Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave

Matt deadWhen it comes to religion I am, at best, apathetic.

I’ve never been much of a believer, although I’ve backed off on my staunch identification as an atheist – realizing eventually that that group’s smug certainty that there is no God is every bit as obnoxious as the holy rollers who proselytize and damn others to hell.  I suppose that technically makes me an agnostic, but I think the most accurate description of my religious belief is “I don’t care.”  I try to lead a good life, be kind to others, do more good than harm, etc., etc., and hope that, should there be an afterlife, that’ll be enough to stand me in good stead with the management.

The most fervently I’ve wanted to believe in an afterlife, though, came in 2011 after my mom died.  Unlike her heathen son, my mom was a devout churchgoer – she and my dad were (and are, in my dad’s case) active in their local Episcopal church, and I knew that her religious faith is something that got her through those last difficult weeks.  I wanted there to be an afterlife because I knew she believed in it, but also for all the usual selfish reasons following the death of a loved one; chiefly, that I’d get to see her again one day. I can’t say I’ve clung to that desire with any tenacity, though.  Three years on and I’m pretty much back where I started.

There’s no such equivocation in Matt Haig’s The Dead Fathers Club.  His second novel takes up the question of the afterlife in the form of a ghost story that, fittingly for a novel preoccupied with limbo or purgatory (I can never remember which is which), straddles the line between adult and Young Adult fiction.  It exists in an uneasy middle ground that has – I think – more in common with the former than the latter, and which might be a little too sophisticated and bleak for younger readers despite the presence of a child protagonist.

Its closest comparison is probably something like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book written for adults but which I know is taught in some high schools.  Like that book, The Dead Fathers club features a young narrator – 11-year-old Philip – who is precocious and insightful, but who probably lies somewhere on the autism spectrum.  His narration is often an unfiltered stream-of-conscious jumble of sights, sounds, and impressions, such as this passage that comes early in the book when his mother receives news of his father’s death:

And then they went into the office and shut the door and I could hear nothing for ages and then I heard Mum.  She was howling like a WOLF and the noise hurt my stomach and I closed my eyes to try and hear the policeman and all he was saying was Im sorry and he kept on saying it

Im sorry

Im sorry

Im sorry

and I knew that he hadnt done anything wrong because he was a policeman and policemen only say sorry if something very bad has happened.  So I knew right then what the pain in my stomach was.  And I saw the policeman leave and the hat was in his hand but not on his chest any more like the Bad News had been in there and set free.  And I saw Mum and she saw me but didnt see me properly and she went to the corner of the hall by the radiator and sat down in a ball and cried and shook her head in her hands and said No no no no no and everywhere round us looked the same but bigger and I wanted to go and tell her it was OK but that would have been a lie and so I just sat there and did nothing.

It’s shortly after this that the ghost of Philip’s father comes to him and says that his brother, Alan, murdered him by severing the brakes on his car.  Along with this news, a few other things:

1) Not everyone can see ghosts, but if you do, they are the spirits of the murdered.

2) You have to avenge their death before their next birthday.

3) If you fail to do that, the ghost will remain an unsettled spirit forever.

Philip – who has enough trouble just getting through the school day – now has only a months to figure out how to kill his uncle and set his father’s spirit free.  It’s convenient, though, that there’s a bit of a Hamlet situation going on, as Alan, who clearly has designs on Philip’s mother, moves into their home and tries to take over as Surrogate Dad.

For a character who engages in as much internal monologuing as Philip, there’s initially very little ambivalence over his mission.  There’s no moralizing about whether it’s right to take Alan’s life, but maybe that makes sense.  Life is simpler at 11: Philip loved his father, his father’s ghost says Alan must die, and so Alan must die.  The problem, though, is that his father’s ghost – who at first appears to be omniscient and gifted with preternatural awareness – makes an increasing number of inaccurate predictions, some of which have disastrous consequences.  And this brings Philip to a crossroads: Is his father an tortured spirit or just a spiteful douchebag?  And if it’s the latter, is his death still worth avenging?

