Category Archives: Rule Britannia

longships

We go a-viking: The Long Ships

Original review, posted April 2012

So, this isn’t entirely a drunk book review, but it’s also not entirely sober. As such, I know I’m not going to bother checking my references and making sure I’m not making stuff up, so fair warning. 

Which is the thing. The Long Ships was written by a Swede (or possibly a Norwegian or a Dane) in the run-up to the second world war, drawing on his fiercely academic background in Old German/English/Norse semi-oral histories, stuff like the Icelandic Sagas, the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, etc. Unlike certain crunchy Oxford dons I can think of, Bengtsson has a super sly sense of humor. He’s not trying to build an Anglo-Saxon mythology that works with his Christian ret-con. Seriously, why I am being so coy here? What I am trying to say is that Bengtsson and J.R.R. Tolkien were both writing at the same time, using the same source materials as their guide posts, but they came home with some seriously different narratives. That Bengtsson is in the dust bin of history, and Tolkien is wherever he is with his name recognition, I can’t say what that means. Something. 

Whatever, moving on. 

So, The Long Ships? I’m again not going to look this up, but I think that Michael Chabon in the introduction called this the “last Victorian novel”. Which is, like, super overheated blurb-fodder, but I get what he was at. There’s something un-psychological un-Modern here. These characters are all recognizably human, and they certainly have their thoughts and motivations, but there’s something charmingly without hand-wringing and deeper purpose in terms of The Psyche here. People are what they are, and things happen, and sometimes these things have anything to do with each other, but mostly they don’t. Plot isn’t discovery; it’s shit that happens. 

Which, can we talk about narrator for a minute? I’ve been reading myself some Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I loves how snide they are. The Beowulf narrator can’t help, when he’s introducing some dude he hates, but warn us that the dude he hates is going to slip on banana peels in the third act and die or worse. He’s gonna get it! But watch him be a jackass now so you can savor it when the banana peels rear up under his heels. The narrator here isn’t as entirely intrusive, but he’s going to let you know that while Orm is rowing as a galley slave, that Orm will get out of it in the end, and it’ll make a good story, don’t worry. And it totally does. This is all good story. 

So, wait, plot? Orm Somethingson leaves his home to go a-viking, gets screwed almost immediately, and in a series of reversals of fortune, ends up as a soldier in Muslim Spain. They he bails and heads back to England/Ireland/Scandinavia, where some stuff happens, mostly involving the Christianization of that area. The first section – and, apparently, this was published as two discrete novels back in the day – is much more rip-roaring, trotting all over Europe, meeting up with Jews and Muslims and Christians, holding turn of the first millennium convos about how god(s) work, getting laid, and plundering booty. Which, fuck yeah. It’s like what Skye O’Malley would have been if that didn’t suck rocks. And donkey balls. Almost literally. 

Book two, or the second section, this was tougher sledding for me. Orm converts to Christianity, and although his conversion is super funny – he’s part of a Viking mission that has England by the short and curlies, and the English king is this total cowardly dork, and I’m not going into it more, because, boring for you – the parts where Orm bolts down in Scandowhereveria and has some babies and fights with his neighbors….zzzzz. Or not entirely zzzzz, but it lacks that broad-stroke of the first section, and as an early second millennium reader, I give Christian converts the stink eye. There’s no fanatic like a convert, as my mother likes to say, though that’s not exactly what happens here. Orm isn’t above beating the holy spirit into folk, which is funny, and his theology, when it runs at odds with the priests’, is sweetly pragmatic. But then we go a-viking again! Boo-yah! There’s not lot of danger here, in the sense that the narrator is warning you that everything will turn out all right, and then it does! Squee! Go Orm and all of his descendants!

And now, off topic. Again, according to sources I am not looking up, Bengtsson refused to let the Nazis publish his books under their occupation (must have been Sweden?) and use them as propaganda. Which, interestingly, nor did Tolkien allow the Allies to use Middle Earth as a propaganda tool.* (Which I’m also not looking up, but I’m fairly sure it’s true. Jesus, can you imagine how effective propaganda based on his sort of Teutonic Christianity would have been? Shudder.) I mean, we probably would have forgiven Tolkien in hindsight, should he engage in propaganda for the winning (and non-Nazi, in all fairness) side, but, interestingly, I think Bengtsson’s work is less suited to propaganda. Orm is living in a much more pluralistic society than Middle Earth, regardless of the varying versions of Western Christian societies that peopled that realm: Rohan, Gondor, The Shire. (Which can be read as Anglo-Saxons, Renaissance Italians, and the bucolic English.) Orm’s latent paganism is all over everything he does, even when embraces the True Faith and all that. Orm abides. Dude. 

An interesting book, and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I’m not going to say it wasn’t trying at times. I’m still not through worrying the idea that this is a Victorian novel, because I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but I’m not sure how to articulate why. Certainly this is no psychological journey, Freud’s grubby hand-prints all over the action and its meaning. But it’s not sentimental either, which I think you can see heaped in huge flowering beds all over (some) Victorian novels. There’s no moral to the story. No coda. No gloss. So I think I’m going to call bullshit on this being a Victorian novel. I can’t say this is Modernist or post-Modernist or anything else though, which makes it incredibly cool and weird. 

Also, there’s a lot of beards. If you like beards, this is for you. Beardo.

 

*Update, Jan 2015:

Not long after I wrote this, I realized my little tossed off comment about Tolkien and WWII propaganda cannot be true: Lord of the Rings wasn’t published into the early 1950s, though of course it was written during the War, and most certainly drew upon JRRT’s experiences in the previous world war. (What exactly that influence is, you may quibble amongst yourselves.  For sure the Dead Marshes, at the very least, are a WWI reference, as is much of the relationship between Sam and Frodo.)

In the interest of fact-checking previous drunken me’s assertions — I know I must have read somewhere about how Tolkien managed the political application of his Middle Earth, as far as he was able — I googled “Tolkien propaganda”. I got a lot of stuff in German and some other blather. Not looking too closely, I clicked on a link called “Tolkien, his Dwarves, and the Jews”. I’m reading through, getting more and more worried by the antisemitic tone of this thing, when I realize I’m on a white supremacist message board. Ye gads! What the actual fuck!? Get me out of here!!!1!

After nuking my browser and clearing any and all fucking cookies, I can’t quote exactly what these shitheels were saying, but suffice it to say it’s not good. They quote Tolkien saying that the dwarves were modeled after Jews, which surprises the white supremacist. Don’t the dwarves have honor and stuff? And Jews obviously do not, etc, gag. If indeed Tolkien modeled dwarves after Jews — which I don’t find hard to believe, shitty source notwithstanding — then there are a number of troubling implications of this equation.

I’ll try not to get too nerdy here, but let’s just realize how far down the nerd hole we are already. So, basically, Middle Earth is a religious cosmology — we won’t say allegory — in which the main deity, Eru Ilúvatar, creates the races of Elves and Men. The race of Dwarves is created by a demi-god — a sort of Hephaestian character — called Aulë. As such, they’re lesser order beings, imperfect copies of perfect creations. Like Ents or Orcs, who were also created by beings other than Eru Ilúvatar, they struggle with sterility and a bent towards beastliness, tending back to the non-sentient animism of their origin. Eru Ilúvatar eventually gives the Dwarves sapience, but this doesn’t really overturn their origins. Which is why the equation of Dwarves with the Jews is…let’s just use the bullshit term “problematic”.

