classic The Female Man. Otoo, beyond the term, never goes into details, because this strange genetic heritage serves primarily as a metaphor for migration and alienation. The people in Cee’s family live alone. They raise their daughters to be independent and then, once they are adult, they push them out of the house and then let them fend for themselves. The maturation process to polysense, and the insistence on independence makes it hard for these women to establish personal bonds; thus, Otoo found a metaphor to reify something that has been part of immigrant experience for a long time.

4EdA_Day-by-Day_CoverA better way, I suppose to frame it, is Axel Honneth’s innovative take on the subject of reification, where the process of recognizing the other is fundamental to the way our subjectivity is constructed and yet that recognition, which, as Butler writes, “is something achieved” that “emerge[s] first only after we wake from a more primary forgetfulness,” can be abandoned. The forgetting of recognition is, in Honneth’s reading, what. In classic terminology, we called reification. What does migration to to emotional recognition? How do we react when we migrate into places that see us as a constituting alterity, that use us to create their national and personal narratives. In Otoo’s slender and careful book, the answer, given for many generations of immigrants, is to retreat to a specific kind of subjectivity that rejects recognition. The parthogenetic reproduction is a perfect metaphor for that. But the tone of the book isn’t dark. Otoo, who works as an activist, imbues her novella with confidence in the future. Her migrants break free of this mold. Cee’s daughter refuses to accept the ways of her family and Cee herself sees changes in her and the world around her. She falls in love with a policeman who isn’t white, representing a fusion of her horizons with that of the country she migrated to. The most powerful description of the policeman is not the first time she sees him, it is a moment of recognition, which, for Honneth, is something that is part of maturation:

That policeman. I recognized him straight away this time because he had a particular kind of walk. Like he was happy to be walking at all. In fact, if I had to choose one word to describe his body language it would be: gratitude. That really fascinated me. I stared at him for quite some time as I walked towards him – he was in deep conversation with his white colleague. I could tell the colleague was white because his walk was altogether more sturdy and authoritarian. He placed his feet firmly onto the ground, each step conferring a heritage of legitimacy and ownership unto him.

The book is a Christmas story, which explains its optimism and lightness, but it also offers a literary third way between assimilation and rejection. Critical optimism, if you will. It is a unique quality that appears to be emerging in Otoo’s work. Things I am Thinking… is a much darker work, but the story that Otoo read at the Bachmannpreis walks the same line as Synchronicity does. I don’t think I’ve ever read quite the same kind of story in this country and I don’t think I have ever read a writer quite like Otoo.

tddl16-532x200At the Bachmannpreis (I had a short post on it last year here) the jury discussions of Otoo’s text and the one of Tomer Gardi, another exciting text read at the competition, as well as the contrast to the bland terrible awfulness of the texts read by Jan Snela, Julia Wolf, Isabelle Lehn or Astrid Sozio (who, slotted directly behind Otoo, read a spectacularly racist text) maybe shows where literature written and published in this country needs to turn. The comfortable and unnecessary tales of migrancy from a MFA-educated German mind do not add to the conversation and they do not produce good literature. That is a dead end, and nothing demonstrated that dead end as well as the comparison of the field with Sharon Otoo’s excellent text, and Otoo’s work in general.

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Phil LaMarche: American Youth

LaMarche, Phil (2007), American Youth, Sceptre
ISBN 978-0-340-93803-4

lamarche 2I went into this book knowing nothing about it or the author. Someone recommended it to me and I decided on a whim to read it. Not knowing anything about it, I was surprised at the way the book’s title’s relationship to the text keeps mildly shifting. From a vague description for much of the book’s personnel to the name for “a small group [where local kids] get together and discuss politics, activism, that sort of thing.” The kids in question are all right wing nuts, if you can call adolescents that, but the book loses interest in politics with remarkable speed given how central they are to a significant portion of its characters. Rather than examine the way politics insinuate themselves into youth culture, American Youth is a novel about a a small town that was hit hard by the recession and a Bildungsroman of sorts where a young boy discovers guilt, politics, sex and redemption, in this order. Phil LaMarche tries his hand at a version of America that has already been well examined by the likes of Richard Ford, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Thomas McGuane or Daniel Woodrell. This is not a very good novel, but there’s a very good novel in it somewhere, which makes it a bit maddening to read. The first half of the novel is quite intriguing, until the second half, which reads like a dutiful tying up of lose ends and narrative strands, really ruins the whole thing. The impression is that Phil LaMarche decided to end the novel on a redemptive note, and shaped the later acts of the story accordingly, rather than ride out the story as is, and see what its implications and possible directions are. It’s rather like seeing an object grow before your eyes only to find that it’s a bag full of hot air. And it’s not even particularly well written. Not bad, mind you, but the simple prose aims for early Hemingway, particularly some of the early Nick Adams stories, without having early Hemingway’s gift for compression. It is no surprise that this book and its author is an MFA product (you may have read my misgivings here and here), because the book reads (though it apparently isn’t) like someone’s thesis, dutifully taking an idea and putting it through the gears of what a “good” realist novel dealing with small town America should do. Alternately, it could be a result of a short story writer grappling with the very different task of building a novel. I imagine if Bonnie Jo Campbell ever gets round to writing a novel, it might be very similar to this one. And yet, despite all this, I can’t say I regretted reading it. It is a quick read, with good characters, and a really good first half. Look, it’s fine.

lamarche 3The characters and the various ways they are interconnected is the real achievement here. A kid dies early in the novel, and the guilt is curiously deferred: the killer bears some responsibility, but it was an accident brought about by age and inexperience; the novel’s protagonist, an experienced user of guns who loaded the gun only to leave it in his friend’s hands also bears some, as do the victim, shot when the two kids were grappling over the gun and the protagonist’s mother whose distracting noises prompted the protagonist to leave the gun in his friends’ hands. This is no spoiler, we learn this fairly early, but it shows us the way the novel connects its characters. Shared guilt, shared hate, shared pain. All people in the novel are somehow connected to all other people by a sad game of six degrees of shame and fear. The construction of the novel is so well done that I would not be surprised to learn that the author used a complex diagram to draw up the characters and the story. Sometimes, the effect is almost Checkovian: any character who we are introduced to that is not an immediate source of misery for the protagonist will eventually turn out to provide a solid dose of it – this is very impressive but, especially towards the end of the book, becomes more annoying that enjoyable. LaMarche’s treatment of guilt and shame gets more heavy handed as the novel slogs on. One can almost hear the author’s urge to include and clarify certain elements beyond ambiguity. The guilt for the killed boy is palpable and informs even simple observations. It is also mostly unspoken, weighing heavily over everything. This is how it should be. Similarly, boyhood betrayals and loyalties are debated with unspoken feelings of guilt and anger, expressed with body language and sullen words. When, however, towards the end of the book, a budding love, and the protagonist’s first sexual encounter, turns sour amid accusations of rape, we get an unholy amount of paragraphs of the protagonist debating the guilt or lack thereof for the act of rape. The original encounter, which is clearly a form of rape, was described clearly enough. No reader would have needed the copious debates of how the accusation shocked the boy who thought “it was not like that” and then his insight that maybe he did cross some line, and his debates of the topic both with other boys as well as the girl whose pleas to stop he ignored in the first place. I’m not advocating treating a terrible act with less condemnation, but the step by step discussion of it in the book, again, has the whiff of college debates on rape culture and an author who was trying to ‘get it right,’ even at the expense of the literary quality of his novel.

