Though it may seem odd or simply untrue to say, there’s a good chance that at some point in our Terran history, self-expression and dialogue with others were among the most dangerous forms of activity possible. Maybe it could justifiably be said that they still are. This is not simply due to the possibility of being misunderstood, but also because of how language can cause us to go beyond our own limitations and into unknown, uncharted mental and emotional territory. In China Miéville’s sci-fi masterpiece Embassytown, a whole way of life is riding on dialogues with the indigenes of the planet of Dagostin, the Ariekes, or the Hosts, as they are called by the humans who have come there to live, and as they are also referred to by the “exoterres” the Kedis and the Shur’asis as well.
This book is a challenge to read, not only because there is at least one new vocabulary term or concept to be mastered on each page, but because the author leaves one to put the pieces together himself or herself, with only a few subtle hints here and there. Some of the new conceptual territory includes the notion that age is measured not in Terran days, months, weeks, or years, but in something called kilohours. The children are not brought up by their birth parents and may never even see them, but instead are brought up by a series of “shiftparents,” who look after them in turn. The buildings and devices? Many of them are not built, but grown, to be called biorigging and other such terms, and they are largely produced by the Hosts, who trade them with the humans in exchange for favors and considerations I will get to in a moment. The air in Embassytown is not breathable by humans, so a special atmosphere is created with the help of the Hosts for their guests. One step outside with lungs open, and the humans begin to sicken and die.
Embassytown is technically an outpost of Bremen, which is officially in charge of what happens, yet is in fact a little out of touch, as it turns out, with some of the most dangerous events to its own supremacy. Yet in the tale told by Avice Benner Cho, a female human born in Embassytown, who has been an immerser (a crew member of space ships), it’s neither the elements which seem strange to us in the science fiction nor the encounters per se with the Hosts, the Ariekes, which pose the danger. It’s language itself which not only ends up being the real challenge to the humans, but which is also the “main character” of the story. But you want things in an orderly fashion, don’t you? So I’ll give a bit of how the story goes at the beginning.
Avice is remembering her childhood and past in sections called “Formerly,” and is telling things which have happened in a more recent time, the “middle distance” of the story, in the sections called “Latterday.” It’s only halfway through the book that the action becomes simply sequential. One of the first things that happens early on is that a friend of her, Yohn, becomes ill because of a childish game the young humans play, which consists in seeing how far out of human bounds and into the Hosts’ section they can go to leave a mark and come back. Yohn accidentally breathes the inimical natural atmosphere, and a strange “cleaved” human named “Bren,” a middle-aged man, who is an acquaintance of the Hosts, helps the Hosts retrieve him. Avice is asked to comfort Yohn while he is ill. Avice doesn’t know exactly what “cleaved” means until much later in the book, or why Bren is avoided by other humans, but the children giggle at him and are in awe of him as well.
Not long after this, the Hosts ask to “borrow” Avice to make a simile of her for their Language. This is Language with a capital “L,” because to the Hosts, Language and thought are simultaneous, and they apparently cannot lie. It simply is not in their nature, as it seems. When they want to be able to say that something is “like” something else, or that someone did something “as” something or someone else did, they first have to have an actual instance of the person or event having been or happened as they describe, so that they can make the comparison. In order that they can say “like the human girl who ate what was given her,” they first have to borrow Avice to construct the factual sentence “There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a long time.” They therefore cause her a minimum of pain and give her something to eat in an old deserted restaurant; after that, she becomes a simile and is part of their Language rehearsals from time to time. As it later turns out, there are humans who represent other tropes and parts of speech as well. But first, before Avice becomes aware of them, or perhaps it’s only before the reader is told about them, she becomes an immerser, a crew member for space voyages, and is admired when she voyages and returns for the questionable activity of “floaking,” a sort of goofing off and hanging out which is a kind of glamour cast by immersers over the people who admire them for their piratical abilities.
