Sunday, April 25, 2010

Harold Bloom's American religion

Harold Bloom's The American Religion suggests that the dominant religion in the United States is not Christianity, but Gnosticism. It has, he believes, three fundamental principles:

The first is that what is best and oldest in us goes back well before Creation, and so is no part of Creation. The second is that what makes us free is knowledge, a history of facts and events, rather than a belief founded upon mere assent. The third is that this freedom has a solitary element in it, an element imbued by the loneliness of belated American time, and the American experience of the abyss of space. What holds these principles together is the American persuasion, however muted or obscured, that we are mortal gods, destined to find ourselves again in worlds as yet undiscovered.

This is powerfully resonant of the boy and his fire in The Road, of Ed Tom's dream in No Country, of John Grady's and Billy Parham's restlessness in the trilogy. And also, perhaps, of Huck Finn? It's in the blood.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

That Old Ace In The Hole by Annie Proulx

Bob Dollar, Annie Proulx’s main character in That Old Ace In The Hole, is a classic literary construct: he is the ingenu outsider who is sufficiently different from the people around him to show up their quirks and common characteristics, but similar enough – if only he knew it, and as gradually becomes evident – to empathise and to reveal their hidden depths and strengths. The trope of the outsider who – despite himself – becomes assimilated is a common one. The society that Bob Dollar is confronted with is that of the Texas panhandle, so we know immediately what we’re in for – rugged individualists, eccentrics with a strong – and parochial – sense of right and wrong and a way of doing things that brooks no opposition. The na├»ve Bob Dollar is going to be no match for them.

This is a frustrating novel. There are long stretches of superb writing, but they are located within a plot which as a whole is deeply unconvincing and so the reader is frequently returned from these fascinating set-pieces to a central character who is frustratingly dumb and, to be honest, nothing more than an empty vessel for propelling the unconvincing narrative.

There is, at times, that feel of plotting-by-numbers which is so prevalent in modern fiction. By the end, Bob must be a pragmatic but highly principled individual – that much is obvious from the moment he takes a job working covertly among local communities to identify ranchers willing to sell their land to Global Pork Rind, an agribusiness specialising in huge, industrialised hog farms. In his heart Bob does not agree with the hog farm business and hates his career, at which he is also quite clearly incompetent, and yet he will not, as would practically anyone in the same circumstances, just quit before he is fired. Why not? Well, obviously that would ruin the plot, so Bob has to have have grafted on to his psyche some reason for behaving so irrationally. Here it is: early in the novel we are told that as a child he was abandoned by his parents, which inculcates in him a strong sense of honour and of not leaving anything unfinished, in the way his parents left unfinished the job of raising him. Tenuous? Yes, I would say so. And yet on this flimsy premise the whole novel hangs. It is patently obvious from the outset that the work Bob is doing is wrong, and that he believes it is wrong, and that he is ill-suited to it anyway, and yet he beavers away long after common sense would dictate that he would see the light and stop. It does not feel credible. Thus, the climactic discussion with Ace Crouch, the story’s moral core, feels contrived and unconvincing, with the pair little more than a couple of posturing constructs mouthing the stock cliches their opposing views dictate, without any particular sense of conviction. The Bob Dollar we have come to know in the course of the novel would simply have agreed with Ace’s views and capitulated but, instead, for the purposes of plot contrivance, he merely becomes frustrated and angry.

His apparent sense of honour is also fatally compromised by the fact that, throughout, Bob is happy to lie to the people among whom he is settling and who become his friends. This is surely at odds with the sense of honour that he otherwise demonstrates. The truth is that he is nowhere near a big enough character to bear the weight of the novel, and so it feels stretched and thin. His characterisation also goes awry at times. For example, three quarters of the way through the novel he appears to turn into Walter Mitty, inventing in quick succession a series of relationships which he appears to come implicitly to believe. And just as suddenly as this character trait appears it disappears again, its purpose presumably having been fulfilled. It has the feel of the soap opera character who in May develops alcoholism and then in June seems completely rehabilitated, with his problem never being alluded to again. Proulx also, it seems, is addicted to the big scene, and while her judgement is often sound it sometimes slips, such as the excruciatingly awful scene with the chilli and the Heimlich Manoeuvre, a comic set-piece which has been the staple of derivative, low budget films ever since Groundhog Day and which should never have flowed from the pen of a writer of Proulx's quality.