richard fordCuriously, he doesn’t get it right, despite the tedious extended discussions of the act. His failure here is less one of misreading rape, and more one of the role he allows women to play in this story and particular in this part of the narrative. The victim of rape basically drops out of the story after the accusation makes the rounds, reappearing only to assuage the protagonist’s feelings of guilt. Calling what happened between them rape becomes less an accurate description of what happened (though it is) and more of a weapon wielded by other boys and a source of resentment, anger and violence. The girl’s motivations and feelings suddenly disappear from a novel that was originally very interested in them and very clever in how it introduced them. This is due to two defects in the novel. One is its massive disinterest in its female characters. After setting them up, they become mere catalysts for the male characters’ actions. This gulf between the depth of the characters as we are introduced to them, and the shallow actual use of them is due to the second defect and that’s the novel’s slavish devotion to structure. There is no room in the third act to examine the girls’ motivations and feelings because the beats of the story demand that something else happens now. There is no room for the mother of the killed boy to have a complex reaction to the violent events because the only room the tightly scripted story allows her to have is as a forgiving catalyst for redemption. That’s also why the politics fall by the wayside. We need them in the first act, to connect the protagonist to that right wing group of teetotaler boys called “American Youth,” but the arc of the story does not have an opening for any examination of politics or of the way that that small town really deals with politics, so it really never comes up again, except in small phrases here and there. And with all that tightness the book still doesn’t really have a dense texture. The second half, which is almost single-mindedly dedicated to finishing the story and hitting all the right beats, and tying up all the strands of story in the right way is pretty flabby because as the author loses interest in all the strange and exciting characters that populate the book, he falls back more and more on the protagonist’s thoughts and ruminations. The second half of the novel could be cut by 60% without losing anything truly significant. It shows where the author’s interest and priorities lie: in construction. He spent so much effort setting up the story that it feels as if the second half of the book is just a quick, unedited filling in of gaps. As I said before, this makes for a maddening reading experience. And not in a good way.

lamarche 1American Youth is set up as a book about small town life, about politics, even sexual politics, about how right wing politics are fueled by anger and frustration, about guilt and redemption, but ultimately, it is only the latter and the way a young boy matures into a young adult. The final chapter of the book, and especially the final paragraph, with its cheesily formulaic outlook into the future finally jettison all the darkness and bleakness that was a part of so much of the novel, and replaces it with a contemplation of what this young adult plans on telling his child. It feels as if the author is exceptionally blind to the possible implications of his story. There is a big unmarked, unexamined heart to the story where everyone is male, white and has whatever vaguely centrist politics Phil LaMarche himself has. Everything that doesn’t fit this basic assumption of normalcy is introduced as needed and jettisoned as needed. Thus, the politics of the book. The “American Youth” right wingers are the only people in the book whose politics are discussed, really, and then some politically correct newcomers. There is, as with so many other aspects of the book, a moment where we find a fissure in the text, an instability that might be used to cleave open many assumptions. It is the moment when the protagonist’s mother, trying to find out about a police officer’s stance regarding the killing, asks a friendly police man: “is he like us?” That was an extremely smart way of showing how the town’s loyalty works, and it tied into another strand of the story that examined boyhood loyalty. Yet as we enter the second half of the story it is as if the question had never been asked. The implication being, somehow, that we the reader are assumed to be like the author. In a book on the construction of whiteness as “a bounded cultural identity,” Matt Wray suggests that dismissive terms like “White Trash” serve as “boundary terms,” that help manage disparate lines of social loyalty. In a way, much of American Youth is concerned with offering us elements that are not “like us,” sharpening the books sense of who belongs to the ‘in’ group and who does not. Liking guns is good, being obsessed with gun rights is weird and so is not liking guns at all. Drinking a bit of alcohol is good, getting drunk off your ass is weird and so is not drinking at all. Doing the beast with two backs now and then is good, abstaining from sex is weird. And so on. None of these are awful, but when it comes to the book’s gender politics or its dubious racial politics, the picture is a bit less savoury.

Overall, the problem is not of the book focusing on loyalties and marking insiders and outsiders. Writers like Daniel Woodrell are excellent at doing that in similarly set stories. But Woodrell creates closed worlds where the demands of the story dictate the way it moves. He replicates the closed world of the stories in the closed form of the novel. Phil LaMarche’s novel has no loyalties to its characters or its story. It is about white male experience and could conceivably be set in a different place among different characters, if the story beats are mostly maintained. It acts like a story about places, a novel invested in local cultures, but we soon see the lamb hiding beneath the wolfskin. At some point, I think, the book even quotes Cormac McCarthy and while the man’s recent output is less than inspired, the man’s work contains books so infused with a sense of place that we almost drown in it. Suttree this ain’t. The disappointment I felt on reading American Youth makes it hard for me to predict where LaMarche’s path as a writer will take him. One hopes that he learns to shake off the MFA guidelines and learns to trust the story, trust his characters.

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lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for

lê thi diem thúy (2003), The gangster we are all looking for, Anchor
ISBN 978-0-375-70002-6

gangster 1Much like the last book I reviewed here, I somehow ended up reading this book by accident, but I don’t regret it – lê thi diem thúy’s debut novel is a very good book. Among the shorter books I recently reviewed, it doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Herrera’s novel, but apart from smaller issues of style and pacing here and there, it’s hard to find flaws with it. As the book progresses, it picks up pace, power and emotional resonance. It takes no formal or stylistic risks, there is no complicated mythical or metafictional conceit, but for a traditional narrative of immigration, it is exceptionally well done, and what’s more, lê has developed a very recognizable, very vivid voice right out of the gate that is not reliant on tricks, but on a solid control of language. Her observations and the images she chooses to use are usually on point – sharp, meaningful, insightful. The book’s broader range is chronological but the narrator keeps moving backwards to illuminate other episodes from her childhood, finally to reach all the way back to her earliest childhood in Vietnam. Dreams are incorporated into the narrative not as exotic or fancy artifacts but as parts of reality, equally as important to understanding the protagonist’s life as the wide awake observations of life as a Vietnamese refugee in San Diego. It is pleasant to read a novel that is both so solidly crafted, so well written and so emotionally resonant as this one. It’s what one hopes would emerge from the MFA author mills instead of the cheesy formulaic pap that usually ends up on our shelves. If you teach writing and structure to someone, a novel like The gangster we are all looking for is surely the desired result. lê conveys the cultural barriers that open up for refugees without hokeyness, she tells us of loss and family ties in a language that is both taut and expansive. Sure, the novel could have been a bit tighter, but I suspect that my quibbles with it stem from the joy I had of reading it. The gangster we are all looking for is an exceptional book that I immediately reread – and it somehow gets better the second time around. So if you are up for a lovely, conventional but exceptionally well done little book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience, do read this book.

