Solo Book Club: Lila by Marilynne Robinson


Reading Marilynne Robinson is like going to a good church. I'm admittedly not much of a religionist, but I've visited enough services to know what I like. The church of Robinson is not one of the places where the pastor chants through the liturgy in latin, and the choir obligingly resurrects old hymns. Instead, her writing captures the part of religion that thoughtful people mull over after the service. Her books are books about big questions. They feel like the sermons of someone who cares about community—someone who understands why his parishioners might have to make a difficult choice that seems like evil on its face, but who also gently coaxes them to think about the parts of themselves that will regret it.

In Lila, the third of her novels that I’ve read, one of the chief characters is, indeed, a pastor: a man named John Ames. Ames is the protagonist and narrator in another of her novels, Gilead, and the writing of that book is referenced by narrator in this one. Ames is an old man, and a profoundly gentle spirit. He serves as a reminder of what pastors should be: humble, thoughtful, and deeply concerned about how life ought to be lived. Robinson is herself a devout Christian and Ames feels like a character created as a defense of Christianity. He shows what religion can bring to a person’s life, as well as what the application of a pastor’s duties can do for a community. The church ought to be a place of humility, of sanity, and of generosity. (Robinson more or less explicitly argues this in an interview, so I don’t think it’s an overreach to attribute it to her.) 

Lila, like Gilead before it, sets Ames’ gentleness against the world’s confusion and cruelty. Neither novel has an antagonist. Instead, their plots develop around one character’s struggle to allow herself or himself comfort. In Gilead, the central question is whether Ames can forgive himself for dying before his son will be old enough to really know him. In Lila, the titular character is Ames’ young wife and the mother of his child. She started life as an orphan and migrant worker during the dust bowl, and she did a turn as a prostitute at a brothel in St. Louis. The plot of Lila centers on whether she can learn to trust Ames and forgive herself. 

One of the things I adore about Robinson’s books are the way that they almost read like parables; they take struggles we will all face and dramatize them. Gilead is about searching for meaning in life as death nears. Lila is about learning to trust. 

Another thing I adore about them are the sentences. Here, for example, is Lila after years wandering through the midwest, looking for work: “It just went on and on, The United States of America. It was so easy to forget that most of the world was cornfields.”

Or, how about this passage when Lila thinks about movies and thinks about the woman who raised her, a former prostitute named Doll, and how she misses her: “[Lila] went to the movies…And when she was sitting there in the dark…she was dreaming some stranger’s dream, everybody in there dreaming one dream together. Or they were ghosts, all gathered in the dark, watching the world, seeing all the scheming and the murder and having no word to say about it, weeping with the orphans and having nothing to do with them…the best part was always to be there sitting in the dark, seeing what she had never seen anywhere before and mostly believing it…what to imagine for Doll… she couldn’t wish that scar away or how Doll never forgot to hide her face for anyone but Lila. The ghost couldn’t really be part of the dream. Lila would just be there, so close, seeing that tender, ugly face. Just her. Nobody else would want a dream like that.”

The passage is substantially longer and more meaningful without the parts I’ve expurgated, but I adore the idea that movies are the visions of ghosts who invisibly watch people. Maybe the ghosts are are curious or maybe they love the people they watch even though they cannot touch them or say anything to them. It’s a wonderfully imaginative way for Lila to think about an afterlife she isn’t sure that she believes in. It’s also a vision that is both loving and lonely. In fact, the passage does what the book does, in microcosm: it seeks to explore the split between a need for love and a terror of other people.

Solo Book Club: Rabbit Redux

My copy... A first edition from a bookstore in Georgia!

My copy... A first edition from a bookstore in Georgia!

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

Updike never met a metaphor he didn’t like. Or at least Rabbit, his long-running protagonist in a series of social novels, never did. 

