Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino

I found Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) strangely moving.  Everything about it is elliptical, elusive.  It is framed as a series of stories told by the traveler Marco Polo to the Kubla Khan.  Khan is vaguely aware that while his empire has grown to enormous size he can already detect the first hints of its collapse.  Polo’s tales, all of them about various cities he has visited, are intended to give Khan a sense of perspective.  Each of the cities is different, marked by various fantastical qualities, but they also have elements in common.  One point of these tales is that travel makes one aware of how large and diverse the world is and therefore reduces one’s sense of importance, in both time and space.  Another point is transience.  Many of the cities are tearing themselves down even as they rebuild.  And the stories illustrate that one's individual perspective on the world is nothing more than that—an individual perspective among many others. 

This book should have irritated me.  Occasionally it did.  I think of books such as Einstein’s Dream, over which many have raved, which to me seemed a kind of lazy trick.  But Calvino’s fictional urban vignettes are so deftly rendered, in a sometimes hypnotic, rhythmic manner (the book as a whole has distinctive rhythms) that they form entrancing and unsolvable puzzles that draw the reader in. 

The only actual city named here is Venice, the traveler’s home city.  All of the places he describes may in fact be some version of Venice, gradually sinking beneath the waves.  But what’s most at work here is Calvino’s incredibly fertile creativity.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks

The Memory of Skin (Ecco, 2011) glows with the beautiful and well-wrought prose of Russell Banks.  He evokes setting in an effective, forceful manner, so that you envision the surroundings of his characters.  And he’s especially good with characters, especially the two main characters of this novel, one a young man recently released from prison where he had been sentenced for trying to seduce a young girl, the other an enormous professor of social science whose history is a monstrous concatenation of contradictions that might or might not be fabricated.  He reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces, though he is not so amusing as Ignatius. 

Banks delineates these characters so that we understand and, to an extent, sympathize with them.  But he does not fully explain them.  The Professor in particular enters and exits the novel followed by a number of significant questions and mysteries.  He may be a self-created liar, or he may be a deep cover CIA operative who is the focus of a federal manhunt.

In the Kid, the unsuccessful seducer of an under-age teenage girl, Banks offers an amazingly intricate and full portrait of abject isolation—social, mental, familial, physical.  The Kid was formerly a porno addict and chronic masturbator with no social life or personal connections beyond his mother, with whom he lived.  When he was arrested for his crime, his mother disowned him.  Released from prison, he wears an ankle bracelet and cannot legally live anywhere within 1000 feet of children, so he lives with other former sex-addicts and vagrants underneath a bridge, where they are all subject to occasional raids by the local police.  His arrest and imprisonment has cured him of his interests in pornography and masturbation, but he still feels an attraction to young girls.  The only social connections he makes are with a few of the men under the bridge.  Most of them cannot hold the few jobs they manage to find.  The Professor takes a professional interest in these people, and in the Kid himself.  Does his interest stem from his recognition that the young man might be fairly intelligent, from sympathy for his plight, from a homoerotic attraction, or from his own possible past as a pederast—Banks implies without confirming these possibilities.

The Kid at one point seeks to heighten his separation from the world by retreating to the isolation of a nearby swamp.  He also is capable of some terrific lies, some of which he admits to, and all of which are obvious to the reader. 

The Kid is the sort of character we should find repellent and contemptible, for whom we might feel isolation and social castigation are not adequate enough a punishment given his crime—the one he never commits.  Yet Banks forces us to see him as a three-dimensional human soul.

Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Valliant

This detailed and always intriguing book shows the interconnecting lines of history, politics, international relations, wildlife, and human personality.  Of the non-fiction books I’ve read recently, many of them were intelligent but superficial accounts of their topic.  I think in particular of the recent The Destiny of the Republic and of the seemingly encyclopedic ColumbineTiger is intelligent and deep.  We learn much about tigers and their natural behavior, about the inhabitants of Siberian Russia.  It details the attack of a male tiger on residents of Luchegorsk, in far eastern Russia, near the Chinese border, and of the efforts to hunt it down.  In the beginning I was mainly interested in tigers, but soon found compelling the discussions of Yuri Trush, the man assigned by the Soviet Union to head up the Inspection Tiger unit that protects tigers, tries to prevent poaching, and deals with various aspects of human and wildlife relations. 