The book follows its protagonist, a six year old girl, who lands with her father and four other Vietnamese men (she calls them the four uncles) in California, after an arduous flight that led them to the US via Singapore (look up Boat People if you want to know more). Her mother stayed behind, but would join them later. For the majority of the book the mother is present and significant. The book is broadly structured chronologically, with the first page essentially describing the landing of the six year old girl, and the last chapter structured around her return visit to Vietnam 20 years later. Between these basic elements, the book moves back and forth, withholding certain elements only to fill them in later. The management of time feels fluid and expertly done, the effect is of a mosaic of memory without losing readability or fluidity. I’m not surprised to read that the novel is, among other texts, based on a performance piece of the author’s, because that explains the taut cohesiveness of the whole book despite all the small episodes and the changes back and forth in time. An audience can’t just go back a few pages to figure out something confusing, it needs to make sense as a flow of story, in the moment. And that’s certainly true here. This fluid mosaic technique is not associative. Instead, lê uses hard cuts, having structured her book through paragraphs and chapters, which makes the easy cohesiveness (unlike, say, Jirgl’s excellent but less easy to read mosaic novel Die Stille, with each chapter/paragraph dedicated to a photograph) even more impressive. Another example of the author’s smooth handling of her material is the way the book is both clearly narrated by the adult who remembers the early days of her life, and yet in many childhood vignettes, we are offered the child’s sense of wonder and -sometimes- her obstinacy and strangeness, unmodulated, uncommented. We never feel, I don’t think, a real contrast between the way the childhood scenes are narrated and the way the adult fills in other portions of the narration (including occasional sections where other people’s thoughts are imagined). It’s all just – and I’m sorry to repeat myself here – extraordinarily well handled, so that the book’s surface is always smooth (but never slick).

Another interesting aspect is the way the novel handles immigration or migration. We don’t really see the process of fleeing a country and entering another, apart from the occasional memory. The book begins exactly at the moment of landing: “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore.” The author very rarely explains things and customs to us, so most of the time, our knowledge does not vastly outstrip the child’s – or rather, our horizons are similar. So of the process of immigration, the signing of forms and the learning of language, finding jobs etc., none of this really turns up in the book. Instead, migration is presented as a negotiation of living spaces. The child, her father and the “uncles” first live in a wealthy benefactor’s house and later, she lives with her father and mother in several different houses and apartments. Houses, according to Gaston Bachelard, “would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being” and they give us “illusions of stability.” It is that latter phrase that I find particularly interesting, in the light of some things I’ve been reading recently, but let’s start with the first phrase, because it describes part of the author’s method. The book very diligently takes upon itself to describe to us the different houses, especially in the early stages. While the child’s personality is being formed, our attention is being directed to the spaces wherein the transformation takes place. And transformation is the exactly right word. The author even suggests it to us in one of the book’s strangest and most intriguing sections: having found a butterfly trapped in amber, covered in glass, the child protagonist becomes convinced she can hear the butterfly’s wings, she can hear it talk and becomes increasingly interested in freeing the butterfly, which culminates in a minor disaster, and a borderline unhinged dialogue. The butterfly is an obvious reference to transformation, but the child’s truculent obsession with hearing its wings through the amber and the glass leads us to something else: the book’s dissatisfaction with the structures and houses that it builds up.

gangster 2“Illusion of stability,” indeed. Water moves through the novel in all kinds of places, doors are literally un-hinged, and family traditions and structures are reduced to symbolic acts, and unstable symbolic acts at that. Usually, immigrant narratives are about finding a place, a space, inscribing an identity onto the crowded slate of a national identity. Settling. Take another book I reviewed last year, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. Most of the book’s post-migration narrative takes place in the same house, and while physical and mental illness destabilizes that new home, the ultimate result is one of growing roots and becoming almost too happy. Even immigration narratives that don’t end in success are basically negotiations of the same paradigm, just with a different outcome. In the case of this novel, however, lê cleverly combines two different movements. There’s the movement from house to house, trying to find, as they say with rescued pets, a “forever home.” That this search is unstable, with lovers from the old country, alcoholism, violence, poverty and desperation all helping to destabilize it, does not make this search any less goal-oriented. At the same time, the protagonist slowly but surely extricates herself from this process. This is no leaving the nest and growing one’s own home, the way Sharma’s protagonist did. This is just a dissatisfaction with this structure. It reminded me of Deleuze’s correction of Foucault in which he suggested that society is not just strictly structured through power, but instead through “lines of flight.” For Deleuze, it is desire that oozes out of structures, that opens up narratives of power, and lê’s protagonist’s path through the book charts that slow undoing of stability. As with the butterfly, sometimes lê rigs her book to make this process extra clear. For example, in an abandoned house, where the neighborhood children play, they put up a big carton box, just large enough for two kids to fit inside. They added a curtain to it and then they named it “The Other Room” and then just “The Box.” So I’m sure the box was meant for shenanigans to begin with, but we are not shown that. We are however shown the moments the protagonist spends in the box with a boy, moments we follow in extraordinary detail. The box itself is an attempt to provide additional stability to a stable but disintegrating environment, and what do we find inside? The discovery of desire.

But the Deleuze idea that I have been most preoccupied with these days is the idea of cartography. It’s primarily of interest to me with regard to Lowell’s and Bishop’s poetry, but the way lê structures the journey through houses can, I think, be excellently described using Deleuze’s concept of looking at journeys through maps as trajectories, journeys through different milieus with their own subjectivities and their own negotiation of territoriality. Those trajectories “merge […] with the subjectivity of the milieu itself.” If we follow Deleuze and look at the sturdy, seemingly immovable object of memory and the narrative of origin as “displacements” instead, it encourages us to see narratives of becoming, as the one that lê’s protagonist undergoes as a challenge to thresholds and simple identities. The book doesn’t end with an identity arrived at or confirmed, it ends in an absolute image of fluidity and open possibility. The narrator’s becoming-woman is inverted against the certainty of place and context. As a narrative strategy, it strikes me as unusual in immigration narratives. Take Sunjeev Sahota’s booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, which starts in a similar environment, of adult immigrant men living together, negotiating their new space. But Sahota’s very good novel is primarily interested in looking at one milieu and a process of becoming that is determined by a very narrow set of thresholds and enclosures. The gangster we are all looking for is about a protagonist attempting to escape into indeterminacy. It’s quite a feat that the author manages to do all this and yet stay consistently readable. Ultimately, it’s this conventional smoothness that keeps this from reaching quite the heights that it could reach, but, you know, it’s really good, after all.