While I enjoyed Haig’s spin on the revenge tale, I actually found the most appealing part of the book to be Philip’s voice, especially the way he attempts to come to grip with the world around him.  There are several gems throughout the book that might not be particularly insightful to adults, but which seem to perfectly capture the child’s evolving understanding of how the world works.

On his teacher trying to involve him with his peers by making him dance at a party: “Mrs Fell was only being nice because she thought I was on my own but sometimes being nice is as bad as being horrible.”

On the paradox of war and murder: “Its like how in War soldiers are told to kill other men and then they are Heroes but if they killed the same men when they were not in War they are Murderers.  But they are still killing the same men who have the same dreams and who chew the same food and hum the same songs when they are happy but if it is called War it is all right because that is the rules of War.”

And this one especially, on, well, the nature of life itself: “I was thinking Mrs Fell was right.  There are choices.  You can listen to ghosts or you can not listen to ghosts and you can think what you want to think it is up to you because there are only two things that are true 100 out of 100 times and that is that you live and also that you die and every other thing is not true or false it is a mix.  It is both.  It is none.”

Philip’s voice is so strong and so engaging that it carries the reader through the book, even in those moments when the revenge plot is less interesting.  The real surprise is the end, which is, in the immortal words of Spinal Tap, none more black.  It ends on a decidedly dark note, one that unambiguously puts Philip at the center of everything bad that ultimately happens.  It’s a curious – and curiously harsh – choice, and it’s probably the strongest argument that Haig hasn’t intended this to be a children’s book.  Young Adult Lit typically ends optimistically – the young protagonist having overcome whatever challenges he/she faced to emerge victorious on the other side – but there’s no light at the end of the tunnel in the closing pages of The Dead Fathers Club.   If there’s a bleak central thesis implied by the conclusion it’s that, on Earth or in the afterlife, there’s no way out for tortured spirits.

*****

Current listening:

Siouxsie hyaena

Siouxsie & The Banshees – Hyaena (1984)

One Wave in the Sea

Gaiman oceanI don’t believe in magic.

Nor do I believe in ghosts or zombies or vampires (even the hot, sparkly ones).  I don’t believe in Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or the Jersey Devil, and if I’m going to be thorough, I suppose I should also mention that I believe in angels and demons as much as I believe in leprechauns and fairies, which is to say not at all.

But man.  I want to believe.

This has been a constant in my life, reaching all the way back to my early exposure to J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit when I was five years old.  I can start there and trace a line of influence that stretches all the way to high school, passing through dalliances with Greek mythology (3rd grade), Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (6th grade), Dungeons & Dragons (middle school), and ending with my discovery of the stories of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison.  I was the kid happily brandishing a stick for a sword as I plunged headlong into the woods behind our house on those endless summer days when I could play with the giants and monsters that crept from the underbrush.  And it pains me to know just how dissatisfied that kid would be with the skeptical adult I’ve become.

But the desire to believe persists to this day.  It mainly manifests itself in my love of horror movies.  This morning I watched Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2014 film Willow Creek.

A played-straight, found-footage riff on the Bigfoot legend, the movie is a lot of fun, but as soon as it was over I immediately began scouring Wikipedia for more information on sasquatch, which sent me down a cyber-rabbit-hole of Native American legends, scientific jargon, and hoaxes.  This, despite the fact that I laugh with derision whenever clips from the TV show Finding Bigfoot show up on TV.  Of course I know there’s no such thing as Bigfoot, but the thing I wanted to do most this morning was go camping in the Pacific Northwest just in case, you know, if.

I went through something similar after watching André Ørvedal’s brilliant found-footage gem, 2010’s Trollhunter.

A Norwegian film based on the Scandinavian legend, I immediately lost myself in stories and descriptions of the various types of trolls while simultaneously resisting the urge to book a flight to Norway.  These found-footage movies are especially good at stoking my imagination because of the way the camera acts as a surrogate for the viewer.  In a way, I’m there, watching things through the other end of the lens.  And for a kid who was scared of the dark like I was, there will never be anything more frightening than two people cowering in a tent while small children giggle maniacally from the darkness.

