by Edie Meidav | Nov-25-2015
This is the eleventh in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here.
Is there any book in the American canon more prone to acting as a twisted mirror than The Catcher in the Rye? If you were one of the many readers to read it in the full blush of adolescence, as most do, Catcher is one of those books which acts so easily as a cry straight into the heart of your own rebellion.
Perennially misunderstood, beset by strange quirks, a list maker of taste (predicting such latter-day, music-oriented Holdens as Nick Hornby and early Rick Moody), Caulfield offers the adolescent heart the strange promise of literature if in a recherché way. Holden seems to speak to you, you my reader, my semblable, saying you alone can understand me and my allergy to the world's hypocrisy. Inciting in the young reader's heart a savior complex: not only is the reader made complicit thanks to Salinger's virtuosic empathy, but the reader might, if empathic enough, just be one of the elect who will understand Holden.
To cut to the quick: I first read the book at 14 or so, in some latent R.D. Laing mode, sure the world Holden was in was touched with insanity, a la The King of Comedy. What suffering -- to be the one person awake in a dullish world! And to my great disappointment, reader, I read it again at the prematurely self-satisfied age of 19, having believed I understood the world, and saw that, no, perhaps Holden was the one who might come off a bit touched. Because of these prior stations, I am holding off reading it at my current age. Will the inspector of roads, as Stendhal says above, have proven even more faulty at her job? Will the disillusionment about those prior selves who read with such judgment be too great?
Approving of the new modern writers around her, Cather once said that it would be wonderful if we could throw all the furniture “out of the window . . . and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre.” In Salinger's jazzy skaz, the stage is left just as bare as your own scrims. And beyond, in his field, stands the catcher ready to catch you, whether you are still at heart a child or -- crazily -- not.
Edie Meidav (@lolacalifornia) is the author, most recently, of the novel Lola, California. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
by Admin | Nov-20-2015
If you'll be in the Washington, D.C., area next week please join the NBCC and the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress for the launch of a new series of talks, "Making the Case," about the role of criticism in contemporary society.
The inaugural talk, “The Poem Is You,” will be given by former NBCC board member Stephen Burt on Tuesday, Nov. 24 at noon. Burt is a poet, literary critic, and Harvard professor. His essay collection Close Calls with Nonsense (Graywolf Press, 2009) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His other works include The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard University Press, 2010), Something Understood: Essays and Poetry for Helen Vendler (University of Virginia Press, 2009), The Forms of Youth: Adolescence and 20th Century Poetry (Columbia University Press, 2007), Parallel Play: Poems (Graywolf, 2006), Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden (University Press, 2005), Randall Jarrell and His Age (Columbia University Press, 2002), and Popular Music (Center for Literary Publishing, 1999). His latest collection of poems, Belmont, was published by Graywolf Press in 2013.
The talk takes place in the Whittall Pavilion of the Thomas Jefferson Building (ground floor). Books will be available for sale and signing after the talk. For more information, call (202) 707-5394.
by Joanna Scutts | Nov-18-2015
This is the tenth in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here.
I remember how my first copy of Emma looked far more clearly than I remember first reading it. It was part of a set along with Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice— dusty pink hardcovers with deckle-edged pages, neither old nor valuable but seeming both to me. Inside, words were spelled oddly: shew and ancle, stopt and staid. I was intrigued by the way Emma matched but did not belong to what I assumed was a trilogy. Why not another pair of big words: Admiration and Arrogance? Beauty and Boredom? But no, it was just Emma, all Emma, no bigger or smaller or more abstract than this flesh-and-blood girl, who was not yet 21 but struck me as tantalizingly adult.