The story progresses, and we learn that humans can only communicate with Hosts by using Ambassadors, two cloned humans who speak different words at the same exact instant, which is what the Hosts understand, and is how they speak. But the Hosts initially perceive these two humans as one, and don’t have any conception of individuality. In fact, they are unable to lie, and are simultaneously thrilled and fascinated by listening to humans construct lies, from simple lies such as telling them that something is red which is blue, or perhaps saying something ridiculous, innane, or poetical, such as that birds swim in the ocean. But even though Avice is used to things which would seem strange to most real-life contemporary humans, such as marrying her husband Scile in a “nonconnubial love match,” or having for a best friend Ehrsul, a trid (tri-d projection of a woman), when she becomes involved in an intrigue caused by the dominant Bremen’s plot to circumvent Embassytown’s status by sending an Ambassador from its own ranks (an Ambassador of a variety described in advance, mysteriously, as “impossible”–but I won’t ruin the suspense), her glamour as a “floaker” can only help her own so far. Instead, she must throw in her lot with those who are trying to save Embassytown by a very unusual means of dealing with the Hosts, and again, it’s spoiler alert time.
Suffice it to say that this is a grand sci-fi adventure with structuralist and deconstructionist theories of language acquisition and usage, yet it’s also a great read that anyone, versed in language theories or not, can enjoy. In fact, the very difference between a simile and a metaphor, between “referring” and “signifying,” is at stake, and Embassytown itself revitalizes and casts it own glamour over how we speak and relate to each other every day. I hope all my readers will have a chance to finish this book, and will enjoy it as much as I did. What more could one ask for as a reader, after all, but a sci-fi adventure thriller which takes its venue of play in the fields of language themselves?
Leslye Walton’s “The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender”–A Tour de Force of Magical Realism
If I wrote to tell you today that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is the tale of a young woman named Ava who becomes the victim of a crime, you’d probably yawn a bit, stretch and sigh, and say “There are lots of stories of that kind out there–why should I read one more?” But if I were to tell you that she had previously been mistaken as an angel by a whole Seattle neighborhood, perhaps you’d be a little more interested. And if I then told you that this is because she had wings, maybe I’d have you hooked. You’d say, perhaps, “Okay, then, I’ll read your crime story, and we’ll see just what this is really all about.”
Well, what it’s really all about, in the author Leslye Walton’s words, is this: the story is “inspired by a particularly long sulk in a particularly cold rainstorm spent pondering the logic, or rather, lack thereof, in love–the ways we coax ourselves to love, to continue loving, to leave love behind.” That sounds ordinary enough, doesn’t it? But then, Walton tells us that sulking in the rain is the general way she herself, like a daffodil, can achieve beauty, and our attention is drawn away from logic and towards the whimsical.
As you might guess, the crime is only in a minor way what the story is “about.” It’s a novel of magical realism, and passes continually to and fro between realistic descriptions and events and magical ones, in a nearly seamless flow that keeps one reading to see what miracle or odd happening will occur next. Some realistic odd happenings or conditions, such as Ava’s twin brother Henry’s not being willing to speak most of the time, are explained by his seer-like state; his main vision of doom and disaster turns out to be verified, not only in the attack upon his sister Ava, but also in the more realistic natural world’s symptoms of global warming, first a drought and then a flood of rains, connected in this story with magical happenings as well.
