Annie Proulx's latest volume of Wyoming stories, Bad Dirt, has received mixed reviews. Some say Bad Dirt is vintage Proulx; some say Proulx is palpably bored with her subject matter and that this makes for flat, uninspired stories. I'm about half way through Bad Dirt myself, and can see where both arguments come from. The initial story, "The Hellhole," is indeed tired and uninspired. A patchwork of pat descriptions and compact, incurious characterizations, it reads more like an outline of a story Proulx never managed to finish than like a fully evolved story with all the complexity and quirkiness that one associates with both Proulx's prose style and her manner of developing character and plot. An example of what I am talking about occurs when Proulx explains why the game warden who is the protagonist of the story dislikes poachers so much:
The minister did not know it, but of the fifty-three game wardens in Wyoming he had connected with the one who most hated moose cow killers who left orphan calves to figure things out for themselves in a world of predators and severe weather. For Creel Zmundzinski was an orphan himself who, after his parents were gone, lived with his aunt and uncle on their ranch in Encampment. But truancy, bad friends, and eventually, breaking and entering got him into the St. Francis Boys' Home. Smoldering with anger at the injustice of life and full of self-pity, he continued to cause trouble whenever a chance came. He might have graduated from St. Francis to the state pen in Rawlins but for Orion Horncrackle, an aging Game & Fish Warden.
This paragraph would serve a writer well as working notes from which to develop a textured portrait of character and motivation. But it is far from a textured portrait in itself. It's painful in both its contrived bathos and its coarse manner of compressing an explanation for an anger that is supposed to be able to anchor the rest of the story.
But Bad Dirt is not all bad, and Proulx has moments of vintage excellence. A necessarily extended example from the story, "What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?":
In 1999 Gilbert Wolfscale's mother opened an official-looking letter from the California State Allocation Department. She read that she had inherited a sum of money from someone in that state. All she had to do was fill out the enclosed form, mail it back, and in six or eight weeks she would receive the inheritance. She spent two hours filling out the form with its demands for address, social security number, date of birth, bank account numbers, and other tedious details. She sat so long at the table with this form that her left leg went to sleep, and when she got up to go to the kitchen and make a cup of tea it buckled. She fell and broke her hip.
She recuperated very slowly. Even after the break had healed Gilbert had to drive her in weekly to Sheridan for therapy. He sometimes wondered why she didn't get one of her friends to drive her in. She was always on the phone gabbing with her cronies, and most of them still drove. He heard her talking with them about football, which she avidly watched on television.
"I'm for them Bears. I couldn't never be for them Packers."
When he asked her why she did not arrange a trip into town with Luce or Florence or Helen she said, "They're not family. Suppose the doctor was to give me bad news. I'd want a be with blood kin, not some other person."
While she met with the therapist Gilbert walked around the windy town streets rather than sit in a plastic chair in the stuffy waiting room. In a music store he looked at CDs, wondering at the proliferation of bands with trendy, foolish names. Behind a stiff plastic divider labeled "Miscellaneous" he found birdcalls, tap dancing, the whistles of steam locomotives from around the world. The last CD was Remembering Vietnam. The cover showed a grimy infantryman staring up at a helicopter. The back copy listed "Firefight," "Shrapnel," "AFVN," "Jungle Patrol," "Rain," "APC Convoy." He bought it.
In the truck driving home his mother said, "I don't have to go back there but a few more times, looks like, and thanks to heaven. Some a the strangest people settin in that waitin room. These two women got talkin about their Bible classes. Sounded pretty modern, you know, tryin a link the Bible to nowadays. But this Bible class they went to was tryin a guess how it would be if Jesus showed up in Sheridan. That got them all excited and there they set, what would he do for work. They both said he could easy find a job workin construction. Would he have his own house and would it be like a trailer or a regular house or a apartment? Then they got at the furniture, what kind a furniture would Jesus pick for his place. And you know how you get thinkin about things you overhear? Wasn't none a my business but there I set, crazy as they was, wonderin' if he'd pick out a maple rockin chair or a sofa with that Scotchguard fabric or what."
A month before his mother's fall she had bought some brightly colored kitchen sponges. One of them was purple, and she had developed an affection for it, never using it on greasy pots or to wipe up nasty spills. He dribbled coffee on the counter one morning and began to mop at the spill with the distinguished sponge.
"What are you doin! Don't use that--take the pink one. You dunderhead, I'm savin that one."
"For what, Ma?"
"For the good glasses." She meant the crystal wineglasses with the gold rims that had been passed down from Granny Webb and had stood inverted in the china cupboard for as long as he could remember. He had never known them to be used. Inside the china cupboard next to the glasses was a photograph of his father's mother in a black silk twill dress, looking freeze-dried and mournful.
"Where is that stupid mailman?" his mother said, pulling back the curtain and looking for the plume of dust along the road.