When I studied Emma at school, it was from the Penguin Classics paperback, introduced by Ronald Blythe, who clears his throat with the declaration that “Emma is the climax of Jane Austen’s genius and the Parthenon of fiction.” But I read it, and even liked it, anyway. This copy had thin, clean-cut pages that my pen bled through, and a portrait on the cover of a ruddy-cheeked brunette: Marcia Fox by Sir William Beechey. Watchful and rather sad, with a skeptical tilt to her head, she looked nothing like the bold, blooming Emma of my imagination. (Poor Marcia appears again on the cover of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, with her eyes glowing red, the bottom half of her face torn off, and her empire-waist gown streaked with blood. But Emma needs no imaginary monsters. The zombies are already there, those “tiresome wretches” who surround the heroine, waiting to take possession of her inconvenient brain, numb it with nonsense, and swallow it whole.)
I learned two things at once about Emma Woodhouse. First, that Jane Austen created her on purpose to be disliked, which I thought was quite logical: at 15, I didn’t like Emma any more than I liked any girl at school who seemed both pretty and happy. But almost immediately, I learned the second lesson, which was that what you see is not what you get. In the first sentence of my school book, I’ve dutifully underlined the word “seemed,” as in: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence...” A deliberately overconfident sentence that, with a little shimmy of the knife, cracks the whole story open (Ronald Blythe could take notes.) Is Emma happy, or does she just look that way? Is happiness a matter of external “blessings,” or inner disposition?
Of course, I didn’t ponder that question in any depth. I cared about the romance, which eluded me. Mr. Knightley was just so old—well over 30!—and he’d been there all along. Couldn’t a girl as pretty as Emma get even one trip to Bath to make some mistakes and some memories? Mr. Knightley was always so right, so proper, so sensible, so dull. Why didn’t Emma fall for lively, sexy Frank Churchill? Why shouldn’t she make fun of all her boring, terrible neighbors with him? God, would it really have been so bad to be kidnapped by those passing gypsies?
When I re-read Emma I was more than twice the age I’d been when I first picked it up. In the interim I buried myself in the book that Austen herself worried was excessively “light, bright, and sparkling:” I taught Pride and Prejudice every year to college freshmen and could have written a thesis on its various adaptations and spinoffs. I teased out its politics and the ramifications of the distant Napoleonic Wars, I explained the nuances of the English class system and the ironies-that-weren’t, like why it really is seeing Pemberley that makes Elizabeth fall in love (and why that’s OK.) And over the hard reality of Emma, I let slide the colorful veil of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. That 1995 movie, which launched a mini-vogue for remaking the classics as high-school dramas, drew a sharp parallel between the stratified society that Austen skewered and the equally stifling, gossipy, hierarchical world of rich LA teenagers. A simpler and sprightlier telling of the same basic story, the movie axed Jane Fairfax, made the Frank Churchill character gay, and even had the heroine fall for her older ex-stepbrother, preserving the slightly incestuous closeness of Emma and Mr. Knightley. It obscured my memories of the book so completely that when I went back, I half-expected warm California breezes—only to be blasted by frigid, bracing air.
This time, the word that jumped out to me in the first line was “clever.” What kind of blessing is that, for a woman in this narrow world? Emma is surrounded by idiots and doomed to intelligence (why couldn’t I see that, when I was 15 and thought exactly the same thing about myself? Why couldn’t I see past her beauty to her inconvenient brain?) The blessed people, surely, are those who lack any “intellectual superiority” that could make them impatient with endless neurotic fussing over the simplest possible plan. Dim bulbs like Emma’s sister Isabella and her protégée Harriet Smith fare much better, surrounded as they are by people who care about nothing, literally nothing, but the weather, each other’s health, weddings and eventually babies. When I first read Emma, I was—as Cher in Clueless might say—totally grossed out by Mr. Knightley’s confession that he fell in love with Emma when she was 13. But by the standards of her family and her community, she’s an adult—we’re told she’s been running her household since the age of 12—and nobody but Mr. Knightley realizes that she has any more maturing to do. But really, what’s the point of maturing, in a world filled with Mrs. Eltons and Mr. Woodhouses?