I’m losing my point here, and mostly I’m just freaking out at Tolkien being used by violent racists to bolster their cause. Oh, I know what my point was! It’s one of those old hoary chestnuts of criticism that “you can’t judge literature from the past with the sensibilities of the present argle bargle”. To which I say, bullshit. I can do anything I want, motherfucker, and if what I want to do is decide that Tolkien’s “races” are treading dangerously close to racial biological determinism and its attendant social violence, then I can do that in the privacy of my own home. And I mos def have both the textual and extra-textual evidence to back that up. It’s not like I’m making shit up; even the white supremacists see it.

But! This determination is a slightly different thing than using Tolkien — or any other writer — and his (admittedly historically determined) blindspots and straight up prejudices as propaganda in perpetuating such diseased worldviews. There is a lot I love about Tolkien, from his shitty poetry to his linguistic ardor for English and a half a dozen other dead languages, but this 1) doesn’t make me blind to his failings and 2) doesn’t mean if I love the baby I need to drink the bathwater. After the LotR movies came out, a bunch of the actors, of myriad political inclinations, came out with various “Tolkien said this or that about politics” statements. To which I say, who gives a shit? I don’t base my political opinions on what my racist great-uncle said about the War, or Jews, or whatever — and dude said plenty, I assure you, and it was all awful — and I’m not going to base my opinions on someone else’s great-uncle either, even if I love his poetry. The personal is the political, sure, but not the other way around.

 

Bray House 1919-3

Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

There my be something about the experience of writing in Ireland that drives writers into exile. For every Yeats who holes up in a castle in County Sligo at the end of his days, there’s a Joyce or Beckett or Shaw or Wilde who leaves Ireland and doesn’t so much not look back as look back with love and pride and revulsion and irritation, look back compulsively and minutely. (Although, arguably, Yeats didn’t really live in Ireland either. He lived in a magical place called Yeatsland.) The Irelands of these writers are mirages of the retreating horizon, full of equal measures of hate and longing. Like the bragging protagonist in “Playboy of the Western World,” Irish writers conjure and murder their Irish father again and again, but the joke’s on them when Ireland continues to plug along in its Irish way, spitting out more exile-artists from the fertile ground of lost and sublimated languages, religion, peat smoke, and god knows what all. 

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is not just Irish, but the kind of Irish that has an unpronounceable Irish name with the little thingy over some of the vowels. When she looks back, she doesn’t turn into a pillar of salt, Ireland does. She nukes it to a hard uninhabitable crust of ash and loss, and then catalogs its innards with the fine and almost-loving hands of an anthropologist scrying meaning from a collection of everyday objects and unfinished lives. Set in an ecologically devastated future, The Bray House is the first-person account of a Swedish academic, Robin, who organizes a expedition to return to Ireland and excavate one house out of the nuclear wasteland that is now Ireland. (When I said Ní Dhuibhne nuked Ireland, I wasn’t being funny; a series of nuclear accidents some time before the events of the book utterly destroyed the British Isles.)

It seems very rare to me that writers create truly horrible, unlikeable characters. Now that I say that, I realize that statement needs some clarification. There are plenty of unlikeable sorts in lit, but they’re usually shot through with some kind of redemptive humanity, some moment where they stand below the prostitute’s window and realize she’s a better person, and has been all along. (Having read Lolita, I understand that HH can bring the serious lulz.) I can see why authors wouldn’t want to do this. Not because they shy from the unlikeable and dishonest, but because who really wants to bring a creature like that into being, think like them, craft words they’d use? Blech. It was bad enough listening to Robin spin her entirely untrustworthy narrative of what happened on the expedition, what things she lost and found, what the events meant. I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to craft her voice, construct her guts and her lies. 

I don’t care much about plot, and I get the impression that the author didn’t either, but someone told her she should. This is too bad, because there are some things that happen that felt unnecessary or overly metaphoric, simply for the sake of having some events. The ending shows a restraint that many authors can’t muster though, although I won’t say too much more for fear of spoilers. The part that absolutely killed me was the little anthropological whaling section in the middle, written in dry academicese, that details the contents of the house they excavated, divines the characters of its inhabitants, and conjures the culture of Ireland in the moments before it vanished. It’s like the cast of the lovers from Pompeii, encased in ash and burned away, found later when archaeologists poured plaster into the voids. Robin isn’t a plaster person; she’s worse than this. She’s real and talking back at us from the void. It’s not a plaster Ireland, it’s sadder than this. 

When Americans annihilate our home country in fiction, we get Jerry Bruckheimer to direct, pack the White House with gasoline and a timer, and hire Charleton Heston and Will Smith to pose heroically in the foreground. It’s not a conflagration so much as a cook-out, a chance for neighbors to gab while the neighbor’s house burns to the ground. Such a pity! I envy the way the Irish return to their Irelands, a concrete and shifting mirage of conditional statements: might have been, was possible once, could be soon. As a nation of immigrants, we Americans are always arriving, finding new Americas when we cast off the old. Ireland is written by a nation of artists in exile, who keep trying to set the plaster while the dust shifts.

soma

Built Ford Tough: Brave New World

I have this little theory — a “little theory” being one of those half-assed ideas one has that won’t stand up to scrutiny — that a person can have either a Macbeth English major or a Hamlet English major. I myself had theMacbeth kind, having read the Scottish play three times for various classes during undergrad, and never once Hamlet. (In fact, I have never read Hamlet, though I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times.) That Macbeth was the thing when I was in school says something about the pulse of that moment in time. Maybe it’s too histrionic to see something in my profs choosing the Macbeths and their overreaching pas de deux over Hamlet’s leaderly meltdown during the Clinton era, but then again, maybe not.This little theory falls apart once I factor in the twice-read Tempest or King Lear– it’s silly to decant ones formative Shakespeare into two plays, and then roshambo — but like all little theories, I do cleave to it inordinately.

To stretch this little theory a bit, I see this kind of small theoretical split in a bunch of sub-genres: The Yearling or Old Yeller, in the dead animal department; Monty Python or Hitchhiker’s Guide, in ye 70s British humor department; and for the purposes of this essay, 1984 or Brave New World in your classic dystopia department. People tend to have read one or the other, and if both are read, the one you encountered earliest is the one you prefer. I had a 1984 childhood, finishing that book on a bus back from a school trip to Quebec, and feeling that bullet right in my brain. It’s entirely possible that I would feel the same way about Brave New World if I’d read it at the time — the adolescent brain being what it is — but I didn’t. Instead, Huxley’s classic had to contend with dreary old me, a me that couldn’t ever get a leg over. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy many facets of Brave New World, but just that much of my enjoyment was at arm’s length — ironic, critical, or historical — and not in the moment of narrative. It was worth reading to be read, and not in the reading of it. Ah, my lost youth.