To begin at the beginning, however, the connection between Ava Lavender’s non-functional wings and her ancestry is quite clear: for at least a third of the novel, before we ever even meet her mother, we are in the equally magical world of her immediate forebears, her maternal great-grandfather Beauregard Roux, who moves his family to the New World and into his beloved “Manhatine,” followed by her grandmother Emilienne and her siblings René, Margaux, and Pierette. The connection with both birds and ghosts is fairly constant throughout the novel also: great-aunt Pierette, upon having fallen in love with an older man who liked bird-watching, turned herself into a canary, we are told. And Emilienne, after her husband Connor Lavender moves her to Seattle, her siblings all having died, continues to see and converse with their ghosts in her new home. As well, she sees the ghost of the little girl who previously lived in the house, one Fatima Inês, appearing along with theirs, particularly at crucial times in the novel. In this sense, Ava’s connection with birds is not only a matter of heredity, but also of environment, because in Fatima Inês’s room, there are a host of doves who have mated with crows, leaving feathers everywhere. As well, after Jack Griffith, the young erring father of Ava and Henry deserts her mother Viviane for another woman, the handyman Gabe, who lives in the house, becomes a sort of foster father to the children even though Viviane remains for a long time emotionally remote due to her unrequited love for Jack; Gabe hangs a feather mobile over Ava’s crib before she is born, which is rather as if yet another line of “inspiration” has occurred to make her part human, part bird. Yet, her fondest wish is to be treated simply as a girl, and before the end of the novel, a young man, Rowe, brother to her friend Cardigan, seems to be the solution to this problem.
There is also the obsessed young Nathaniel Sorrows, however, a strange kind of religious fanatic who poses a threat to Ava’s desire to be ordinary, as he has an idolatrous fixation with her. Though I won’t give away the very end of the novel, I should say that he is key to the resolution of the plot, and is disposed of plot-wise as well, just as the other odd characters have sometimes been.
Among some of the minor characters there is Wilhelmina, a native American woman with mystical powers who helps Emilienne run the family bakery, and Penelope, who does so as well. And though it may not be usual to include a bakery as a character, as a magical sort of personality, the bakery is responsible for all the superlative tastes and good smells and wonderful pastries and breads that finally lure the townspeople away from their belief that Emilienne and Wilhelmina are both witches, and draw them in to enthusiastic support of the business.
Times of the year, seasons, solstices and equinoxes, are symbolically important in this story too; the summer solstice, for example, is Fatima’s anniversary of her birthdate, and the people of the town celebrate it as much for the one reason as for the other. Other odd happenings include things from the very first of the book, when Mama Roux, Beauregard’s wife, is said to become transparent and disappear after he has (actually) mysteriously disappeared; this is not simply a symbolic book, however, and it’s not just that she becomes “transparent” and so forth in terms of personality. By the way the event is recounted, it’s clear that it’s meant to be “real.” Then, there is the man in Seattle who, after his wife leaves him, begins to dream her dreams; once again, though there is a symbolic element to this statement, it is also meant to be real, as real as it ever is in a work of magical realism.
Walton does show her rhetorical hand in her fiction here and there of course, and in direct statements that occur alongside the plotline rhetoric. For example, about three-fourths of the way through the book, she speaks of the “malformed cousins of love,” “lust, narcissism, self-interest.” When the children Ava and Henry, now in their teens, finally venture outside of the protective surroundings of their house on solstice, Walton has her narrator comment: “..[C]hildren betray their parents by being their own people.” Near the end of the novel, when grandmother Emilienne is sitting by the bed of the wounded Ava, she is said to think of “all the scars love’s victims carry.” Still, the main tendency of the novel is to be whimsical, mysterious, magical, and thoroughly engaging, without that emotional drop that the reader often feels when the ending is not unrelievedly happy (and that’s a hint but not a spoiler). It is, however, a quite spell-binding book, from start to finish, and I would encourage everyone interested in this type of fiction (and even those for whom it would be a first encounter with magical realism) to read it. Who knows, maybe if you read it, your canary or parakeet will begin giving you significant looks before dropping a feather on your page and initiating an intellectual or poetic conversation! At the very least, you will have experienced a gifted new writer’s début novel, and may be a bit more mystical, philosophical, or wise about the departures or desertions of loved ones and other machinations of fate.