When I get to the climactic Box Hill picnic, at which Emma can’t resist teasing Miss Bates to her face and is taught a humiliating lesson about social grace, I know I am supposed to judge her. I know she’s in the wrong to be deliberately cruel to an older, poorer woman, and that Mr. Knightley, the benevolent face of the ironclad class system, is right to scold her. But somehow, I can’t judge her as harshly as I had in the past. When Mr. Knightley warns her that nothing good can come of her friendship with Harriet Smith, I realize sharply how much more freedom he has—any rich man has—to reshape the class system as he chooses. Emma cannot elevate the illegitimate Harriet to her own level, and so cannot truly be her friend, but if she were a man she could simply marry her. Emma’s obsession with matchmaking, which I never really understood before, suddenly makes all the sense in the world: it’s an effort to claim and exert a fraction of the power over the world that a man like Mr. Knightley enjoys, simply by a lucky accident of birth. It’s an effort to put that inconvenient brain to use, to be active in a system that prefers her passivity. Of course, it’s futile. But I find it harder and harder to condemn her for it.
One of the reasons, perhaps, that Austen thought her readers would dislike Emma is that she isn’t as vulnerable to men as most of her heroines are. She comes as close as it’s possible for a woman to come to the freedom that a wealthy man enjoys—she’s seriously rich in her own right, with a legacy of 30,000 pounds. The five Bennet sisters don’t have a tenth of that between them; even the roof over their heads isn’t their own. With no mother making it her “business” to marry off Emma, no impending homelessness to spur her on, and a father who looks on marriage as a disaster, it’s not surprising that Emma declares she’ll never marry. It’s no accident that Mr. Elton has to trap her in a carriage in order to propose, and that she escapes as fast as she can. But in the end, she’s a character, not an author, and her determination to stay single is unsustainable. She can’t rewrite the marriage plot any more than she can blast a hole in the drawing-room wall and run away.
And what of that marriage plot? Emma’s story doesn’t end like Elizabeth Bennet’s, with the glorious prospect of Pemberley. Instead, Mr. Knightley moves into the home Emma shares with her terrible father, and nothing changes—she doesn’t even agree to start calling him “George.” As in George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, a series of flirtations with the lower classes ends in the restoration of the natural order, the marriage of social equals, and the closing of ranks. When Emma finally realizes that she’s been in love with Mr. Knightley all along, it’s revealed with a word that Austen usually reserves for an implacable social rule: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry nobody but herself!” Must is a moral obligation, a principle set in stone, a Truth Universally Acknowledged. It barely even needs to be spoken: after all, Mr. Knightley’s main virtue as a lover and a man is that he knows when to shut the hell up, unlike all the other men in the book. Duplicitous flirt Frank Churchill, fretful, whining Mr. Woodhouse, that self-important drip Mr. Elton—all of them chatter and prattle, saying nothing important or true. Mr. Knightley’s proposal isn’t verbal at all: he “looks the question,” and Emma’s reply is a formality that we don’t get to hear: “What did she say? — Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”
Re-reading novels, especially those with a happy ending, can mean losing as much as you gain. You start to count the cost of the collateral damage that comedy leaves in its wake: it gets harder to shake off Malvolio’s threats of revenge threatening the tidy ending of Twelfth Night, and in Pride and Prejudice, the lingering thought of Charlotte Lucas in bed with Mr. Collins. It gets harder to ignore the desperation under the sparkle, women shackling themselves to men they barely know, crossing their fingers for nothing worse than a little embarrassment. All these small tragedies, which the glow of the central romance is supposed to cast into darkness, shine their insistent lights. We’re strenuously reassured that Jane Fairfax loves Frank Churchill, and that he’s a good man underneath, but what choice does she have? It’s him, whoever he really is, or a lifetime of caring for other people’s children.
For Emma herself, as for Harriet Smith, nothing has really changed by the end of the novel. We end where we began, with everyone partnered as they should and could have been in chapter one. And her union is happy—but is she? At 15, I took happy endings for granted, having no more sense of what it meant to be married—to stay together, to live together, to change together—than Emma does in her blithely destructive matchmaking adventures. But now, I’m struck by what lies beyond the ending: Emma still living at home with her father, spending every evening for the rest of her life gasping for breath in the same handful of rooms with the same small handful of appropriate but insufferable neighbors. It’s hard not to hope that one day, like Mrs. Rochester, she’ll just burn the whole damn thing down.