The point is, all my skepticism and cynicism notwithstanding, I’m obviously susceptible to stories of the supernatural that are done well (and even some that aren’t).  And they’re rarely done with as much grace and style as Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  The novel is bookended by a funeral, as the unnamed narrator, now grown, returns to rural England to memorialize someone whose identity is never revealed.  He’s struck with the impulse to visit the site of his childhood home (long since demolished), and once there he decides – is drawn? – to visit the home of Lettie Hempstock, his playmate when he was seven.  He arrives at her house, meets her grandmother (who vaguely remembers him), and ventures out to the back of their property to visit the pond that Lettie called the ocean.

From there the narrator is cast back in memory to the age of seven, when he met Lettie and her mother and grandmother for the first time, and how they helped him save the world from dark forces that lurked in the pastoral English countryside.  To reveal too much would be to do two things: 1) Ruin the immense fun of the book, and 2) Render it potentially uninteresting due to its relative simplicity.  Distill any fairy tale to its essence and it loses its power.  Such would be the case here, because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, at its core, a fairy tale.  A fairy tale that begins with a suicide and at one point involves a character having an extramarital affair with a demon, but a fairy tale nonetheless.

What you need to know: In an effort to help Lettie cast an evil being out of this world, the narrator accidentally brings something back from the other side, and this thing is bent on destroying reality as we know it.  What follows involves the narrator coming to terms with what he’s done, dealing with the aftermath, and figuring out how he’s going to fix the problem he created.  It’s a simple story that follows the arc of most fairy tales, but Gaiman writes with such uncommon poetry that the novel is imbued with an otherworldliness that suits its content:

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams.  In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real.  In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie.  It is the most basic building brick of everything.  In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, ‘Be whole,’ and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.

Beyond all this, though, it’s a novel about the power of literature (the narrator reads as an escape when things get bad) and the discovery of friendship.  Even more, it’s about a boy’s realization that adults can’t solve everything.  At one point the narrator has a conversation with Lettie’s mother, and she tells him this:

“‘Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either.  Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing.  Inside, they look just like they always have.  Like they did when they were your age.  The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups.  Not one, in the whole wide world.'”

I haven’t gone out of my way to find books reflecting this very same belief that’s been occupying my thoughts lately, but they’ve definitely taken the time to find me (see my recent reviews of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon and Roger Ebert’s Life Itself for evidence).  In Gaiman’s book we see it again – the notion that nothing much changes as we age, for better or worse.  Only here we get an addendum: If something needs saving, the first place to look is within.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, if anything, perhaps deceptively simple.  It’s brief, it shares the worldview of a seven-year-old, it follows the pattern of children’s stories.  But it’s sly and it’s wise and it possesses the kind of magic in which even a cynic like me can believe.

*****

Current listening:

Okkervil stage

Okkervil River – The Stage Names (2007)

Something Must Break

panopticonOne of the hardest things about teaching is running into those students who just won’t get out of their own way.  It isn’t a question of ability or intelligence; those things are, relatively speaking, easy to get a handle on.  No, it’s the students who possess all the necessary tools and then opt, for whatever reason, not to engage at all.  To let the work go unfinished, to half-ass the paper, to fake their way through the reading rather than attempt to make sense of it.

This was true when I taught high school, and, amazingly, it’s still true now that I’m working with preservice English teachers.  These are adult students one or two years out from teaching in their own classrooms, but there are always a couple each semester who apparently decide, “I know there are certain habits that all successful teachers begin to adopt during their time as students, but I’m going to do things my own way.”  They can do the work; they just won’t.

The reasons are manifold.  Sometimes it’s boredom or the irrelevance of the material.  In those cases it’s on me – I have to figure out what’s not working and fix it.  There are also those cases of good old-fashioned laziness, and those are sort of on me, too.  I remember what I was like at 16 and 21, and I have a hard time faulting students for adopting the same behaviors I had when I was their age – and which I still battle, if I’m going to be completely honest.

But there are other instances when the roots of student behavior are deeper and more troubling.  These can often be traced back to trauma – abuse or neglect, for instance, or things as unfortunately commonplace as divorce or death – and when we’re talking about teenagers, we have to remember that they’re ill-equipped to deal with these things.  As adults we have to be sensitive to this.  We are all products of our past, and the way we act in the present is often dictated by how we’ve responded to things beyond our control.

