Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ag léamh faoi An Eilvéis

Tá mé ag léamh mír faoi An Eilvéis faoi láthair. Nach bhfuil mé ag léamh faoi Elvis as Gaeilge (rud a rinne mé anseo), mar sin féin. Is é a bhrí i nGaeilge ó fin nGaillis, chomh "Helvetia" i Laidin.

D'iarr Martin Brauer dom a léamh an leabhar le a iníon, Yangzom. Is maith liom chuid leabhar féin Domhan na hAisling ó Tibéid. Tá sé "Tibetologist" faoi deara, agus bhí mé sasta athbréithnú a dheanamh fós Ar fud ar lán Sléibhte aici.

Is docha, tá sí í féin ar an gchéad hEilvéise agus an Tibéadis riamh! D'imigh a máthair Tibéid (leis a máthair féin agus a hathair) i 1959. go dtí an India an chéad agus ansin in aice leis 1970 go an hEilvéis. Ar ndóigh, socraithe a hathair agus a mathair ansin, ach anois, tá siad i gcónaí freisin i Nua-Eabhrac agus an Ghréig.

Ag labhairt na hÉireann, tá mé ag déanamh dha léirmeaseannaí ar ficsean ar bealach ó Dónal Mac Lochlainn; tá sé an aois chéanna liom. Rinne sé aistriúchánnaí go leor ó na hEilvéis-Germáinis agus Romansh. Scríobh mé faoi An Alp le Arno Camenisch; tá féin de Surselva ansuid, i measc an teanga Romansh. 

Seo chugainn, bím ag léamh scéaltaí na Albanach agus Uladh le Mac Lochlainn féin. Rúgadh sé i nDóire ach tá a chlann d'imigh go Glaschú i 1970, freisin-- deoraíocht polaitiúil eile. Biodh a fhoilsiú Bain an ceann na Mhaighdean Mhuire i Meitheamh seo.  Triu Tibéid agus Éireann, mar sin, bíonn an dealbh na hEilvéis ag athrú anseo mar suas, go cinnte...

Reading about Switzerland.

I've been reading a bit about Switzerland recently. I haven't been reading about Elvis in Irish (which I did here), all the same. It's the meaning in Irish from the Gaulish tribe, as in Helvetia in Latin.

Martin Brauer asked me to read a book by his daughter, Yangzom. I liked his own book Dreamworld Tibet. He's a noted Tibetologist, and I was happy to review also her Across Many Mountains.

Probably, she herself's the first Swiss and Tibetan person ever! Her mother took off from Tibet (with her own mother and father) in 1959, to India at first there and then around 1970 to Switzerland. Of course, her father and mother settled there, but now they also live in New York City and Greece.

Speaking of Irish, I've been making two reviews about fiction by way of Donal McLaughlin; he and I are the same age. He's done many translations of Swiss-German and Romansh. I wrote about The Alp by Arno Camenisch; he himself's from Surselva over there, in the middle of the Romansh language.

Next, I'm reading Northern Irish-Scots stories by McLaughlin himself. He was born in Derry but his family left for Glasgow, also in 1970. Beheading the Virgin Mary will be published this June.
Through Tibet and Ireland, therefore, the image of Switzerland here as above is changing, surely...

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Euripides' "Bacchae": Book Review

This tragedy's all about showdowns. Dichotomies and conflicts, as Daniel Mendelsohn, emphasizes in his preface, create a character unique to the genre. Dionysus "hovering between divine majesty and human weakness, magnificence and pettiness--and between male and female--the teasing, seductive, playful, epicene god is a great study in ambiguity." This god, an effeminate foil for the law-and-order bent, but fatally lured Pentheus, draws him and the audience into a diabolically clever trap. The horror than felt, as Pentheus is punished and then his corpse torn apart, while his own mother than slowly comes out of the bacchanalian frenzy to realize her own complicity, deepens what could have been but a strange depiction of subliminal drives into a portrayal of compassion after cruelty.

Mendelson explains how this drama "explores both the benevolent and the punishing faces of divinity." Ecstasy and terror follow  instead, as the natural wonder and delight transfers through a breakout of the repressed tendencies within us, once under some spell cast, into dread and sorrow. Euripides tells this story swiftly; this can be read in a short sitting, and it moves as rapidly as a well-written thriller might in an short television production today on some "prestige" cable network. Like shows now, the critics stay divided. As Mendelsohn notes, consensus is lacking "because its subject--among other things--is the irrational, and how conventional intellectual resources wither in the face of a wildness, a potency beyond reason."

From Robin Robinson's translation, an excerpt illustrates the swift concision of his rendering. Cadmus mourns Pentheus' end: "If anyone still disputes the power of heaven./ let them look at this boy's death/ and they will see that the gods live." Certainly the reaction of this grandfather captures the human response to the whims and imperatives of a divine plan unfathomed by mortals, yet again.

This edition includes a supplement, complete with a glossary on how to pronounce names, as this assumes we now lack this preparation. A chart of who's related to who, and an introduction to Euripides, about whom we know nearly nothing, helps the reader. It's sobering to be reminded that out of a thousand works performed in the 5th c. BC from Greece, we have only 33 of them today.
(Amazon US 9-12-14)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Leo Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilych + Confession": Book Review

The pairing of these two accounts of mortality, Mary Beard explains in her introduction, reveals Tolstoy's interest in death during his fifties. Although he lived another quarter-century or so, Leo Tolstoy's fascination with what transpired as the body aged and fell apart animates the story of forty-five-year-old Ivan. His fate, well-known and well-translated by Peter Carson, possesses its own poignancy. As Beard relates, the finished manuscript of these paired translations was delivered by his wife one day before his own death in January of 2013. An editor at Penguin, he came to the choice of texts ideally suited, being raised by his Russian mother and Anglo-Irish/French father trilingually. Rosamund Bartlett's afterword elaborates on Carson's rendering compared to his predecessors in English.

He favors for Ivan a plain style. You can see his use of repetition, suiting the matter-of-fact manner of Ivan and his colleagues and family, indirectly telling his story by the coolly omniscient voice in plain fashion that Tolstoy adapts for this streamlined, efficiently conveyed novella. His wife "began to wish that he would die, but she couldn't wish for that because then there would be no salary. And that irritated her even more. She considered herself terribly unhappy precisely because even his death could not rescue her and she became irritated; and her concealed irritation increased his own irritation."

Similarly, you see Ivan's own haunted realization that he must share our common fate. "He tried to defend all that to himself. And suddenly he felt the fragility of what he was defending. And there was nothing to defend." I've heard and admired this as read by Oliver Ford Davos for Naxos on audio (review 7-5-12), and Carson's version provides Ivan Ilyich and his harried household a fitting tribute.

"Confession" is less familiar to readers, but as Beard shows, in the manner of Augustine or Rousseau, it preoccupies itself with similar concerns, and indeed the fact and fiction of Tolstoy's pursuit of mortality enters into this purportedly non-fictional treatise as it does his story. He assumes the kind of air that sounds like Ivan and his circle at the bar or while he plays cards, too. "People with our kind of education are in a position where the light of knowledge and life have dissolved artificial knowledge, and either they have noticed this and emptied that space, or they haven't yet noticed it."

He tells of his youthful turn from Orthodoxy to rationalism, although this text anticipates his controversial return to a fervent evangelical, idealistic, but committed phase late in his life. It's valuable for recording the type of mindset Tolstoy and many advocated in the mid-19th century, when Russian intellectuals chafed against tradition and piety. He agonizes over the loss of comfort the aesthetic pursuit affords and how helpless he feels he can ease his family's support, when "the truth is death." He and Ivan combine to show the ridiculousness of vanity and the feebleness of ambition.

He anticipates the existentialists and complements Dostoevsky perhaps as he looks into himself and finds emptiness, and contemplates suicide at the age of fifty. "Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn't be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?" Science does not satisfy his quest, either. Socrates, Shakyamuni, Solomon, and Schopenhauer gain citation, as Tolstoy looks to philosophy and speculation for wisdom. While this segment for me rambled, like Ivan as he interrogates doctors, undergoes treatments, and tries on remedies to no avail, Tolstoy here wonders: "Why do I live?"