Joanna Scutts is a freelance critic who contributes to The Washington Post, The Guardian US, the Daily Beast, and the New Yorker online, among others. Originally from London, she lives in New York, where she is at work on her first book, a cultural history of single women and self-help culture in the 1930s.
by Eric Liebetrau | Nov-16-2015
Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.
"Ethan Hawke: Actor, novelist — spiritual guide?" Michael Lindgren on the actor's new book.
Daniel Mendelsohn reviews Hanya Yanagihara "A Little Life" in the New York Review of Books.
Jim Carmin reviews "Pure Act: the uncommon life of Robert Lax," by Michael McGregor in the Oregonian. Carmin also reviews "The Mark and the Void," by Paul Murray in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Lori Feathers reviews Vladimir Sharov’s "Before and During" for Rain Taxi.
Joe Peschel reviews John Irving's "Avenue of Mysteries."
Marion Winik also evaluates Irving's latest book, and she reviews a memoir from Mary-Louise Parker.
Micah McCrary interviews Sven Birkerts.
Gerald Bartell reviews "Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years," by Thomas Mallon.
"Richard Dawkins: Big brain, big ego, big insights." John Strawn on the second volume of Dawkins' memoir.
Carol Iaciofano reviews Rick Moody's novel "Hotels of North America."
Howard Lovy reviews "Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World," by Baz Dreisinger.
Former NBCC board member Steven G. Kellman reviews Karen Olsson's second novel.
Anne Payne reviews Ron Rash’s “Above the Waterfall."
Renee K. Nicholson reviews Ann Pancake’s "Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley" and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s "Mothers, Tell Your Daughters."
Connie Post's "Floodwater," reviewed in Calyx.
Julie Hakim Azzam interviews Newbery-winning children’s author Cece Bell about her graphic novel, "El Deafo," for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Dominic Green reviews Valerie Lester’s “Bodoni: His Life and World" for Standpoint. Green also reviews Robert Macfarlane’s nature writing and Julian Barnes’ art criticism for the New Criterion, as well as Nicholas Stargardt’s "The German War" for the Spectator. Green interviews Steve Toltz, author of "Quicksand."
Karl Wolff reviews Sick Pack, by MP Johnson, a novel from the bizarro genre about a man’s abdominal muscles going AWOL. At the New York Journal of Books, Wolff reviews "Of Earth and in Hell," by Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian author’s first published book of poetry from 1957.
Jenny Yacovissi reviews Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s latest novel, "The Big Green Tent," translated by Polly Gannon, for the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Carl Rollyson reviews "Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal," by Jay Parini.
Ellen Akins reviews "Golden Age," the 3rd volume of Jane Smiley's Last Hundred Years trilogy for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
by Mark Sarvas | Nov-11-2015
This is the ninth in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here.
The arrival of Spectre, the 24th official James Bond film from Eon Productions, in American theaters has been accompanied by the usual frenzy of 007 listicles, think pieces and arcana. The Bond films have demonstrated astonishing cultural longevity – it’s been 53 years since Sean Connery holstered his Walther PPK and launched a global phenomenon. But Ian Fleming and his superspy were already on the radar of the reading public a year earlier, courtesy of the kind of endorsement authors dream of.
In the March 17, 1961 issue of Life magazine, President John F. Kennedy provided a top 10 list of favorite books to journalist Hugh Sidey. Tucked in at number nine – beside appropriately presidential tomes such as The Red and the Black and Winston Churchill’s panegyrical biography of Marlborough – was Fleming’s fifth James Bond novel, From Russia With Love. By the year’s end, Fleming was the most popular thriller writer in America.