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Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night

Haruf, Kent (2015), Our Souls at Night, Knopf
ISBN 978-1-101-87589-6

418qIjdmtWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have not read any reviews of Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls At Night but I suspect that whatever books I can pull as reference and context for it might not be appropriate. I do know that the book has drawn quite a bit of praise and that fact alone is a bit puzzling to me. Well. I will accept: it is competently done. The quiet and orderly style has been perfected to the point of it becoming an object in and of itself in the novel. I can appreciate the craftsmanship that went into writing, balancing and structuring the novel, but as I read it, I was not able to shake the feeling that what I was seeing was a too-large short story, a book that might, in the hands of Carver, Gallant or Salter turned into a sharp tale of an unusual relationship, of age and love. Too suburban and content for Richard Ford, the material could have suited Cheever’s suburban pen, too. In fact, I spent some time today browsing his collected stories, because something in the back of my head nagged me to do it, but no success. It lacks the pull, the tension between dialogue and description that a well-executed short story can provide, but it doesn’t fill up the additional space well. The style and the repetitive, overindulgent nature of the way the story is told is a bit like one of those apartments that were en vogue in the early 2000s. Big spacious lofts with nothing to fill them. Really, come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like Our Souls At Night – a book that is clearly literary, clearly well-written and carefully built. And yet it is very emphatically not a good book. A big structure – not an empty room because the story is genuinely lovely, but a room too big and angular and impersonal for the small burst of life that’s inside. There is really no reason to read or recommend this book. No matter what your preferences are in fiction, or what element of this book could conceivably appeal to you, there are numerous superior options. Anyone attracted by summaries of this book is much better served with short stories by any of the authors I named in this paragraph, as are people looking for a story of aging love. Other writers who cover similar territory in much superior fashion include John Updike, Philip Roth, late-period Grace Paley. It’s really hard not to find a writer of genteel suburbia who hasn’t written a book or story that blows Our Souls At Night out of the water. And it’s the most frustrating thing because Kent Haruf is clearly a good, extremely competent writer with total stylistic control, and his take on loneliness and the darkness of life is often powerful. So let me return to the beginning of this paragraph and add this to my critique: this just may not be for me.

The major draw of the book is not the story, it’s the writing. This may be surprising given that Haruf is a writer known for his “simple” style and not a Hemingwayesque simplicity at that. And yet, this style is quite something. There are no shadings to tone, no ambiguous phrases, vibrating with the unsaid. Everything appears to have been said just as intended. The writing is plain, but not flat. It’s not musical, but it’s also not dull. It’s a deeply functional simplicity that creates a space for the story to unfold. I gather some of Haruf’s other books are novels of space, of Midwestern landscapes and I am mildly curious about the way a writer like this would tackle it, because in Our Souls At Night, we are not offered a fullness of description as far as the environments and backgrounds are concerned. The language is all the space and room we get. There is a scene somewhere in the middle, when a dog is acquired, and a boy is asked to show it around the house. “I’ve never been in the other rooms myself,” the boy says and we might expect some kind of description of the house to happen, but it never comes. It is enough that we know it is a house. The rest is language and in it, much of the prose is dialogue, but it lacks the musicality and sharpness of real dialogue (Gaddis’ JR is my touchstone for creating a book built out of that) or the madness of dialogue in books like Nicola Barker’s underappreciated The Yips. At the same time, it also does not have the weight and accuracy of Beckett or Bernhard. In a way, the dialogue adds a second layer of description, joining the quality of the novel’s style. All of this adds up to an extraordinary stiffness. Scenes don’t move. As in a theatre, it takes the falling curtain of a chapter ending for the action to change place or direction. Some heartbreaking decisions are made, but they are made in between chapters and the chapter following the decision then plays out a scene where we try and come to terms with the situation. The sentences, fittingly, are short and declarative. Only when there is a small amount of movement, when someone enters a scene, or when a scene, rarely, requires a trip somewhere, the syntax unfurls. It’s quite impressive how disciplined Haruf deploys his writing, from the short, declarative base sentence to the longer, moving sentence of action. The book’s predilection for short sentences also has an odd effect on its dialogue. As I said, it’s not a dialogue possessed of a snappy rhythm. In fact, much of it feels like testimony, of one person testifying and the other acting as interlocutor. This effect is strongest in the chapters where the characters discuss their past, but they recur throughout. The result is a strong affirmation of the overall impression of stasis.

The story is the one of a short and unusual relationship between two widowed older citizens, living in a small town. They come together to fight loneliness. It is not about sex, although in later stages, that element enters their relationship. It is about the darkness of night that is so difficult to overcome for one person alone. In fact, in a more stressful period of their relationship, Haruf describes their insistence on the now-established patterns of their nights together like this: “They still held each other in the night when he did come over but it was more out of habit and desolation and anticipated loneliness and disheartenment[.]” Their relationship is an attempt to slowly, sneakily, do something new, something that makes them the talk of the town and something that doesn’t sit well with their adult children. Indeed, the whole writing and structure of the novel resists the mere idea of doing something new. Stasis and continuity is written into the very bones of the book. You can find it in all kinds of details. For example, in the memories. Twice, the man tells the woman a story from his life. First, he tells her of an old affair he had, and then he tells her of his love for poetry. Both times, the woman quietly listens to what he has to say and then suggests that maybe both passions may be ongoing. Not the affair or the writing and reading of poetry, but the love that powered both. “I think you still love her,” she says. Their children, similarly, are ties connecting them to their old past, as they are representative of their past relationships. Small town gossip serves a similar function. Both are known around town, known for their past, known for who they are. Striking up this new rleationship/friendship violates these old ideas and is, thus, shocking, without having to actually provide sensational content. Everything, really, is set up to promote stasis, and the only thing that pushes both of them to try and make it work despite everything is the terror of a night spent awake, alone, with no-one to talk to, no-one to hold, no-one to grab when the nights are rough. Haruf reinforces this contrast, between the stasis and the night as a force that pushes the new, by introducing the woman’s grandson, who, by dint of belonging to her ‘old’ family, first seems to drive the two apart, but it is his literal terror of the night, his night terrors, that send him crying to this unusual couple who, together, find a way to relieve the boy’s nighttime affliction.

Ultimately, the big empty rooms of the story reflect the echoing feelings of loneliness, of emotional need (or neediness). Really, any stylistic aspect of the novel appears to serve a function within the symbolic or emotional structure of the narrative. It is quite the impressive achievement, but a dull sentence is still a dull sentence when it serves to illustrate dullness. There is so much redundancy in the novel which, like a middle aged man, has gotten a bit flabby around the middle. The beginning is sharp and raises all the themes of the novel with precision and urgency. The ending, meanwhile, is much more dense with emotion. The way the book ends is with a few effective and emotionally striking brushstrokes that any reader would recognize from a certain kind of American short story. Even after rereading the book, I still fail to understand why this story had to be of novel-length. Nothing in it justifies its size. And all the dullness of certain parts is only striking because of the amount of time we as readers spend cooped up with that style. If you want a reason to read this book, read it for the devastation of loneliness and the way a deep need for companionship arises from that. There are many fancy ways to phrase love or affection, but what Haruf offers, in way too many (or too few) pages, is the simple, unadorned horror of being alone at night. It hasn’t often been expressed quite so directly, and with so much stylistic craftsmanship leveraged specifically for that effect and that effect only. And yet, maybe it is just this discipline and care in the way the writing works that makes for such a dull read. It’s a sense of functionality, of stylistic practicality. Haruf wrote this book as he was dying, from the precipice of that final night. A last look back at companionship, at the things between people that endure and the pressures we face. At some point, the man in the story says “[s]o life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected, he said.” and it is not a tragic moment. Things we can’t change we accept. The only things weighing us down are guilt, love and loneliness. These three endure.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Fran Ross: Oreo