I was honestly surprised at how science fictional the opening was. There’s a whole lot of technobabble and der blinken lights, mouthpiece characters yammering on about how the axlotl tanks work and embryonic division and sleep hypnosis and the like. I feel like — and this could be certainly another “little theory”, but bear with me — contemporary literary fiction tends to avoid hard science trappings, lest one get genre cooties all over one’s magnum opus (cf. The Road, Zone One, et al.) Huxley’s got no squeamishness about that, and his future has the hard patina of 30s futurism, all aeronautics and chemistry. I was recently regaling a friend about Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum”, and its elucidation of the semiotic phantom of  “American streamline Moderne” that gets the story’s narrator so twitterpated. Which, whoa.

The future of the past is a detritus we all live with — in our nostalgia and anxiety dreams — and it’s odd to see such an early one, such an embryonic one: 1932, before the Great War that informed 1984, before any of the other condensed catastrophes of the world we inhabit now. I found the way Huxley is taking aim at American consumerism — the social engineers are called “Fords”, and there are a variety of almost funny jokes about this — and Soviet authoritarianism — Lenina is our almost heroine — just touching. I can’t imagine a contemporary writer cutting these two things together; they’ve been too solidly set as a dialectic in the interregnum. Plus, none of these things mean the same anymore anyway. I mean, the first Stalinist purges had just happened a few years before Brave New World, but these early purges didn’t involve arrest and death like they would later, starting with the Great Purge of 1936. They were ideological litmus tests, sure, but Stalin had not yet begun to dream of the gulag and all the other nightmares that have since been associated with (at least) Soviet communist. And Ford had not yet begun collaborating with the fucking Nazis, because the Brownshirts were still just vigilante skinheads. Anyway.

The part that made me lose my shit was when our cheerful fordians spend a weekend in the “human reservation” somewhere in the American southwest, probably Arizona, which is peopled with folk who look a lot like the Pueblo people of the American Southwest. Americans certainly have a kinky view of the native peoples of North America: in historical contexts, there’s this spiritual largess afforded conquered people, and in modern ones, an irritation that aboriginal Americans continue to exist. Why do you still keep making claims to shit we legit conquered you for, noble savage? It’s not dissimilar to a British view of colonial artifacts: certainly the Greeks cannot be trusted to caretake the Elgin Parthenon Marbles. Huxley’s description of the reservation hews to this, with an irritation towards pagan “superstition” and general backwardsness, married to a strange in-the-reverse satire of sterile “progress”.

The story of John the Savage — the Englishman born in the reservation — ends up being this completely bananas expression of an inherent Englishness. Though born into the community, he somehow has problems with the language and never quite fits in. (Though, admittedly, some of this is his mom being the town drunk and whore, if you’ll excuse the expression.) I’ve known a lot of children of immigrants, and they know English as well as I; it’s their first language too. He’s given the collected works of Shakespeare at some point, and, like Frankenstein’s monster lurking at the edges of English society, somehow manages to divine the history of Christianity, all the trappings of traditional gender roles, and Romantic love. Which he then hews to when confronted by fordian society, like British culture is something that can be activated by a book, regardless of where you were raised. At least given the right blood quantum, to filch nomenclature from the American reservation.

It’s a trip watching John freak out when the woman he’s decided to courtly love propositions him sexually: omg, good girls don’t even do that!! Casual sex is super bad for you!! I get the impression I’m supposed to agree, and put in context of the fordian society which constantly describes women as “pneumatic” I kinda do, but I really don’t. It’s a false binary: harsh traditionalism or completely freewheeling sluttery. I’m not even going to go into all the feminist virgin/whore stuff, and you are welcome to fill it in yourself. Suffice it to say when John meets his inevitable end [uh, spoiler, except not really, because we can all see where this is going] in a welter of OH DO YOU SEE, I couldn’t do much more than laugh cynically. I was happy just to be done with all the fucking speachifying that typifies the end, good Lord.

I’m just going to note here, briefly, that the racial categories in the fordian society are completely fucked. While there are moments when I felt this was meant satirically, there are at least as many, if not more, where I felt it was not. Emphatically.

So. Strange New World is a trip, and I recommend a pass at it if you’re into the history of science fiction or the social satire, or where those two things connect, but I’ve gotta say it’s not aging too well. While I appreciate the ways Huxley anticipated the soporific effects of media on labor — and, weirdly, the horror of the paparazzi — his satire is bound by the rules of the day, as all satire is. That’s the sad thing about satire, which bites best when it’s specific, situated, in the moment, but then the moment moves on and it’s left as a relic, a joke that has to be explained to get the punchline. Same goes for horror and comedy, which says something about all of them.

Dearly Departed

Dearly, Departed

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

 

Now, I admit my upbringing was in some ways unorthodox (and in other ways completely not), but this was a favorite aphorism of my mother’s. It comes from the climax of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by St Flannery O’Connor. The Misfit has just murdered an entire family while they were on a road trip, ending in the death of the grandma. She’s a horrible old bitty who doesn’t deserve to be gunned down on the side of the road, but maybe it’s also not the biggest tragedy ever either. But, you know, violence is cathartic and purifying, at least in St Flannery’s brutal theologies, so the horrid grandma has a humanistic epiphany at the barrel of a gun. Baptism by drowning, the last moments as your lungs constrict and your eyelids flash and flutter, reborn as your best self right before you die.

 

I think of this quote every time I encounter something that has all this incredible potential — this heat of possibility — and then it spins out into something more dreary and obvious. Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel has a shitton of potential, for me anyway, being as it is a steampunk zombie novel. Steampunk is maybe more problematic for me, in that I have undertaken its perusal because of my husband’s interests more than my own, but I am all over zombies all day. Both zombie and steampunk narratives often deal in social stratification, though obviously to very different ends. Smooshing them together could be fruitful in examining a rigidly class based society, but I know well enough not to expect such a thing, especially after Deck Z.

 

Occasionally this novel hits a mild frisson of this cultural examination, but mostly it opts for the spunky heroine and glaring infodumps over, like, insight. I was okay with the spunky heroine — she is a creature too ubiquitous to truly criticize — but the infodumps killed me. Apparently (and I use this adverb when I’m being an asshole), peak oil and maybe a nuclear devastation and probably the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone lead to everyone heading south to central America, where some folk recreated the Victorians, and some other folk did not. I just…this was one of many situations where the explanations for the universe killed me, even if the universe did not. I’m going to accept your fictional world if you don’t overexplain, because the minute you do, I’m like, hold the phone. No, no, no. The world-building needed to be shot every day of its life.

 

This aside, Habel did get into some interesting stuff about the ways the lower classes are used against themselves, and as fodder for border warfare as a stand in for class warfare. The set up is that there is a border skirmish between the Vickies and the Punks, and a zombie outbreak has been bubbling in this DMZ, alternately used as biological warfare and “shock and awe”. The zombies in this universe go rabid, but after a time they resettle with their former personalities intact. The zombie soldiers were well realized, suffering both from the trauma of warfare, and from the guilt of their actions while rabid.

 

“Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”

The problem is sartorial, in the end. Steampunk, maybe at its most basic, must dress a certain way to be steampunk. There will be corsets and umbrellas and bustles, and there must be the cruel social architecture to justify such a costume (cf. the museum exhibit Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century.) Habel does a fair amount of pushback against the social stratification — more than the usual, well, duh, of course a rigidly stratified society is unfair kind you see in steampunk — but I think trips over the skirts of gender politics. Her heroines are the usual spunky middle class ladies who behave almost entirely like modern girls, but there’s all this hand-waving to gender norms that just couldn’t produce such a creature. They put on the clothes, but it didn’t do more than touch their skin.