Anyway, that’s what I thought after I read the first book of Updike's Rabbit anthology, Rabbit, Run. But Updike took eleven years between the first and second novels of the series and his writing changed. He aged into a love of nouns and happenings: “It takes Rabbit back to when he used to sit in the radio-listening armchair back on Jackson Road, its arms darkened with grease spots from the peanut butter cracker sandwiches he used to stack there to listen with.” The first Rabbit novel is all descriptions of scenery and place, insights into the connections between movement and color and time that are the basic stuff of metaphors. This later book, in contrast, is made of the specificity of memory. 

Updike’s writing feels like some sort of exhalation. As if the writer himself is just letting breath flow from his fingertips. There’s a plot, to be sure, but Updike lets characters remember and think their way through his scenes. Its refreshing to read and kind of a liberating way to think about writing: who cares if you don’t know what happens next? Just revert to memory and maybe something will come. It’s a lot like thought itself works.

The plot here, as in the first novel, centers around an affair. Where the younger Rabbit was running away from his wife, Janice, after a miscarriage, the older Rabbit watches this same wife leave him for a second-generation Greek immigrant. And where the young Rabbit was largely indifferent to the politics of his moment—except insofar as they were concerned with his own behavior and sexual appetites—the older Rabbit is fully engrossed in America’s place in the world. This is 1969. A man is landing on the moon. Vietnam is in full sway. The Moratorium touches at the edges of the plot. And Rabbit has decided to take sides with the forces of the silent majority. Vietnam is a just war because calling it unjust somehow questions Rabbit’s very idea of himself, of where he is in the world, of what America is. To him, calling Vietnam a mistake is like calling Pittsburgh 'Lake Ontario.' It throws off the whole idea of what the world is and should be. There’s no argument about it. America is right because if it isn’t then nothing else in the world works either.

It's a vision of personal politics that feels relevant right now, when support for the president has far less to do with policy than it does with self identity. I can't speak for the totality of Trump's base of support, but interviews like this one suggest that this presidency, like Vietnam, has little or nothing to do with the facts. It's about deciding what team you are on and then defending that team no matter what.

But Rabbit does something that most of us never will: he lives with the enemy. Janice leaves Rabbit and in the emptiness where she has gone, he allows a young black vet named Skeeter to come in, trailing a Connecticut rich girl who is addicted to the dope he is feeding her. The book takes an odd turn: racial politics and Vietnam and culture and drugs are suddenly in Rabbit’s living room, the political turns personal. Updike makes Rabbit confront the consequences of his beliefs and his place in the world. It’s a weird trope and it works pretty well. Why slip into vast social commentary when you can just make cultural antagonists live with one another? Would that we could make our country do the same. 


Next week: Lila, by Marilynne Robinson


In Regards to My Recent Border Policy...

This is from Getty Images. Yes. Maintenance of this site is not worth the $10 licensing fee to me.

This is from Getty Images. Yes. Maintenance of this site is not worth the $10 licensing fee to me.

Many of you have seen the recent coverage of a little girl crying. I have too. And it hurts me. I feel nothing but empathy for her. But let us face it: we are going to keep seeing these kinds of images until my little sister works with me, her brother, to come to an agreement to stop hitting herself. 

Let me first address the obvious. I have been accused of callousness and inhumanity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Do I want her to smack her palm, fists, and sometimes fingernails against her face? No. Of course not. I am not a monster. I have repeatedly urged her to stop hitting herself. 

My critics point out that during previous administrations—the trip to Nana’s house; that time in the airport lounge in Tucson—Janie was not forced to keep hitting herself. To them, I say we are a nation of laws, and Janie took my coloring book while I was still in the middle of it. Moreover, she keeps kicking me after I told her not to.

Let me also take this moment to broach the broader issue of border security. Our system is broken. The pillow wall in the middle seat that has separated us is poorly enforced, permeable, and made of pillows. Despite my administration’s best efforts, Janie has been able to touch me when I don’t want her to. 

Amnesty is not an option; compassion does not require us to sanction criminal behavior. We can all remember the bath-time splashing incident of two weeks ago. Mom persuaded me not to retaliate. This led, inevitably, to escalating splashing—a cycle of chain-hydration. If previous administrations had taken a firmer hand, perhaps the back seat would not have arrived at its present, lawless state. 