So it is with Anais Hendricks, the fiercely intelligent narrator of The Panopticon, who, at 15-years-old, has racked up charges for over 100 juvenile offenses and is now being monitored at a group home for troubled youth.  Most of these offenses are minor (petty theft and drug issues, mostly); some are major (vandalizing half a dozen police cars).  But now Anais is under suspicion of beating a female police officer into a coma, and she’s been remanded to the Panopticon until her case works its way through the courts.

At the start Anais comes off like just another variation of the addicts who people Irvine Welsh’s novels: she’s surly and sarcastic, she’s usually under the influence of something, and her language is peppered with profanity and Scottish slang.  I resisted this at first because I felt like I’d seen it before.  But as author Jenni Fagan unspools Anais’ story, we come to see there’s much more going on here than we first realize.  Like some of those students who resisted my best intentions to educate them, Anais at 15 is the product of a past most of us would likely never survive.

She’s been orphaned since birth and has bounced through 51 foster homes by the time we meet her.  She’s been abused, she’s been a drug courier for various friends and family members, and her most fondly remembered foster mother is a murdered prostitute.  We don’t know exactly why she has such a destructive streak – unless we’re willing to generally chalk it up to “poor childhood,” which might be fair – but the Panopticon also fits into Anais’ self-constructed origin story: she wasn’t born so much as created in a lab, and she’s under constant surveillance by something she calls only “the experiment.”

I was decidedly lukewarm on The Panopticon throughout its early chapters.  Like I mentioned above, at first there’s a little too much Welsh for comfort, and Anais initially seemed like just another in a long line of nihilistic teenage protagonists who didn’t have much to bring to the table other than drug problems and a piss-poor attitude.  To the author’s credit, however, it becomes clear pretty quickly that she’s not just rubbing our noses in the darkness of the world.  Anais has a wicked sense of humor, and its her exchanges with the other characters in the Panopticon that’s partially due to my turnaround.  It’s all bleak – Tash is a teenage prostitute; Isla is an HIV-positive cutter who gave the disease to her twins – but there’s a pseudo-philosophical gallows humor that cuts through material that could be tediously morose in other hands.  Take this reflection on our origins:

Maybe God’s just a scientist.  This is all an experiment gone wrong, every single one of us, just wonky as fuck because of some chemical cock-up that was meant to produce something less faulty.

The other thing working in the book’s favor is how sensitively Fagan paints Anais’ inner life.  Despite her (self) destructive tendencies, she lives by a strict moral code – no bullying, no hurting animals, respecting children and the elderly – and she struggles mightily with her regular realization that most of the adults she encounters live intellectually and emotionally bankrupt lives.  For me, the key passage comes in a hearing to determine how she should be punished for charges she received before falling under suspicion of beating the police officer.  The court officer – condescending and imperious – asks Anais if she has anything to say before being sentenced.  She doesn’t respond, but this is her internal monologue:

Aye.  Aye, I do.  It’s this: here is what you don’t know – I’d lie down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck up anyone who abused a kid, or messed with an old person.  Sometimes I deal, or I trash things, or I get in fights, but I am honest as fuck and you’ll never understand that.  I’ve read books you’ll never look at, danced to music you couldnae appreciate, and I’ve more class, guts and soul in my wee finger than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.

Taken in the context of the way I started this review, it should be clear why I find Anais such a relatable, heartbreaking character.  Adults too often jump to conclusions about teenagers.  This is true of teachers, too; I worked with them and wasn’t immune to such judgments myself.  We evaluate them based on the standards we set for them, assuming all along those standards are worth meeting.  But how often do we really stop to find out why they act as they do, or to try and learn more about their rich inner lives?  We think they’re lazy, they’re mean, they don’t care.

Sometimes they are and they don’t.  But I’ve been involved in education long enough to realize this is dangerous thinking.  It’s dismissive, and it too often ignores the very real hurt at the core of their behavior. Even though The Panopticon is obviously fiction, Anais is such a vividly drawn character that I see her in many of the students I’ve taught over the years, and it makes me wish I’d tried harder to reach those I too casually wrote off.