Most of us, he avers, do not investigate so diligently. Rather, the majority prefer ignorance (especially when young) or escape into Epicureanism (often when not so young, too). A third way, he suggests, lies in "the way of strength and energy." If life's a joke, take action and strangle evil. Fourth, weakness presents a way to be dragged along; this resembles Ivan's choice after his illness invades. Life is "contrary to reason," so why is it that so few seem to recognize this, while so many shrug it off and plunge into pleasure or denial?

One answer may lie in the "consciousness of life" that impels generations to create and improve our lot. But, standard definitions of faith cannot easily satisfy Tolstoy as he wrestles with a trust in the unseen or the irrational solution. He must redefine it as "the knowledge of the meaning of man's life, as a result of which man does not destroy himself but lives."  Some of this smacks of romanticism, and much of it rambles, but Tolstoy's intelligence prevents him for long from indulging in idle reflection. He keeps returning to the need to make sense of his life, and to balance reason with a less measurable but still present sense of a force that eludes mathematics or the laboratory.

In the common people, he witnesses a faith that helps them endure and find comfort. They also die a "calm death," one that by the way Ivan Ilych fights and only meets at the last moments. Tolstoy abandons himself to a belief that he can assent to out of conviction, his own melange. He is saved from despair by this message: "Live seeking God, and then there will be no life without God." He finds the shore after being pushed into a boat and cast adrift, and he uses his oars to steer accordingly.

Three years re-learning the truths of Orthodox Christianity on, Tolstoy bristles at that denomination's hostility to other Christians. He resigns himself to the human manner all seek the life force. He accepts truth can reside outside an institution's definitions. Falsehoods are mixed in, it being human.

He ends this with an eerie vision of suspension, a dreamlike state evoking the vertigo of Ivan in his torment, three years after writing the early chapters. It's an odd conclusion but a complementary one to Ivan's own tale, and a fitting inclusion for these two thoughtful works, together at last. (Amazon US 11-13-13)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Cervantes' "Don Quixote": Kindle review

It appears the brave volunteers at Project Gutenberg have fixed their version. The one I downloaded to a new Kindle Touch works fine, table of contents and all. Earlier reviewers complained but I cannot find any faults with my free version. (It's also at gutenberg-dot-org as @ 1.3 mb.) Amazon lumps many editions of public domain works together in different media and versions now, which I find frustrates those of us looking for audio- or e-book versions to evaluate.

John Ormsby's 1880s translation--also used in the Great Books series, I note--does not seem that antiquated. I sampled Edith Grossman, John Rutherford, and Burton Raffel's recent translations, and there's subtle differences rather than dramatic ones with Ormsby. He may opt for a more polite diction, but he tries to convey the tone of what's mimicking old-fashioned storytelling, after all.

I had read in college the Signet abridgement by Walter Starkie. Tom Lathrop's new reconsideration of this fittingly erratic text that replaces that publisher's edition seems to capture the old spirit of this complicated satire. It appeared to--or Cervantes pretends to let it--get out of control as its success spawned imitation by, and confusion for, all. (Lathrop documents this well--his translated text without the necessary Signet editorial material can be seen online at the Cervantes Project at Texas A+M.)

It took a while to re-read this. The first book unfolds with embedded novellas, chivalric tales of love that play against the sillier ones the Don believes and which Sancho Panza mocks. It's much slower after the initial episodes that bear the most acclaim. (I noticed a sudden and total fall-off in the Kindle annotations others had left!) But, the second book, written years later, amps up the energy and the intertextuality, as the Cide's tale told via the narrator clashes eventually with the sub-par competition of an imposter! The Don, Sancho, and their chroniclers enter "real" 17c Spain.

Cervantes takes on the critiques of Book One well, and it's fun to see how the novel even as invented here argues against its own suppositions. The tale, of course, is full of such clashes of fiction and reality. A surprising amount of abuse is heaped on our protagonists, and this "humor" appears to have worn more thin in centuries since, again a shift to a more modern sensibility that can "feel" the blows and insults suffered more deeply. It ends in a moving deathbed scene, to boot.

The balance between the tone used by Cervantes five centuries ago in parodying medieval romance needs to be acknowledged, and the need for an older register, as well as the post-modern before the modern existed upheavals within the unraveling narrative may test our patience. The joke may wear more thin than we recall. It's a cruel age, as the superhuman feats and bouts of chivalry leave "real" bruises in this telling. But this novel, which Faulkner re-read every year, remains an amazing feat that its author--as with much good art--might never have intended when he began it and worked on it and left it aside and returned to it...memory can be faulty! A fitting reminder for anyone contemplating the protagonist's fate and its author's lessons. (Painting: "Don Quixote Reading" by Adolf Schrödter.) (Amazon US 7-24-12)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Joseph Boyden's "The Orenda": Book Review

I've enjoyed two stark and harrowing novels about this same subject, the Jesuit-meets-Huron event in Canada in the early 17th century. Both Brian Moore's "Black Robe" (and the Bruce Beresford film) and William T. Vollmann's "Fathers and Crows" treat the Iron People (French) and the native Wendat (Huron) with sensitivity and insight. "The Orenda" balances neatly its similar perspectives, alternating as did Vollmann between indigenous and Christian participants, but at about half the length (see my "Fathers" review) as so much ethnographic detail and personal reflection expanded Vollmann's account. Moore chose a sparer register to filter his Jesuit missionary's travails among the wilderness and privation and torture.

Joseph Boyden captures both the sprawl of a novel delving relentlessly into a harsh land and a brutal mentality, and the precision of a narrative pair who square off, Bird and Christophe. This novel strips down the details so what remains stands out. In the first dozen pages, already you struggle to keep up with the back-and-forth tension as enemies lurk and death arrives suddenly. As a chronicler of two acclaimed novels, inspired by his own family's roots in the First Nations, this Canadian writer applies a steady eye to the realities of culture clash.

"The weight these men give their dreams will be the end of them." The first paragraph of the first chapter closes as the young Frenchman passes judgement on his captors and those he has been sent to convert. How the charcoal-clad newcomers, as well as the ancient people, possess the "orenda" (the life force) provides the mystery for the First Nations. They wonder how to manage the French. As Gosling warns Bird, these "crows" are "very difficult to tame."

The machinations that ensue, as a Jesuit captive proves valuable in the complications that overtake all the Wendat, dramatic as Moore and Vollmann showed well, here deepen as Boyden takes a nuanced perspective, equally careful to tell this story fairly. This novel expects concentration, and like its intent, wary characters, you are pulled into their mindsets in a vernacular that speaks in our own phrasing, but is whittled down meticulously to express a slightly altered time and setting, attesting to Boyden's skill at rendering this distance vividly.

Enriched by his own sensibility, it can be argued that Boyden's advantage in being placed as he is within the meeting of the two nations deepens the accuracy of his aim: to sharpen our wits as those here must, in order to survive the results of what God and country, iron and warfare, demand. I'll leave off plot summary but I'll encourage you to settle into this historical novel with an awareness that your focus will be rewarded, as your investment in this bracing, bewildering landscape, and the mentalities that it cuts open and tears into, pays off movingly. Amazon US 3/30/14

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Douglas Whynott's "The Sugar Season": Book Review

During one of the warmest modern winters ever, the balance tipped from what over centuries has been perfected within many-dappled forests of New England and French Canada. The addled combinations of sap and syrup, air and gravity, evaporation and consolidation which combine to fill golden bottles many of us reach for many mornings now add up, as Douglas Whynott observes, to a humble harbinger of global warming. What began as a curious search to uncover the mechanics and marketing of maple syrup turns, in his calm telling, into a case study of how venerable family enterprises deal with an uncertain future, as a few American firms contend alongside a bustling, volatile, and surprisingly profitable if persistently cartel-controlled Canadian syrup federation.