 

I’ve been burbling along with all my socioeconomic whatnot, and I feel like I should say I totally get that this is a steampunk romance zombie novel written for teens. My bitch isn’t that this book isn’t more than it is. It is what it is, and moreover, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the turns and twists. All this aside, my real problem is the romance between a living girl and a walking decomposing corpse. (Admittedly, these zombies are more desiccated than rotting; still.) Habel honestly gave it the college try, and their courtship — taking place, as it does, like Pyramus and Thisbe, through a wall — was honestly sweet. But it’s like the ultimate catfish to find out that dude’s a corpse who doesn’t have the requisite blood flow to, you know.

 

Tons of women lost their damn minds over Edward Cullen’s cold, lifeless body, so I think there’s probably something to say about the sexualization of undead flesh, especially in teen fiction. (Warm Bodies tried too; ugh.) There could be something here, probably, about love and sexual desire and the death wish in adolescence, etc, but I felt like Habel was too busy selling it as not-gross and self-evidently kinda racist to think this pairing might be squicky. I guess I’m not buying it on those terms, and I can’t get past my shudder at the thought of making out with cold, blue lips. Maybe this could have been twisted in such a way to turn my revulsion back on me, but it wasn’t. I’d pay good money to see such a thing though.

 

And then shoot it every day of its life.

 

So that you would know it was a lady.

 

Fran and Ed

For There She Was: Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway is a hard book to write about, for me. I read this on planes, and not on foot, in hard tubes that bolt up into the blue and down again into the strange sameness of airports; surrounded by strangers and boredom; trying to mask my weeping, coughing back my laughter; the phones off; the world insubstantial and patchy out the window of the plane. Wrong. I should have been walking, but then maybe flying is the better metaphor for Woolf’s strange prose, her perfect movement. At the end, wrung out after a week on vacation, I cried and pushed my head into my husband’s shoulder. We talked. I tried to convey why I was crying, but it’s all so inexplicable. Not sadness. Not sadness. Something more like the pain of recognition; the joy of disconnect; the shock of understanding.

Ten days before my husband and I married, twelve years ago this month, my grandfather died. My mother, in whose house we were to marry, was in Ireland. My sister, who was to be my only bridesmaid, was sick, so sick, ensconced in my mother’s bedroom. I would go there daily, more often if I could, and drop off videotapes of movies for her to watch, clear the dishes. She spent so much time lying down that her face swelled with uncirculated blood, narrowing her eyes to a squint.

Two days before he died he called me from the hospital, and we held a confusing conversation. He kept talking to nurses while talking to me, until he abruptly cut off the conversation and hung up. I tried to say I love you, but it was never said, or only said to the dead air on the phone. I cried then, cried hard, and I can see my not-yet-husband’s face while I wept into my hands alive with compassion and helplessness. He never did meet Grandpa. This week, in a shop in New Mexico, I looked over a set of string-ties, felt them with my hands, and told my husband that Grandpa would have loved these. I thought of his neck.

Grandma called to tell me he died. She told me not to tell my mother, not to disrupt her trip. Mum called me that evening, and I tried to lie, stupidly, bowing to the wishes of a woman who had lost her husband. I was strange, horrible. She called Grandma, who told her herself. Mum called back, and I confessed, broke it all over cords that run under the cold Atlantic all the way to Ireland. She was a daughter; I was a daughter; we owe these things to one another. That act of silence was the worst thing I’ve ever done.

I found myself in Homestead, that homely, ghostly town, in the week before my wedding running the strange minutia of a funeral that is in profound & exact correlation with the detail of a wedding. There is music, and an officiant; an afternoon going through poetry to find the poem to read; a caterer, a church, a house. The front row cordoned off for the old women; hats; nylon stockings; shoes. My father, my mother’s ex-husband, in my grandfather’s suit reading Fern Hill to a room of people. To me.

“Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

We took my grandfather’s giant, metal car though the car wash before the funeral. He had always loved those grandfatherly Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, the seat belts belted to themselves so the warning lights wouldn’t chide him to buckle up. The car wash attendant, upon hearing of our loss, testified to Jesus. My atheism is soft – a lost tooth or a missing thumb – but I felt his foaming compassion in those imaginary fingers, in that void in my bite, in a way I have never before or since. He admired the car, and I think, had we not planned to drive that soul-body to the funeral, I would have given the keys to him and walked.

I married him, my husband, ten days later, in my mother’s house, with my sister, in a small miracle, by my side. During the reading of one of the poems, the Edna St. Vincent Millay I’d chosen before death sat me down to remind me of impermanence, I reached my hand back and found her hand and held it as hard as I could.

“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.”

Maybe families are accidental, maybe. But maybe not. My sister dreamed of him, our Grandpa, the night he died, unknowing of his death. She went to the attic and looked through old pictures. When I told her he was gone, we sat on the floor and she recreated her steps that night: my mother as a child; the pictures of the family car, my grandmother stylish and stunning in her fur-trimmed jackets in front; trips to Florida; unremembered friends. We didn’t cry, but talked, and it was like crying in its release. I would be on a plane within a day, and land down into the Homestead of grief, into the city of loss. My sister was too sick to come.

Mrs. Dalloway makes me think of this, makes me think of me. It’s shocking to find me there, in London, planning a party, this inconsequential thing; to find me in London, moving, and also far above the earth. She went out to buy some flowers and napped; she ran into an old lover; the party happened and was marred & perfected by death. It’s dangerous and egotistical to find meaning in events. My grandfather did not live and die so that I could be reminded of this long string of being, this ineffable web, but I couldn’t help thinking it at the time, and can’t help drawing the narrative that way now. It writes itself, our lives, my life. A life is not symbolic. The truth is unflattering and lacks the grammar of logic, but it moves in beauty and the snapped sentences of emotion. I have my stupidity for comfort, my unintellectual love, the unthinking feelings of connection and desertion.

“‘I will come,’ said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?

It is Clarissa, he said.

For there she was.”

 

Four Quartets

fourquartets

I am sure that the scholarship on this work must be legion. I am sure that it has approached Ulysses levels of annotation of every line, of AS Byatt’s mockery of the Ash Factory chasing down every half illusion for a quarter century. I am sure that it is of the highest quality and that in the years to come, I will delight in pouring over every line of it and forming opinions of my own.

For now, I have read none of it. I have no idea if anything I am about to write is true, or comes anywhere close to the poet’s intentions or his feelings when he wrote it. And that’s exactly the way that I wanted it. As a wonderful fictional lady once said, Forgive its faults, forgive me…., but this time… this time it was just between me and whatever phantasms, images and impressions I have gathered. There’s time enough for me to be correct.

For now, I just wanted to be true.

Burnt Norton

Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
He saw the cities–mapped the minds–of many;
and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
adversity–to keep his life intact,
to bring his comrades back.

-          The Odyssey, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Word games. That’s probably what your first quick glance at the opening lines of this quartet would reveal. Just simplistic word reversion like the most typical Wildean wit, but taking itself so seriously that there’s no possibility of a punchline coming. It’s all nonsense isn’t it? You’re playing with me. You don’t want me here, not if your welcome mat is this:

“Time present and time past,

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past,

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.”