Ross, Fran (2015 [1974]), Oreo, New Directions
ISBN 978-0-8112-2322-5

oreo coverLet me apologize in advance if this review is a bit odd, I have not had sleep in quite a while. On the other hand, this likely leads to a shorter review. That said, I hope I’ll still manage to convey to you that Oreo, Fran Ross’ first and only novel, is an absolute masterpiece. A book that should rank among the classics of 20th century American fiction and it’s regrettable that it does not. Originally published in 1974, it appears to have sunk like a stone in the waters of literary attention. In 2000 it was republished by Northeastern University Press (by the way: the series “Northeastern Library of Black Literature,” published by Northeastern University Press, cannot be praised highly enough for bringing excellent and unusual books back into print that have not fared well upon the sea of canonicity. I want to point particularly to their reprints of George Schuyler’s strange and important oeuvre), and then again in 2015 by New Directions, which is the edition that I finally encountered the book. Oreo is a book that feeds off several traditions, and cannot be easily labeled, which may have contributed to its lack of canonical durability. Written at the height of afrocentric literature (and a contemporary of Alex Haley’s Roots), the book rejects the expectations that come with a first novel by a black author. Her book borrows from a Jewish tradition as well as a black one, and it comments on misogyny as well as racism. It is kin to the behemoths of ludic postmodernism such as John Barth, of mythical modernism such as Joyce and Eliot and it is related to older books about the African American experience as well, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig comes to mind. But more than books preceding Oreo – it’s a newer generation of writers that best shows the power and fascination of Fran Ross’ only book. Black writers like Zadie Smith (Autograph Man) and Paul Beatty (White Boy Shuffle) (as well as slightly earlier examples like Trey Ellis (Platitudes)) offer us novels about the black experience that break with stereotypes and expectations. If Ross’s novel was published today, it would be seen as primus inter pares, as the first among many equals. Back in 1974, however, the novel’s innovative writing and its rejection of simple identity politics impeded its immediate cultural impact.

oreo renaultThe story of the book is quickly summarized: it is a story that’s both old fashioned family history and quest narrative. Following the myth of Theseus (the reference is made plain both by chapter titles and by the author’s afterword), it offers us Oreo, a girl of mixed heritage: her father, an aspiring actor from a Jewish family, left her mother, Helen, who was a similarly culturally talented woman from a black family. Both Helen as well as Oreo’s father left Oreo, so that the young woman grew up with her black grandmother, Louise, who had never found a dish that she didn’t like. Eventually, Helen informs her daughter, that her father had left her a series of clues that would lead her to discover the secret of her birth. She then embarks on that adventure (which, really, is just a trip to New York), encountering many odd characters. All of this fits, in one way or another, the template from Greek myth, up until the catastrophe, which, at this point, we expect. The early 70s is an interesting time to engage not just greek myths but this one particularly. Fran Ross is not the only writer to tackle the topic. Most well known, at that time, I suppose, is Mary Renault’s two volume take on the Theseus myth, the first of which, The King Must Die, is a steaming, passionate retelling of history. Despite Renault’s stated claim of trying to write a more realistic story, it’s full of magic and odd superstitions, including oracles and witches. The Theseus story and various stories surrounding it, has long been a tale of the advent of a new age, a story of rising masculinity (a crucial part of the story takes place in matriarchal Crete) and a fresh Athenian democracy. Theseus’ is a founding myth and if you want to unsettle expectations regarding narrative and history, it’s a fantastic place to start. A good example of how this era of history/myth is used in literature are André Gide and Christa Wolf. Gide, in the 1946 novel Thésée, emphasizes the masculinity, the epochal power of the story, more than Renault, even. Christa Wolf, writing in 1996, only peripherally touches the story of Theseus. Her focus is Medea (the novel is simply called Medea, published in English by Nan A Talese) and her encounter with Jason (Medea is also part of the Theseus story). Wolf takes on a story with a female villain and reverses it, showing, in her use of sources and narrative, to be a patriarchal treatment of a strong female mythical character. Fran Ross, more than two decades earlier, does something similar, but her literary approach couldn’t be more different.

beatty white boy

An underrated, excellent novel on black male identity in our time.

So now I spent a paragraph vaguely contextualizing the book and another one on its story and connection to myth and I haven’t even mentioned the book’s best quality: its incredibly multifaceted and complex writing. In many ways, I think it’s fair to say that Fran Ross’ novel is primarily about language – about the joy of using it, using it to shape stories and silly games. Oreo is a profoundly funny, endlessly quotable book. It contains charts and tables, a large amount of puns, and references that are equal parts clever and silly. Much of it offers us a plea to read the world the way we want to and not the way cultural signposts and expectations want us to read it. The novel comes as close to explaining this point as you can in a novel without becoming just too obnoxious for your own good. It starts with a fictive Wittgenstein quote as an epigraph (“Burp!” is the quote, used because, as the author remarks, “Anything this profound philosopher ever said bears repeating”). There is a list with clues that will lead the protagonist to a secret she is seeking and early on, she decides to read the clues based on her understanding of reality as she engages with it and not the other way around. In other words, contra genre expectations, Oreo, the protagonist of Oreo, does not interpret the note or map and then collect similarities or clues in the real world around her. Instead, she interprets and engages reality and then decided on which clue to connect to it. The linguistic playfulness moves from small observations to linguistic games that pervade the book. Sometimes she plays with the expected gender of words and names, sometimes with the ambiguity of geographical names, sometimes with the tension between story and cultural narratives interwoven with said story. The whole book is also enormously interested in speech and dialect. Early on, we are told that Oreo’s mother Louise speaks in a thick Philadelphia accent, really, so thick and unusual that people generally have trouble understanding her. The author mostly renders it understandable and, early on, even gives us a metafictional aside:

From time to time, her dialogue will be rendered in ordinary English, which Louise does not speak. To do full justice to her speech would require a ladder of footnotes and glosses, a tic of ostrophes (aphaeresis, hypherisis, apocope) and a Louise-ese/ English dictionary of phonetic spellings. A compromise has been struck. Since Louise can work miracles of compression through syncope, it is only fair that a few such condensations be shared with the reader. However, the substitution of an apostrophe for every dropped g, missing r, and absent t would be tantamount to tic douloureux of movable type. To avoid this, some sentences in Louise-ese have been disguised so that they are indistinguishable from English.

Additionally, there is a completely invented dialect, spoken by Oreo’s little brother, as well as the lilt of various Jewish inflections of American English (without falling into the traps of the goy-authored “jewish novel”, as exposed by Cynthia Ozick’s famous takedown of John Updike’s faux-Jewish Bech: A Book), not to count all the other iterations of nonstandard language. The effect is not only magnetic for the reader, who is immediately drawn into the music and rhythm of the book, it also offers an alternate position between the ribald postmodernism of John Barth, where nonstandard speech is usually on display as odd and humorous, but unconnected to the commitments of the work (such as they are with Barth), and the more straightlaced identiy politics of the afrocentric novel, where nonstandard speech expressed identity and difference. A commitment to a different experience and historiography as we have, so far, seen it in novels. Toni Morrison’s scintillating work is an example of that écriture.

medeaI find it important to stress just how innovative and exciting Fran Ross’s enterprise is in Oreo. In what could be read as a thoughtful encounter with Johan Huizinga’s theory of games an playfulness, Ross is engaged in cultural and political criticism without falling into sincerity and seriousness. She clearly assumes that this topic is best tackled with playful engagement and subversion. Replacements and indirect speech mark much of this book’s language and imagery. In fact, the author foregrounds her method: young Oreo has a teacher of English who is obsessed with etymology and will at times only speak indirectly to his student who keeps hunting for words in dictionaries, but

Oreo became adept at instantaneous translations of the professor’s rhizomorphs. “Mr. Benton is worn out by childbearing. Of course, his paper was an ill-starred bottle. I don’t wonder he threatened to sprinkle himself with sacrificial meal.” “You mean,” said Oreo, “that Benton is effete, his paper was a fiasco, and he wanted to immolate himself.”

