Thursday, June 30, 2011

You Think That’s Bad, by Jim Shepard

You Think That’s Bad (Knopf, 2011) is a collection of stories linked by the style and ironic posture of the author Jim Shepard. A unifying theme is dysfunction in human relationships, especially dysfunction resulting from the conflict of a man’s job or outer interests (mountain climbing, secret operations for the government, avalanche research, filmmaking) with his personal life, specifically with his romantic entanglements with women. Many of these stories seem to argue that the male ego, while needing personal relationships, is prone to drive them away, to invest itself in outside activities that substitute for or destroy personal connections. The world Shepard describes is hostile to such connections.

In the first story, “Minotaur,” a secret weapons operative, compelled not to disclose the secrets of his work, even to his wife, finds himself in a marriage where his wife distrusts everything about him. The secrecy to which his work obligates him is in fact a fundamental part of his nature and a flaw in their marriage. Is their marriage just another pose—a constructed reality? Is her husband’s friendship with another man more serious than she had thought? The indirectness of this story makes it difficult to assay exactly what the issues are between husband and wife. A rereading makes these questions more interesting yet no less clear.

In “The Track of the Assassins” an unmarried wealthy British woman travels into the most desolate locations of the Mideast, searching for the location of the fabled assassins, “that sinister and ancient sect that for two hundred years held the entire East in its reign of terror.” Descriptions of her travels are mixed with her memories of her life as a young girl, and her relationship with her mother and her sister, who recently died. The travels are her expression of guilt and regret for having abandoned her sister. Is she seeking to obliterate herself from the human world? The descriptions of her young life in Italy, and of her travels in the desert, are precisely detailed. Shepard’s lyrical prose style is especially effective.

“In Cretaceous Seas” compares a husband and father to a prehistoric creature. He feels increasingly disconnected from everything: he is “a crappy son, a shitty father, a lazy helpmate, a wreck of a husband. As a pet owner he’s gotten two dogs and a parakeet killed.” As someone who answers questions for other people (his line of work is unclear), he can’t answer the most basic ones for himself. This is a stripped down version of the story John Cheever tells in “A Country Husband.”

In “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” the collapse of a marriage parallels the inundation of the Netherlands by rising seas. Meteorological disaster, global warming, parallels calamity in a marriage.

In Happy with Crocodiles” a World War II infantryman in New Guinea struggles to survive on a muddy mountain while he recalls his troubled girlfriend and her love for his brother. The battle scene descriptions are intense.

In “Your Fate Hurdles Down at You” a research team in 1939 perches on the side of a frozen, snowy Swiss mountain studying defense techniques against avalanches. The narrator and his team are obsessed with the mechanics of snow, of avalanches and their history. His twin brother is killed in an avalanche for which he feels responsible. The story is an exercise is self-reprobation, but it’s also about competition between two brothers for one girl. He is attracted to the girl, but she is attracted to his brother. The narrator’s has distanced himself from personal connections all his life. He is more content on the side of a mountain where he knows that an avalanche will one day sweep him away than he is in the human world.

In “Low Hanging Fruit” a particle physicist describes his fascination with his work and reveals the growing estrangement of his wife. Just as in “Minotaur” and “Your Fate Hurdles Down at You,” and in the story “Gojira: King of the Monsters,” obsessive involvement in work replaces the need for human relationships.

An especially disturbing story in the collection is “Boy’s Town,” about a former soldier recovering from a brain injury and dealing with PTSD going through a final downward spiral. The great element of this story is the narrator’s voice, with conveys his anguish and isolation as well as his irrationality—it’s both comic and frightening.

In “Classical Scenes of Farewell” the assistant of Gilles de Rais, notorious murderer of children in 15th century France, gives his confession and life story before his execution. The story is gruesome, and the author’s use of historical detail creates a sense of absolute authenticity.

Finally, in “Poland is Watching” a member of a Polish winter mountain climbing team talks about his vocation and his relationship with his wife. He’s part of a group attempting to climb Nanga Parbat, the 9th tallest mountain in the world, in the middle of a raging winter storm. Once again a man’s obsession with what he regards as his calling stands in tension with his personal life.