God, I can hear the judging starting now- pretentious twaddle, What are you even on about?, Say what you mean, Ugh- this is why I don’t like poetry I may not know much about TS Eliot, but even I know enough from my short acquaintance to know that he is famously overeducated- if there is such a thing-  I know that I don’t need another project, some puzzle to unwind-

No. Please. Stop. Just stop. Stop and read a little farther with me.

None of it could be farther from the truth. Please keep reading and give him a chance to welcome you properly, let him lead you the way it should be done, let him speak slow and measured and hold out a hand:

“… Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Toward the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

                                                But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

                                Other echoes

Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them

Round the corner. Through the first gate

Into our first world, shall we follow…”

It’s not a word game at all. It isn’t something pretentious, something modern and new and twisted into form to dance for the sake of dancing in a new fashion. It’s the oldest thing there is- it’s an incantation, a prologue. It’s the words that break you out of whatever world you’re in and guide you into the one where you should be. Eliot starts with something gentle, something we’re used to from fairy stories and nursery rhymes from our childhood- the talking animal, the wilderness tamed in a garden that offers artificial enchantments, necessary and fenced in politely:

“And the bird called, in response to

The unheard music in the shrubbery

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting

So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern…

To look down at the drained pool.

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,

And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly

The surface glittered out of the heart of light

And they were behind us reflected in the pool

Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

 

Go, go, go said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality….”

Now we have passed into another realm and the light has changed, it has dappled around us, so now we can begin to speak of the magic underneath the reality, the blood magic that is no longer so polite, with harder words and harder truths gathered in among his continued recital, with syllables that are no longer quite so smooth or reassuring, but have begun to form, gradually, the rhythms of a chant:

 “Garlic and sapphires in the mud

Clot the bedded axle-tree

The trilling wire in the blood

Sings below inveterate scars

Appeasing long-forgotten wars.

The dance along the artery

The circulation of the lymph

Are figured in the drift of stars…”

Garlic and sapphires, a witch’s brew. “Clot,” a hard effect for a soft “bedded” tree- a modern “wire” introduced among the blood, words that are no longer so conversational, but have instead acquired the rhythms of poetry, the sounds and parts that echo off each other gently and loudly and pause only on the word where it seems eminently suitable for them to do so.

And then there’s an invocation, an incantation, where we all join hands and circle faster around the fire and jump in its shadows, speeding up in perfect unison:

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point….”

… of the turning world , never said, just understood in a blank space as the chant continues, hoping for “inner freedom from practical desire,” “by a grace of sense, a white light still and moving”.

Then we get back to the part everyone knows, the Our Father that we know we will be reciting in many languages without needing to know what the person next to us is saying before too long. It’s recited with a driving intensity, a continuous beat, but softly, softly:

 “Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future

Only through time is time conquered…”

And he has us now. We’re moving with him wherever he needs to show us- his rhythmic, circular structure is quickly interrupted by a slideshow of striking imagery delivered immediately on the other side of the rabbit hole:

“Only a flicker over the strained time ridden faces….. Distracted from distraction by distractions… Tumid apathy with no concentration… Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind that blows before and after time…  fingers of yew be curled… After the kingfisher’s wing has answered light to light, and is silent the light is still and the still point of the turning world…”

And see, there, he keeps it controlled, he brings us back on-point, on the path, so we don’t go too far into someone else’s fancies, but stay inside a tightly controlled series of opposites that blend.

We end, once again, in seeming simplicity, moving en pointe, delicately, half-inch by half-inch across a tiled floor filled with eggshells, as Eliot lays out our problem and our hopes for us:

“Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being.

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight.”

And…. There you are.

Where is that? Tell me, please. For myself… nowhere near where I started from, in the strict physical sense, but everywhere that I dream. Everywhere that I escape to in music and film and art. Everywhere that is too intense to live all the time, but which gives the beauty and the impetus to the everyday that we seek out between the cracks. This is falling through those cracks to that place.

This section should be read over opening orienting shots and montages that lead us into quiet end credits. It should be read calmly from an audiobook out of the radio in Wallander’s solitary Sweden, it should be sung throughout the opening five minutes of Melancholia- Wagner’s got nothing on it. It should be read like a prayer from the pulpit and turned into a Gregorian chant. It’s the words that should fill the silence when you look at a truly great landscape for the first time and there’s all that space just sitting there.

This section is the key, the rusty key to the garden gate that we haven’t found in years.

***

East Coker

“For the spell is older than experience. For the tale is older than the record.”

- Marina Tsvetaeva

After an opening section so determined to transport us, to translate us to somewhere else strange and yet entirely familiar in ways we would not expect, it makes sense that our next subject is history. We invoked the muse and now we must give her something to sing about- so then this moves into the other oldest kind of tale- the epic poem, the historical chronicle beautifully told:

“Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended.

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires

Old fires to ashes and ashes to earth…

Houses live and die: there is a time for building

And a time for living and for generation

And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane

And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots…”

Rot, decay, recycle, reuse, begin again in the same pattern, mourn the loss and preserve the monuments… there’s a roundup of historical notions, negative and giving all round up into one. The time passing sense in a straightforward stanza, nonetheless placing us in the here and now, “leaning against a bank while a van passes/And the deep lane insists on the direction/Into the village, in the electric heat/Hypnotised.”

But Eliot is true to his slippery relationship with time and takes us back and beyond those more common reasons for “history,” for the record of materials put together in pleasing fashion to be remembered, as a record of man’s industry and the rise and fall of civilizations, back to something more elemental and essential- the slippery nature of chronological time when all the timeless things are what matter

“In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire….”

I don’t have to go on- you know where it’s going. Pure Catholic paganistic fascination- perhaps. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is only ruin lust carried over into the middle of the twentieth century after a horror show that forced it back into the front and center, but that’s not all of it. It’s still about time, and it’s even more so about Eliot rejecting history itself as complete bullshit. Experience doesn’t get you a goddamn thing, and no one is going to learn from it the next time- especially not you- you’re too old to profit from it:

“There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience

The knowledge imposes a pattern and falsifies,

For the pattern is new in every moment

And every moment is a new and shocking

Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived

Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.

In the middle, not only in the middle of the way

But all the way, in a dark wood in a bramble…”

What is the use, he asks, of history? History is nothing, not next to myth. Not next to the story. Not next to the eternal things that I can stop telling you about five lines in because you can fill in the rest.  History will teach us nothing and the democracy of death will take us all after which it will mean nothing to God who you were.

I love that with the greatest of poets, the greatest of writers, touched by even a hint of Catholicism (and it may not even be all they possess- and it is not at all with Eliot- eastern religions and paganism and doctrinal protestant preaching brimstone is all in there)…. it all comes down to love. It’s all a nursery rhyme in the end, a catechism to remind us:

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting,

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing

Whisper of running streams and winter lightning

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy…”

 

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

 

It’s NEVER more complicated than that. History couldn’t possibly matter less next to that, but we get lost in it, we forget the essentials, we get too bound up with the van and the electricity and we forget the mystery- for a man like this, the Mystery.