The Bond novels were staples of my youth, but I only recently returned to them on the occasion of Thomas & Mercer’s handsome reissues, which tempted me back to my favorite of the series. (The cover of the Jonathan Cape first edition of From Russia With Love remains the most prized of literary Bond collectibles.) In the intervening three decades, I’ve published and reviewed fiction, and taught novel-writing, and I came back to Fleming expecting the worst. Instead, I was surprised by how well the novel stood up, and how sound Fleming’s storytelling instincts are.
It would be easy enough to dismiss Kennedy’s move as the sort of political ploy we’ve come to expect from politicians who want to show us their human side, but it’s not hard to see why Kennedy might have been genuinely drawn to Fleming’s novel. First, though, let’s be clear: Fleming had no illusions about his literary gifts. “My books tremble on the brink of corn,” he once said. In a letter quoted in the recent collection, The Man with the Golden Typewriter, he insisted that, “My books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety”
Still, one dismisses Fleming at one’s peril. Like other canny storytellers, he knows how to propel us through an utterly coherent universe. He has a knack for memorable villains, and From Russia with Love gives us not just one, but two of his greatest creations: the vicious assassin Red Grant and his creepy handler Rosa Klebb. Her description is particularly memorable:
The tricoteuses of the French Revolution must have had faces like [Klebb’s], decided Kronsteen, sitting back in his chair and tilting his head slightly to one side. The thinning orange hair scraped back to the tight, obscene bun; the shiny yellow-brown eyes that stared so coldly at General G. through the sharp-edged squares of glass, the wedge of thickly powdered, large-pored nose; the wet trap of a mouth, that went on opening and shutting as if it was operated by wires under the chin.
But disturbing super villains can be found throughout the Bond corpus. What Fleming does in From Russia with Love that differentiates it from the rest of series – and makes it the most compelling of his novels – is that he divides the story into two parts; and James Bond doesn’t even make an appearance in the first ten chapters. It’s a canny move, reminiscent of the way Fitzgerald holds Gatsby out of the first 50 pages of The Great Gatsby, which, I always point out to my students, allows tension and mystery to build up in the void. Though it’s no slight to 007 to say that he is barely missed in these fascinating pages.
In “Part One – The Plan,” readers are treated to an extended look inside the Russian intelligence appartus, as a plan is hatched at the highest levels to wreak havoc and humiliation on the British by murdering 007 in a way calculated to maximize his disgrace. These sections, which consist largely of conference rooms and planning discussions, are riveting. Fleming had an intelligence background, and his knowledge seeps into all the Bond novels, but here, the authority and the detail are unmistakable. It’s easy to imagine the audience’s illicit thrill in 1957 upon reading this introductory note:
“Not that it matters, but a great deal of the background to this story is accurate. [… ] Today, the headquarters of SMERSH are where, in Chapter 4, I have placed them … The conference room is faithfully described and the intelligence chiefs who meet round the table are real officials who are frequently summoned to that room for purposes similar to those I have recounted.”
The ten opening chapters develop and tighten the conspiratorial noose, and although Fleming seems never to have met a backstory he could resist (the narrative momentum gets bogged down in occasional chapters of pure exposition), even the digressions feel lived in. They bear the pressure of the author’s experience and reek of gritty authenticity.
In “Part Two – The Execution,” the konspiratsia is put into motion though – as is usually the case with 007’s foes – it does not come off as its Russian spymasters intend. These chapters are full of the sort of memorable set pieces that one has come to expect from Fleming – the underground periscope which peeps into the Russian embassy, the fight at the gypsy encampment, the assassination of the killer Krilencu as he emerges through the mouth of a billboard Marilyn Monroe. It’s no surprise that the novel was chosen for the second movie, and that the film version is among the most faithful to the novel.
We even get a too rare moment of emotion from James Bond, when he discovers the death of his Istanbul contact and friend, the irrepressible Darko Kerim, who has been murdered in his cabin on the Orient Express:
Half on top of him sprawled the heavy body of the M.G.B. man called Benz, locked there by Kerim’s left arm round his neck. Bond could see a corner of the Stalin moustache and the side of a blackened face. Kerim’s right arm lay across the man’s back, almost casually. The hand ended in a closed fist and the knob of a knife-hilt, and there was a wide stain on the coat under the hand.