Did Janie have a legal option? Of course she did. Had she followed the proper procedures and applied for the coloring book before we left home, she might now have her own coloring book, though not one of the dinosaur ones because Uncle Pete gave those to me. But that time has passed. She has stuck out her tongue at me and colored the Tyrannosaurus wrong.

I realize that our allies do not always see eye-to-eye with me. I am willing to endure their condemnation. I acknowledge the possibility that this crisis violates the hands-to-yourself convention of which we are a co-signatory. I even see that this may escalate into a period of quiet time. I am willing to take that risk.

Critics have accused me of sexism. Yes, I did say ‘no girls allowed’ but that was in the context of a sleepover with Brady and has no role in my administration’s current, zero-tolerance enforcement policy. 

I lament the tragic necessity of the current difficult time and the events that brought us here. Can I picture a future wherein peace is restored to the back seat? Yes. Do I hope that Janie may someday stop screaming? Indeed I do. Can I picture a future when I am no longer compelled to hold Janie’s wrists and slap her face with her own hands? Yes. Yes I can. And should that day come, I hope my administration gets the credit it deserves for managing this crisis.

Thank you.

Something to Read: The Nun by Denis Diderot

A beneath-the-wimple exposé

A beneath-the-wimple exposé

I don’t always make a practice of grabbing books from an exchange shelf since, as a rule, they are pretty dreadful. Discarded textbooks, romance novels, memoirs of an accountant, etc. So it’s always fun to run across something worthwhile and surprising. 

And what a surprise! The jacket copy on the Penguin Classics version of Diderot’s The Nun describes the book as a long practical joke: Diderot was seeking to swindle the Marquis de Croismare into believing his fictional account of an illegitimate child pressed into a nunnery against her will. The Marquis was apparently appalled by the petty cruelty of France’s religious institutions and Diderot sought to capture that cruelty in fiction. The book was considered too scandalous in its time—it was written in 1758—and so was published posthumously, in 1796, after the French revolution.

What the jacket fails to describe is that the book is also a piece of mid-18th century lesbian French erotica: a genre that I heretofore did know existed. Here, for example, is a representative passage from the latter half of the book:


She whispered: ‘Suzanne, my dear, come a bit nearer.’ She held out her arms, but I had my back to her; she took me gently and pulled me towards her, passed her right arm under my body and the other above and said: ‘I am frozen, and so cold that I am afraid to touch you for fear of hurting you.’

‘Dear Mother, you need not be afraid of that.’

“Immediately she put one hand on my breast and the other round my waist, her feet were under mine, and I pressed them so as to warm them, and she said: ‘Oh my dear, see how my feet have warmed up at once because there is nothing between them and yours.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘what is there to prevent you from warming yourself everywhere in the same way?’

‘Nothing if you are willing.’

I had turned round, and she had opened her nightdress, and I was on the point of doing the same when suddenly there were two violent blows on the door…


Who knew that the origins of bodice-heaver were so old? 

Even without its prurient appeal, the book has its charms. It’s yet another great example of what seems to me to be the absolute essence of storytelling: give your audience sympathy for a character and then make dreadful things happen to her. That is, more or less, the pattern this book (novel? False memoir?) follows from the beginning to the end. Our heroine, Suzanne Simonin, is dainty, charming, and innocent. And then she is abused left, right, and center. 

Suzanne’s very existence reminds her mother of the carnal sin that brought her into existence, and so the mother refuses Suzanne her dowry and banishes her into the religious life. Knowing she is not cut out for Christian duty, Suzanne seeks to escape her vows and thus incurs the wrath of her mother superior and sister nuns. She is beaten, kept awake, forced to eat ash-laden food, given a hair shirt, abused with ropes, kept in solitary confinement, starved, mocked, and lashed.