So is this an irredeemably bad novel? Frustratingly, not at all. For all the predictability of the plot, Proulx manages to steer it clear of proselytism. Yes, there is a degree of preachiness about her depiction of the dangers of conglomerate agri-businesses (boo) and the nobility of spunky, independent Texans and Okies (hooray). And certainly the whole novel proceeds inevitably towards such a denouement. But wrapped around that spare – and, frankly, dull – plot, Proulx presents a wonderful collection of stories and anecdotes and observations and descriptions, stretching from the present day back into the pioneer past, which is hugely entertaining and divertingly amusing. She is a gifted writer with a fine sense of place and an eye for detail. She can set a scene with aplomb, and she can carry a narrative with great skill. Only rarely does she go over the top, such as the scene with the tarantula which descends into farce, and the series of shootings near the end which goes far beyond melodrama into nonsense, and to absolutely no effect. The rest of the time she leaves it to the panhandlers – with whom she has clearly in real life spent long and fruitful hours – to tell their own stories, and they do so in richly entertaining ways. Those are the things which stick in the memory long after Bob Dollar’s dim-witted progress to enlightenment has been concluded. Perhaps That Old Ace In The Hole could best be characterised as a collection of superb short stories bursting to free themselves from the confines of a contrived plot which is nowhere near powerful enough to contain them.

Kurt Vonnegut's settings

I've had an email from Holly pointing me to her new blog Kurt Vonnegut Settings, which aims to identify the various settings of some of KV's books. Holly asks if I'd like to mention her blog on here, and since I'm a big fan of Mr V I'm more than happy to do so. Holly has even used Google Streets, which offers a fascinating glimpse into Vonnegut's world. It's well worth a look.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Banned books watch

The American Library Association has produced the 2009 list of the most frequently challenged books:

1. “TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs
2. “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: Homosexuality
3. “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Anti-Family, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide
4. “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee
Reasons: Racism, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group
5. Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group
6. “Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group
7. “My Sister’s Keeper,” by Jodi Picoult
Reasons: Sexism, Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide, Violence
8. “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things,” by Carolyn Mackler
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group
9. “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group
10. “The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier
Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Nudity? In a book?

And how depressing it is to see To Kill A Mockingbird in that list still, after all these years.

I was fortunate enough to be at the IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations) Conference in 2002 when it adopted the Glasgow Declaration. This important rallying call to librarians includes the following:

Libraries and information services shall acquire, preserve and make available the widest variety of materials, reflecting the plurality and diversity of society. The selection and availability of library materials and services shall be governed by professional considerations and not by political, moral and religious views.

Any librarian who is not able to uphold that declaration 100% should not be a librarian.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Aleph and other stories by Jorge Luis Borges

There is something satisfyingly Borgesian about the fact that long before I had ever actually read Borges I wrote so many stories that are clearly reminiscent of him. I’ve recently read Ficciones, and now The Aleph, but prior to that the only Borges I think I had ever read was the story (contained in Ficciones), Funes the Memorious. And yet, reading his work, it is hard not to see the similarities between us. (This is not to say, of course, that I am comparing my ability with Borges’s, simply our approaches to storytelling and subject matter.) After all, what could be more Borgesian than a writer paying homage to an author he has never read, adopting a style he has never seen, ‘inventing’ tropes and creating situations which are already part of the canon?

There is probably a prosaic explanation – that Borges’s work has subsequently influenced much modern literature and film, which has in turn, been an unconscious influence on me. But it is nice to wallow in Borgesian enigma and ponder whether, in an echo of the developments in The Circular Ruins and The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829-1874), the spirit of Borges is continuing through me. After all, take away the supernatural element and this is precisely what is happening, in as much as the concerns and influences which shaped him have also somehow shaped me: in this way there is an unconscious recurrence of the peculiar circumstances that created his fiction.

The Aleph, the title story of this collection, is a juncture where the entirety of existence can be seen simultaneously, from any and every angle, every moment, through the consciousness of every sentient being, encompassing every interaction. It is the spatial equivalent of temporal infinity, a moment when all existence can be comprehended at once. It is ‘the only place on earth where all places are – seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.’ What this means, in metaphysical terms, probably depends on one’s individual viewpoint. Some may see it as a manifestation of transcendence, others as immanence; some as the glory of God, others as the glory of humanity and others still as simply the glory of existence. There are mysteries in our world, and these mysteries have formed the basis of all intellectual thought for the past six thousand years and more. The Aleph, the ability to see and comprehend everything at once, would solve those mysteries. Thus, of course, it is a fake, because mystery is the human condition.