Parts of this tale recall John McPhee's fact-laden reports about our earth and those who seek to comprehend its hidden components. Whynott begins by summarizing the natural system. "Maple trees process carbon during photosynthesis, making carbohydrates that they later convert to sugar when the warm weather comes and the sap begins to flow." (3) What pioneering botanist James Marvin defined pithily as "the extent of the shock is equivalent to the rate of the flow" (12) translates into the delicate conjuration of temperature by which solar thermodynamics, via wind, light, or weather, makes the sunlight "shock" into motion the release of the equivalent sap from within the tree. That sap gets tapped, once by buckets loaded onto oxen or horses, now often by strands of plastic tubing, which by reverse osmosis funnel the sap from what are called sugarbushes (stands of trees) into steamy sugarhouses for boiling and bottling.

The subtitle aims to follow "A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup--and One Family's Quest for the Sweetest Harvest". Bruce Bascom's lifelong quest to boost his sugarhouse from a family-run enterprise at the "second tier" of sugarhouses to compete against with big chains challenges his stamina. In Whynott's telling, the son inherits if in gentler fashion the drive instilled by Bruce's father (he yelled a lot) when he started the place, on top of Mount Kingsbury in Acworth, New Hampshire. The author delves into this family's dynamic, but the best moments in this storytelling come when Whynott lets the setting take over, as when he summons what used to be the reality of families working in the cold, dark woods. "Slogging through snow, carrying the heavy buckets that sometimes spilled on legs and into boots or doused the gloves on freezing March days. Such was the life of the son of the first full-time sugarmaker" in the 1950s and 1960s. (66-67) Innovation then led to tubing replacing buckets, but the necessity to inspect lines and tap trunks intimately ties its workers to trees.

Another father-son pair led to Pete Rhoades' compatible legacy, as he runs Butternut, to sustain another sugarhouse. He tells Whynott why: "After I finished college, when I was back here at home and spent a day in the woods, I would come home and talk to my dad and granddad about what I did that day, and they knew every tree I was talking about. After they died no one was interested in what I had done that day. That gave me validity." (97) Whynott agrees: "It was all so elemental, this--fire and water, wood and tree sap, steam and smoke." (96) The "atavistic act" of boiling sap over flames tended for hours, and the tricky running of the evaporators and syrup pans, captivates a few who flock to Bascom's and Butternut to gain tips and buy equipment for their own smaller sugarhouses. As David Marvin, son of James, reasons amicably: "Why be competitors when you can be cooperators?" (156) Bascom and his colleagues buy syrup from family farms, and they trade it on the larger market, in turn competing and convening with the Québec syrup federation over the border.

Climate change quickens the plot. By the end of this century, New Hampshire may resemble today's North Carolina. Hotter, more humid weather hovers, earlier many springs as milder winters end sooner. Maple orchards rise over stretches once as frigid as the Gaspé Peninsula of Québec, while groves in territories more southern than along Canada's frontier may not last long as the earth keeps warming. Bascom's advantage, as his sugarhouse surges from the "second-tier" which he and Butternut share, into a better-quality, ethically sustained alternative to corporate purveyors, may therefore not last. Québec, which dominates over three-fourths of the maple market, might benefit from fewer U.S. sugarbushes. Canadian expanses can, by warming less, support new orchards.

Demand grows, but the price, thrown off by the American-Canadian exchange rate and the tendency of stored-up syrup to go "buddy" as flavor sours, leaves makers at the mercy of Québec's reserves if the U.S. crop flops. Rapid duration of the harvest demands that workers extract sap at the sun's peak point (ever earlier). In that warm winter of 2012, "summer in March" reduced to ten days the ideal time to suck out by spouts and tubes (and a few buckets) from the heating maple trees the best syrup.

Alvin Clark reminds us that this fragile, temperamental sap compares to blood in its sensitivity. He tries to interest the greater public, as a syrup maker, in the danger signaled to the planet by the maple as an early warning system. Whynott sympathizes, and the last chapters of this low-key, modest and thoughtful (if generally slow-moving) study reveal the crucial role maples play. New England, despite its apparently invigorating and hydrogenated air, finds itself trapped in a chemically toxic "tailpipe" of emissions spewed from the rest of the continent. Therefore, the currently poor "natural" placement of maples across the U.S. stands as a fragile landmark to predicaments of a warmer world.

A postscript, after Whynott's three previous seasons of tracking the industry, notes that the 2013 crop rebounded and that the average syrup season lasted two weeks longer in the American Northeast. Still, maple syrup's ecological relevance conveyed by this observant writer will invite readers to contemplate (after they should never again opt out for cheaper, high-fructose corn derivatives flavored by fenugreek, sold as Log Cabin, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth, or truth be told, Vermont Maid) the homespun symbol that this sticky sweet substance serves up, on many North American tables. Whynott treasures maple syrup's production as "a bellwether, the earliest of agricultural traditions, the first to be taught to settlers by Native Americans, this pursuit that relies on sensitive fluctuations in temperature, as the sun advances north and the trees freeze at night". (279-280)
PopMatters 3-4-14;
(Author's website)

Monday, May 19, 2014

"The goodness of privacy in a warm room with books"

In books as in music and I reckon all my daily life, I favor the inevitably flawed rather than the perfect. While some of these picks betray a lapse of narrative flow or structural stability, I recommend them, for in such moments, they remind us of our human predicament and our own gaps. PopMatters gives 9's to nearly perfect and 10's to perfect, but while twelve selections below were reviewed by me for PM and none scored quite that high, they all will grace a warm room. Of those three not reviewed here, two delve into ideological concerns which, although beyond the scope of this publication, invite speculation or consideration of worthy topics, by wise writers. And certainly George Saunders' increasingly deft navigation between satire and sentiment merits a special mention.

The range spans rock music, belief systems, mind-altering possibilities, suppression and liberation. It starts in Manchester, moves around Britain and Ireland, sides Stateside, and takes in places as different as Prague, Ceylon, Jerusalem. Tellers tend to focus on the near-present, but many look back.

Shifting from song to print, Steven Patrick Morrissey keeps his suave air and deepens his cultural allusions. His raw but sometimes reticent Autobiography ** drawn from popular and erudite sources will appeal to his fan base, but this uneven if spirited contemplation of five decades deserves a wide readership. Morrissey’s decision to let the flow slacken as his fame grows and the albums, from the Smiths and solo, accumulate may reflect the verisimilitude of how he views his later life, one more gig, one journalist after another to spar against, one more star to share his sorrows and joys with.

Similarly, his Manchester colleague Peter Hook skirts the typical rock-star's telling of his tale as Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. ** While chronological, Hook mixes humor and history in a sly but sensible fashion. (Morrissey appears more than once.) Joy Division's timelines feature comments on gigs, album tracks, and studio work among chatty chapters narrating the band’s fortunes. Hook shepherds us rapidly along as punk bursts and fades as quickly into a cold future.

Any British child of that punk generation grew up with rock on the radio. Beatles vs. Stones ** captures the battle for #1. The conventional wisdom claims both bands loved each other; any rivalry was only hype. Historian John McMillian marshals evidence, gleaned from chronicles, biographies, interviews, and his own expertise as a scholar of the underground press, that suggests the contrary.

Even a humble English product conveys the burst of pride that nation enjoyed during the 1960s, as well as the gloom that permeated Morrissey and Hook's childhood before Beatlemania, and the 1970s decline of their homeland after that band broke up and left the Stones as claimants to the title of the world's greatest band. Chris West in A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps ** documents how the Beatles boosted revenue. West’s fondness for a “true Summer of Love” during 1966, when Revolver appeared, while the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” provided the season’s theme for Swinging London, makes England’s World Cup triumph proclaimed on a stamp all the more splendid.

Certainly Psychedelia: An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way of Life ** as Patrick Lundborg's massive study testifies to another source of energy during that Summer, and many before and after. Hefty if unwieldy as a paperback, it’s a solid resource on what’s been too often left for silly flights of fancy or sophomoric pronouncements an ephemeral topic. Lundborg, as a diligent tour guide through his theme in theory and practice, keeps moving forward in time and space. But like his swirling subject, he cannot help pursuing byways, tracking trains of thought, and wandering off on rewarding detours.

In related distortion, what may appear as a footnote expands into its own revealing dimension. The impact of the East on the West and vice versa finds welcome exploration in Buddhism in Ireland: From the Celts to the Counter-Culture and Beyond. Sociologist Laurence Cox applies theories of social movements and Marxist humanism to reveal how Ireland and the wider world intersect, in a dimension beyond the stereotypical limits of sectarian belief and cultural practice, there and abroad.

Those limits conspire to preoccupy John Banville. Writing under the name of Benjamin Black for the sixth in his Quirke series under the suggestive title of Holy Orders,** the connivance of a compliant, cowed government with the lordly Church in this oppressive era of postwar Irish history looms; it’s very difficult to shake the sensation that this novel of a pathologist-playing at detective is not happening over a half-century later, amidst continued revelations of clerical abuse and conspiracy.

While the Ireland of this postwar era may not appear ideal to many overseas, the Midwestern writer J.F. Powers moved there, and back again, four times during that period. His daughter, Katharine Anne Powers, tells in Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life--the Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963 ** how her mother and siblings coped with her willful father's combination of idealism, thrift, and stubborn determination to resist Ike's American war machine and capitalist propaganda through an appeal to Catholic, pacifist resistance. J.F. conveyed his radical conservatism subtly in stories, many about priests, and in his own headstrong refusal to make an easier living.

Rebellion in that same generation, for Ivan Klíma in Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, represented a danger that captured more Jews than Catholics, no matter their personal irreverence. He begins My Crazy Century: A Memoir ** by noting how most young people like to rebel, and how this mood led to the Stalinist takeover of his homeland, where, having survived the Nazis as a teenager, he came of age bristling against another regime as an underground novelist, dissident, and gadfly.

Contrary to persistent promotion of the inspiration for such Communist regimes as a relevant prophet, Jonathan Sperber in Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. ** argues his ideas have run their course. More a product of the French Revolution and Hegel, early English industrialization and political economies of the emerging modern age, than any avant-garde inspiration, Marx “is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure”, who from his own century’s first half took the facts "and projected them into the future”. We may credit Engels more than Marx for much of our "Marx".

Another founding figure boasts as wide a reach as Marx, at least, and certainly for far longer duration. While the gist of Reza Aslan's popularization of critical biblical scholarship in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth  may not be that revelatory to those who have studied these arguments in academic or theological circles, his engaging telling of how a human Jesus transformed by re-branding via market research, so to speak, through ancient contexts, into an elevated and divine Christ merits inclusion for its ability to maneuver between arcane and accessible arguments deftly.

Power once claimed by Christians or Communists in a post-9/11 decade appears dispersed into more accessible if no less domineering channels. In Bleeding Edge ** the networks of DeepArcher beckon as “a virtual sanctuary to escape from the many varieties of real world discomfort. A grand-scale model for the afflicted, a destination reachable by virtual midnight express from anyplace with a keyboard”. From this appeal, this being Thomas Pynchon, a shaggy-dog tale set in 2001 Manhattan unfolds. Another curious sort plays detective. She finds, loosely unraveled, conspiracies that stretch far beyond the scope of a Catholic Irish hegemony or even a Czech totalitarian system. They span the wires you and I share to read this review. And they contain "inside them forces of destruction" for all.

Merging a compatible view of corporate conformity and social commentary with satire, George Saunders' stories in  Tenth of December sustain his trademark style. He mixes send-ups of how Americans think and speak in a commodity culture full of pop psychology and catchphrases with sensitive subjects which edge into sentiment. As a funhouse mirror of our fragmented nation, he reflects back how we keep evolving, to resemble the caricatured citizens in a Pynchon saga itself.

This psychic dislocation, as people relentlessly must sell themselves or be sold, wears down the characters from two Southern California-based chroniclers. The King of Good Intentions ** conveys  what it could have been like for John Andrew Fredrick to try to make it in the early-90s indie music scene in Los Angeles, when college radio mattered (a bit). At a party full of star-struck wannabees, pursuing a comely lass, the probably only slightly fictionalized John reflects: “Tonight I am lost and have eyes like a spirograph in the hands of a child on methamphetamine and utterly out of my head on good drugs and bad alcohol.” Poetic or introspective registers carom off John’s R-rated vernacular, the usual Angeleno’s articulation, or its lack. Infusing this spirited or spiteful melange of mundane rants and muttering satire, the novel celebrates an egghead’s low-life lived at the margins of celebrity.

Finally, at those same margins after a career ranging from plumbing sales to an assistant on Jeopardy!, Jim Gavin portrays the predicament of Angelenos caught between fame and misfortune. In this insular, congested, dirty, and sunny terrain, his characters, stuck at start-ups or peddling goods, wonder what keeps them there, and makes them face another day on the freeway. Gavin’s driven the same roads and done the same tasks, and his short story debut Middle Men ** dramatizes, in odd or mundane circumstances, the surprises that quiet epiphanies can present to the attentive wanderer.

Morrissey begins his Autobiography with a strongly Joycean evocation of post-war Manchester. Hook wanders the same streets. Both form bands as influential for such as Fredrick or Gavin's post-hippie cohorts, arguably, as the Beatles or the Stones for West. Then, allure of Jesus, Marx, or Stalin diminishes, even if the blowback to Aslan's book betrays the refusal of some true believers to accept as gospel truth the gospel's truths via scholarship. Powers' letters, Cox's study, and Black's story share an Irish tension as concepts filter in from the wider world to challenge cohesion and resist coercion, when reform and radicalism seep in to weaken theological verities. Against ideology, Klíma, Pynchon, or Lundborg who welcomed the 1960s and liberating sounds attest to the control exerted by popular culture pitted against political convention. Yet, Saunders warns of the subversive backlash which newer forms of technology and surveillance possess, able to spur us into submission.

Collating this list of fifteen books, fiction and otherwise, and some in-between, connections form. We all search for escape, and while music, drugs, radicalism, or fame may ease the monotony, the protagonists of so many of these tales find themselves at the end of their narratives still constrained. Echoing Pascal's complaint that "all men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone", let Morrissey in this nod to revelation by reading conclude this 2013 culling. “Finally aware of ourselves as forever being in opposition, the solution to all things is the goodness of privacy in a warm room with books.” Restless as many of these characters prove, lots of them wind up reading.

(PopMatters 2-4-14; Photo: c/o Tom McLaughlin, Electronic Distraction)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"A Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon": Book Review

This helpful compendium opens up for both specialists and generalists this "difficult" writer's works. It encourages us to enter the discussion about them. My review sums up the contents of a compact but valuable resource. Given that the chronology of Pynchon's life and works by John M. Kraft must be far sketchier than that for perhaps any other living author, Kraft sensibly concludes after summing up what can be verified: "We hardly need to know the life to appreciate the works."

As the introduction by editors Inger H. Dalsgaard, Luc Herman, and Brian McHale reminds us, their "Pyndustry" formed to dissect Pynchon's fiction need not be as hermetic as it may seem to the outsider. "It is the sense of sharing in a collective enterprise of readers that transforms a cult of insiders into a community." With only his works to study, the author absent, we are "left to our own devices". This 2012 anthology aims at fellow academics, but it provides a more accessible guide to the canon, poetics, and issues than monographs devoted to recondite topics.

Part I surveys the canon. "Early Pynchon" by Herman examines the first stories and racial themes and revision in V. It's a limited look at that novel, but many contributors agree that Pynchon's 1963 full-length debut represents but a frenetic trial run for the two "masterpieces" that would follow.

Although dismissed by the author as a misfire, his first, The Crying of Lot 49, appears alongside Vineland and Inherent Vice as a California novel. (Pynchon's newest, Bleeding Edge, reviewed by me in PopMatters and in shorter form at Amazon upon its publication 17 Sept. 2013, burrows into congenial tales of attempts to break out of the "meatworld" and the crackdown that follows not only a counterculture but the start-ups. Bleeding Edge draws Pynchon back from his adopted Golden State to his native New York, but post-9/11, it entangles wired technology hatched and incubated in Silicon Valley.) Thomas Hill Schaub locates "New Age libertarianism" rather than "liberal pluralism" as the Californian novels' political stance. He tracks the "consensus" for the 1964-71 period they evoke. Lot 49 traces a "secret withdrawal" from conformity, appearing in 1966’s flower-power promise. The other two novels track state backlash, and from the rueful benefit of hindsight, they from their publication in respectively 1990 and 2009 lament the passing of communal alternatives and individual initiative during the rise of Nixon and Reagan, as sinister forces regroup to compromise or marginalize those who tried to fight the power.

Gravity's Rainbow is rooted in Pynchon's service to this same state, in his 1960-62 career as a technical writer in Seattle at Boeing. Steven Weisenburger documents Pynchon's role in the bureaucratic complicity that enables the military and such corporations to ally with global economies and murderous technology. Rocket World's domination, in Pynchon's 1973 indictment of mass death, proves how the post-war national security state follows the Second World War's operations, carried out by a "Power Elite's relentless sovereignty". Ethical or practical resistance by a few may be admirable, but given the fate of many in Gravity's Rainbow it appears such stances remain quixotic.

Certainly Mason & Dixon plots this tension between rationalization and imagination, the little guy versus the big picture. This relentless push of modernization and profit, as America championed in colonial times, captures a period which changed "all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments". Such an eighteenth-century style and orthography of this 1997 epic enlivens Pynchon's exploration of another historical epoch. While less immediate than the mid-twentieth century, Kathryn Hume explains, this period also pits protagonists against a world-system of intricate "lines" laid down by mathematicians and surveyors to extend imperialist ambitions. Slavery, mystery, and science contend. Layers and networks, typical elements of Pynchon's fiction, give clues and orient or disorient readers within such complex webs.

Widening the rampage of overlying overlords in Against the Day to roam thirty years around the turn of the last century, the pre-WWI foundation for that similarly immense 2009 send-up of early twentieth-century literary genres defines Menippean satire. Bernard Duyfhuizen tallies 170 characters and at least a dozen pastiches of fictional categories in its sprawl. Its "dime novel" elements involving silent-era film in Los Angeles, as this critic astutely cites, anticipate the cinematic hard-boiled patter and louche gumshoe satire of Inherent Vice set fifty years later on the coast near that same city. They also, typical for Pynchon as his novels unfolded, overlap, as the Traverse family introduced in Vineland edges Against the Day into an earlier work as published, even as it hints ahead via its anarchistic struggles to hippie reactions against capitalism in the California novels, chronologically.

After overviews of the major texts, Part II elucidates poetics. David Cowart's investigation of literary history enlivens the author's promise. "Pynchon seduces the reader with something like the big picture: read this and you'll understand the age and its enormities." Cowart wonders if Pynchon leads the way in innovation, away from modernist tropes, or whether he responds to endemic cultural trends. The evidence marshaled favors Pynchon as leading the way, although Cowart appears to strain credulity when attempting to attribute prescience to the appearance of Pynchon's novels within years or stages of political upheaval or social unrest. What seems more convincing is that by Vineland the quest narrative--however unfulfilled--in his previous novels diminishes amid "increasing difficulty". Pynchon while lightening his tone and intensity somewhat by the 1990s intensifies his range. His target widens as his novels grow encyclopedic. Melville created one such narrative; Pynchon, many.

Delving into theory, the following essays prefer a more professorial, less playful stance. McHale sums up postmodernism adroitly. He links Christopher Jencks' "double-coding" within architectural designs winking at those in the know while delighting or puzzling the general public to Pynchon's blend of high-art themes and pop-culture references. McHale argues that postmodern ontology, a concern with being, replaces the modernist search for epistemology, to address meaning. Cowart concurs that the early quests of V. and Lot 49 have disintegrated by Gravity's Rainbow; that work ends with explosions, dispersions, and reversions. Erasures, forking paths, nesting, layers all fool characters--and any who attempt to navigate and master the labyrinth.

Pynchon's intertexts, as David Seed charts, exhibit their own twists and turns. Characters and themes start to blur and shape-shift. The final essays gathered in Part III under Issues can drift into their own hermetic recesses. Sometimes theory overwhelms the application to specific passages in the texts. If a chapter on humor, which gains all but five citations in the index, might have substituted or supplemented this section, its inclusion would have leavened the seriousness of this section. Pynchon's wordplay, songs, and slang, and his inherent vice that drives him to keep his awful or sly punchlines coming do not earn the depth they deserve here. Amy J. Elias for history, Jeff Baker for politics, Deborah L. Madsen for alterity, and Dalsgaard for science and technology, all the same, offer directions to suggest deeper pursuits for these respectable topics.

In a coda of "how to read Pynchon", Hanjo Berressem notes how readers responded critically during each stage of Pynchon's trajectory. The prophet of doom and miscommunication appeared ready for the Space Age amidst its countercultural flight from the threats "slouching towards universal disorder, heat-death, noise and, ultimately, to near-static". The post-structuralist craze found deconstructionists thrilled with a "violently centripetal" lurch into futility, disorder, and self-referential metafiction. (That may explain at this time my own hesitation to immerse myself, as a grad student, into his works, as they were inculcated as mocking, monolithic, dire, and airless testaments to dead zones.)

By the 1990s, the changes during the Reagan administration may have tempered such critical frenzy. Pynchon's sensitivity to the realities of contemporary life, beyond satire, puns, puzzles, and irony, turned some to reconsider the aesthetic arguments within his novels. The progression in the humanities over the next fifteen years towards New Historicism placed Pynchon's fiction within the "complete counter-history of America" in its mission to (as Mason and Dixon dramatizes) "save the realm of the fictional from the forces of relentless factualization and rationalization". 

Some critics here propose that reading Pynchon, we can follow his example to challenge the system that supplants our initiative with a perpetual commodification of our dreams and desires for fulfillment. Bleeding Edge continues this critique, but it too shrinks back from any clear resolution of its own shaggy-dog plot. Those who seek in Pynchon's passages an escape from their mundane concerns may find that the paths fork and bend back into our own reality with its often elusive lack of lasting satisfaction. Like his protagonists, Pynchon appears to remind us, in his absence from advising us, that we must rely on our own smarts, arrayed against mystery and cynicism and corruption.  As the editors of A Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon conclude in their collective, even utopian, ambition to scope out this reclusive writer's ascent and flight patterns: "We are all in this together." ("Left to our own devices" at PopMatters 2-10-14 and in shorter form 2-14-14 to Amazon US)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Ag tráthanna na gcéist

Bím ag tráthanna na gcéist ag cur ar Aghaidh Leabhar le déanaí. Beidh mé ag dul a roinnt beagán anois libhsa. Tá cuid acu greannmhar agus cuid acu tromcúiseach ann.

Ar dtús, bhí mé ag fhoghlaim go bhfuil leath ró-intleachtúil, 25/50 agam. Is é mo inchinn 53% réasúnach agus 47% iomosach. Go nádúrtha, tá mé cineál INTJ ann; tá mé stuamaí agus fealsúnachtaí, go nádúrtha.

Tá mé 93% dhaonnach ann. Ach, bhí mé ina cheannaire spiorodálta i saol atá caite ann. Agus, bhí mé ag obair is fearr chomh mar sealgaire ina meanaoiseannaí ann, Hamlet ansin, nó mar scríobhneoir anois.

Áfach, níl "jock," feidhmiúcháin, nó le chroí mór, sílim in ainneoin na torthaí. Bheul, tá Indiacht phearsantacht náisiúnta agam. Agus, tá náisiúntach fo-comhfhiosach go bhfuil Éireannach agam, go fírinne.

Anois, is maith liom is fearr an aois na Tonn Nua i roc-cheol. Tá mé ar nós Led Zeppelin i roc-cheol claiseceach ann. Agus, tá mé ar nós Radiohead i roc-cheol Britpop fós.

Mar sin féin, leanaim air John Entwistle de réir baill den The Who. Äfach, tá Emma Goldman agus Mikhail Bakunin mo samhlachtaí réabhlódeachaí ann--níl Keith Moon! Ar deireadh, lean mé ar an taobh clé ach chomh neamhthairiseach nó ainriail liobraióch leis Na Tochaltóirí agus amhran le Leon Rosselson suas.

Taking quizzes. 

I've been taking quizzes on Facebook lately. I'm going to share a small portion with you now. Some of them are funny; some are serious.

First, I learned that I am half too-intellectual, 25 out of 50. I have a brain 53% rational and 47% intuitive. Naturally, I'm type INTJ; I am prudent and philosophical, naturally.

I am 93% humanist. But, I was a spiritual leader in a past life. And, I was best suited to work as a hunter in the Middle Ages, Hamlet then, or as a writer now.

However, I am not a "jock," an executive, or big-hearted, I think despite results. Well, I am Indian in my national personality. And, my subconscious nationality is Irish, certainly.

Now, I like best the New Wave era in rock music. I resemble Led Zeppelin in classic rock. And, I am similar to Radiohead in Britpop, too.

Nevertheless, I follow John Entwistle in the matter of members of The Who. However, it's Emma Goldman and Mikhail Bakunin as my revolutionary role models--not Keith Moon! Finally, I lean to the left but as disaffected democrat or a libertarian anarchist, like the Diggers and the song by Leon Rosselson above. (Posteár le/Poster by/ Erik Ruin by way of/ ar bealach Justseeds.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Slavoj Žižek's "Event": Book Review

Slavoj Žižek proves as quirky and unpredictable in his references and leaps between them as ever. I started this with caution, warmed up as the pace quickened, and became excited. Was this the best out of the admittedly few of his dozens of books I'd read? For a few chapters, it seemed so. Despite the pace slackening halfway as Lacan and then Hegel returned as usual, when the tone grew occluded, diffusing the burst of intellectual fireworks, "Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept" does entertain and educate. It makes sudden connections between exponents as diverse as Rosa Luxemburg and Psy of "Gangnam Style" fame. He cites from the recent films "Melancholia" and "An Act of Killing" adroitly, while Tahrir Square and Greek anti-austerity protests (if not the letdown of Occupy directly, an odd omission given past concern) show topicality.

Žižek repeats his ability to blend, if fleetingly or faintly (which also to me seems his weakness--you want him to pause and ponder more as he rushes from one film snippet or one detective novel and then on to a joke about Jesus or an expounded consideration of Descartes, the Big Bang, Hitchcock, or Lenin (in his love letters), the trendy signifiers of our own era as well as the intricacies of Buddhist debate, quantum physics, and Plato. This Slovenian critic aims also to somehow chide us for not rising up the past few years against capitalist oppression, but he eludes the question of how many eggs were broken by the failed communist suppression even if he repeats a Romanian's right question, wondering about an omelette. Žižek is toying with us here.

It remains a muddle in the telling, but certain parts will pop up to draw you in. This short book is marketed as ideal for a commute, so it's aimed at the curious reader with a few hours to spend on big ideas, told with far more verve than usual by a philosopher, and with certainly less obfuscation. What this adds up to, as with other books I've read by Žižek, appears less tangible. Therefore, appending the overview may be an efficient way to ask if this one's for you. Imagine it as a subway commute: 

"The first stop will be a change or disintegration of the frame through which reality appears to us; the second, a religious Fall. This is followed by the breaking of symmetry; Buddhist Enlightenment; an encounter with Truth that shatters our ordinary life; the experience of the self as a purely evental occurrence; the immanence of illusion to truth which makes truth itself evental; a trauma which destabilizes the symbolic order we dwell in; the rise of a new ‘Master-Signifier’, a signifier which structures an entire field of meaning; the experience of the pure flow of a (non)sense; a radical political rupture; and the undoing of an evental achievement. The journey will be bumpy but exciting, and much will be explained along the way." The results, as on a train, jostle you and may jolt.

What I found in "The Year of Dreaming Dangerously" by Slavoj Žižek applies again: "All this winds up chaotic, willfully so or due to the author's expectation that his diligent and combative readers do the heavy lifting to enact change, beyond that of intellectual suggestions or ideological explorations."

I continue to return to Žižek, but his evasive response as a Marxian (probably with a parenthetical qualifying prefix to distance himself knowingly from his formative exposure) critic of the depredations wrought by the other world-dominating economic system alongside those of our capitalist hegemony now endured and insufficiently resisted left me once more perplexed. We all witness declines of our political, educational, ecological, and economic realms, but what next? He reminds me of an authority figure (therapist, guru, mentor, coach) who refuses to suggest a solution.

This learned strategy of sages is an old one, of course, among philosophers, but one seeks guidance. It's another of his magical if demystifying history tours, a mad dash and a headlong rush through lofty concepts. Žižek's knack remains his clever eye for the cinematic moment or the literary aperçu to toss into Cartesian this or Chestertonian that. His characteristic tick keeps us off-guard about his sly, arch, avant-garde insistence that we can never get this task of running our lives or our world right, or left.
(To be published 8-26-14 in the US) P.S. See Amazon US 10-14 12 and my blog for my reviews of "The Year of Dreaming Dangerously."

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Alan Moore and Mike Bennett's "Watchmen": Book Review

As review #1200, I wanted to add my brief acclaim. What is amazing is that about 2/3 of the way in, six or so story lines unfold in a manner that neither a novel nor a screen can yet reproduce well. That is, the tales, the captions, the images all hover and as they flit across the page into your mind's eye, you "see" resonances in your imagination from the layered stories, in a most engaging and intricately fashioned way of verbal and visual narrative. The sophistication itself deserves acclaim, let alone the fresh way that the middle-aged and elderly crises of superheroes make for a new take on a by-now familiar genre.

A second attempt rewarded. I had tried it years ago but found the pace slow as I was scanning each frame for context or clues. The density, as in an engrossing film or novel, rewards rereading or giving it yet another try.

While near the end some genre limits of the force of compression needed as the tales came together, and certain surprises seemed to be tucked deeply away in what had been previously shown, this sort of tension, explication, and sudden revelation is standard for the well-told adventure. The complexity of this, and the coordination of the caption and image with the multiplying narratives build this up into a memorable experience. As if you get to read a novel and see a movie simultaneously, and best of all you still with the words spinning out keep your own vision of the story somehow intact. Pay attention to the newsstand, as by then, the levels of story piling up make this rewarding for the patient reader.

I came to this in a different direction from perhaps most readers. I rarely read graphic novels but as I liked "V for Vendetta" on my then-teen son's recommendation, and even the film--which benefited by prior exposure to the printed story, I sought out Alan Moore's debut novel. I liked for a similar immersion into words spun out well the overlooked and ambitious "A Voice in the Fire." I recently reviewed (8/2013) it; it too was recommended after I finished David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas"; that left me wondering about similarly expansive linguistic novels and themes.

So, I came to finish "Watchmen." It kept me up late more than one night. As with "V," and "A Voice," Moore's talent is evident, and while the pace and theme of "Watchmen" may be less local and more global than his novel set in his native English city of Northampton, it shares the love of conspiracy, hidden forces, anarchic ideals, occult energies, and compassion for humanity and creatures which infuses so much speculative fiction nowadays--and in the inspirations for Moore and Bennett. I will seek out more from both. (Amazon US 9-8-13)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Alan Moore's "Voice of the Fire": Book Review

Shamans, heads, magic, a bridge, crossroads, dogs, pigs, flame: elemental and elusive, this powerful novel recapitulates the evolution of English and the growth of Northampton, Alan Moore's home city. Don't let the first chapter dissuade you. "Hob's Hog" may best Riddley Walker or the "Sloosha" chapter of Cloud Atlas, for Moore limits an adolescent boy's expression of a bewildering encounter with a "cunning-man" and his companion to four hundred words, these shattered and fragmented into Neolithic limitations, personal or linguistic+++. A wizard himself, Moore forces us into an altered state.

The narrator's mother dies. "Theys bits of bright is move out from she eyes and hang on trees." (17) The sun, hitting her eyes, fails to rouse her, and the boy realizes she is no more. More than once, we will follow a corpse pushed down into a grave, a body's bits looking back at us before they are tramped down and the dirt conquers the flesh. Yet, very late, Moore nods to and alters a notion of the Kabbalah, whereas we are God dispersed from the Big Bang into fragments, yearning for universal end to be reunited.

Twelve chapters recapitulate the progress supposed as paths turn into roads and roads into highways. A shifty young hustler in "The Cremation Fields" laments the new sky-gods who displace the earth-mother's worship. Yet, neither faith appears to ease the existential condition. As she justifies her own machinations: "If we in this world are cruel by harsh necessity, how much more wicked are the gods who want for nothing but torment us to the death?" (94) Exiled already ca. 2500 BCE, they "cook the blood from the earth and let it scab to crowns and daggers," as the world's energy already exhausts.

After "In the Drownings" post-AD 43 dramatizes the coming of the Romans from a fisherman's odd perspective, "The Head of Diocletian" post-290 introduces a foreigner's reaction. Sent by Rome to apprehend forgers of imperial coins, he sums up the culture clash and another decline: "There's few signs of the Empire to be seen out here, a scattering of villas where retired generals struggle to afford their mistresses." (140) Moore does not falter in creating recognizable characters for each of his dozen narrators. He stays poised, adjusting the tone to the manners and mentalities of the era.

By 1064, it's a jumble. Alfgiva, crippled beggar turned nun, morphs into martyred St. Ragener from 870 and then into a witness to a terrible emanation from the crypt of local St. Peter's in 1050. Jump to after the Conquest, where after 1100 the Church of the Holy Sepulchre rises roundly with emanations of the Templars and their fearsome rite once removed to a very different setting than the Crusades where Simon of Senlis encountered his own astonishing and similarly unnerving revelation.

Religion dominates the second millennium. The executions of Guy Fawkes and his Catholic conspirators in 1607 leaves one of the less fervent victims unconvinced of sectarian verities. He theorizes "that life is ordered by the principles of some religion so peculiar and obscure that it has no followers, and none may fathom it, nor know the rituals by which to court its favour." (197-8)

"Angel Language," its title a theme via magician John Dee filtered increasingly into the last third of Voice of the Fire, opens with six paragraphs from a judge in 1618 that rival Joyce's abilities. After crafting graphic fiction with its own restrictions placed on what an author may explore within its boundaries, this first novel enables Moore to stretch out. It may not please all, but it merits patience. It moves forward as our language does, into passages of beauty and terror. While this section for its neater patterning felt slightly schematic in its chiasmus, the echoes express confusion appropriately.

In 1705, one of the last two women. lovers and partners, sentenced to be burned as witches in the kingdom has her say. "We had our fun, and at the end of it they fetched us out and burned us both to dust. They had a stronger Magic. Though their books and words were lifeless, drear and not as pretty as our own, they had a greater heaviness, and so at last dragged us down. Our Art concerns all that may change or move in life, but with their endless writ they seek to make life still, that soon it shall be suffocated, crushed beneath their manuscripts. For my part, I would sooner have the Fire. At least it dances. Passion is not strange to it."*** (248)  Consider how this passage resounds with conviction, and clarity. Moore channels his intelligence into men and women we can understand, no matter their century, and he provides much to reflect upon about the clashes between nature, energy, and order.

As the voices overlap, and images such as blue beads, an odd beast, or the name of Eleanor repeat, the reader faces a commitment. Five years in the making, its detail convinces me. No chapter felt false. For those with less stamina for British minutiae via arcane lore, the concentration demanded by Moore to match his own scrutiny may weary. However, if you wish a bracing, and sometimes bewildering series of unreliable narrators beckoning you into the impossible conundrum of any author: how to escape the subjective when describing one's own reality--note an aside to Niels Bohr.

After a chapter on John Clare, the nature poet gone mad, recounted in suitably dispersed and chronologically scattered fashion, we move into the last century. Alfie Rouse's roguish testimony of his own manipulations updates that of the second chapter's scoundrel: how relationships--intimate or casual-- fall prey to greed and weakness exerted by the more scheming among us. But no teller escapes some sympathy. We learn of him in the Great War, and such an observation for its familiarity does not ring less true if from a returned veteran with a head wound, an calculating salesman and with an eye for the ladies: "Half those fellows in those trenches wouldn't be there if not for the way their girlfriends look at them when they're dressed up for war. Deny it if you can." (271)

Finally, it's Alan Moore, although he does not use the singular first person, but only appears as the author, in "Phipps' Fire Escape." He takes us around Northampton in 1995, a town with its mind "encased in concrete." Moore tries to align us with its hidden pulse. "The only constant factor in the local-interest photograph collections are the mounds of bricks, the cranes against the sky." (296) Barclayscard and Carlsberg loom as the present-day replacements for button factories, or those for shoes and boots. Debt and drink: the creations of his neighbors, as he witnesses municipal decay.

After so long with this novel, Moore's reluctance to let it go attenuates its last few pages. He reasons that "raising the dead to tell us what they know" (302) explains his endeavor. If you look at pp. 306-13 in passing they point you back to certain ideas, and Moore's mission: "Make the real a story and the story real, the portrait struggling to devour its sitter." (306) We all, he concludes, are caught in fiction. So, to me resurrecting the voice of Nelly Shaw the condemned witch, if not in magical or weighty analogies but cartographic terms: "Lacking any territory that is not subjective, we can only live upon the map. All that remains in question is which map we choose, whether we live in the world's insistent texts or else replace them with a stronger language of our own." {interview here}

One wishes every talented artist or writer had five years per project. Enhanced by Jose Villarubia's illustrations, appended so as to not distract but enrich the reading, the focus of this, so intense, may scare off the pale, but those tough-skinned enough to endure the plunge into fire and alphabets will find the brilliance of this memorable novel akin to heat itself, to comfort and to warn those who seek to come close to its flickers and smoke. Mirrors held by twelve men and women, we peer in. (Amazon US 8-10-13)+++Overwhelmed? Deciphering Hob's Hog Enticed?*** Moore's "Bog Venus"

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Adam Thorpe's "Ulverton": Book Review

Readers of "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell (2004) or even the far less known debut novel by the well-known Alan Moore "Voice of the Fire" (1995) may admire this 1993 predecessor in the same mode of storytelling (I reviewed both). Over time, voices and registers shift as a locale takes in generations who convey overlapping themes, concerns, mysteries, items, and predecessors. Thorpe even fits himself into the final chapter from 1988. This circles back neatly to the start, where in 1650 a soldier from Cromwell's depredations in Ireland returns to Ulverton, a vaguely placed hamlet in the southwest of England (think of Hardy's Wessex).

That takes place in an efficient style nearly our own, but most chapters after will hearken to the tone and vocabulary of the period. Similar to Moore, this will challenge the reader, as it forces you into dialect and regionalisms. Facts tying each section to others flit across the page, but rarely and briefly. Considerable concentration is needed, perhaps too much in one part which as with other chapters seems to go on too long for the detail and the mood necessary to place the reader within the situation, and some of this moves slowly--if fittingly so for a rural account, after all.

1689 comes with a more Bunyanesque feel, set on the barren places in a terrible winter. A religious revelation bursts in, as an Anglican clergyman must tell of a Quaker's conversion in grotesquely twisted circumstances. 1712 brings in a fussy tone about a diligent landowner's earnest attempts to modernize as the land's enclosed and its farmers set later to toil for the gentry and the wealthier class who have taken over the commons. Thorpe introduces here an effect I like and which he uses later, hesitation by a narrator: brackets here fill in what the writer loses control over or leaves illegible.

In epistolary style, one side of an exchange between a lady of the estate and her departed lover happens in 1743. Pay attention already to items that are repeating in later chapters. 1775 I had to read to myself aloud in parts. It's a barely literate tailor's transcription of a phonetic rendering of dialect and while compelling--a mother's plea for her son sentenced for stealing a hat to Newgate prison in London--it demands very close attention, but it rewards the same. This can be said of the entire novel. Few passages leap out, but the accumulative effect pleases in incremental, subtle, and embedded fashion.

I felt the 1803 part an amusing if moral shaggy-dog story--and a long one set in a tavern suitably over a long if one-sided conversation-- but it does in retrospect show how the cutting down of so much of England's woodlands altered the landscape and furnished its houses in a time of fuel and expansion. In 1830 a backlash against mechanization by farmers sets laborers to revolt, as taken down by a legal functionary, as he intersperses the testimony of those arrested and facing execution or transportation to Van Diemen's Land with his appeals to his beloved. Thorpe plays off the concerns of the law and gentry skillfully, as they attend to agrarian matters as they must, but often in offhand fashion compared to their domestic concerns, as their own jobs interfere with their own pleasures, as with us all.

A female photographer's 1859 commentary on the plates she takes around Ulverton as well as in Egypt captures Thorpe's ability to channel his chosen styles well--here a George Eliot phrasing comes across very smoothly. Light in the Middle East hits her differently: glare makes a scene "as unintelligible as newsprint in a foreign country." (188) A stream-of-consciousness 1887 poacher's ruminations take the most effort, even more than that of the prisoner's mother, to decipher. A short part, it felt much longer.

Still, these set up if laboriously the impacts of the last century. Here, the sections start to coalesce, as surnames you've seen from centuries before repeat and as places sound more familiar. 1914 juxtaposes an amateur archeology dig at the barrow through an official retired from India with the recruitment by the squire of the local lads to enlist and fight. As if a parlor opened once a year for visitors, so, the narrator reflects, are the mentalities of the villagers, exposed to an idea beyond their workaday and parochial concerns. "To reveal the dead is not to release them." (245) A standalone chapter, it successfully dissects imperial imperatives and ironies.

Following is another intriguing perspective: a 42-year-old woman transcribes the fulsome and tiresome obsession of a cartoonist to record his life and times before it all blows up in 1953. A bonfire of old carts and farming tools commemorates the Coronation and the passing of agrarian ways as the motor car and the plastic wonders of the modern age enter the markets and the streets. She demurs: "Why can't folk leave the past alone?" (289)The ellipses and hesitations of the narrator assume a poignant role and the starts and stops in her own asides challenging or easing her honesty grow as this section unfolds. This modulation memorably displays Thorpe's control of character.

Finally, Thorpe makes a cameo as in 1988 a native son turns developer. It's a post-production script for a documentary as a housing estate is built and the barrow makes another appearance, so to speak. Thorpe tells the two sides fairly, the need for saving a village's economy by ensuring jobs to build houses aimed at young families able to keep a few businesses there going, and the need for preservation and respect for fading folkways in a place where every field stands for so much more and where every field bears a telling name.

It's a challenging novel. While parts slow you down, and some of this proves too prolix, the experience of immersion in a dialect and a thought pattern foreign to us makes the lessons Thorpe labors long to inculcate convincing. For its prose experiments and as a novel of ideas, this will appeal. (8-13-13 Amazon US ... or here )

Monday, May 5, 2014

David Peace's "GB84": Book Review

"The Iron Lady would vanquish King Coal." So portends this struggle between Thatcher and Arthur Scargill, whether privatization and capitalism or nationalization and collective control would win, when pitted against miners on strike, or scabbing, between March 1984 and 1985. This may not seem promising content for a novel, but David Peace drills down into densely patterned, intricately plotted, yet superficially simply told narratives that track a few men committed to different goals during this grim year. They are predestined to meet.

"The Jew" is a rabble-rousing reactionary publicist who uses the tabloids and his shadowy contacts to foment discontent with the strikers. He adores Margaret Thatcher. "His eyes never leave her face; hope never leaves his heart." So reports after a visit by the Prime Minister the "Jew" Stephen Sweet's henchman, Neil Fontaine. Neil carries out subversion to undermine the strike. This strand of the novel intertwines with Terry Winters, who carries out orders of "King Arthur," the President of the militant miners. Terry in turn courts Diane, who it turns out was the wife of Malcolm Morris. His third plot-strand spins out in less clear fashion, but he evidently has a long career, from Ulster 1969 on, and he has been compromised to work for the government. Why exactly, typically here, is occluded.

Peace blurs a lot. His language is so sparse and declamatory that it's rare to have any descriptive passages that stand out. His characters' tell of their endless driving and diversion, and while every motorway junction and byway is recorded obsessively, the look and feel of England when "two tribes go to war" is dulled, intentionally. It's a vaguely told tale for all its daily detail, in fifty-two chapters that dutifully track these main characters as they log in and spy on each other. They all study the strategy of the radical miners who slowly must accept the scabs as the majority of "working miners" looms to spell doom for the "Red Guard" in Thatcher's version of a ruthless State. The money spent, ironically, on suppressing the strike, by police, far outweighs whatever costs have accrued in an industry that appears to the State to have outlived its economic viability. Peace to his credit, while clearly on the side of the miners, shows too their increasing bitterness and the revenge they mete out on these South and West Yorkshire "working miners" as the situation grows desperate over 1984.

Peace does not belabor this, but the tension between scabs and strikers tears apart communities and families. The dawn battles as strikers try to protest at the mines and the police and scabs try to enter, day after day for hundreds of days, wears down everyone. Through one "Peter" and especially a fellow striker, Martin Daly, we get more stream-of-consciousness journals or a run of sensory impressions of what those such as Terry, more removed from the pits, don't encounter each mine shift. This oddness sinks in: in fog and dimness, "blokes hanging from trees" try to evade the police batons below, and the waiting dogs. The brutality of these scenes proves Peace's point in "GB84."

One striker comes back after a beating, with new teeth. "Police State took them out, he laughs. Welfare State put them back in." This gallows humor is very rare. This book kept me reading late into the night, but I could not explain why. The foregone nature of the fate of the miners, nevertheless, does not diminish the power of Peace's bleak portrayal of a crumbling British mindset, where men cannot resist the power of an armed force bent on crushing resistance and eliminating any concession by the miners. This may or may not be totally true, for Peace, who gives the sources that inspired his admitted fiction, may slant his emphasis accordingly to heighten what seem still very scant asides to a fylfot, lapses unexplained by one character into brief bits of Old or Middle English, or extreme right-wing leanings that, in the actions of "The Jew," at times near caricature rather than profile. He edges towards parody in some of these violent scenes. Peace warps some characters and leaves certain motivations and consequences under-explained, intentionally if frustratingly given the obvious attention to structure and chronicling which a year's worth of chapters demonstrates well.

In closing, what Tinkerbell in some italicized ravings into Shakespearean language and allusion calls "the children of a hasty marriage" may stand for the alliances between miners and unions which are undermined by blackmail, tape recorders, Libyans, foreign bank accounts, Fleet Street, jailers, the law, panic and desperation of miners losing homes, families, and livelihoods, and unrelenting pressure to cross picket lines. Peace offers no solutions. This novel provides readers decades later a challenge as terms may elude non-British readers, but he forces us to look at this divide beyond soundbites or slogans. He takes pains to show much, while he also makes sure to keep a lot hidden.

(I am posting this on Amazon US with a German cover 4-26-14. Added 1-13-16 to the other reviews of the existing Faber British edition, finally published by Melville House in the U.S. in Sept. 2014)