For me the attractions of this book beyond the tiger himself lay in its coverage of a part of the world that I and most other western readers would normally dismiss as an uninteresting backwater of the old Soviet Union—Siberia, shades of Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Stalin.  It is much like a frontier, even as elements of the contemporary world gradually make their way in.  The region also hovers on the cusp of the Russian and Chinese borders, and the differing attitudes of the Chinese and the Russians towards preservations of tigers and other wildlife is an indication of the tensions between these two large nations.  Chinese expansionism, Perestroika, Stalin’s purges all have had an impact on the region and the welfare of the Siberian tiger.  Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Valliant (Vintage, 2010) provides a glimpse into a subject that was largely unknown to me before, and leaves me feeling more ignorant, more parochial, less worldly than before as well.  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is about two generations of would-be lovers who never manage to connect. Chapters 23 and 24 of the second part contain some of the most insipid banter imaginable between two young people--a 17-year-old girl who speaks with the maturity of a 9-year old, and a somewhat younger terminally afflicted boy. The first section of the novel is, to me, stronger than the first, which tells the doomed story of Catharine and Heathcliff, while the second tells about the doomed relationship of their offspring. Heathcliff himself, who plays a major role throughout the novel, is by the second such a dark, malevolent villain that he hardly seems real.

Class and gender conflict are issues here. Romantic love is an issue too. Are we to see Heathcliff in some sense as a monument to love, driven to near insanity if not beyond by his grief over the loss of Catherine? And is Catherine’s insanity the result of disease, grief over her inability to be with Heathcliff, or over her unhappy marriage to Edgar Linton. The characteristics of these individuals are not adequately justified in the novel, and romantic love, if it is shown to be anything, is destructive and death dealing.

Sadly, there is not much of relevance to modern readers in this novel published in 1847. Women are weak and fragile vessels whose passions can ruin them—they’re incapable of ruling their lives. Men are, well, simpletons and dullards. The narrative is melodramatic, with irrational transitions and actions. The tragic force at work here is class, and neither Catherine nor Heathcliff possess sufficient will to overcome it.

Perhaps I should give Wuthering Heights another chance, at some other time in my reading life.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, by Peter Englund

Oral narratives, especially from people who are not professional writers, can offer powerful insight into the age that produced them.  Often you wade through pages of insignificant discussion of personal and mundane issues, and then happen on a phrase, a sentence, an image that plunges you into the mind and times of the writer.  Last night I read a paragraph from a letter written by a seventeen-year-old girl about her encounter in 1834 with the frontiersman Davy Crockett.  More than any biographical study, certainly more than Crockett’s self-inventing narratives, this one paragraph gave me a personal and physical sense of Crockett as a human being.

So I came to The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War (Knopf, 2011), by Peter Englund, with anticipation.  This book promised to be an account of the First World War told through the experiences of 20 random participants and spectators—soldiers, medical workers, businessmen, displaced mothers, and so on.  Their stories would, I hoped, plunge me as a reader into the war in a direct and vicarious way.  Not so. Instead of presenting their oral or written accounts, Englund treats them as characters in a narrative that he constructs.  He does the narrating, sometimes quoting and sometimes paraphrasing diaries, newspaper accounts, published and unpublished journals, letters and other documents to construct the thoughts and activities of his characters on a particular day of the war.  He moves from one individual to another, following the war’s progress chronologically, comparing and contrasting and interweaving until a comprehensive overview, of sorts, emerges.  Individual accounts here can be powerful.  Others seem banal.  The power of the individual voice, whether through oral or written narrative, is replaced by Englund’s authorial voice, which surely, inevitably, must take some license as he constructs the lives and thoughts of these people as they experience the war.  This patchwork approaches comes at the cost of narrative effect—we’re constantly moving from one person’s perspective to another, and there are so many participants, flung far and wide across the globe, in so many contexts and roles, that coherence never emerges.  Perhaps that was Englund’s intention.  Even as I enjoyed this book, I was disappointed.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Elephant in the Living Room

Ostensibly, The Elephant in the Living Room (2010, dir. Michael Webber) is about Americans who keep dangerous animals—bears, lions, tigers, poisonous snakes, etc.—in their private homes as pets.  The film contrasts the personalities and views of those who insist on their right to own such animals and those who regard the practice as a danger to both the animals and public safety.  Weird personalities and disturbing scenes abound.  The film eventually focuses in on Tim Harrison, an animal rescue expert, and Terry Brumfield, a retired, disabled truck driver who found that owning lions cured his depression.  I have to say that I was more interested in the general phenomenon of exotic pet ownership than in these individual examples.  Though there is much pathos in the tale of the retired truck driver and his lions, it is finally difficult to feel that the particulars of his situation justified the miserable conditions in which his lions lived.  In a painful and difficult scene, his prized male lion is accidentally killed when an electrical short circuit electrifies his cage.  A heart-rending soundtrack and numerous close-up images of the truck driver’s grief-stricken face muck up the sentimentality.