Diderot keeps alive some faint hope of Suzanne’s escape and so we read on. Suzanne moves to a new monastery, where her soul is exposed to the mortal threat of the aforementioned lesbian eroticism. She resists (mostly), and is shunned by her sisters. Then she escapes, is subjected to the amorous advances of men in the outside world, and suffers terribly. It’s all very compelling, very juicy, and oh so French. It is, in short, the perfect read for an evening in a country house, whether you are a 21st-century literary voyeur or a gullible 18th-century Marquis.


The West Highland Way

Embarking through a rare bit of sunlight

Embarking through a rare bit of sunlight

Monday, June 11th, 2018

Our goal is to walk a bunch. We are coming up fast on Dad’s seventy fifth birthday, and he has taken to marking his age with feats of distance walking. He turned sixty-five on the Tour du Mont Blanc, a ten-day walk through Switzerland, France, and Italy. We have photos to prove he was there. I was there too, but blew out my knee on the sixth day, meaning that I am no longer willing to compete with my father for who can walk farther. He can.

The walking starts in a village called Milngavie that is pronounced ‘Mull-Guy.’ Scottish  towns, from my brief experience, are named after digestive noises. Other towns on the route include Balmaha (post-prandial muttering), Rowardennan (soda in a full stomach), and Crianlarich (into the toilet bowl). We take a commuter train from Glasgow to Milngavie on which a chatty Scot conductor asks where we are from, and, upon hearing, sets his arm down on the back of the seat in front of us and starts to opine about the Scottish countryside and why people might visit it. During a stop, we observe a man try to sneak onto the train without purchasing a ticket. The conductor observes him too and says chasing down the fee isn’t worth the effort. 

My own mapping...

My own mapping...

The town of Milgavie is a yuppie suburban enclave with a pleasant high street and a few shops. My sister, Teal, has recently birthed my six-month-old nephew, Jax, and so she buys all of the baby formula and diapers available (British Airways lost her bags), and we embark. The first day is long but reasonably comfortable. We see cattle, we see an abundance of heather, we see sunlight one last time. We march through fields next to a road and stop at a pleasant pub for lunch.

Mark, Jax, and Willa embark

Mark, Jax, and Willa embark

In the evening, we arrive in Drymen (pronounced ‘Drimmon’), where a charming and solicitous couple of innkeepers usher us indoors, and we discover that my sister, Willa, has accidentally stolen the telephone from our hotel in Glasgow, to both her chagrin and the hotel’s.

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

My mother walked the first day with us, but we are all aware that she will not be able to do most of this trip. She has a bad knee and a bad back and several bad internal organs that aren’t helped by her bad cold. As Tuesday dawns, she decides to seek antibiotics. It is not at all clear that they will help—the cold is likely viral—but she needs something to do during the day while the rest of us walk.

Or, really, the rest of them. I will not be walking on Tuesday since I wake up indisposed. The peculiarities of my indisposition are best left undescribed, save to say that I spent the night Crainlariching and the morning further polluting the pristine Inn bathroom.

This can only mean murder, right?

This can only mean murder, right?

The health clinic in Killearn is clean, pleasant, and elderly. My mother, at 74, seems to be the youngest patient. When we arrive, Mom waits for a doctor. I can diagnose my own ailment, and so I fall asleep in the waiting room. Then I use the bathroom. Then I fall asleep in the waiting room. Then I use the bathroom. This repeats.

In the evening, a cab driver takes us to a hotel that feels like a communist youth retreat. The sterile building is on a small spot on Loch Loman called Rowerdennan. The bartender makes me a home remedy for stomach pain, which I drink. I also have a sandwich. It does not help. I will not describe or imply the events of the next eight hours.

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

Rowardennan is not much more than an Inn and a parking lot on the edge of a lake. Because we have booked this trip through a resort-booking company, and because we are all comparatively old, today is a rest day. 

At noon, Dad books a trip on a speed boat so that we might all discover the far shores of Loch Loman. They are, as the song suggests, bonnie bonnie. The guide tells us about a wealthy old coot who populated one of the lake’s islands with wallabies. They have bred and gone feral, but we do not see them as we pass.