Many of these stories don’t end, or at least don’t offer resolution. We never know if the mountaineer makes it off the mountain, or whether the soldier in New Guinea survives the battle. In most of these stories one’s personal fate stands just beyond the confines of the story. We can sense it looming, we can guess what it is, but the story itself doesn’t describe the moment (the woman in “Assassins” will probably die of malaria and dysentery; the narrator of “Classical Scenes of Farewell” is about to be gruesomely executed; the narrator of “Boy’s Town” will die in a shootout with police). Shepard’s vivid prose style varies from one story to the next, but his use of detail and description imbeds us deep in the minds of his characters and the contexts of the situations his stories describes.

The Year of the Dog

The Year of the Dog (2007; dir. Mike White) is a light, airy film whose thinness is compensated by the talents of the lead actress Molly Shannon. She plays Peggy, a woman in her 30s who works as a secretary in a non-descript office. She listens to her co-workers talk about their relationships, and she feels that she should enter into that world. She has, apparently, never had a “relationship.” She is shy and tends to withdraw at social gatherings rather than to put herself forward. People sometime seek her out to talk, but they do so because she mainly listens and virtually never disagrees or criticizes. She instead devotes herself to her dog, whose death (she believes he was poisoned by a next-door neighbor) foments a crisis. Her attempts to bond with men invariably fail. The man to whom she is most attracted declares that he is not interested when she expresses her interest (he is probably gay). She becomes increasingly unsettled, depressed, and begins collecting dogs, numerous dogs, keeping them shut away from harm in her house. When she attacks her next-door neighbor (John C. Reilly) with a pitchfork, her mental breakdown is complete. She’s institutionalized.

She recovers and returns to work and again begins to feel the pressure to conform, to socialize in the conventional way. Ultimately she decides to pursue her interest in animals, announces to her coworkers that this is what she wants to do, and boards a bus to attend a SPCA to a protest about animal cruelty in another city.

The Year of the Dog wants us to feel good about her decision—she has discovered what makes her happy, she has accepted that she doesn’t need to be like other people to find contentment and satisfaction. The film is a gentle defense of individualism.

I don’t accept its conclusion. Not that I don’t believe in individuals—I do—and not that I am indifferent to cruel treatment of animals—I oppose it. But her rejection of human company, of the social life of people (which can be entered into in any number of ways) strikes me as a surrender.

The Califfs of Baghdad, Georgia, by Mary Helen Stefaniak

In tone The Califfs of Baghdad, Georgia (Norton, 2010), by Mary Helen Stefaniak, reminded me of Olive Anne Burns’ Cold Sassy Tree (1984). Both are told from a child’s perspective, both involve narratives about family life in the old days, both are tinged with a wash of nostalgia and tragedy. Califfs is deceptive. Its first half is a ten-year-old Gladys Califf’s account of her family seventy or more years in the past. They live in a small town called Threestep and are, compared to most in the town, more moderate and tolerant in their racial views. Gladys and her family are good friends with a black neighbor named Theo Boykin, a young boy whom everyone recognizes as brilliant and who shows talent in engineering. There is a nonconformist school teacher, an Arabian Nights pageant, a long-suffering big sister named May whose husband keeps her busy bearing children, and so on. Midway through, as the children wait to learn whether their friend will recover from a serious accident, May begins telling a story about Arabia, and about the Muslims who moved for a time to live on one of the Georgia coastal islands before returning to their native land. Although her story goes on too long, it meshes in an intriguing way the first half of the novel and shows than Stefaniak has ambitions above and beyond those of nostalgia. The Arabian Nights is a major influence in this novel, especially on May’s long narrative.

Among the points of this novel: inadequate or nonexistent opportunities for education were a crippling force to many African Americans in the early part of the century; segregation and racism denied American society the full use of people like Theo; and our ancestry individually and culturally is far complicated than we might imagine. There is an implicit argument here for racial and international understanding.

Though I find fault with certain issues of realism in the portrayal of the South in the 1930s, and though it tells its story through another instance of a Southern family that is exceptional rather than typical, The Califfs of Baghdad, Georgia held my interest from start to finish.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Unknown (2011; dir. Jaume Collet-Serra) is an adult thriller in which a man awakens from a coma and discovers that everything he believed about his life is false. Although there are pretensions here of a drama about identity, essentially this is a mystery-espionage thriller whose hero, played by Liam Neeson, tries to discover who he really is. Car chases, gunfire, fights, bomb blasts and so on ensue. There are some significant non sequiturs in this film, but in general it moves inexorably forward in a way that engages the viewer to the end.