Admittedly, in the story of Tim and Terry the film encapsulates some of the issues in the ownership of exotic pets.  It does touch on the growing problem of wild snakes in the Florida Everglades, but it does not do much with the possibility of African lions and monkeys escaping and establishing populations in the United States.  Maybe the odds are against that happening.

In general this documentary substitutes the pathos of an individual anecdote for a genuine exploration of the topic.


Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Grey

The Grey (2011, dir. Joe Carnahan) aspires to be a good film. It ponders weighty questions: mortality, death's inevitability, individuals in a naturalistic world, the void. The scenario: workers at an isolated Alaskan pipeline facility are being transferred stateside to see their families. The jetliner carrying them home crashes in the middle of the Arctic. We don't know exactly where, but we are told early on that there is no chance of their being found. This seems unlikely. Airplanes are tracked on radar, they have transponders, when they go down people know about and come looking for survivors. The idea that a large airplane would just vanish in the Alaskan wilderness and attract no one's attention is the premise the film urges us to accept.

The survivors band together and make plans. Their leader is Ottway, played by (you guessed it) Liam Neeson. He is actually often effective in these kinds of roles. Sometimes he shows a certain amount of depth and insight. Sometimes he doesn't. In this case he does, to a certain extent. Ottway believes survival might be possible if he doesn't give up. These are all rough and ready men, with problematic personalities and histories, who for whatever reason have chosen to isolate themselves in the wilderness of the Alaskan oilfields. The movie seeks to humanize them by inserting glimpses of their home lives, of the daughters they think about, the lovers they're going to see. In the case of Ottway, we keep seeing glimpses of a young woman lying next to him in bed.  They’re speaking tender words that we can’t hear. We learn through various comments and through a suicide note that Ottway has lost this woman and that he can never get her back, so he's surrendered to an empty, pointless life bereft of hope. We even see him in an early scene putting a shotgun in his mouth, on the verge of committing suicide. The is interrupted when he has to shoot a wolf that suddenly comes into view, attacking one of his colleagues. Only at the end of the film do we learn about the kind of loss Ottway has suffered and although it makes his plight all the more bitter and full of despair, it also imbues the final scenes with sentimentality. It's the memory of this loss that he is running away from and that he can never get back.

Unfortunately, the plot of The Grey is all too familiar. Men are trapped in a difficult situation. They try to extricate themselves. One by one they’re picked off.  We've seen plenty of other films where characters are picked off by dinosaurs or Nazis or aliens or crazed monstrosities in the night. In this film, they’re picked off by wolves. The Grey therefore takes a predictable course.

The final scene reminded me of the conclusion of Runaway Train (1985), with Jon Voigt, standing atop the speeding locomotive, facing obliteration.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury‘s writings captured my interest as a child and fueled my passion for reading.  He was at his best as a short story writer.  His Martian Chronicles (1950) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) were remarkable books.  Martian Chronicles was as I remember a wistful, lyrical memory of lost settlements on the Red Planet.  As an adolescent reader I returned to these stories repeatedly, seeking to regain the kind of experience I had when I first read them.  This was one of Bradbury’s best works, and in my reading experience he never equaled it.  I read book after book by Bradbury, hoping to find again that experience of The Martian Chronicles, but it was never there.  I’m afraid to reread the book now, fearful that my immature adolescent reading created in my mind a work that would no longer exist if I read the stories again 

Fahrenheit 451 shows how totalitarian regimes stifle free expression, control individual lives, and censor literature and readers.  Written with the recent memory of the McCarthy hearings, and of the Nazi regime, which was notorious for censorship and book banning among much worse evils, Fahrenheit 451 celebrated the passion of readers, the community of those who read and its essential relationship to individual lives.  It was prescient in its suggestion that technology would become all dominant, often oppressive, in our lives.  Truffaut’s 1968 film adaptation of the novel was good, I thought.  Other Bradbury story collections I read included The Illustrated Man (1951) and Golden Apples of the Sun (1953), and novels such as Dandelion Wine (1957) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)

Although I still occasionally read and enjoy Bradbury, much of his work strikes me as aimed towards a younger audience.  There’s a derivative, sophomoric quality to his political and philosophical musings.  His work can be uneven—he wrote a great deal and apparently didn’t hesitate to publish work that wasn’t his best.  The influence of Thomas Wolfe is sometimes apparent—the mawkish, excessively lyrical and ebullient Wolfe.  Walt Whitman is also an influence.

Still, Bradbury was a science fiction writer who brought occasional moments of fine prose to his work, which aspired to be, and sometimes was, the best of its genre.