I have to confess, this story is undertaken partly as an assignment from a reader and fellow blogger, Ste J. Having asked for some notions of what readers would like to see me post about, some story, novel, or poem (fiction being my forté rather than non-fiction), I have taken it upon myself to do as Ste J (otherwise known as Steve Johnson) suggested and post on a “cheesy horror” fiction, or something similar. I have chosen to write today on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles,” which if not found in a short story collection of his can be found in The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Thus, though the story is a sort of cheesy horror story set in the future, and therefore also science fiction at the same time, it’s not written by a cheesy author, as Ray Bradbury is well-respected in many quarters.
The dual nature of the story is apparent not only in the fact that it partakes both of the horror story and the science fiction story, but also in the remarkable title, “The Exiles.” There are two different kinds of exiles in this story, dead authors and their most famous characters being the first exiles, and the actual living human beings of the year 2120 who follow them into space unintentionally, when going to colonize Mars being the “second wave” of exiles. As develops when the characters on both sides begin to talk among themselves, the dead authors (who occupy the same level of reality as their most famous characters in the categories of “science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the supernatural”) are on Mars because nearly all copies of their books have been burned as irresponsible fictions on Earth. The space travellers, on the other hand, are approaching Mars because they have made Earth unliveable; they don’t know what’s making them see spirits and have mysterious maladies that often deal death, or see witches and suffer curses, but they do have the last copies of the “forbidden books” with them. As it turns out, both Halloween and Christmas have been banned and eliminated, and though the captain of the ship and his doctor cannot figure out how the men can have been having horrible visions and strange illnesses, since they are only mentioned in the forbidden books, they have brought the last copies of the books with them, for what purpose they cannot yet determine.
Edgar Allan Poe, the famous mystery and horror writer, is the ringleader of the authors, and has as an eager second Ambrose Bierce; on the other hand, there’s Charles Dickens, who was only included in the first mysterious wave of exiles because of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol and some of his other books, and who is unwilling to inflict any punishments on the arriving spacemen. His characters are participating in the sort of party scene for that holiday made popular in that novel, and refusing to take part in the aggression. Some of those who are involved are Bram Stoker (author of Dracula), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw), Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), L. Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz), et. al, including any author whose works are not strictly scientific and factual. But the saddest fantasy character and the one who seems most pitiful to all the others is the now dessicated figure of Santa Claus. The authors and their characters determine to go on to other planets, farther and farther out into space, if the humans obsessed with science continue to follow them and are not deterred by the nightmares and hexes cast by their witches and the like (and one of the oddest things is that these once-living people and their never-having-lived-except-in-imagination characters occupy the same level of reality).
When the humans finally do alight on the surface of Mars, they decide a fitting gesture to mark their transition to a new world would be to burn each and every one of the last of their copies of the fictional works which do contain horror, science fiction, fantasy, or supernatural characters and events. They hear a scream, and have a sudden sense of a vacuum as the books burn. But one of the men–a sort of Everyman with the commonly occurring name “Smith”–remembers a scene from fantasy fiction when he sees an emerald city (Oz) topple in the distance as the last copy of The Wizard of Oz is burned. The captain makes him report to the ship’s doctor. The final straw takes place just a second later:
“The men tiptoed, guns alert, beyond the ship’s aseptic light to gaze at the long sea and the low hills. ‘Why,’ whispered Smith, disappointed, ‘there’s no one here at all, is there? No one here at all.’ The wind blew sand over his shoes, whining.”
It’s illuminating, of course, that Bradbury, a predominantly fantasy and science fiction author, puts things in black and white in this story. It takes a great deal of imagination to come up with many of the concepts scientists come up with on a regular basis, and we always have that much-belabored truism “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Yet, there are layers and layers of truth in this story, and one must decide whether or not one believes that a world without fiction would indeed be inhabited only by the wind blowing sand across one’s feet, a symbol of death and dearth and sterility. I for one would find it a far inferior place, and think liars would probably be much more popular than they are, purely for their imaginative efforts, were fiction writers not available.