A few things come to mind. One that, in keeping with the professor’s method, it’s hard not to see the whole episode as an aside referencing the cultural obsession with “roots” among her fellow black writers (which would, two years later, lead to Haley’s blockbuster success Roots). And two, it offers a template for reading the book as using two levels of language (or multiple levels of anything, really; after all, the Theseus intertext also fits in here). Finally, it stresses the role of the reader in assembling and figuring out all the texts sometimes very disparate elements. In this, there are simililary to the Eliotic “mythical method,” but Ross actively undermines the myth, just as she criticises the present. For a black female novelist, the past, mythical or not, does not offer solace or order. The past is mediated by the same cultural tools of oppression as the present, and Ross resists both. This is a book that declines to be part of any group, no matter how tempting or easy it is to attack oneself to a movement. It’s a novel by a writer with a critical eye that asks its reader to look at words and narratives, to look at them and examine their roots. This exceeds simple swaps, even though Ross replaces the virile Theseus with the female Oreo. The book contains violence, deception, an attempted (though hilariously thwarted) rape, but it coats all of it in extraordinarily humorous language.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

For Huizinga, myth-making is, if I remember correctly, a form of play, and play has the power to change, to move things. In the case of Oreo, the challenge is to question everything. Diderot once wrote that “[i]l existoit un homme naturel: on a introduit au dedans de cet homme un homme artificiel, et il s’est elevé dans la caverge une guerre civile qui dure toute la vie.” In a way, and if we stretch the image a bit, a similar war can be said to take place in mid-20th century postmodernism. There are people who are happy to deal with the artificial human inside, some of them using the “mythical method,” which, according to Eliot, is “a step toward making the modern world possible for art.“ They question authority and narrative, but they don’t have anything to put in its place in terms of commitments. On the other side are those writers, like Morrison, who offer a more earnest version of postmodern critical writing. They replace one historical certainty with another, and frequently succeed at establishing tremendous counternarratives. Oreo (and Oreo) declines both possibilities. It is a playful, funny novel that is at the same time deeply cognizant of narrative and oppression. It’s just that Fran Ross appears to believe that playful interrogation is the best way to deal with it. But as the careers of many writers have shown (say, Delmore Schwartz): resisting the siren call of literary movements by being just o so slightly ahead of your time can lead to a quick exit from the memory of literary history. The aforementioned George Schuyler is another frustrating example of this. Look, look, I don’t know whether I made sense 100%, but if you need a tl,dr, it is this: Oreo is an excellent masterpiece. It should have become a classic and we are all fortunate that New Directions decided to bring it back into wide circulation. Now is the time to make up for earlier neglect. Go forth and read Oreo. It is very good.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Ray Russell: The Case Against Satan

Russell, Ray (2015 [1962]), The Case Against Satan, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-31727-9

satan 3In a study of French Romantic poetry, John Porter Houston declared in 1969 that “[Baudelaire’s] diabolical Catholicism is […] a mode of sensibility which neither shocks nor has morbid appeal.” It is odd, then, that the same time period saw a big resurgence of fiction and movies on demons and possession, starting with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and the move version (1968), and continuing with William Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and its 1973 movie adaptation. Other texts include the 1976 classic The Omen and many more. So what is it that Houston felt was so out of place in Baudelaire’s poetry? The answer has to be that Baudelaire’s sense of evil wasn’t as much religious as it was personal. A sense of guilt, anxiety and fear that made Baudelaire into the “essential modern man,” as Verlaine put it. His demons are far from the ghoulish devil that haunts Blatty’s 12 year old girl. As Edward Kaplan said, the “mal” in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal may not mean “evil” as much as it means afflicted, suffering, fallible and people are not evil but “depraved only in potential and thus responsible for their actions.” In The Case Against Satan, Ray Russell’s 1962 classic novel of demonic possession, we are closer to a Baudelairean sensibility than to the Catholic fetish of all the books and movies that followed in its wake, which were offering demons at best as an allegory for human failures and at worst, as in the work of Catholic conservative Blatty, as an ugly form of literal horror. Ray Russell’s book is, despite having a very weak ending, an exceptional effort, a true masterpiece and the best book I have read this year thus far. There are a couple of weaknesses, as far as some aspects of the writing are concerned, and the final chapter is a full disappointment, but along the way, Russell creates an elegant, smart, ambiguous book about the devil and about the evils that we harbor in ourselves as people and among ourselves as a society.

I admit: when I started coveting the book, I knew nothing about it apart from its title and the beautiful cover design by Penguin Classics. The ghoulish fetish of devils and demons that was launched by Levin and Blatty is one of my favorite genres. A ‘guilty pleasure’ as they say. I was completely surprised by the nuanced and careful book that it turned out to be. This is no fresh or agnostic take on the subject, mind you. The very first sentence, not without some levity and irony, remarks that religion has become “a pious bonbon, so nice, so sweet, so soporific” that it has forgotten about the elements of “dread, blood, awe […] and the element of terror.” There is a fairly serious (and riveting to read) theological argument in the middle of the book (where Baudelaire is invoked), and an almost soppy, mildly dubious final chapter that reduces some of the interesting complexities of the novel in favor of “a pious bonbon” of sorts, which feels more like a cheap narrative solution rather than a statement of faith. Apart from that first sentence, however, the novel isn’t much interested in decrying modern man and his objections to God. Rather, it insists on looking at the spaces where the two intersect, modern man, and the abyss of faith and despair. At its center is not empty demon puppetry, it is the tragedy of a human being and the search for truth. In fact, in many ways, Russell’s sharp way with dialogue and description would not be amiss in a crime novel, nor would you have to change much about the structure. The Case Against Satan does not read like a Catholic novel per se (although I know nothing about the author), merely the novel of a writer not hostile to religion, who uses the traditions, emotions and literary effects that come with this setting. The theological discussion in the middle, centering around the idea of evil and whether one should profess belief in evil as well as good is as much about theology as it is about the faith we have in people around us.

satan 2This is not different from a crime novel: having to gouge whether or not we would believe someone’s account of someone else’s guilt. Can a person really be this depraved or should we think the best of everyone? In the theological discussion, a Bishop lectures a priest on his worldly library, citing Baudelaire’s claim in a prose poem [Le Joueur Généreux] that the devil’s finest trick is to persuade us that he doesn’t exist. What’s interesting about that particular citation is that it turns up here and there in Baudelaire’s prose. As with many other ideas, he kept prodding at them throughout his notes and essays. One instance of it surfacing is in the various notes of Mon cœur mis à nu, some of which attack novelist George Sand for not believing in hell, for offering a “God of the Good People,” a God for those who live well and behave well, where there’s no room for the “triste monde engourdi” of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens. Now here’s where it gets (more?) interesting: Baudelaire describes Sand as being “possessed,” as having been convinced by the devil to offer this vision of a clean and lovely religion where nothing bad happens as long as you do well and behave well. Yet this is exactly what happens in The Case Against Satan. And the reason for bad thing happening to good people is not Satan’s sulphuric influence, it’s human depravity. In a way, all Satan does, both in Baudelaire as well as in the novel, is hide the truth from people of clear conscience and higher standing. If it doesn’t affect us, we don’t have to think about it that hard. All of this, minus Satan and God, would also have happened in a Gothic crime novel, where it would be the insistence of a conscientious detective to really take a long hard look at the facts and at the people involved that breaks a case wide open. And much as in a Gothic mystery, it’s bigotry, and religious, sexual and traditional expectations that bar clear sight. This makes the book to be not just a sibling to mystery novels, but to classic episcopal texts like André Gide’s dramatic La Symphonie Pastorale, which is also a text about blindness, devotion and power.