Imagination drives this passage where it is almost wholly missing in the first one I quoted. Here Proulx's prose has the crashing momentum of details that are at once serendipitously related and deeply correlated--the arrival of a letter announcing an inheritance leads to the filling out of forms leads to the sleeping leg leads to the fall leads to the trips to town for rehabilitation, leads to the overheard discussion about Jesus leads to the reflection on how other people's fetishes can become your own leads to the notation of the sponge fetish leads back around to more reflections on inheritance and then to more eager waiting for the arrival of more letters and, presumably, more peculiar chains of cause and effect. It's classic Proulx, and classically interesting as a result. But even more interesting, in a way, is the question of why the first passage is so wilfully uninteresting, and so very unlike Proulx. I think Proulx is a controlled enough writer to know very well how to create and maintain her effects, and I guess I suspect that the flatness and fatigue of the first passage is not so much a failure on her part as a choice. I'd love to know readers' thoughts.
January 24, 2005
B for body fat; I is for invasion of privacy
Almost 40% of Texas kids are overweight or obese. Some schools are responding by trying to serve more nutritious meals and by placing more emphasis on exercise. But State Senator Leticia Van de Putte has a more drastic--and patently strange--remedy in mind: a law that would require schools to record each student's body fat index on his or her report card. Critics of the bill point out the obvious: that parents don't need the school to tell them if their child is overweight, and that a child's weight is far more attributable to eating patterns learned and practiced at home than to anything that happens in the classroom.
January 17, 2005
Hazzard of new fortunes
For the past couple of weeks I have been slowly, slowly, slowly making my way through Shirley Hazzard's 1980 novel, The Transit of Venus. I tend, like many people who gravitate toward Victorian literature, to like novels that I can devour, or even snort. But you can't do that with Hazzard's fiction. The Transit of Venus is a slim and seemingly simple book; it's a sedately paced narrative of the romantic lives of two sisters over a series of decades, bearing traces of Jane Austen, belonging to the school of Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Pym, and reminding me overwhelmingly at points of Henry James.
As with James, the significance of Hazzard's little novel lies in the quality of her observation, which centers on the usually unmarked eddies and undercurrents of human interaction. Unlike James, who will tie sentences in knots to perform the complexity of which he writes, Hazzard distills deceptively subtle recognitions into short, compact, even clipped sentences. Of the girls' bitter elder sister, for instance, Hazzard writes, "Meaning was acoustical, ringing out, shaping inflections, filling silences. Grievances were statistical: 'They only invited me once in two years.' 'In all that time I was there to tea exactly twice.'" Passages like this one litter The Transit of Venus, whose cumulative effect is one of enormous emotional and stylistic complexity. The novel cannot be read quickly and still be read well. Its nuance demands a dipping method of reading, in which the reader stops reading frequently to consider what she has just read, and in which the reader routinely disrupts her forward progress to reread a passage whose precision cannot fully be grasped at once. It's a rare and exquisite pleasure to read this way and to be rewarded for it, a reminder that nothing is ever bland, and that the closer one attends to the details of life, the more there is to see, to know, and to feel.
I'm coming to the end of The Transit of Venus, at which point I will require a sorbet of an entirely different stylistic sort. Great fiction always works this way--one hallmark of its power is that you can't read anything else afterward, not even more books by the same writer, unless and until you've cleansed your literary palate. Recommendations are welcome.
January 14, 2005
Double standards in Florida
In a remarkable display of repression and double standards, a Florida public college has prohibited a Christian student group from showing The Passion of the Christ on campus. The school justified its actions by expressing a fear that high school kids may ìwander inî to the showing and thus be exposed to the R-rated film. While the college was expressing such concern for young eyes and ears, however, it hosted a publicly performed skit entitled ìF**king for Jesus,î which described simulated sex with ìthe Risen Christ.î In addition, the college has unlawfully ordered that a school official be present at every student organization meeting.
Read the full press release here.
Let there be light
From the Associated Press:
ATLANTA - A federal judge Thursday ordered a suburban Atlanta school system to remove stickers from its high school biology textbooks that call evolution ìa theory, not a fact,î saying the disclaimers are an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
ìBy denigrating evolution, the school board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof, even though the sticker does not specifically reference any alternative theories,î U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper said.
The stickers were put inside the booksí front covers by public school officials in Cobb County in 2002. They read: ìThis textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.î
ìThis is a great day for Cobb County students,î said Michael Manely, an attorney for the parents who sued over the stickers. ìTheyíre going to be permitted to learn science unadulterated by religious dogma.î
In a statement, the school board said it was disappointed by the ruling and will decide whether to appeal. A board spokesman said no decision had been made on when, or if, the stickers would be removed.
ìThe textbook stickers are a reasonable and evenhanded guide to science instruction and encouraging students to be critical thinkers,î the board said.