In many of John LeCarre’s novels the Cold War era of U. S./British relations with the Soviet Union provides the context for his stories. In Unknown we have a post-collapse context. East Germany is no longer separate from West Germany. The Wall is down. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and the old espionage networks no longer exist. Espionage and intrigue in Unknown focus on corporate interests. A man who has a product to sell that may revolutionize the food industry is marked for murder by corporate interests that see him as a threat . The film is aware of this post-collapse context. Two secondary characters are former members of Cold War espionage units—one of the secret East German Stasi, the other of the KGB. Neither survives the film.

Despite the adult (by which I mean “mature”) tone of this film (a modern-day take on a lesser Hitchcock), it is essentially formulaic, as the final scene in which the older man who gets the much younger attractive girl makes clear.

The Sea-Wolf, by Jack London

Two figures loom in the backdrop of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904): Nietzsche and Darwin. These are the governing texts for this fascinating and ungainly novel: übermensch and evolution. Nietzsche is mentioned in the first paragraph, and Darwin is on the bookshelf of one of the main characters.

Early on this novel echoes a familiar story—a pampered literary critic, Humphrey Van Weyden, plunged into a difficult, hostile situation for which he is unprepared. Survival requires fortitude, manliness. He rises to the challenge. He is transformed. We saw something similar but less desperate in Captains Courageous, and the grand incarnation of this plotline is Heart of Darkness. And of course this is the story in animal form of The Call of the Wild.

Van Weyden is cast adrift when the ferry he is on sinks. He is rescued by a seal vessel, the Ghost. Its captain, Wolf Larsen, refuses to deliver him to the nearest port and instead enlists him as a member of the crew. He explains that he wants to save Van Weyden.

Wolf Larsen is the center of this novel. He is working class, formally uneducated, but he has taught himself, reading widely from great literary works and philosophers. He believes in nothing but brute force. Larsen is the übermensch of this story.

Ven Weyden represents moral and civilized values and believes in the human soul, while Larsen believes in an amoral world governed by Darwinian law. Larsen believes in achieving his own ends by whatever means possible, even when it requires brutal treatment of his crew. He believes in nothing but himself. Although Van Weyden argues for civilized values, the course of events in this novel make clear that it takes Larsen’s view.

And there is Maud Brewster, a poet and journalist whose own boat sinks and who is rescued by Larsen. Until her arrival, the story moves forward well enough. Van Weyden (“Hump” as Wolf calls him) is learning the ways of the sea, coming to understand if not accept the brutal methods of Larsen. He’s becoming hardened. But when Maud comes aboard, he melts into vanilla custard, fawning over her delicate femininity, gradually falling in love with her. He wants to protect her from the “horrors” that he and she both think Larsen represents for her (I think this means sex). Maud’s arrival interrupts the tone of the narrative and essentially breaks it in half. It’s as if London decided the opposition of Van Weyden and Larsen couldn’t sustain the story, and he had to introduce another element. And though the connection that develops between Maud and Van Weyden essentially demonstrates the truth of Larsen’s philosophy, it leaves the novel unbalanced.

When Hump and Maud are marooned on an island after they escape the Ghost, they have to struggle to survive and to overmaster Larsen when he arrives. Here we have an early kind of D. H. Lawrence story, wherein a man learns to be a man and a woman learns to be a woman. There’s deep Victorianism here—the closest to candor London can manage in describing Hump’s feelings about Maud is to tell us that he felt his masculine self stir: “I shall never forget, in that moment, how instantly conscious I became of my manhood. The primitive deeps of my nature stirred.“

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Color of Night, by Madison Smarrt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell’s The Color of Night (Vintage, 2011) uses the Manson murders of 1969 and the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 as a frame in which to consider the latter decades of the 20th century. The narrative comes entirely through the view of Mae, a member of the “Family.” The Manson family is fictionalized but recognizable. Manson is “D.” Mae’s story offers a sense of the cult mentality. Many of its members are damaged to begin with—Mae dislikes her mother and has had a sexual relationship with her brother since she was 12. She is not merely alienated from her family—it simply doesn’t exist for her. She inhabits a kind of void until she goes to work for a pimp in Los Angeles and later is absorbed into the “Family.” There she has a passionate relationship with another girl named Laurel but is also involved in numerous relationships with other members of the Family. “D” on occasion lends female members of the Family to other men for sometimes violent and abusive sex. Although Mae on the one hand is wholly committed to the Family, she fails to see, even to the end, how much she is a victim as well as a perpetrator.

In Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930) we are plunged into characters’ lives through their stream of consciousness narratives. But Faulkner was not exploring or commenting on historical events. Anse Bundren had, as far as we know, no historical basis. He was most likely an imaginative composite, a representation of a particular sort of farmer. I reference Faulkner’s novel because I often thought of it while reading Bell’s—especially in the way he reveals the mind of his main character Mae, who reminded me of Darl Bundren in particular. In The Color of Night “D” is clearly based on Charles Manson, while Mae is more loosely based on the young women who were members of the family and who participated in the Tate murders. This reliance on a factual model puts certain constraints on Bell—certain narrative points have to be touched on, especially the murders. I sometimes felt that this novel was laboring to evoke the Manson family even as it worked to fictionalize. Manson’s paranoiac fascination with the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” becomes an obsession with “higgledypiggledy.” The popular singer who was briefly associated with the Manson family becomes “O.” One of the women whom Mae and other members of the family murder is pregnant and pleads for her child; she is hanged and stabbed to death, the same fate as Sharon Tate. Yet Bell certainly did not feel bound by facts and invented much of the story, which he used for the exploration of his own interests.

Chapters tend to alternate from southern California in the late 1960s to the California desert and finally New York City in 2001.

I was never fully drawn into this novel. A point of comparison is Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988), whose main character is Lee Harvey Oswald. There the use of a fictionalized historical character works as well as it ever has in American fiction. In Bell’s defense, his character Mae is not based on any single individual. She is instead an imaginatively constructed composite. She never becomes recognizably real in the novel, always remaining vague, indistinct. This may have been Bell’s intention. Unlike the main female personages in the Manson trials, Mae escapes capture, never goes on trial, and lives out the rest of her life in hidden anonymity. Yet she is prepared for pursuers.

The chapters that describe Mae’s wandering in the dark nighttime desert reminded me of DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010) as well as Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949) and the essays of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). These chapters are deeply unsettling and show how completely isolated Mae has become. At the end, when she manages to find her way into the ruins of the Twin Towers and lies face down in the gravelly ashes, clutching a small piece of what might be human bone, we recognize the full extent of her wrecked and devastated life.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Over the past few months I’ve been reading books I should have read decades ago. Some of these were books for adults. Others were for younger readers. Kidnapped (1893) by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of the so-called boyhood books I’ve recently read.

Kidnapped is constant motion. By motion understand travel. The narrator from the first page is on his way somewhere, first to find his uncle who he believes will give him work, then aboard the vessel that kidnaps him, then waylaid on a barren island, then fleeing pursuers through moor and forest. Whatever one might say of the book, its motion-wise attitude prevents dullness. Its main character Robert Balfour is a seventeen-year-old boy who goes to find his fortune after his father dies. He never seems quite that young, and though he does learn certain skills in the course of his adventures—fighting with swords, for example—he’s not that much different when the novel ends than he was when it began. I suppose his main lesson in this narrative is friendship. Balfour makes a friend in a Scotsman named Alan Breck Stewart who helps him escape the island, and who remains true to him throughout the rest of the book, even when Balfour mistrusts and insults him. These two men grow to like each other so much, constantly professing their love for one another, that we’re tempted to see a 20th-century dimension in their friendship that is not really there.

Try as I might in thinking about this book, I cannot conclude anything other than the fact that it is well done, full of excitement and interesting characters, and eminently shallow. There’s not much here beyond the adventure itself and the evocation of 18th century Scottish nationalism and clan conflicts . It’s fun, it’s readable, but there’s little to it. Maybe this is what a child’s book should be.

There is a historical basis for some of the events and people in the novel. The murder for which Balfour and Breck are suspects was modeled on an actual murder. The main character’s kidnapping and ultimate rescue were inspired by a historical event. Alan Breck was an actual figure in 18th century Scottish history, as were a few other characters in the book.