Don’t you see? All that matters is

“The houses have gone under the sea.

The dancers have gone under the hill.”

And we’ll never recover from that.

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

 

The Dry Salvages

First Voice

‘But why drives on that ship so fast,

Without or wave or wind?’

 

Second Voice

‘The air is cut away before,

And closes from behind.

 

Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!

Or we shall be belated:

For slow and slow that ship will go,

When the Mariner’s trance is abated.’

-Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Sea, The Sea… there is no framing needed for this section other than that. There’s no formal structure other than the seafaring tale. It’s a brilliant choice for two opening sections so bounded by ancient, formal rules and so immediately engaged with discourse, with human speech and record and sound, to free itself by taking to the waves.

Eliot wanted to put us back in touch with the Mystery in the last section- to make use remember what is wild and untamable and untouchable and unforgettable- and being forgotten. He lived through a time that was broken and broken again until it seemed all the threads had been cut and we began again, Modern Man, anew, without history to bind us, of course.. but without history to steady us and steer us and embrace us close.

He wants to give us back what matters- the threads that, we have to realize, can never be cut, the things that will always continue, whether we like them or not. Experience is bullshit and aging is a lying thief, but continuity and recognition is there, and will always be there, despairingly. And what better place to realize that than The Sea, The Sea:

“Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing

Into the wind’s tail, where the fog cowers?

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless…”

It is not all irredeemable, though, not if you can live through it and realize that you might have

“had the experience but missed the meaning

and approach to the meaning restores the experience….

Past experience revived in the meaning

Is not the experience of one life only

But of many generations-not forgetting something that is probably quite ineffable:

The backward look behind the assurance of recorded history,

over the shoulder, towards primitive terror…”

But we don’t do that. We live in experience, our bodies connect the moment with what is happening and we process it through our senses the way we were meant to do and we can only say what our senses told us a moment later and our brain is often quite left out- we cannot gather data as we experience the world in that half-way.:

“For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning,

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music,

While the music lasts. There are only hints and guesses

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action

The hint have guessed, the gift half understood, is

Incarnation.”

And so return to the sea, breathe deeply and remember the Ancient Mariner- remember the things that last and then step away again and try to remember what it was that mattered to you before.

Little Gidding

Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Prologues have epilogues, especially in Eliot’s tightly circled world where stanzas and refrains return, straightforward or twisted to read between the lines of the poetry.  The chant rises again and the images return for us to drink in and for us to remember how we got here at the start. Funny, the chant sooth-said us enough to walk us down the path into somewhere new, to forget the cultivated home that we came from, and upon returning, he reminds us that there was once a garden that we came from with an empty pool where the birds spoke and the surface “glittered out of the heart of light.”

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallejuah that we’ve found it again, as inevitably as we would have, that we can now step into the circle around the bonfire and join hands with the others as easily as if we always knew how, Pater Noster and blessings of the gods. Of course it is the gods and the mystery he’s on about once again, but it isn’t even that so much as it is the image of that, it is the essentials, dying and being given back to you once more- earth, water, air, fire. There’s not a van in site and I don’t know what electricity is. History is still bullshit, and don’t be deceived that just because you’ve made it to the end into this kaleidoscope of beauty that I give you, into this repeating waltz of glory- don’t be deceived that we have found the place where this all happily wraps up in a bow. All we have found is the way that it always was, and we can join in, for a moment, at least:

    “We shall not cease from exploration

                And the end of our exploring

                Will be to arrive where we started

                And know the place for the first time

                Through the unknown, remembered gate

                When the last of earth left to discover

                Is that which was the beginning

                At the source of the longest river

                The voice of the hidden waterfall

                And the children of the apple-tree

                Not known, because not looked for

                But heard, half heard, in the stillness

                Between two waves of the sea…”

We will forget again and fall out of the circle, we will need to be lead through the garden by an innocent thrush once more and find the pool filled with sunlight and the garlic and sapphires by the yew-tree, but we have the key now. We can return.

And I will be. Again and again and again.

“Say not fare well, but fare forward, voyager.”

gardengate

losing it

Losing It: New Adult Read by an Old Adult

So this is my first foray into the New Adult genre, if I don’t count The Piper’s Son and Fifty Shades of Grey, which I’m not sure if I should. They do seem to fall broadly into the category though. For those not up on your recent marketing distinctions, New Adult is, to quote Wikipedia (of course):

New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket. The term was first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009 when they held a special call for “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.” New Adult fiction tends to focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices. The genre has gained popularity rapidly over the last few years, particularly through books by self-published bestselling authors like Jamie McGuire, Colleen Hoover, and Cora Carmack.

Hey, this is a book by Cora Carmack!

I don’t want to get too pointy-headed here, but the concept of genre is an interesting one to me, so I’m just going to ramble a little about that. I have some discomfort with calling Young Adult or New Adult books a genre, because it seems to me that genre is not as simple as who reads the books, or who the books are aimed at. It’s like Atwood claiming her MaddAddam trilogy isn’t science fiction, because please. It has all the earmarks: an exploration of culture through invented technology, a thought experiment about current treads extrapolated into the future. What she’s saying, when she says she’s not writing science fiction, is that she’s not writing fiction for science fiction nerds.

When I get done bridling – y u no write for us, Peggy? – I think this is kinda legitimate. Genre can be an engagement with the tropes agreed upon by readerships or fandoms, and she is not writing to that genre engagement, whatever the motifs she might hit. I’ve argued in many a review against a book being classed as Young Adult, because despite the age of the protagonist (which is a motif often used to class the genre), I felt the sensibility was off. The Reapers Are the Angels or The Age of Miracles are examples of this: while they may occasionally have the concerns of the young adult – coming of age, emergent morality and social understandings – they lack the tone of novels aimed at teens. I’m not even saying that because they are literary - whatever that’s supposed to mean – that they are not young adult. I’ve seen plenty of literary YA novels that were still squarely aimed at teens.

I guess what I’m saying is that genre, as a concept, is a slippery beast, and can be defined in multiple ways, whether by marketing distinctions made by publishers about intended readership, or authorial intent in who s/he was writing to, or agreed upon motifs that define the genre. As the definition of genre has overlaps and fractures, so too are there books that sit uneasy in one genre or another. I can think of at least two books that switched marketing distinction upon publication in different countries - Pure and Tender Morsels - marketed as young adult in one place, and sold to adults in another. Both made me uncomfortable, although I thought the latter was better than the former in deliberately widening my upset about the way the book charted the uncomfortable middle ground.

If you pay attention at all to the most voted on reviews on Goodreads any given week, you can see just scads of reviews for New Adult titles making the lists, and also just a ton of emotion. People are reading these titles passionately and a lot. Enthusiasts have a whole review style that includes casting the protagonists with photos of milquetoast looking models and soft-core b&w images to telegraph their feels, and the detractors are often meticulous in their hatred. There are a lot of gifs, animated or not.

There’s also a lot of flamewarring coming from writers and fans and non-fans, and it’s pretty fascinating to see this emergent genre get sorted out on the threads. I don’t ever see this kind of flamewarring in more established genres, like romance, where both the well-defined readership and those who don’t define themselves as romance readers more or less know what to expect from a romance novel. I’ve shat on my share of romance novels (and loved a few too) and I rarely get flamed because romance fans can take just one look at my review and dismiss me as not part of the in-group. But because New Adult is so new and contested, there’s a hand-to-hand combat going on over how this genre is defined, who constitutes the readership, and what the motifs are. Everything is up in the air.

Point of my long-winded digression being: so New Adult? To the untrained eye, much that gets classed as New Adult looks to me like either contemporary romance with college-aged protagonists, or young adult with sex scenes, or an engagement in the concerns of emergent adulthood. Losing It falls into the first and second category, but fails at the third, and as such, pretty much is not for me. We find Bliss Edwards, College Student, opening the novel by enacting an unbelievably stupid plan to lose her virginity by picking up a stranger in a bar. It’s a young adult situation in a contemporary romance setting, complete with a meet-cute and rom-commy flighty-but-funny behavior for everyone from the sass-talking roommates to the protagonists. I have precious little patience for either the concept of virginity or stories about its loss, and romantic comedies and their situational fremdschämen make my skin crawl. (This is my asshole fancy way of saying I hate situation comedies based on people being embarrassing.) So far, we’re in it’s-not-you-it’s-me territory with this book.

My real problem is that the dude Bliss brings home and then abandons like a lunatic – Garrick – turns out to be Bliss’s new professor ZOMG. Putting aside that he is perfect and hot and British in a way that makes me feel tired, this is an entirely plausible ethical situation to be in – fucking a professor (or even being Clintonesque with a professor, which is mostly what happens here) – that is treated so lightly as to be uninteresting. It’s been a while since college, but university can be an over-sexed hothouse with profs, adjuncts, students, TAs, RAs, undergrads, overgrads, and everything in between all getting it on in every permutation. Most schools have forbidden prof/student dalliances, at least within the same department – I think anyway, and I’m too lazy to look it up – but these power dynamics and sexual dynamics are important parts of college sexual life.

I’m not even saying that Bliss and Garrick’s relationship is unethical or unmatched. I myself am the direct product of a professor and a student falling in love – though as both my folks like to point out, things were different in 1969. (Hi Mum and Dad. Sorry I’m talking about you on the Internet again.) What I’m saying is, as a reader, I was bored by a sit com that breezed over the parts of their relationship that had an ethical import. Which is fine, and if you’re looking for light entertainment, you could certainly do worse. Much as I hated the character of Garrick – not because he’s an asshole, but because hot British people written by Americans are dodgy as bubbles and squeak, cheerio – Bliss does have some active engagement with theater, her chosen major, which read to me as not-bullshit. That aspect of the New Adult motif-set was fine.

I read this and its sequel, Faking It, pretty much in a sitting, in the middle of some dire personal stuff that is both none of your business, and of course I’ve already written about on the Internet. Losing It was serviceable and inoffensive, and my two-starring it has more to do with retrospective consideration than my feelings about the prose at the time I was reading it. I liked the sequel considerably better, and Carmack seems to improve as a novelist. I’ve got some other NA titles on deck, and given my general malaise, I’m sure I’ll be reading them well before the smart stuff I’ve already assigned myself as a reader. Young adult, new adult, can be attractive to me as a reader, because in lots of situations, I’m looking for inoffensively silly and light. That the ethical concerns are so much simpler can be a plus when I’m in the middle of exhausting, brutal, depressing situations in my real life. Being an old adult is no picnic.

So, that is my first foray into the New Adult genre. You’re welcome.

Look, Fred, a Zombie Kangaroo: How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea

So, as I mentioned in my review of San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, I’ve been reading Newsflesh novellas as my big end of summer hurrah. While Browncoats corrected a lot of the things I don’t like about the Newsflesh world, being as it is an outbreak story unconnected to the events of the trilogy, How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea hit every single thing I don’t like about Newsflesh, and then added a couple more, just for fun. This was a Scooby Doo episode, and not in a good way. 

The first thing I thought when I read the synopsis for How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea, a Newsflesh novella set in Australia was, are there going to be zombie kangaroos? Because lol, that’s pretty much what anyone thinks about when they think about Australia right, Scoob and gang? I’m on record as digging it when non-Americans write about America kinda broadly, because you can get some interesting parallax views that I would have never considered, being inside the boiling, melting pot myself, but this kind of adventure tourism based on the laziest of national stereotypes is much more suited to Saturday morning cartoons based on a talking Great Dane and his highass friends. I can’t even say anything about the Australian national character, but I’m going to call bullshit on Mahir’s mansplaining, the rabbit-proof fence, and the zombie kangaroo national preserve. Givez-moi un break, sheila. Here’s some hot Vegemite down your pants. 

Mahir Gowda, After the End Times blogger who was my favorite from the novels and tea-drinking Brit, goes to Australia to…something. Check out the zombie kangaroo preserve and hang out with some weirdos? Motivations are murky. He meets up with some new End Times bloggers, apparently hired after the events of the trilogy, who hew to the exhaustingly dumb character traits of blogging platforms in the zombie future. Blah, blah, Irwins are always on camera poking things with sticks, etc. Fictionals are dreamy and write poetry and Newsies something about truth and justice or whatnot. I have never ever bought the blogging trifecta outlined in the Newsflesh novels, and because it’s been a year since I’ve read them, so much of the world building stuff has slipped for me because it didn’t make any sense to begin with. At the time, I was willing to accept what I felt were dumb, impossible reactions (socially speaking) because I’d been boiling in them for hundreds of pages, but the river had sped on, and my foot went into something less to my liking and slipped. 

Apparently Australia has a much more loosey goosey attitude towards the six hundred billion blood tests necessary to fucking do anything ever in the rest of the anglophone world (which we’ve only really ever seen the UK and North America, so whatever about China, Africa, or the rest of you lot.) Mahir eye-bugs about having a picnic; there’s a lot of bush-piloting around and Coke-drinking; zombie wombats and some taxonomy about kangaroos. What really set my teeth was Mahir’s final speech to a group of semi-rioting outbackers about how they should totally cherish their kinda bullshit freedoms because the rest of us are so busy spooking at Muslim terrorists zombies that our lives are shit, but he wouldn’t want to live somewhere with zombats, because security. Also, please get me some tea because I’m British, you see. 

Just, ugh, this is so the kind of thing an American would write thinking they were being all thoughtful narrative about our paranoid security state – down to the polyamorous relationship that isn’t remarked on in any real way, but just kinda sits there as a thing. We just gutted the Voting Rights Act and DOMA, and one of those things is a shitshow, and the other is great, but I’m sick of zero sum games of rights and freedom and security. I’m sick of reductionist bullshit and other countries as allegory, because other countries are not our allegories. Look, Fred, zombie kangaroos! Bah. 

Well, phew, that was something of a rampage, and I feel like I need to pull out of my death spiral a little before I conclude. The thing that garnered this annoying, plot-arc-less story the extra star was a couple of brief asides about Georgia Mason as she is during the last novel. (I’m seriously trying to avoid spoilers here, and, fyi, there are spoilers all over this novella for Blackout, so if you haven’t read the series and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t start here.) Mahir got into the philosophy of the mind stuff that I thought was squandered in Blackout, even if the treatment was kinda cursory and topical. Two stars. Also, kinda fuck this book.

The Call is Coming From Inside the House: I’ve Got Your Number

It’s funny: despite the fact that I’ve Got Your Number is virtually identical to the other Sophie Kinsella title I’ve read,Can You Keep a Secret?, I liked it vastly more. Both involve somewhat flighty women getting into scrapes with gruff, uncommunicative businessmen who end up becoming love interests despite the fact that the ladies have boyfriends. The boyfriends are maybe not total dicks, but the couples are incompatible in almost all ways. The protagonists tend to compound their embarrassment by blurting out unlikely lies or other shenanigans, and the supporting cast is maybe more interesting than the principles. But I thought the leading lady of Can You Keep a Secret? was an incompetent and possibly an idiot, while Poppy from I’ve Got Your Number was just a little socially awkward. I try not identifying with incompetent idiots, while the socially awkward are very much my people. 

I’ve Got Your Number starts with a storm of set-up: Poppy loses her incredibly expensive heirloom engagement ring, a thief nicks her phone right out of her hands, and then she finds another phone in the trash. She’s all, finders keeers, and starts handing out the new phone number to everyone in the hotel so they can call her if they find the ring. Some of this had me saying, wait, what? Because she should have had the stolen phone canceled IMMEJETLY so she didn’t get a thousand pound phone bill, but whatever. This is a lot like some mysteries I’ve read, where the situation is wildly improbable, but it lets the author spin out some genre-specific stuff to its logical conclusion. Here, it’s that Poppy has a near-epistolary relationship with the man who was the boss of the chick who chucked her phone. She’s basically acting as his PA while a company scandal is emerging, and she’s trying to plan her own wedding. 

Poppy is funny and meddlesome, and she and the boss-man have a solid repartee. Getting inside someone’s phone is an incredibly intimate thing – depending on the person and all that – this compact record of all our contacts and correspondence, texts and schedules. Even though I’ve been married 15 years (yesterday was our anniversary, thank you) it always feels a little creepy when I open up his phone. Plus, it’s an iPhone, and I just don’t get how to work those. There’s a lot of snap to the scenario here because of that intimacy. 

So a cute little cabin read, and I frankly find it surprising no one has made this into a movie yet. It was play great on screen.

ice

Ice by Anna Kavan

I woke up (on that June 2nd) from a very vivid dream. In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. They were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.

Stephenie Meyer, from her Twilight FAQ

I don’t think I’m going to rate Ice by Anna Kavin, as I don’t think I can say I liked it - like is such a degraded term – but I also feel a fiercely uncomfortable kinship with its dead-eyed wonder. I think if I’d read this 20 years ago, I would have gone one of two ways. Either I’d dismiss it as plotless mind-fuckery – using, no doubt, a brilliant metaphor involving an emperor’s sartorial stylings or lack thereof – or I’d enact that uncomfortable bullshit of pretending to understand something I didn’t get. Maybe I’m not giving younger me enough credit, and I’m not trying to humble-brag that I get this now by trashing my younger self. I believe Ice is ultimately un-get-able, probably intentionally so (not that that factors for me, entirely), but in a way that speaks to several of my personal obsessions: the housewife in fiction, post-apocalyptic landscapes, the harder to describe slipperiness of mid-century female writers. Ice, for me, reads as a daughter of Story of O, fraught with the eroticism of landscape and decay, the brutalization of half-sketched girl through the eyes of half-sketched men, written by a woman who, like Pauline Réage, ran her identity like artwork itself. 

Nameless characters in a post-apocalyptic dream state enact a chilly, brutal love triangle.* There is a man, and another man – sometimes a warden, sometimes a husband – and they tug-of-war over the image of a sylph-like girl who is described dismissively by her hair color and her victimhood. She cowers, there. Her wrists become bruised. Her mother was cruel and taught her submission. The man – who is the main character – alternately murders her and tries to rescue her from the other man, sometimes at once. Locations bleed from one to the next; walls of ice rear up or cower themselves, in the distance; concrete details of flat-letting and luncheons dissolve into war and radiation. The girl is trussed and murdered a thousand times, or she isn’t, and everywhere she is half out-of-sight, a mirage in a damp-smelling room or a field of trees lit by moonlight and her bare, frozen feet are blue against the snow. Or the warden’s eyes are blue like a gem whose name the narrator can’t recall. Ice is infuriating until it poleaxes you, like the dream I had last night of a bunch of gossipy chatter at a picnic with a bunch of friends that did a focus-in, dolly-out on a creature, made of smoke, who sought possession of me and mine and I ran until I was screaming and my husband woke me up, telling me I was shouting in my sleep. Exactly like that. 

Like with Story of O, I’m maybe more interested in Kavan’s fascinating biography than I am with the text itself. Born to ex-pat Britons in France, people who are primarily referred to as cold, she was a heroine addict through most of her adult life. This is often described as medicinal, as she suffered from what we would pigeonhole as depression, and she herself was unrepentant about her addictions. She burned all her correspondences and most of her diaries near the end of her life, saying, “I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be.” And how, woman. Way to rock the fuck out of self-as-art. I can see thousands of sophomore-level papers about ice-as-addiction or ice-as-domestic-panic, and they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, but they would also hugely fail. Ice might be the artifact of biography, but wrestling this bear down with life details won’t do. We shall not be going to the lighthouse today. 

“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

To the LighthouseVirginia Woolf

I read this up at the cabin, in snatches, like something stolen. In the category of post-apocalyptic post-Modern meta-mind-fuckery I’ve read at the cabin, I’m going to give the award to Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but it’s probably not wise to conflate the two. When my friend Alexis showed up with her daughter so we could enact our own lighthouse-not-going with the kids, we walked over the harsh geology of the north shore and shit-talked books and people. She’d read the back-flap of Ice, which likened Kavan to a raft of female authors, for no discernible reason other than they had lady-parts, and then named a raft of people she influenced, all male. Sure, it’s just blurb-craft bullshit, but it is also A Thing, this melting fulcrum of the pen spurting out its translations between the genders and influence and anxiety and all manner of Bloomian bullshit. 

Bullshit, she said, and pointed to the land, this mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon. 

Whatever. 

I am losing my coherence, the way I do. But I started with Stephenie Meyer talking about Bella Swann, that girl in the gloaming imagined by a woman asleep, the day before her kids were to start swimming lessons which would give her the brief stolen moments to write her dream of a girl being fought over like a bone by boyish monsters, her blood in the snow, her warm chastity, his chilly skin like a wall of ice. Sometimes when we dream, women dream of being killed by men. You can collapse the narrative of Ice with fractal precision into its opening and closing lines: “I was alone” and then, “The weight of the gun in my pocket was reassuring.” The rest is geometry, and the angles cut. 

*Though I admit my use of the term love triangle is primarily a troll – let’s see how many people run up in the defense of the seriousness of the literary qualities of this book – I’m somewhat douchily trying to enact the gendered ways we approach literature of all stripes. Love triangle is a dismissive term – oh, sigh, another girl thinks she’s average-special enough for a ream of hot guys to love her to the point of annihilation, which is, here, absolutely the fucking point, or not, who knows what the point it? There is no spoon. Do or do not. Both, motherfucker. None.