The stickers were placed in the books at the behest of parents, whose religious values distorted their ability to recognize the substantive differences between creationism and evolutionary theory. Cloaking their religious activism as a push for tolerance, they used the relativistic jargon so characteristic of contemporary moral debate to forward their own absolutist agenda. The trial judge saw right through that one, arguing that ìWhile evolution is subject to criticism, particularly with respect to the mechanism by which it occurred, the sticker misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community.î Good for him.
Thanks to Maurice Black for the link.
January 10, 2005
Forgotten moments in the history of reading
City Journal is running a fascinating piece by Jonathan Rose on the role the classics have historically played in the lives of working people. Rose's largest and least interesting quarry is the academic literary establishment, which he argues is woefully and narcissistically out of touch with the people. But along the way, Rose assembles some fascinating anecdotes about the reading habits of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English miners, maids, millers, and more:
Will Crooks (b. 1852), a cooper living in extreme poverty in East London, once spent tuppence on a secondhand Iliad, and was dazzled: "What a revelation it was to me! Pictures of romance and beauty I had never dreamed of suddenly opened up before my eyes. I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury for a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs of ancient Greece." Nancy Sharman (b. 1925) recalled that her mother, a Southampton charwoman, had no time to read until her last illness, at age 54. Then she devoured the complete works of Shakespeare, and "mentioned pointedly to me that if anything should happen to her, she wished to donate the cornea of her eyes to enable some other unfortunate to read." Margaret Perry (b. 1922) wrote of her mother, a Nottingham dressmaker: "The public library was her salvation. She read four or five books a week all her life but had no one to discuss them with. She had read all the classics several times over in her youth and again in later years, and the library had a job to keep her supplied with current publications. Married to a different man, she could have been an intelligent and interesting woman."
Shakespeare provided a political script for labor leaders like J. R. Clynes (b. 1869), who rose from the textile mills of Oldham to become deputy leader of the House of Commons. In his youth he drew inspiration from the "strange truth" he discovered in Twelfth Night: "Be not afraid of greatness." "What a creed!" he marveled. "How it would upset the world if men lived up to it." Later, reading Julius Caesar, "the realisation came suddenly to me that it was a mighty political drama" about the class struggle, "not just an entertainment." Once he overawed a stubborn employer by reciting an entire scene from the play: Clynes, as a friend put it, was "the only man who ever settled a trade dispute by citing Shakespeare." Elected to Parliament in 1906, he read A Midsummer Night's Dream while awaiting the returns.
Of course, a century ago elementary schools for the British working classes were in many ways grossly inadequate. Classrooms were crowded and under-equipped, discipline was enforced by the cane, and lessons emphasized rote memorization. But the schools taught at least one subject remarkably well. "Thinking back, I am amazed at the amount of English literature we absorbed in those four years," recalled Ethel Clark (b. 1909), a Gloucestershire railway worker's daughter, "and I pay tribute to the man [her teacher] who made it possible. . . . Scott, Thackeray, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Rudyard Kipling were but a few authors we had at our finger-tips. How he made the people live again for us!"
Lancashire weaver Elizabeth Blackburn (b. 1902) conceded that "our horizons were very limited and our education, linked up as it was to our economic conditions, provided little room for the cultivation of leisure pursuits. But I left school at thirteen with a sound grounding in the basic arts of communication, reading and writing. . . . I had gained some knowledge of the Bible, a lively interest in literature and, most important, some impetus to learn." If the objective of public education is to create citizens who never stop learning, then Elizabeth Blackburn's school succeeded brilliantly. When she went to work in the mills she memorized, by the rhythm of the looms, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," Milton's "Lycidas," and Gray's Elegy.
Rose goes on to reflect on the documented decline of reading today and to describe the work of contemporary teachers who are finding that the classics retain their appeal among readers for whom more ostensibly "relevant" reading material has no appeal at all. Well worth reading.
January 7, 2005
In his current New York Times column, Paul Krugman likens the present American political scene to a badly written novel:
I've been thinking of writing a political novel. It will be a bad novel because there won't be any nuance: the villains won't just espouse an ideology I disagree with - they'll be hypocrites, cranks and scoundrels.
In my bad novel, a famous moralist who demanded national outrage over an affair and writes best-selling books about virtue will turn out to be hiding an expensive gambling habit. A talk radio host who advocates harsh penalties for drug violators will turn out to be hiding his own drug addiction.
In my bad novel, crusaders for moral values will be driven by strange obsessions. One senator's diatribe against gay marriage will link it to "man on dog" sex. Another will rant about the dangers of lesbians in high school bathrooms.
In my bad novel, the president will choose as head of homeland security a "good man" who turns out to have been the subject of an arrest warrant, who turned an apartment set aside for rescue workers into his personal love nest and who stalked at least one of his ex-lovers.