A form of loch monster

A form of loch monster

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

From Rowardennan, the trail passes along the shores of Loch Lomand on slippery footing. The rain starts fitfully as we leave but comes steady and sideways as the morning wears on. My brother-in-law, Mark, sets out to run the trail in front of the rest of us. I follow, listening to podcasts and hiking fast. My mother, sister, and six-month-old nephew, Jax, take an-hour-and-a-half cab ride that skirts around the far side of the lake.

Halfway north along the lake’s shore towards Inversnaid, I spot a goat. It will be the only non-cow, non-human, non-dog mammal I see on the walk.

A Goat!.jpg

Lunch at the hotel in Inversnaid commences with a bald Scottsman announcing—in the most Scottish of possible accents—that Scottish weather will “make a man of ya.” My appetite for stereotypes fulfilled, I order a ham sandwich.

In the afternoon, the trail climbs out of the lake bed into rolling hills with long grasses. The rain eases slightly, and I push myself to make good time, arriving at the Drover’s Inn by mid afternoon.

The Drover’s was founded two years before Scotland was incorporated into the UK, in 1705. An enormous claymore is situated above the main fireplace and the waitstaff wear kilts. It is said to be haunted by a family who froze to death nearby during the late 1700’s. I stay up late, reading and hoping for a ghost encounter, but am disappointed.

Friday, June 15th, 2018

Friday, like every single other other day, dawns damp and grey. ‘Damp and grey’ could go on a bumper sticker for Scotland. Mark and Teal carry baby Jax in an Osprey backpack designed for infants. It looks like a modernized litter, except carried by a single person rather than a coterie of servants. Jax gurgles and murmurs as we climb away from the Drover’s Inn and march up the River Falloch. He falls asleep midmorning and manages to keep his head at an angle that would be fatal for an adult.

Snack break

Snack break

After two hours of walking, we leave the trail for lunch, and descend into the non-metaphorical Crainlarich, where we find ‘The Rod and Reel,’ a pub whose floor collapsed long enough ago that no one can remember why they didn’t bother to fix it. The owners have since renovated, bending the benches so that they might fit neatly against the floor as it slopes downward into one corner of the room. Intriguingly, the bar has a pool table.

After lunch, my sisters climb back to the trail, but I take the train to Tyndrum since the afternoon rain has grown percussive. The train passes near a Lochan—a small lake—where Robert the Bruce was said to have hurled his claymore after defeat at the battle of Dal Righ.

Tyndrum, like Crainlarich, has multiple inns and multiple pubs. The Tyndrum Inn, where we stay, will not refrigerate Jax’s formula, earning them the raw hatred of both my sister and brother-in-law. 

Saturday, June 16th 2018

Saturday is no less rainy than the rest of the week. My mother has a bad back and cannot carry Jax so I ride with her on a bus from Tyndrum to the Bridge of Orchy, where we situate ourselves in the game room of the Bridge of Orchy hotel, and Jax immediately begins to cry. I carry him upstairs to an empty dining room with a grand fireplace and with tables set with crystal and silver. The hotel here, like so much of rural Scotland, seems like a throwback to an era of comfortable outposts surrounded by difficult roads. I wonder if the stiff formality of British imperialism—“civilized” dinners, pressed white linen, starched uniforms—was formed in the endless English campaigns against the Scots. As Jax nods off to sleep, I stare out the window at the Bridge of Orchy itself, a wide stone arch that straddles the river Orchy before the road leads off into the hills. Around noon, my sisters, brother-in-law, and father arrive, and I switch packs and rain gear with Mark and leave on the afternoon hike.

Not the bridge of Orchy... or particularly reassuring

Not the bridge of Orchy... or particularly reassuring

From the Bridge of Orchy, the path rises sharply through forest. I drift into thinking what it might be like if I were on foot and a squad of horsemen appeared across the valley, riding hard. There would be maybe twenty-five minutes in which to make the wood and hide myself.