This case begins with a young priest, Father Gregory Sargent, who takes over a parish. He is visited by a friend, Bishop Crimmings, just as the troubling and mysterious events break loose. These events all center around Susan Garth, a local teenager, who declines to go to Church, and has mysterious seizures, or rather “fits.” Early on, we are made aware of how this vocabulary and this attitude, these basic explanations, how they tie into a social attitude towards women.

Gregory smiled inwardly. It was such a quaint, old-fashioned word, “fits.” In young women, they were often rooted in sexual hysteria.

But unlike the word “hysteria” may lead you to believe, what follows is not a condemnation of women or sex, but rather a celebration of the “wonderful, wild, untamed force” that is sexuality. In fact, Father Gregory sees this permissive attitude towards sexuality as profoundly Catholic – and it’s hard to argue with him, given the hundreds of accounts of ecstatic faith and visions. Indeed it is Gregory himself who makes that connection in a magazine article that he writes on the topic, which contains the assertion that “[a]t the supreme moment, at the highest peak, sexual artistic and religious ecstasy are surprisingly similar.” Gregory is a “heterodox,” young, troubled priest who has a bit of a problem with alcoholism and free thinking. His faith in God is unshakeable, but it is a faith, like that of George Sand, in “le Dieu des bonnes gens,” as the syphilitic French poet put it. The novel (or Satan) does not end up punishing him for his free thinking or his worldliness and his broad reading. All he does is regain a sense of evil. At no point does the book really go into the pageantry of Catholicism. The style is never ornate, the thoughts and descriptions are never ponderous or solemn. This is maybe the biggest surprise: how frequently crisp and sharp the prose is, despite some trappings of genre writing. Russell is incredibly good at using two lines of dialogue to elevate a situation beyond the necessities of plot. When the teenage girl’s father turns to her in anger and says “Now you listen to the Father here. He’ll tell you I’m right.” Russell has the daughter look the priest in the eyes and ask “Is he right, Father?” This simple turn immediately establishes the character of the girl, and introduces the topic: figuring out who’s right, what happened and who to trust.

satan 1Not on the shortlist of people to trust? Men. Her father beats the girl (“a little slap across the mouth, that’s all”) for infractions, he has the village bigot’s hate for “filth.” his village friend, an anti-Catholic pamphleteer is less interested in the girl’s fate as in his lurid tales of Catholic depravity, where he ties rumors of Catholic pedophilia to medieval torture and the idea of a Black Mass. In fact, this anti-Catholic activist has a surprisingly similar view of Catholicism as The Exorcist’s author Blatty, who is enough of a conservative catholic to have recently petitioned the Pope to force Georgetown University to comply with a set of Catholic rules instated by John Paul II. Ray Russell’s priest and Bishop are not rulebound or insistent on such rules or on a proper catholic appearance. In fact, it is the congregation that raises a bit of a stink in the book when, preoccupied by an exorcism, Father Gregory fails to uphold local customs even for one Sunday. The pressure to conform to rules and regulations is viewed as a burden, unconnected to real faith. In a moment of crisis, overcome by various forces and pressures, Father Gregory breaks down and exclaims “Is it such a sin to have a mind?” And it’s not, the Bishop (and the book) assure him and us. The true darkness in the book is not Satanic, it’s human, and Russell makes excellent use of ambiguities and his sparse but precise descriptions to uphold that ambiguity. While the final chapter is a bit reminiscent of Beyond Belief-style gestures towards the reader, it barely diminishes the skill and achievement of this book. This book is a joy to read and reread, a pleasure far from “guilty.” A tough, smart little book, and a compelling read.

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David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl

Ebershoff, David (2000), The Danish Girl, Penguin
ISBN 9-780143-108399

danish 1

I didn’t have time to take a picture of my copy but it has the same ugly movie-style cover.:/

Usually, the advantage of a novel dealing with a real life character vis-à-vis a nonfiction work, say a biography or a historical study, is the ability to gain vividness, color, excitement. To get a unique, in-depth take on someone’s psychology or the cultural context. Dealing with facts alone – and the unreliability of sources and witnesses – tends to make nonfiction a bit more spry and their narrative a bit more formulaic, given the reliance on historiographical method. That’s why books like William Vollmann’s exploration of Shostakovich’s life are so powerful, or Pynchon’s masterpiece, the sprawling Mason & Dixon. I cannot, however, imagine any nonfiction treatment of Lili Elbe, the pioneering transsexual figure, and her wife, the painter Gerda Wegener (“Greta” in the novel), be more formulaic and overall dull than David Ebershoff’s debut novel The Danish Girl, which has recently been turned into a movie. I have never regretted my habit of reading a book before watching a movie based on that book as much as during the time I spent reading this book. I’ll say this: it’s not all bad. Ebershoff is a clever, talented author, and he uses the devices of fiction to interesting effect sometimes. Sometimes, his treatment of Lili’s point of view leads to stunning results, frequently, it does not. Ebershoff’s apparent fascination with the way art intersects with gender presentation is interesting, and his clear decision to forgo garish scenes of confrontation and scandal, which must have happened at various points in the real Lili Elbe’s life, is commendable. His treatment of Lili (both before transition, when she was known as “Einar Wegener”, and after) is tender and careful, which becomes nowhere as clear as in the final scenes of the book where he renders her final moments with delicacy and beauty. Ebershoff departs from the historical facts in many places (and he admits as much in his author’s note), but his main alteration leads to the book’s most emotionally powerful creation: the enduring love not just between Lili and her wife, but also between the larger family of brothers, former lovers and friends. There is a pastel tenderness to the whole book, which is something that is hard to keep up over more than a short story. Regrettably, Ebershoff lacks the tools to imbue this emotional vagueness with a literary precision and a keen sense of history. Too often, the author settles for the easy emotional punchlines, preferring to tell a nice story rather than a good one. Horrible similes and awkward descriptions crowd the book’s syntax, which is repetitive and imprecise to begin with. Although I have yet to see Tobe Hooper’s movie version of the book, it’s easy to see how the material as presented in The Danish Girl would make for a lovely and emotionally engaging movie. The novel’s prose is its biggest weakness and that kind of book tends to do well on the silver screen.