In the end, The Panopticon can’t quite deliver on all its promises.  Plot threads go unresolved and conflicts are dropped in aid of a (non)resolution that is certainly hopeful but strikes me as a little too easy.  But if I’m at all dissatisfied with the way Fagan ends things, it’s only because I was so enthralled with the rest of it.  It’s a first-rate story, true, but there are important lessons here for those willing to heed them.

*****

Current listening:

New electric

The New Pornographers – Electric Version (2003)

Before the Night Falls

Ebert 2

‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs.  No need to spell them out.  I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do.  To make others less happy is a crime.  To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.  We must try to contribute joy to the world.  That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances.  We must try.  I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Like Stephen King and Harlan Ellison, Roger Ebert entered my life at an early age and forever altered the way I look at the world.  Even though I was too young to appreciate it, I still remember the opening credits to Sneak Previews – the ticket, the popcorn, the candy, the broken soda machine – which also means I must have seen at least a couple early episodes of Ebert’s review show with Gene Siskel.  I have stronger memories of At the Movies, the show that ran until Siskel’s death in 1999 (I don’t really consider Ebert’s pairing with Richard Roeper – which ran until 2006 – as part of the canon).  Since I was still a nascent film buff, the big appeal for me was the fighting.  Ebert and Siskel’s friendly – and occasionally not-so-friendly – rivalry was legendary, and I think many people tuned in to the show for the same reason I did, to watch these two passionate men argue about the medium they loved most.  Of course I came to value the show for the duo’s informed criticism, but for a while I just remember feeling a delicious discomfort when I saw Ebert getting hot under the collar.

Roger Ebert, Gene SiskelI know the common perception is that the two hated each other, but I think anyone who’s shared a passion with another person recognizes their own arguments in Ebert and Siskel’s squabbling.  My own friends and I argued constantly over such crucial topics as Star Wars or Star Trek? Conan or the Beastmaster?  Spider-Man or Batman? (Incidentally, Star Wars, Conan, and Batman are the correct answers.) The arguments were usually heated and often personal, but our friendship was never in doubt.  And of course that’s exactly what I came to see in Ebert and Siskel: you don’t argue like that unless there’s a core of love – for the medium and each other – at the heart of the dispute.

Ebert gives Siskel a couple loving chapters in Life Itself, his memoir, along with accounts of his life growing up in Illinois, stories of his newspaper days with the Sun-Times, anecdotes about some of his favorite celebrities, and meditations on all his loves: cars, breasts, Steak ‘n Shake, the movies, and, most crucially, his wife Chaz.  It’s a memoir with an air of the autumnal; at the time of its writing, Ebert had survived his cancer recurrence and three failed surgeries to repair his face and restore his voice, but there’s an inescapable melancholy to it, and the sense that Ebert was, in some ways, starting to close the curtain.

I think the thing that struck me most about the book is how much of myself I saw in it.  It’s likely I’m just projecting because I admire the man so much, but I noted several times his observation – which I’ve also had with increasing frequency – that none of us ever really change as we age.  It’s conventional wisdom that at some point we figure it all out, and we enter the later stages of our life secure in the knowledge that we can just ride things out with confidence and aplomb.  But I still – for better or worse – feel like the same dweeb I was at 16: thin-skinned, socially awkward, passive-aggressive, a romantic who doesn’t know how to talk to other people, teeming with an ambition that was generally nullified by laziness and procrastination, and given to fits of self-righteous indignation while still retaining a general hopefulness and optimism.  I was that guy then; I’m that guy now.

Ebert acknowledges this stasis in different ways, not least in the acknowledgement that many of his passions – especially breasts and the movies, in that order – remained constants throughout his life.  But we also see it in some of his offhand comments.

On being punished by his Catholic school teachers: “I felt humiliated and outraged.  It seemed to me I had been mistreated by people with no imagination or sympathy.  I suppose in another sense I was being a little jerk.  That pattern has persisted.”

On attending his 50th high school reunion: “Looking at my classmates, I wondered if perhaps the person we are in school is the person we will always be, despite everything else that comes our way.  All that changes is that slowly we become more aware of what matters in life.”