After a few false summits, the road descends sharply into Inveronan, where a charming hotel serves us toasted ham, onion, and cheese sandwiches. In the afternoon, the path begins to follow a stony old military road as it gently ascends into bleak, empty hills. It seems there is a footrace today—sodden runners pass back and forth around us. Eight miles from the hotel, we find the start of the race, at the Glencoe Mountain resort. There is an inflatable finishing arc where a single volunteer waits for anyone who has not yet returned. Up a steeply graded parking lot is a small ski lodge where there is a collection box soliciting donations to cover expenses of new snow-making machines. A taxi meets us and carries us to the Loch Leven Hotel, where a clever bartender named Henry tells jokes in poor taste whose punchlines he whispers, lest he offend other patrons.

Above the Bridge of Orchy

Above the Bridge of Orchy

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

We have a rest day at the Loch Leven hotel, so I spend the morning sketching our route. In the afternoon, the hotel owner gives us a tour of his small gin distillery. We drink two local brews, one mixed with cardamom and orange peels and the other with allspice. In the evening, we celebrate Dad’s 75th birthday by eating too much.

...and drinking a bit

...and drinking a bit

Monday, June 18th, 2018

The path today ascends the Devil’s Staircase—so named because it was the route that William of Orange’s men used to retreat after the massacre at Glen Coe in February of 1692. The slaughter was the talk of Europe after it happened. William’s men were ordered to billet among members of Clan MacDonald and then slaughter them in their sleep. Thirty-eight men were killed directly, and an indeterminate number of others died of exposure and starvation after William’s men marched up the valley and burned any settlement they could find. The whole affair was prosecuted years later, the chief question being whether it violated a 1587 law that forbade ‘slaughter under trust,’ a crime that is essentially equivalent to the Red Wedding.

The Devil's Staircase is not in this photo

The Devil's Staircase is not in this photo

Despite the intimidating nickname, the walk is relatively easy. I hiked ahead and arrived in Kinlochleven by one o’clock. It is a small town with an old church that has been converted into an international ice-climbing training center that includes a refrigerated wall composed of five hundred metric tons of ice.

End of journey

End of journey

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

The final day of the trail is, unsurprisingly, rainy. We buy sandwiches at a local grocery store and hike out of Kinlochleven up a steep switchback. Scottland has few mosquitos but is infested with midges. These small, horrible creatures emerge from the plants whenever the rain stops. Since the rain rarely stops, they usually aren’t a problem. Today, though, we get a breath of sunlight as we hike through the forest, and I am suddenly breathing insects. My sister wraps her head in mosquito netting and looks like a bank robber. Soon enough though, the rain starts and the bugs retreat. After a long hike across a bare ridge line, we pass Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra, a small lake with a small island on which MacBeth, the king of Scots from 1040-57 was said to have lived. It is, however, also said that the lake was home to a waterbull that would emerge and kill livestock. This seems particularly curious since there is no mention of the bull being carnivorous. So the people saying these things—as well as those repeating them—are probably not to be trusted.

MacBeth probably didn't live on this island

MacBeth probably didn't live on this island

From Lochan Lunn D-Bhra the road passes through the Nevis forest and then joins an old forestry road that leads down one final hill and onto an unpleasant stretch of highway, which finally arrives in Fort William, where there is a gruesome tourist shop filled with kilts, plastic Loch Ness monsters, and plaid, scratchy scarves. They also have passport stamps asserting you have walked the Way, which—per our goal—we have.

End of trip

End of trip

Something to Read: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Song of Solomon.JPG

So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Toni Morrison is a pretty good writer.

I actually remember when I first read Beloved in English class in eleventh grade. The book, in my mind, couldn’t be literature because it was too easy and enjoyable to read. We had just finished Crime and Punishment and I was convinced—like many who read Dostoyevski too young… or ever—that ‘brilliance’ must be attached to inaccessibility. And then I read Morrison, and she wrote books that breezed past your eyeballs, as if you were watching a movie.

In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine that Toni Morrison would even be possible in a pre-cinema world. The way that Beloved uses flashback, voice, and the actual shape of the text (italics) to jump between narrators seems somehow tied to words like ‘cut,’ ‘fade in,’ and, well, ‘flashback.’ She was one of those early authors, along with Kurt Vonnegut, who made me realize it is possible to actually like literary fiction rather than merely admiring it. 