In my bad novel, a TV personality who claims to stand up for regular Americans against the elite will pay a large settlement in a sexual harassment case, in which he used his position of power to - on second thought, that story is too embarrassing even for a bad novel.
In my bad novel, apologists for the administration will charge foreign policy critics with anti-Semitism. But they will be silent when a prominent conservative declares that "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular."
In my bad novel the administration will use the slogan "support the troops" to suppress criticism of its war policy. But it will ignore repeated complaints that the troops lack armor.
The secretary of defense - another "good man," according to the president - won't even bother signing letters to the families of soldiers killed in action.
Last but not least, in my bad novel the president, who portrays himself as the defender of good against evil, will preside over the widespread use of torture.
How did we find ourselves living in a bad novel? It was not ever thus. Hypocrites, cranks and scoundrels have always been with us, on both sides of the aisle. But 9/11 created an environment some liberals summarize with the acronym Iokiyar: it's O.K. if you're a Republican.
And so on.
I'm less interested in debating Krugman's portrait of American society than in thinking about how he uses the trope of the "bad novel" to frame his most recent indictment of it. Most obviously, Krugman appears to be using that trope to claim--without arguing--that the reality of our moment is not only unbelievable (in the way that any work of fiction, no matter how fine its realism, is by virtue of its generic status automatically unbelievable) but poorly conceived (there is an odd sort of paranoid "writer ex machina" thing going on in Krugman's column that suggests there is a godlike authority of some sort scripting our now, and doing a poor job of it). But there are other layers to Krugman's use of what is admittedly a tired and hackneyed image, and I'm curious to hear readers' thoughts on how that image strikes them as a tool of political critique. Is Krugman just reaching angrily and not that imaginatively for something to fill up his column space? Is there genuine analytical value to his extended metaphor? If so, what do you think that is? If not, how would you characterize the image's utility--or inutility, or futility?
Comments are open, thoughts are welcome.
January 4, 2005
Bits and pieces
I'm awash in work and related activity as school starts up again, so posting will be a bit light for the next few days. But I wanted to point to a couple of fascinating articles, to recommend some excellent reading, and to recommend avoiding some less than excellent reading.
If you are interested in the knotty constitutional questions raised by the juvenile death penalty, check out Adam Liptak's piece in the New York Times. And if you are interested in the knotty historical problems raised by Abraham Lincoln's multiple love affairs with men, check out Gore Vidal's essay in the current Vanity Fair. If you are a fan of Twain's classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, check out Stephen Railton's site on the novel's back story, publication history, and so on. Don't miss the bit about how a naughty-minded illustrator wrought havoc on the first edition when he pornographically altered a drawing in chapter 32.
If you are looking for some fine fiction, I must recommend Don DeLillo's Underworld, an epic examination of Cold War American culture--its obsessions, its paranoias, its sensibilities, dreams, desires, and obliviousnesses--whose studied hyper-timeliness (it was published in 1997) already exudes a strangely dated quality: As monuments to American urban modernity, the Twin Towers are minor characters in DeLillo's novel, appearing to characters studying the New York skyline from various vantage points; the novel knows nothing about the Middle East, so concerned is it with the U.S.' actual and imagined struggle with the Soviet Union for the half century after World War II. In this regard, Underworld--whose chief concern is to think about how we think about, or don't think about, threat--is as prescient of what is to come as it is unaware of it. A fascinating and gorgeous read in its own right, and a genuinely intriguing historical document.
Avoidable: Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons, which I am sorry to say does deserve the bad reviews it got. Wolfe may be a master sociologist of American microcultures, but academe is one microculture whose inner workings he badly bungled.
Not worth the hardback price, but interesting reading if you like to read flawed experiments by great writers: Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. The paranoid plot of a Lindbergh win in 1940, followed by a Hitleresque conversion of the U.S. into a quasi-fascist, anti-Semitic state, following by blissfully quick recovery when Lindbergh's plane disappears and FDR resumes office, just does not work. What does work--and what has been overlooked by reviewers interested in reading the novel as a thinly veiled allegory for our recent presidential elections--is Roth's attempt to write a memoir by way of a paranoid fable. The family in the novel is his; the renderings of detail and character are, by Roth's own account, accurate and true. The best parts of The Plot Against America are the domestic ones, the ones centered on capturing the nostalgically remembered feel of a particular family, living in a particular moment in time, from the vantage point of an old man recollecting himself as a young boy. Like John Steinbeck, who recorded his family's history in the form of a potboiler--East of Eden--Roth is writing autobiography by other means. From that angle, the novel may not exactly work, but it definitely grabs you, makes you think, won't let you go.
UPDATE: Philip Nobile calls the theory that Lincoln was gay a "hoax" and a "fraud." Thanks to Jerry Sternstein for the link.