Rereading those quotes, maybe I’ve not accurately characterized Ebert’s point.  It’s not that we don’t change; it’s that when we do, our core remains the same.  For everything else the book does – and it does a lot – it’s this lesson that stuck with me, and, seeing my own experience reflected in Ebert’s, I find it oddly comforting.  This is the way life is; why fight it?

As good as the book is, there are parts that worked less well.  This is likely just a matter of taste, as Ebert’s candor and humor is a constant.  Still, I found myself drifting during some of his lengthy tales of workplace personalities at the Sun-Times, and I will never be particularly interested in tales of John Wayne or Robert Mitchum.  But there were more places that set my little movie-loving heart aflutter – entire chapters on his experiences with Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Werner Herzog – and the closing chapters, where he details his illness and recovery in heartbreaking detail, are worth the read by themselves.

The biggest influence Ebert has had on my life isn’t one from the book.  In one of his reviews – and I’d do unspeakable things now to remember which one it was – he said, and I’m paraphrasing: A movie isn’t what it’s about; it’s how it’s about it.  This is true of movies, but of books, too, and it’s a lesson I try to impart to my students.  The content of a movie – or book – is less important than how the director – or author – frames that content.  It’s not that a character is killed; it’s how that death is treated by the film.  Is it trivialized, or does it have gravity and import?  Context is everything, and it’s the respect, or lack of it, that a director brings to his characters and their struggles that dictates how much corresponding respect we should pay the work.

With that in mind, there’s just no way to look at Ebert’s memoir as anything but an unqualified success.  With life itself as the subject, Ebert is funny and unflinchingly honest in equal measure.  It’s a beautiful – but never regretful – elegy for a life well-lived, from a man who sees the end coming and knows that that’s the perfect opportunity to celebrate it.

*****

Current listening:

Jam setting

The Jam – Setting Sons (1979)

A Brain in a Bottle

revolutionsWhen I first started writing a review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, I focused on my problem with artistic experimentation.  I opened with a quote from Patton Oswalt, asserted that I have no inherent problem with artists who experiment, and began to tell a rambling story of my recent visit to Los Angeles’ Getty Museum.  If I’d bothered to finish it, I probably would’ve worked in references to Pulp Fiction and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, made snarky comments about John Cage and/or late-career Scott Walker and/or Luluthe Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration, and proceeded to pen an even-handed reaction to the book I described in my last blog post as both the monster under my bed and an unwanted cancer diagnosis.  It would’ve been oh so witty.

But about two paragraphs in, I realized what I think we all must realize, and it is this: Some works of art aren’t worth the trouble.  And so it is with Only Revolutions, which can generously be described as a talented author disappearing up his own hindquarters.  The heart of what I would have said about experimentation in my original review is that I’m all for it as long as it serves the story.  As soon as the point becomes the experiment, I lose interest.   And that really is what Only Revolutions brings to the table: style over substance.  It’s all flash, all technique, and no heart.  It’s the literary equivalent of the hot blonde or the studly dude who look awesome from a distance (or, okay, even up close) but can’t string two sentences together.

So what’s the problem with Only Revolutions?  Take a gander at these two pages.

OR 1

 

OR 2

The conceit behind the book (which will explain what you’re looking at) is this: It’s a road trip of sorts, told by two narrators, Sam and Hailey, who meet, fall in love, proceed to have “adventures” (which include such compelling vignettes as Trip to Hospital and Waiting Tables in St. Louis), and tell us their version of the story in competing first-person accounts.  The first image above is Sam’s story; the second is Hailey’s.  Each account starts at one end of the book, and the catch is that you read eight pages from one perspective, mark your place, flip the book over, and read the corresponding eight pages in the other voice from the opposite direction.

It’s not as much work as it sounds (Danielewski helpfully indicates where to flip by beginning the ninth page with a bold-faced capital letter), but it’s still work that, as far as I can tell, exists for no other reason than to be work.  I didn’t find the alternating voices to be particularly compelling, nor did one seem to complement the other.  I could see it being worth the trouble if, say, Hailey’s narrative consistently gave us insight into what she was thinking or feeling during the events that Sam describes (or vice versa – neither character is a solo protagonist, and I don’t mean to imply that Hailey exists only in reaction to Sam; if anything, they’re a textbook case of codependency).  Instead, all Danielewski does is skew things slightly, which often means changing the name of a car or altering a line of dialogue.  That, I suppose, is sort of interesting – like his far superior House of Leaves, the changes left me off-balance, which I generally appreciate – but it wasn’t done to any necessary effect that I could tell.

As you can probably see, there’s also a timeline running down the margin of each page which is, I think, supposed to indicate the universality of Sam and Hailey as archetypal lovers who have existed throughout and across time.  It’s sort of an interesting idea, but is it worth doing something just to do it, or should we instead want it to be done well or not at all?  In other words, “Hey, man, cool timeline, but it’s just so goddamn busy.  Couldn’t you just tell me a story?”

Further adding to the problem is the fact that both voices are written in a slang-heavy patois (which you can also see in the above images) that, again, seems to be done primarily for effect.  I think it’s supposed to be cool, but I’m just reminded of the episode of Seinfeld when Elaine calls Kramer a “stupid hipster doofus.”  I think I might’ve been turned on by the quasi-verse patter when I was waaaay into slam poetry for five minutes in the late 90s, but Danielewski just seems to be trying too hard. I really wanted to pat him on the head and say, “It’s okay, tiger.  You’ll do better next time.”

Next up: Roger Ebert’s autobiography, Life Itself, which I fully expect to spend the next week sobbing through.

*****

Current listening:

Pulp different

Pulp  – Different Class (1995)

 

We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race

Chabon werewolvesThese days I come to short story collections cautiously.

I don’t blame the stories.  It’s my own fault.

Six years ago, as I was working on my Ph.D., my advisor and I decided that in order to make myself more marketable to Departments of English in various schools I should specialize in something literature-based.  This was an intimidating thought.  My undergrad degree was in English Education, my Master’s degree was in Language, Literacy, and Composition, and even though I had ten years of teaching high school English under my belt, I didn’t feel I had anything worth saying.  The three times I attempted graduate classes in literature were unqualified failures.  The first (Literature of the Persecuted in Central America) and second (Irish Literature) ended in the class being canceled and my withdrawal, respectively.  I managed to hang with the third (20th Century Literature) for the duration of a semester, if you consider “hanging with” to involve saying as little as possible and trying desperately to blend into the wallpaper.  I sat in that class and listened to the true English graduate students offer their informed opinions on the texts we were reading and wondered what the hell I was doing, trying to pass myself off as one of them.  I enjoyed what we were reading, but I clearly didn’t have the chops to engage in the kind of discussions they were having.

So the thought of specializing in a field of literature – to the point where I would write one of my qualifying exams on that field and then, horror of horrors, speak intelligently about it in job interviews – filled me with a vague sense of panic.  In talking to my infinitely patient advisor, we came to the conclusion that I could specialize in the American short story.  It’s ground less well-traveled than, say, Shakespeare (which increased the chance that I could actually make a contribution to the field), and the acknowledged masters of the form aren’t so numerous that their work would be insurmountable.

But still.

Even choosing only six authors on which to focus meant I would still read over a hundred short stories.  In the space of two months I read the complete short fiction of Poe, Hemingway, Cheever, O’Connor, Carver, and Faulkner.  I also read selected works from more contemporary authors like Boyle, Hempel, and Saunders, and scrounged up what little theory I could find on the short story as a genre.  I was already a fan of Carver and Boyle, and many of Poe’s stories were branded on my memory from a very early age, but, six years on, I remember very little of the rest of it.   The usual suspects stand out, of course – Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”; O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”; Cheever’s “The Swimmer”; Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” – but my only substantial memory of that time is of poring through story after story in my advisor’s office, pausing only to jot down brief impressions of each upon completion, ostensibly so I would never forget them.

That worked out well.

Fast forward to 2014, and I find myself (perhaps understandably) reticent to read short story collections.  In the times I’ve tried, I reach the end, flip back to the table of contents, and discover that I can’t attach a single plot to any of the titles.  My attention span for short stories was ruined in 2008.  It’s akin to someone who gets roaring, blackout drunk one night and can never drink that type of alcohol again.

I have a six-year-long short story hangover.

It’s good news, then, that the first short story collection in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project is by Michael Chabon, one of my favorite authors, and a man who writes sentences so indelible that I can’t help but remember the stories from which they came.  Werewolves in Their Youth is comprised of nine stories, many of which hinge on the tenuous threads that bind family members together.  A few of my favorites:

“Werewolves in Their Youth.” Childhood friendships are odd.  Frequently born of geography as much as by shared interest, it’s worth wondering how many of those early relationships would have happened without the benefit of being next-door neighbors.  In my experience – and the experience of this story’s main character, 4th grader Paul – friends are just as often enemies, and the line separating the two is blurry at best.  I fought with my next-door neighbor as frequently as we played, and as soon as we entered high school we ceased talking altogether.  In this story, Paul – an elementary school oddball who spends his recess time in isolation, playing with ants – realizes that his next-door neighbor Timothy, the class outcast who he thinks is his enemy, is actually his only friend.  It’s a bittersweet look at the nature of friendship and how trauma (in this case, Paul’s parents’ divorce) can strengthen our bond with others.

“Son of the Wolfman.” For better or worse, one of my main goals in life is to avoid conflict.  I do what I need to do to get along, even as it gnaws at my gut.  Like Woody Allen’s character in Manhattan, I don’t get angry; I grow a tumor.  So it was with growing discomfort that I realized the degree to which I related to the character of Richard in this story.  But first, Cara.  Victim of a serial rapist, Cara is at first horrified to learn that she’s been impregnated by her attacker, even though she and Richard have tried for twelve years to have a child of their own.  She eventually decides to carry the rapist’s baby to term.  Richard, however, doesn’t act as we would expect.  As their marriage crumbles around him, he maintains his equanimity, avoiding conflict and maintaining the position that whatever Cara wants is fine, regardless of the personal cost to him.  It’s a story that challenges traditional gender roles, and it made me wonder at what point conflict avoidance does more harm than good.

“Green’s Book.” The squirmiest story of the bunch.  In this one, Marty, father to four-year-old Jocelyn, is at a neighborhood party where he encounters Ruby, a girl in her early 20s who he – there’s no polite way to put it – nearly molested when he was thirteen and she was four.  The residual guilt of this encounter, brought to the fore by Ruby’s presence at the party and her subsequent flirtation with him, has affected the way he interacts with his daughter, to the point where he’s reluctant even to bathe her.   “Green’s Book” raises all kinds of problematic issues about the power of the past to influence our relationships in the present, and to what degree we remain responsible for actions in our early years.

The remainder of the stories are as good as we would expect from Chabon, profound and very, very funny, with a knack for crafting lines that cut right to the heart of the matter.  Take this one, from “Mrs. Box,” on the demise of the protagonist’s marriage:

There had been an extramarital kiss, entrepreneurial disaster, a miscarried baby, sexual malaise, and then very soon they had been forced to confront the failure of an expedition for which they had set out remarkably ill-equipped, like a couple of trans-Arctic travelers who through lack of preparation find themselves stranded and are forced to eat their dogs.

The entertaining capper is the final story in the collection, “In the Black Mill.”  Supposedly written by August Van Zorn (an author discovered by Grady Tripp, who is himself the protagonist of Chabon’s Wonder Boys), this story is pure genre pulp, a Lovecraftian horror story about an archeology grad student exploring the likelihood that the members of an ancient Native American tribe were actually cannibals.  It’s an anomaly in a collection that otherwise deals with the profundity of minutiae, but it’s such a fun finale that it would be churlish to complain.  I love every single one of Chabon’s novels, but his short fiction is so good that I’ll be more willing in the future to overlook my resistance to the genre.

Next up in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project, Book #4, the monster under my bed, the cancer diagnosis waiting to happen, the unopened letter from the I.R.S., it’s Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.

*****

Current listening:

Aislers last

The Aislers Set – The Last Match (2000)