But I’m theoretically talking about Song of Solomon here. To wit: it’s a pretty good book. I googled the title when I started reading and discovered that the Song of Solomon is the Song of Songs, which is a quasi-pagan-seeming piece of biblical incantation that celebrates young lovers. (And was immediately coopted by the Church, as are all things sexual, and turned into something try as toast: a metaphorical celebration of the marriage between divinity and the church itself.) The title may well reference some of the sex in the book—there’s lots of sex in the book—but it also refers to a much more literal children’s song that various characters sing in snippets throughout. The cooption of biblical naming is twice appropriate since Morrison takes an almost Faulknerian delight in repurposed names. Our protagonist is Macon Dead, a man so named because when his grandfather registered at the Freedman’s Bureau at the end of the Civil War, a clerk asked him where he was from, if his father was alive, and what was his family name and then the clerk put the names in the wrong columns. So ‘Jake’ became ‘Macon Dead,’ a man who picks his children’s names by pointing a finger at the bible. Hence his daughter, Pilate, and various other family including Ruth, Reba, First Corinthians, and Magdalene. 

I remember reading about how, near his death, Hemingway started to find words increasingly insubstantial. Here’s him in Farewell to Arms “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain… There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. (I’m cribbing from Joan Didion’s incredible essay on his life to quote the text.) Morrison seems to feel a similar power to proper nouns, particularly names in Solomon. There’s a paragraph, near the end of the novel, that is just a list of names, which it would be a shame to abbreviate… so I won’t:

"He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Blood Bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness. Macon Dead, Sing Byrd, Crowell Byrd, Pilate, Reba, Hagar, Magdalene, First Corinthians, Milkman, Guitar, Railroad Tommy, Hospital Tommy, Empire State (he just stood around and swayed), Small Boy, Sweet, Circe, Moon, Nero, Humpty-Dumpty, Blue Boy, Scandinavia, Quack-Quack, Jericho, Spoonbread, Ice Man, Dough Belly, Rocky River, Gray Eye, Cock-a-Doodle-Doo, Cool Breeze, Muddy Waters, Pinetop, Jelly Roll, Fats, Leadbelly, Bo Diddley, Cat-Iron, Peg-Leg, Son, Shortstuff, Smoky Babe, Funny Papa, Bukka, Pink, Bull Moose, B.B. T-Bone, Black Acr, Lemon, Washboard, Gatemouth, Cleanhead, Tampa Red, Juke Boy, Shine, Staggerlee, Jim the Devil, Fuck-Up, and Dat Nigger."

It’s a whole history, written only in the names of the people who lived it.

Solomon, unlike Beloved or Bluest Eye, also feels like it’s pulled from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It has the same sense of scope: whole generations of people exist in the pages. And the magic of their universe, like that of the Buendias in A Hundred Years of Solitude is only just below the surface. The ghosts of the dead aren’t even particularly unusual here: a minor aberration from daily norms, no more alarming than a thunderstorm. 

All in all, it’s a book that is really asking for a book club. But since I don’t have one, I’ll settle with this post.

Something to Read: The Haunted Land by Tina Rosenberg

The Haunted Land.png

The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghost After Communism is an old book that is frustratingly relevant right now. The book concerns itself with the Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia), Poland, and East Germany in the days and years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was published, and won the Pulitzer prize, in 1995.

Rosenberg argues that communism survived through an unending strategy of “them.” Each person within the system believed that there were other, higher people within the bureaucracy who were the real opponents of change. “I can’t print this because of them”; “I would ignore this conversation, if it weren’t for them”; “I can’t help but condemn this person to torture because of them.” Communism – and particularly Polish communism – Rosenberg argues, was essentially a system composed of millions of people, none of whom wanted the status quo, but none of whom had the ability – at least in his own mind – to oppose the system as a whole.

The question that springs to my mind is this: what are the horrid injustices endemic to American Democracy that we ascribe to ambiguous others. Do we have a similar class of ‘them?’ 

When I was in college, professor Charles Hill – a man I later discovered to be a neocon and big proponent of the second Iraq War – was a huge advocate of rising high in your career before you tried to do anything good. He believed you would ultimately do far more to further your own ideals and interests if you worked for fifteen years to become the VP of some major corporation or the first deputy in an embassy somewhere before chasing your improve-humanity goals. This notion – rise first, then help – strikes me as the closest analogue I can think of of the American ‘them.’ Seek the approval of your supervisor or his supervisor or the company owner before you worry about what it is that you actually want to do. Focus on personal advancement, then worry about the consequences.

In a way our ‘them’ is as entrenched and pernicious as the communist one was. It’s particularly hard to topple since the ‘them’ is not some single state bureaucracy but rather myriad individual or corporate interests. Tomorrow, we imagine, we'll be the head of our particular company and then – maybe then – we can finally think about how we can treat poor people better. When I get to the head of my medical firm, I'm going to really change things up! In the meantime, though, it’s probably best to do the best damn oxycodone promotion that I can. That way I’ll get promoted sooner sooner and be able to stop selling oxycodone.

The problem, or one of the problems, is that even at that top you are constrained by the culture of the business you are in as well as by the expectations of your shareholders and the people around you. More to the point, you yourself have been shaped by years of putting the company first. You have acclimated yourself to the idea that profitability should be the great goal of your career. It’s not so easy to give that up and imagine solutions to the vague injustices you were obsessed with when you were eighteen. You're strapped with twenty years of psychology now.

The Trump presidency is, in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of this culture of ‘profit above all else.’ The Trump organization built itself on insider political connections, discrimination, and heavily lobbied for tax breaks because Trump’s one unending goal was to get richer regardless of what that took. Now, in his presidency, we can see what a ‘profitability without scruples’ model of living looks like. He’s arrived at the highest position anyone could ever hope for and he doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. The morality of government now depends entirely on what he can get away with. This is what it looks like when someone accumulates power for its own sake, and it's hard to feel any more purpose to Trump's regime than, say, Kruschev's. 

(Rosenberg’s book also beautifully examines the Czech Republic and East Germany. I may have veered onto a tangent here.)

Something to read: A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck

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You know that genre of book that you read because you found it on your parents' book shelf? This is one of those.

Peck’s novella is part of that genre of short fiction that is long on detail and character but short on story. Robert – our narrator – is a twelve year old boy at the beginning of the book and a thirteen year old ‘man’ at the end. He lives in Vermont on a farm in a Shaker community sometime in Coolidge’s administration – he mentions the possibility of voting for Coolidge, which puts the time between 1925 and 1929. The plot, such as it is, is that he nearly kills himself helping a neighbor’s cow give birth to two colts and gets a pig in return. He names it Pinky, raises it with the intention of making her a breeding sow, and takes her to a fair. She wins a blue ribbon, but turns out to be barren and thus must be slaughtered by Haven – Robert’s father. So: the pig dies. The title is bullshit. After the pig dies, so does Robert’s father. Robert organizes the funeral. The book ends.

The narrative structure is really simple: it’s a story of transitioning to adulthood through the acceptance of things that are miserable. We must be cruel to grow up is essentially the message. 

What makes the book worthwhile is the precise dillineation of the world in which Robert lives. I had to look things up: what the hell is a cotter pin? A corn cratch? A windrow? Each chore and task describes simple hard work. The boy is sent to shoot a grey squirrel so that he can cut out the stomach, dry the semi-digested nut means in it, and use them to sprinkle on a chocolate cake. He struggles to yoke an ox because the yoke itself is nearly as large as he. The brown worn spots on his father’s tools speak to a lifetime of use. Every step of moving the corn cratch (it’s like a small wallless house for corn!) is described. The creation of the winch; the chain attached to it, the ox’s slow circling movements.

The good-writing lesson: a world is evoked by the precise naming of the tasks within it.