Life is about memory and experience, and time is the conduit through which these are reached. The Aleph fails because it recreates (or invents) memory, and it can give a suggestion, a flavour, of the experience, but it cannot transmute these base elements into life: the essence is missing, and with it those human concepts of empathy, understanding, learning. It is based in the present, inevitably leaking into the past, but crucially it offers no avenue into the future, where the mysteries are. Thus, while the mimetic world of fiction can make a representation of life, it can go no further. The experience of it is all ours.

What I find most interesting about Borges’s fiction is that, for all its fantastic elements, it is rooted in the human experience. Real people are his subject matter. At one point he writes dismissively of Joyce’s Ulysses, and says something very interesting:

When I was young, I thought of literature as a game of skillful and surprising variations; now that I have found my own voice, I feel that tinkering and tampering neither gratly improve nor greatly spoil my drafts. This, of course, is a sin against one of the main tendencies of letters in this century – the vanity of overwriting – which led a man like Joyce into publishing expensive fragments, showily entitled “Work in Progress.”

For writers like Joyce, he is suggesting, words are not the tool, but the product. Thus, although Borges admired Joyce (enough, indeed, to write two poems in praise of him), his views remained ambivalent and his own prose consciously avoided the grandiosity of Joyce’s. Indeed, in The Circular Ruins, Borges has fun at the Irishman’s expense:

It is generally understood that a modern-day book may honorably be based upon an older one, especially since, as Dr. Johnson observed, no man likes owing anything to his contemporaries. The repeated but irrelevant points of congruence between Joyce's Ulysses and Homer's Odyssey continue to attract (though I shall never understand why) the dazzled admiration of critics.

This is an implicit criticism of what TS Eliot described as the ‘mythical method’, the layering of allusions and references. The deluded, failed writer in The Aleph, Carlos Argentino Daneri, also displays these tendencies, ascribing to his own work a retrospective cachet by seeing in it grand allusions to other works.

He read me many other [of his own] stanzas that also won his approval and his profuse commentary. There was nothing memorable in them; I wouldn't even judge them much worse that the first. Application, resignation and chance had collaborated in his writing; the virtues that Daneri attributed to them were after thoughts. I understood that the work of the poet was not in his poetry; it was in the invention of reasons why his poetry was admirable; naturally, this later effort modified the work for him; but not for other people.

Borges, on the contrary, uses his fictions not for self-aggrandisement but for the satisfaction it brings. He concludes his beautiful autobiographical essay:

What I’m out for now is peace, the enjoyment of thinking and of friendship, and, though it may be too ambitious, a sense of loving and of being loved.

I think he achieved his goals.

An Invocation to Joyce - Jorge Luis Borges

Invocation to Joyce

Scattered over scattered cities,
alone and many
we played at being that Adam
who gave names to all living things.
Down the long slopes of night
that border on the dawn,
we sought (I still remember) words
for the moon, for death, for the morning,
and for man’s other habits.
We were imagism, cubism,
the conventicles and sects
respected now by credulous universities.
We invented the omission of punctuation
and capital letters,
stanzas in the shape of a dove
from the libraries of Alexandria.
Ashes, the labor of our hands,
and a burning fire our faith.
You, all the while,
in cities of exile,
in that exile that was
your detested and chosen instrument,
the weapon of your craft,
erected your pathless labyrinths,
infinitesmal and infinite,
wondrously paltry,
more populous than history.
We shall die without sighting
the twofold beast or the rose
that are the center of your maze,
but memory holds the talismans,
its echoes of Virgil,
and so in the streets of night
your splendid hells survive,
so many of your cadences and metaphors,
the treasures of your darkness.
What does our cowardice matter if on this earth
there is one brave man,
what does sadness matter if in time past
somebody thought himself happy,
what does my lost generation matter,
that dim mirror,
if your books justify us?
I am the others. I am those
who have been rescued by your pains and care.
I am those unknown to you and saved by you.

Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni