Monday, July 20, 2015

All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

In the closing paragraphs of All the King’s Men, Jack Burden says, “This has been the story of Willie  For I have a story.  It is the story of a man who lived in  the world and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way” (656). The story of Willie Stark is also the story of Jack Burden. By telling Willie’s story, and by his involvement with Willie, Jack discovers his own story and comes to terms with the meaning of himself.  It’s a pattern of continuous return and release—Jack discovers how much akin to Willie he is precisely because he is so much unlike Willie, and so on.  They are opposites in character, but also twins.  We find similar parallels and connections between many characters--Judge Irwin and Willie, Anne Stanton and Sadie Burke, Judge Irwin and Cass Mastern.  Doppelgangers, dualisms, parallels define this 1946 novel by Robert Penn Warren. 
A few examples:  As a graduate student in history, Jack undertakes to study the life of his ancestor Cass Mastern, who betrayed his best friend Duncan Trice by having an affair with his wife Annabelle.  When Duncan learns of the affair, he kills himself but before doing so leaves his wedding ring on his wife’s pillow, a sign to her and presumably to Cass that he had learned of the affair. Cass spends the remainder of his life trying to make up for the betrayal of his friend.  He discovers his own culpability and corruption and takes action to make up for them.  Jack Burden, rather than take action for his disappointments with himself and his family and his assorted failures, gives in to the Big Sleep and the Great Twitch and does nothing.  Acting, and failing to act, are of high significance in All the King’s Men.
Judge Irwin’s best friend is Jack Burden’s ersatz father Ellis Burden.  Judge Irwin betrays his best friend by an affair with his wife, thereby engendering Jack.  In this relationship, Judge Irwin is the doppelganger to Cass, and Ellis the doppelganger to Duncan, but rather than killing himself he leaves his wife and begins to lead a life of piety and service to the poor.
Jack Burden identifies himself as a twin to Tiny Duffy, whom he holds responsible for Willie Stark’s assassination. 
These parallels and dualisms, between different characters and places, between the past and the present, between Burden’s Landing and the capital city, provide the structure of the novel.  In a sense, they are what the novel is about. 
All the King’s Men focuses primarily on the political and personal lives of white Southerners in the first half of the 20th century.  Black characters appear in the background but do not hold roles of significance.  None of the characters expresses views we would regard as racially enlightened, and all of them freely use the word “nigger” to refer to African Americans.  Once again, as in Welty’s The Golden Apples, although this word reflects the abiding racism of the time in which the novel was written, characters do not usually employ it with conscious racist intent.  It was simply a commonly available word deemed as acceptable for designating African Americans.  People used it without thinking about its racist meaning. It might seem that the novel is not at all concerned with race, that, like Welty’s The Golden Apples, is primarily about the affairs of white people who exist in a deeply racist world.
Two crucial plot points, however, stress the underlying importance of race in the novel.  One is the scandal that jumpstarts Willie Stark’s political career.  The company that files the lowest bid on the construction of a public school employs black workers.  This fact is used by officials of the local county government as a reason for turning down the low bid and awarding the contract to a company that filed a higher bid, a company that also happens to have ties with various politicians who will profit from the work.  The use of substandard construction materials leads directly to the school house fire escape collapse that sets the development of Willie’s career in motion.  Another major plot point occurs in the story of Cass Mastern.  Annabelle Trice becomes aware that her slave Phoebe is aware of her affair with Mastern.  She cannot “abide” the fact  of what Phoebe knows, so she takes her to another city and sells her at a slave auction.  Cass Mastern knows that Phoebe, who is young and light skinned and attractive, will be used in some way as a sex slave, and he tries unsuccessfully to find and buy her back.  To expiate his responsibility for what happens to her, and for his betrayal of his friend, he emancipates all his slaves.  Race and racism are underlying issues in the world of this novel. Racism is a form of economic discrimination.  Willie Stark bases his campaign on correcting the economic injustices that allow a few men to exploit the downtrodden and poverty-stricken citizens of the state.  His campaign against economic disparity is a timely reflection of similar political issues in our own time. So is his corruption as a politician.  Economic disparity represented through race- and class-based tensions lies at the heart of All the King’s Men.
Despite Jack’s claim that Willie’s story is his story, Willie’s is the more interesting.  Jack’s self-preoccupations, his bitterness, the high-toned folk of Burden’s Landing, can grow tiresome.  Perhaps Warren himself viewed the story from Burden’s perspective.  Thus Jack’s discovery of the imperfect world, of the imperfections in the important people around him, acquires a certain poignancy—this is a discovery Warren portrays in each of his first four novels, and which therefore must have been important to him.  It is a theme in his long poem Brother to Dragons, about Thomas Jefferson.  But the discovery of corruption, of sin, in the family tree or the parents or wherever is an old one.  At times, with all the discussion of sin and time and past and future, Jack’s narration can begin to sound like a Sunday School lesson—tired and tedious.  His self-indulgent romanticism, his lack of ambition (as contrasted to Willie’s), his failure to follow through with anything—his study of Cass Mastern, law school, Anne Stanton naked on his bed—make him an exasperating and not necessarily sympathetic soul.  Willie’s world is one in which ideals and virtues still exist, but they are not so indistinguishable from the muck and the mud.
Few of us readers have the privilege of having grown up with the wealth and privilege of Burden’s Landing.  Most of us grew up in Willie’s world.  Moreover, I think it is far easier to understand Willie’s ambitions and the factors that gradually lead to his corruption than it is to understand Jack Burden.  Burden, we are asked to believe, is damaged by the failure of his parents’ marriage—by his always unsatisfied mother, by his weak and ultimately absent father.  Despite all the privileges he has enjoyed, the wealth of his parents and the influence of the people around him, especially Judge Irwin, it is difficult to understand what goes wrong.  Jack’s unhappiness with himself and his world stems from his inability to reconcile the ideals supposedly embodied by Burden’s Landing with the realities of his parents and the real world in which they all live. Jack narrates his own story, and perhaps he lacks the distance, the objective removal from his situation, that would allow him as narrator to provide a clearer sense of the problem.  In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, there is no doubt as to the causes of Emma’s malaise, but for Jack those causes remain more abstract than concrete and thus difficult to understand or describe in a specific way.  Jack has to insist on his failures too stridently.
I have read All the King’s Men a number of times.  Most recently I listed to an audio recording while driving back and forth to work.  What I noticed in the recording was the beauty of the novel’s language.  It is lush, descriptive, and a major element in the novel.  I also noticed the often artificial cynicism of the narrator Jack Burden.  Sometimes it’s a bit too much.  It contributes to the generally melodramatic atmosphere of the narrative.  But in listening to the novel as a recorded experience, you discover how much the novel is a prolonged meditation on the meaning of existence and of self-consciousness and self-awareness.  What are the philosophical underpinnings of the novel?  Other than the New Testament, and the Calvinism which Jack and Willie both frequently invoke or at least reflect in their musings, I can’t identify the influences and mean to look further into them.
The language that is such a profound strength of the novel also seems to be, at times, a weakness.  Perhaps in the guise of Jack Burden, Warren (for he is, in the end, responsible for how and what Burden says) is often so caught up in the dense power and lyricism of language that it often may run away with him.  Language becomes its own end rather than a means of conveying the story.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

It’s possible to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird—it’s set some fifteen years later, many of the same characters appear, others are mentioned, and there’s a continuity in characterization of people like Atticus Finch and Jean Louise (Scout).  There are a few inconsistencies in plot—the major one being that in Watchman the black man whom Atticus defended against the charge of raping a white woman is found innocent.  If Mockingbird is about a child’s education in the importance of standing up for principles, Watchman is about an adult child’s education in the imperfections of the father she idolized. 
It’s also possible to read Watchman as a failed first novel.  I’d like to know more about when and how it was written and its relationship to Mockingbird—it’s difficult to view it as a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s too different from the 1960 novel.  If it was a rough draft, then Harper Lee almost entirely rewrote it.  As a first novel, it has many flaws—it lacks the dramatic tensions of Mockingbird, the polished prose, the developed characters, nostalgic narrative tone, the coherence, and the literary shape.  It is too discursive—there is too much lengthy lecturing and preaching by Uncle Jack and Atticus and Jean Louise (in this sense it reminded me both of Faulkner’s 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust, where the character Gavin Stevens preaches and lectures too often, and of Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949), a nonfiction work marred by harangues).   There are moments of awkwardness.  Uncle Jack is simply unbelievable.  He comes across as a stereotyped, eccentric, old Southern homosexual, until we learn that he is supposed to have been secretly in love with Jean Louise’s mother—and Atticus is aware.  (There are too many melodramatic twists in the novel).  It’s also too formulaic—Jean Louise comes home, discovers her father’s racist views, is outraged and angry, and is then reconciled to him despite their disagreements.  The manner in which Uncle Jack helps her reach this conciliatory attitude strains one’s credulity.  It’s easy to imagine an editor reading this novel, recognizing its potential, and advising the writer to go home and start over.  It’s also easy to imagine that in the process of reconceiving the novel Harper Lee changed her mind about characters and events and political attitudes.  From this perspective, it’s not surprising that Atticus in Mockingbird is different from the Atticus of Watchman because they are, essentially, two different characters.
Both Watchman and Mockingbird are written as if their author is drawing bits and pieces of the story—events, characters, situations—from a larger narrative already in her head.  It’s entirely conceivable Lee had devised the story of the Finch family before she ever began writing it down—many events in the two novels were based closely on her own life to begin with. Watchman seems to assume that the reader has a certain familiarity with characters from 15 years before—with Jem and Dill and Tom Robinson, for example.  It seems to make a point of explaining the absence of Dill (who is in Europe)—there is really no reason to do this—Dill has no bearing on this story, except as a memory, but the narrator of Watchman seems compelled to explain his absence as if expecting the reader to want to know where he is.  (Of course, the reader who has not read Mockingbird will not recall him or care about his absence at all.)  Lee dispenses with Jem in equally facile, if more unhappy, fashion.  In Mockingbird we learn that Atticus’ wife, the mother of his children, has been dead for several years.  In Watchman we learn how and when she died and how Atticus found her body.  (This is gratuitous information—we didn’t need to know how she died—her absence is the crucial fact). 
Atticus’ racism in Watchman is that of a Southern moderate in the 1950s.  In principle he favors civil rights for blacks, at some point in the future, but not until they have “earned” them.  He sees African Americans as needing to “progress” further before they’re able to vote and take part in community affairs with whites.  He objects to the intrusion of the NAACP and the Supreme Court into the affairs of Southern life—he wants events to move forward in their own time.  He’s not a rabid racist in the sense of a Klansmen, but his views from our current perspective are racist enough.
Is there continuity between Mockingbird and Watchman?  Does what we learn in Watchman affect how we view the characters and events of Mockingbird, particularly how we view Atticus? It shouldn’t, but it probably will.  Readers ought to be able to consider these novels as two separate works—related but not closely connected.  Watchman does provide us with a context, a prefatory sort of explanation of the world and ideas that were abroad in the American South of the 1950s.  But it is a separate work from To Kill a Mockingbird. 
The best sections of this novel are, not surprisingly, perhaps, Jean Louise’s recollections of her childhood with Jem and Dill.  An especially humorous recollection concerns a scene where the children pretend to have a revival service.  Another involves a high school dance.  
I had an extremely powerful and emotional reaction to the scene in which Atticus and Jean Louise have their confrontation about his racial views and her reactions to them.  On the one hand I was reading this novel with Mockingbird (both novel and film—the latter more strongly) firmly in my head, and to read Atticus’ statements about race and civil rights was painful.  On the other hand, Jean Louise’s fury, her expressions of hatred and disgust for her father, her comparing him to Hitler, seemed to mark a total rupture of the close and warm relationship between father and daughter that we saw in Mockingbird.  And added to this is that the author handled these scenes clumsily.  They had the effect of bruising my relationship as a reader (and a Southerner) to the novel and film.  I felt the disappearance, the brutal murder, of something I had taken for granted for many years.

Of course, I wanted this novel to be much better than it is.  And it’s worth pointing out that despite its importance to many readers, Mockingbird itself isn’t really a great novel.  It’s a good one, and an important one, but not a great work of literature.  It’s important to hold figures like Atticus in your imagination, especially if you’re a Southerner who was born into and who lived through the latter half of the 20th century.  You want to believe that there were in the deep South a few good white men and women of force and integrity who stood up against the racism of the region.  Undoubtedly, there were.  I can name a number of them.  In Mockingbird Atticus is one such figure.  In Watchman the Atticus we meet is a man of principle but also a man of his place and time—that is, not a racial progressive, but a moderate.  The two figures are not necessarily contradictory—I can imagine a lawyer whose devotion to fairness, the law, and the Constitution, even though he supports segregation and holds white supremacist views, leads him to agree to represent a black man.  This is called principle, and it’s what Atticus in Mockingbird embodies. Even the Atticus of Watchman says that he’d make that same decision again.  Even racists can be principled.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God (J. B. Lippincott, 1937) loses focus when Tea Cake and Janie move to the “muck,” the Everglades, even though the writing in that section of the novel is at its best.  They move to a marginal world where African Americans and Indians and people from the Caribbean and other parts of the world live together in a state of undeclared détente and cooperation.  The hurricane that sweeps the swamp clean, causing damage and death, is the novel’s most dramatic narrative moment. It is as if the earth is wiped clean, and all the struggles Janie has confronted in the course of her life are washed away.  This seems even more so when she is forced to shoot her husband Tea Cake to death as his rabies-induced madness threatens her life.
The novel does not end in any conclusive fashion.  Janie finishes telling the story of her life.  What the future might hold for her is unclear.  A fellow reader suggested to me that because Tea Cake at one point in his illness bit her she is doomed to die of rabies.  The novel doesn’t support this speculation, but it sheds little light on her future.  It is as if with the end of her third marriage Janie’s life has come to an end, as if nothing else that would matter can possibly happen to her.  Perhaps the point is that since Janie did find love with Tea Cake, she doesn’t need anything more—her life is complete, and therefore the novel which is the story of her life can satisfactorily end.  This possibility is bothersome.  There is irresolution, indeterminacy, in how the novel ends.
The flowering tree under which Janie sits and dreams early in the novel is a symbol and expression of her awakening womanhood, of her girlhood passing away.  It’s a symbol of transition and transformation, of unfulfilled potential, of opportunity and promise denied.  Another important symbol in the novel is the mule.  Nanny tells Janie: "Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see."
Janie’s welfare within her society depends on her value as a marriage object.  She is an attractive light-skinned young black woman, and these qualities make her a person of value, a thing, a commodity.  From Nanny’s conventional viewpoint, Janie’s survival depends on her ability to find a suitable husband who can provide for her welfare.  When Nanny sees Janie kissing the boy Johnnie Taylor, she quickly takes steps to marry her off to the farmer Logan Killicks, a man much older than she is. Protecting her value doesn’t mean protecting her virginity—if she marries, then her virginity will be lost, but within the confines of a condoned social institution, marriage, she will have a protected place. Janie expected to find love with her first husband, but she feels nothing with Logan, and he apparently either is not interested or is unable to give her the kind of love she wants.  Instead, after a time, he begins to pressure her to do physical labor on his farm, to plow the fields.  Killicks basically views Janie (as he would any wife) as a housekeeper and another hand to work around the farm—as a mule.  Her ability to work is what makes her valuable to him.  When the marriage falters, Janie runs off with the fast-talking Joe Starks, who treats her as a prized possession.  She must play a particular social role in the project of his ambitions to become an important man in the life of the town of Eatonville.  Starks doesn’t ask Janie to plow or carry heavy loads.  Instead, he asks her to do nothing—she is Joe’s mule in a different sense--an appurtenance to his plans, an attractive wife, an agent of his schemes to become a wealthy and powerful man. She is supposed to embody respectability, and as a woman, she is not supposed to do much else. 
Although he comes to her late in life, Janie’s third husband Tea Cake is the husband who gives her what she wants—love, respect, companionship.
The white man rarely plays a role in the events of the novel.  Rather, those events occur in the world the white man has made, to which the black man and woman must accommodate themselves, in which they must make their way.  Janie herself is the product of the world the white man has made.  Her mother was the result of Nanny’s rape by her white owner on his way to fight in the Civil War.  The world of African Americans in this novel is confined and limited.  Poverty, few opportunities, hard labor, and difficult conditions are typical.  Joe Starks’ ambitions, grand as they are, do not extend beyond the borders of Eatonville.  Never does he consider intruding into the white man’s world.  In general, the characters of this novel do not chafe against the boundaries imposed on their world by the white establishment.  Instead they try to do their best to live and survive in the world that’s been provided to them.  This failure by Hurston’s characters to rebel against their oppressed state helps account for some of the criticism the novel received when it was published.
Yet much of the value of this novel stems from its descriptions of how African American live in the rural small towns and farmlands of the early 20th-century South.   Hurston brings her experience as a folklorist to bear in detailed and vivid descriptions of African American life.
One of the distinguishing traits of Their Eyes Were Watching God is the powerfully descriptive writing.  The narrator describes Janie’s world through her own thoughts and evokes the people she meets through their rich and evocative language.



Ex Machina

Ex Machina (2015; dir. Alex Garland) takes place within the stylish antiseptic confines of a research compound owned by the richest man in the world.  He is so rich, we are told, that it takes two hours to fly over the land he owns.  The man, Nathan, is an amalgam of Bill Gates and Bill Jobs and Elon Musk—we are supposed to think he is a brilliant visionary renegade who likes to do things on his own terms and who doesn’t like interference.
Presumably Nathan (Oscar Isaac) works with a team of scientists (scientists work in teams, almost never on their own).  We never see them, however.  Are we to think he works alone? (He does have a personal assistant, a svelte Japanese woman named Kyoko.  It is difficult to think how a man in our own world could be as rich and powerful as Nathan is in Ex Machina. 
Under the pretense of having won a lottery, the prize being a week with Nathan at his remote hideaway, a young programmer named Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson)  is assigned to conduct a Turing test on Nathan’s new invention, a highly intelligent, perhaps self-aware robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).  The Turing test will determine whether the robot has achieved self-awareness.
Ex Machina presents a plot and set of situations that have been treated before—in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (and the film adaptation Blade Runner), Richard Power’s Galatea 2.2, and so on. The questions center on whether a created being, becoming self-aware, possesses a soul, is human, is entitled to self-determination. The questions have been asked often, but they continue to fascinate, and that fascination is fundamental to the success of this stylish and satisfying film.
The outcome of the test is not inconsequential to Ava.  She understands that she may well be disconnected—reprogrammed.  She therefore opts out of waiting for her creator to make up his mind—is she self-aware, does she possess agency, is she human?—and reaches her own answer.  This is a surprising twist to an old story.  But it does come with certain practical problems.
The biological humans in this film have their issues—they are compromised, flawed, manipulative individuals.  Nathan is  an alcoholic.  Just as he programs robots, he programs human situations.  His deception of Caleb—pretending to give him a prize in a contest when in fact he has been deliberately chosen—is an example.  There is much he does not immediately tell Caleb, and Caleb has to find things out on his own.  Ava tells him that Nathan is an untrustworthy liar.  Caleb discovers that Kyoko is not human but a robot, and that Nathan apparently uses her for his own sexual satisfaction.  Nathan tells Caleb that Ava herself has been designed with sensitive genitals, and that she in fact could have sex and would seem to enjoy it.  This fact alone interests Caleb, who is an insecure nerdy sort of guy who has not had great success finding sexual partners.  Her attractiveness as a potential sexual partner is a motivating factor behind his growing infatuation with Ava and his plan to help her escape—to run away with her.  In a sense, Caleb plans to do with Ava what Nathan has already done with Kyoko. He sees her, in the end, as a thing, an object of desire, not as a human being.
The film ends in a series of scenes that demonstrate Ava’s own capacity for sustained deception. This is perhaps the final demonstration of her capacity for humanness.
The film assumes that we as viewers will not be too knowledgeable about robotics, artificial intelligence, and related issues.  There is a lot of interesting and far-reaching intellectual talk in the film—about technology and artificial intelligence—but it is a lot of hoo-hah.  This talk sounds convincing, and in a fictional film, a science fiction, I suppose that is all we can ask for.
Ava tells Caleb at some point in the film that her batteries are recharged through magnetic induction coils at night.  When she escapes to the city, if we’re thinking logically, we have to assume that her battery supply at some point is going to run out, unless Ava devises some way to replenish her batteries—she is perhaps capable of such thought and planning—but it also seems that the film doesn’t want us to worry too much about this issue.
Ex Machina is an excellent film.  Vikander in the role of Ava is entirely convincing.  The visual effects used to depict her are astonishingly good.