Bond listened to his imagination. It was like watching a film. The sleeping Darko, the man slipping quietly through the door, the two steps forward and the swift stroke at the jugular. Then the last violent spasm of the dying man as he flung up an arm and clutched his murderer to him and plunged the knife down towards the fifth rib.
This wonderful man who had carried the sun with him. Now he was extinguished, totally dead.
Bond turned brusquely and walked out of sight of the man who had died for him.
He began, carefully, non-committally, to answer questions.
Fleming finishes the novel with all the flair you’d expect – a fight to the death with the murderous Grant aboard the Orient Express and a final showdown with Rosa Klebb in her suite at the Ritz hotel. He even manages a Reichenbach-esque ending (omitted from the film), in which Bond is nicked by Klebb’s poisoned shoe-blade and crashes to the ground on the novel’s last page. (Fleming had tired of his creation and decided to kill him off; fortunately, the conclusion is open-ended enough that it allowed Fleming, like Doyle, to change his mind and return Bond to active duty in the next novel, Dr. No.)
None of this is the stuff of high literature – Fleming’s love of coincidences, in particular, risks puncturing the narrative tension at several points; and the expository digressions later in the story can be rough sledding – but From Russia With Love offers a good deal more than “pillow fantasies,” and it’s marked by superior spy craft. John Le Carre may be a better storyteller; Raymond Chandler is surely a better stylist. But as a snapshot of the high end of Cold War genre writing, nobody does it better than Fleming.
Mark Sarvas’s second novel, Memento Park, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
 Fleming would try a variation on this device, to disastrous effect, in The Spy Who Loved Me, which is told in the first person point-of-view of the heroine Vivienne Michel. Bond only appears at the end, to save her from the bad guys. Fleming essentially disowned the novel, contractually committing the film producers to use no part of his story.
 In the film version, producer Albert Broccoli replaced Monroe with Anita Ekberg, the better to promote his own film, Call Me Bwana.
by Carmela Ciuraru | Nov-09-2015
Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.
Chris Barsanti reviews Gerard Koeppel and Umberto Eco for Pop Matters.
Bharti Kirchner reviews Luc Sante's "The Other Paris" for the Seattle Times.
Matthew Jakubowski writes about the first English translation of Mercè Rodoreda's final novel, "War, So Much War."
Priscilla Gilman reviews Mary Gaitskill for the Boston Globe and Cammie McGovern for the New York Times Book Review.
Megan Labrise interviews Carrie Brownstein for Kirkus Reviews.
Rochelle Spencer's roundtable interview, "Diversity is Magic," with seven writers of YA speculative fiction, is featured in the L.A. Review.
NBCC Board Member Colette Bancroft reviews John Irving's "Avenue of Mysteries" for the Tampa Bay Times.
Gerald Bartell interviews Daniel de Visé for Kirkus Reviews.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie reviews Joy Castro for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Wendeline O. Wright reviews Stephen King's "The Bazaar of Bad Dreams" for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews Michel Houellebecq for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
NBCC Board member and 2013 Balakian winner Katherine A. Powers reviews Jeanette Winterson's "The Gap of Time" and T. J. Stiles's "Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America" for Barnes & Noble Review.
Kimberly Chrisman Campbell writes about Ulinka Rublack and Maria Hayward's "The First Book of Fashion" for TheAtlantic.com.
Susan Balee reviews David Mitchell's "Slade House" for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Mike Berry's latest reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle, Portland Press Herald, and Austin Chronicle.
Robert K. Landers reviews Scott Donaldson's "The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography" for Commonweal.
Philip Belcher reviews Carol Frost's "Entwined: Three Lyric Sequences" for Shenandoah.
John Domini reviews Lincoln Michel for the Brooklyn Rail.
Barbara Spindel interviews Mary-Louise Parker abut "Dear Mr. You" for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Michael Magras reviews Oscar Hijuelos for BookPage and David Mitchell for the Houston Chronicle.
David Cooper reviews William Gass for the New York Journal of Books.
Gregory Wilkin reviews John Irving for the New York Journal of Books.
John Strawn reviews Stacy Schiff's "The Witches" for the Oregonian.
by Garry Howze | Nov-04-2015
This is the eighth in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. More about this series, and how to submit, here.
In a somewhat measured attempt to match the fine example of my 11th grade composition and literature teacher, Mr. Phelan, at Proviso East High, but faced with the clumsy imperfections common to the young and bookish, I had kept my promise to read more widely than the “required reading” list for our class. An effort, I came to see only later, to know broadly and deeply the lay of the land. A sounding or charting, of sorts—this running of eyes, fingers and minds over the words on a page, mapping the world in the process.
Mr. Phelan was a Sixties sensibility loosed without notice into the wayward halls of an otherwise dull and burdened institution. Young, tall, hipster cool in his sports jacket, tie, jeans and shoulder-length hair, he stood in marked opposition to the existing state of affairs. He was an intelligent, imaginative and engaging figure resolute in the belief we were capable of much greatness given the least bit of guidance and concern. He treated us as colleagues, respecting our judgments and insights as genuinely valid and significant. We quickly became quite possessive of him and began to think of him as our own. Who among us does not have a similar account of a teacher we loved and respected and who reinforced our sense of self during those early years?
For those with long memories, yes, this same Proviso East High, just outside Chicago, featured prominently in Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.
I proudly read only fiction at the time. Letters, memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies were a bit too personal for my liking. Non-fiction seemed to me a complete betrayal of the lofty goals of Literature, so I shunned it, although History proved a worthwhile exception. Were I you I would not attach undue significance to such a view. It was more a state of mind than a fully reasoned critique. Pride found many ways of informing my young life: I was also proud of my hair, let my free flag fly; proudly wore those bell-bottom jeans; proud would prove insufficient when asked to accommodate my feelings for “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”; prouder still, of Fred Hampton; still proud of the University of Chicago.
It was into this divide—between fact and fiction, the Black Power Movement and Integration, Literature and Life—that our Mr. Phelan set foot. He helped instill in me the desire to fill my head with words and books and the knowledge and wisdom of the worlds contained within them. Through him I encountered The Trial and The Castle, Crime and Punishment, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Souls of Black Folk, The Sea of Fertility, Leaves of Grass, A Room of One’s Own, 1984, The Great Gatsby, and a dozen or so others during that extended year, summer included.
Then I read Go Tell It On The Mountain, James Baldwin’s examination of the human condition, recounting the Black experience in America through the lives of a church-centered Harlem family in the 1930s. These children of former slaves were part of the First Great Migration, which poured forth from the rural South between 1910 and 1930 in search of a better life, mostly in northern cities.
An ominous opening paragraph set the tone:
Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.
When John awakens on that day he is confronted first by sin (“he has sinned with his hands a sin that was hard to forgive”) which he fears will damn him from eternal life in the world to come; and then by the uncompromising world of poverty and filth he has inherited from this life. In the deeply religious (and evocatively named) Grimes household it is easy to see how a young boy would imagine himself bound for Hell, especially given that his act was committed imagining male, not female, bodies.
The room was narrow and dirty; nothing could alter its dimensions, no labor could ever make it clean. Dirt was in the walls and the floorboards, and triumphed beneath the sink where roaches spawned; was in the fine ridges of the pots and pans, scoured daily, burnt black on the bottom, hanging above the stove;
…Dirt was in every corner, angle, crevice of the monstrous stove, and lived behind it in delirious communion with the corrupted wall.
And further still
John thought with shame and horror, yet in angry hardness of heart: He who is filthy, let him be filthy still. Then he looked at his mother, … and the phrase turned against him like a two-edged sword, for was it not he, in his false pride and his evil imagination, who was filthy?