danish-girl-posters-redmayne-vikander-triplet

To be clear, Ebershoff does some very interesting things that wouldn’t be captured by a study of biography. One is his constant insistence on the difficulties of exact representation through art. Both Lili, when she presented as Einar, as well as her wife Greta are painters, although their styles (and their relationship to the outside world) couldn’t be more different. Einar is a painter of “quaint” pictures of a bog somewhere in the Danish province, whereas Greta paints portraits of people who sit for her. The bog is the one in Einar’s home village and he paints it from memory. The memory of his youth as a boy is so strong that the mere thought is enough to paint pictures of it. As Einar transitions to Lili, his memory, and his ability (or wish) to paint the bog fades away, a pretty way of Ebershoff connecting the increasing freedom Lili feels as she unmoors from tradition and expectations. Similarly, Greta’s portraits are also representative of her role in the novel. She is the first to paint good/moving pictures of Lili, and in the novel, for a long time, she is our only outside view of Einar’s transformation. As she loses a sense of who Lili is and her connection to him fades from the book, so do her pictures. Regrettably, as Ebershoff also removes the clarity of her outside view from the last third of the novel, he does not replace it with anything, not even with a clearer voice for Lili. If we look at the novel as a construction of representations and mirrors, this is the gravest instance of the author maybe trapping himself in his own clever construction. The vagueness and hurried nature of the final chapters fits into the construction of the novel, it does not make for good reading, however. Other instances of mirrors and changed representations are the way opera is used, through songs, physical buildings and actresses, as well as the fact that Ebershoff gave Greta a twin brother. Whether or not that twin brother is supported by historical records, in the novel he serves as an example of the insufficiency of doubles. At some point, towards the end of the novel, Greta remarks that she does not recognize herself in her brother, and her brothers physical disabilities correspond to his role in the novel as he becomes the most vocal advocate for dangerous surgical measures. There are other examples involving former lovers, but suffice to say that Ebershoff uses the characters in his drama carefully, as well as the tropes of art and representation. The results of this can be dubious, however.

The_Danish_Girl_novelOne odd result is the way that Ebershoff uses the gaze. Greta, as he writes her, is imbued with a sometimes close to predatory gaze, an adjective I use because in some scenes, her erotically charged gaze appears to frighten or intimidate Lili, especially at the time when she presented exclusively as Einar. As a portrait artist, of course, the novel assigns the gaze as an uncomplicated, successful act, to her, but it does some odd things in order to achieve this. One is the fact that Ebershoff turns Greta from a Danish woman, which she was historically, to an American woman with an outsider’s fascination for Denmark. And not just any American woman: a rich heiress from California. Instead of offering us a psychologically plausible portrait of a Danish artist who falls in love with a wisp of a man who ends up transitioning to a woman, Ebershoff appears to have constructed his Greta from literary readymades. Henry James’ Isabel Archer probably looming largest, Greta, as we meet her in the novel, owes less to the historical character and more to the trope of the wild American woman who goes to Europe and gets into some kind of trouble there. It’s as if all the work and empathy that went into Lili meant that Ebershoff had to cut corners when it came to writing Greta. What’s more, the fact that Greta’s gaze is so strong, and so supported by wealth and social status, is balanced by a lack of confidence when it comes to Lili’s gaze. Not only is she the object of Greta’s sometimes irritatingly sexual regard (irritating because it plays on a long exploitative tradition), but she consistently fails to be able to establish one of her own. Mirrors are difficult, and even a mid-novel expedition to a real peep show ends in disgrace and expulsion. Now, this difference could be used productively, one remembers, for example, Heiner Müller’s remarks on the way the peep show is a trope for the way capitalist society functions. But Ebershoff never really does anything with this. These things happen almost in the background. Ebershoff deals with his material and, really, with his own novel, as if it was a translation of sorts and he was just trying to get the basic beats right. Honestly, that would explain the prose, as well. There is so much potential in the material that Ebershoff’s quick treatment of it is sometimes genuinely upsetting. The book is both bloated and oddly bare bones.

gay berlinIt’s strange, really, how this book feels both very detailed and very broad. There is a lot of detail on Lili’s epiphanies and important moments. They are dealt with well, although, as with every other aspect of the novel, the last chapters offer only an extremely skimmed summary of events. At the same time, as mentioned, Greta is dealt with very broadly, and her many comments and monologues feel bloated because they are never part of a plausible character. Outside of the descriptions of Lili, they are chock full with sentimental bloat. And at the same time, Ebershoff barely grazes the social and political context. We get, in a very rough Foucauldian sketch, a quick recap of the various medical opinions which doctors of the time may have held regarding Lili’s physical and mental health. Yet the period, the late 1920s and 1930s, was very interesting, especially in Western Europe. Robert Beachy has given us a great account of the period in his study Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, an extremely readable and interesting book on the way opinions towards gay and transsexual identities developed in the Weimar years. Beachy’s book itself isn’t as detailed as one could wish, but it’s in pursuit of a thesis and that it does genuinely well. In The Danish Girl, by contrast, we feel no real sense of this kind of historical context. For what I assume are reasons of readability, the book is set, despite its use of accurate dates for its events, in a kind of vague time and place where unique qualities of places or years barely dent the fabric of the story. Clearly, the author’s main interest was in Lili, and the rest of the book was assembled around a series of psychological sketches of Lili, sketches moreover that are not interested in Lili’s agency or free will (she is a helpless toy in the hands of other for most of the novel), but in some interest in transsexualism that’s equal parts prurient and sentimental.

danish girl 3I would be tempted to say that Ebershoff would have been better served had he restricted himself to just that – a series of pared down sketches, highlighting the poignancy of certain situations and emotions – if not for the fact that he does manage to add something to the book which is genuinely interesting and affecting: the marriage of Greta and Lili. Greta, towards the end of the book, as she has lost Einar, and as she is about to lose Lili, describes marriage as “liv[ing] in that small dark space between two people where a marriage exists.” Deviating from historical record, Ebershoff paints a picture of marriage as the ultimate loyalty. To be clear, in the novel, the heterosexual woman is the one who is loyal, while Einar/Lili is merely helpless and lost, and that is obviously a problem. That said, the love and closeness between the couple was deeply affecting. Through all of Lili’s travails, Greta is the only one who consistently believes her and in her, who helps her, supports her. She is never repulsed or really disturbed. In fact, as the novel’s opening sentence tells us, Lili’s “wife knew first.” She knew her husband well enough to see that something was wrong, and she loved him enough to find out what it is and help him, even though he is never really able to articulate his feelings. In many ways, the book is just as much a paean to the strength and support and trust that a marriage can provide as it is a retelling of Lili Elbe’s life. One wishes Ebershoff had a harsh and talented editor because a sharper, clearer version of this novel could really have been impressive. Instead, we get a warm, sad, sentimental story in pastel that’s both too long and too short. Don’t read this book. Find some good scholarship on Lili Elbe. Read the Beachy book. I’m willing to bet that the success of the movie will lead to at least one big biography that will do the material justice. Apart from the portrait of a marriage, Ebershoff has nothing to add. Limited empathy, limited literary skills do not make up for the cuts in context and urgency. Lili Elbe was a pioneer. Her life and death are significant. She deserves better than this.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)