Baldwin pressed upon me the ugly, ugly truth; this dirt and filth extended far deeper than the walls and ceiling. It embodied the destruction, torment and wretchedness common to black life in America. It permeated every aspect of their existence. It settled on their skin and invaded their sleep. It robbed them of their dreams. They ate, slept, worked, dreamed and died, like all the unimaginable others, in this constructed reality designed precisely for them—owning nothing, possessing nothing, having dominion over nothing, not even themselves—endless numbers of jumbled and tangled lives counted for nothing as they unfold and recoil in this toxic miasma, their dull, leaden cry joined with the distant chatter of the universe.
At 17 I learned those truths. To say I did not deal with them well understates the matter and hangs uncomfortably on me. In plain fact, I behaved shamefully.
As Fannie Lou Hamer said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I was sick and tired of hearing and reading about the lives of Black people spent singing, moaning, praying and waiting, always praying and waiting, for deliverance from on high, of shattered dreams and broken bodies God-directed to their destruction, and plundered lives destined for hell-holes full of squalor and ignorance. I never wanted to hear another “John 3:16,” or “Hallelujah,” or “Praise the Lord,” coming from the mouth of a Black person for as long as I might live. Broadly, for fear that indiscriminate brush might taint me, and more directly because, as I had taken to heart the old guard’s unrelenting imperative, “learn your letters,” I discovered I was shadowed by the immense shame that I associated with the voiced lives of most of the Black people I knew.
Baldwin had shattered my idealized literary conceits and left them in a pile at my feet. Stopping squarely in front of me, he shoved me pointedly in the chest and suggested I had been living a lie. I had taken refuge in books that did not take me into account, that did not concern me or the lives of Black people in the least, while ignoring books like Baldwin’s. If that was the case, then I was hiding from the truth, not wanting to hear the truth; and he called me on it. Then stepping so close I could feel the force of his words and the heat of his breath on my face, he latched on to me with those troubling eyes and asked what was I going to do about it.
I grew angry. I stuttered and stammered and paced about, filled with a burning rage, a stinging indictment that began at the base of the neck and reached my ears before I was able to extinguish it. I groped here and there, I grasped at the air, clutched for anything at all, to catch my terrible, tumbling fall: a rope, a paddle, a hand basket.
Not prepared to face my shame or my fears, I wanted no part of him. I blinked…
Did you think love was just a chat at a small table?
Thick with breath and tobacco
smoke and endless talk *
Having hardened my own heart in much the same manner as John, I preferred to think of Go Tell It On The Mountain as more of the same, as the age old story that seemed to have characterized Black lives in writing since the beginning of time, Baldwin’s protestations aside.
Leaving Chicago for Los Angeles I needled together another 17 years before reading Mountain again. It was more than 20 before my latter day road-to-Damascus moment, when the falling away of the scales was fully complete.
In those intervening years I often consoled myself with the excuse, “I was17.” I had taken my personal battles—with Church, Language and Identity—out on him. I have since forgiven myself that indiscretion. Subsequent readings would show my displeasure lay decidedly within myself.
What was important later on, I think, was I simply let the work speak to me. I did not attempt to define it by my preconceptions or my personal motivations. Only then did I see language, lyric and poetic, bound to anger, rage and indignation and expressed with an eloquence that rivaled Henry James in its beauty and strength; see him track the universal in the personal, while opening the interior life of Blacks to the world; witness him, with directness, clarity and precision, strip away the façade of America’s hypocrisy routinely expressed through its disingenuous language.
What I found was, as Toni Morrison put it in her eulogy for Baldwin: “In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.”
It’s hard to know how to repay a debt to a writer whom I’d steadfastly resisted and refused to hear, now that he no longer has need for what I would offer. Yet thanks to the very gift he gave me, the world is full of gratifying possibilities for doing so, this being only one.
Garry Howze is a freelance critic in Washington, DC. He is at work on a collection of essays, The Sun Would Soon Give Up the Struggle.
* Honor Moore (in her version of a line from Marina Tsvetaeva), “Poem for the End”