I’ve given a quick summary of this entire story, and I know I didn’t issue a spoiler alert, but it is a very short story, and one which is worth reading even when you know (or intuit) ahead of time what the outcome is going to be. It’s also just a bit kitschy (if not entirely cheesy, as Ste J requested), and a little dated, by now, since the time when we have with a Mars Rover and a great deal of imagination scientifically speaking already explored part of the surface of Mars. As well, it’s one of a great number of literary works which rely on or refer to other literary works for part of what makes them functioning stories, and naturally it helps if you have some inkling of the stories involved which are being referred to. If nothing else, it could guide you to some of the great stories of imaginary worlds and people which are ours to share. Let’s hope we have the sense to keep our book monitors under control in the real world, and forego book burning and destruction of our shared texts–when you take away a book, you had better be sure that you know what you’re doing, and whose reality you might be impairing (we do not want to find only the dry sand blowing over our feet in any real world we have to inhabit!). And that’s my post for today.
For a little more than a week now, I have been paying careful attention to my blogging, mainly in terms of getting posts done, and out to what I’ve always fondly imagined is my public. I consider that to consist of not only my faithful friends who comment regularly on what I’ve come up with, each in his or her own personal way, but also those many shy or non-commenting bloggers and readers and web-surfers who presumably find something useful or entertaining on my site, since they do keep coming back from many countries across the globe. I have been paying careful attention especially because since the beginning of the summer, I’ve lost a number of readers, or at least my stats (and I do try not to be obsessed with them, but….) have dropped from what they usually are.
I have imagined that perhaps this was initially because I had stopped blogging as frequently as I used to, my time being taken up with some other responsibilities and duties and a few fun activities that I couldn’t drag myself away from. So, starting about a week or two ago, I stopped lagging and started publishing again at my former rate, which is to say around two posts a week, on the average. I guess it’s like weight gain, though: you can put it on in a few days, but can’t take it off for weeks. So I guess once you lose readers, you take a far longer time to regain them or to find others than you did to lose them. My only hope is that maybe people read me more during the school year because they are researching their favorite authors, and find something of use in my posts (though of course I have also to hope they are using my material if at all in a responsible manner). And then, of course, it’s not all about me, as a friend recently pointed out: people tend not to blog or read blogs as much during the summer as they do during the year, because there are so many active outside pursuits to take part in.
Be all this speculation as it may, if you have favorite authors or topics that you’d like to see written upon, and you have any reason to suppose from what you’ve read of my posts before that I might be inclined and capable of commenting on these authors or topics, please drop me a comment and let me know, and I’ll try to do so. (Trying, of course, not to lag again!). Shadowoperator
On the surface of the matter, the two novels I’m going to make some comment on today could not be more different. The first, Jane Smiley’s novel Private Life, starts just after the Civil War, and traces the whole course (nearly) of a marriage, from the early days when there is still hope to the sad remainder, the ashes of hope, near the end of life. The second novel, by contrast, Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, is a more recently set novel, taking place in the late 1960’s, almost contemporaneous with its date of publication in 1970. The first novel shows a woman observing all marital proprieties, though chafing against them. The second, a woman who regularly rebels not just in spirit, but who is no longer quite sure what marital proprieties are, or which ones pertain. Smiley’s novel is set in the American Mid- and Southwest: it starts in Missouri, and travels with its main characters to the area on the coast near San Francisco. It always seems to have a local sense of place, if that makes sense to my readers. Though Didion’s novel takes place in the Southwest too, and in fact is mainly set in Los Angeles, its surrounds, and Las Vegas, it has an international frame of reference which includes New York City. Private Life describes both the mundane and intimate daily life of a wife and her Navy-background husband, Margaret Early and Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, as they live together stolidly day-by-day and traces a gradual arc of development in Margaret’s knowledge of and feelings for her husband. Play It As It Lays, by contrast, focuses on only a short span of time in the yearly life of the wife of a movie executive, her name being Maria and his Carter. The first novel develops a sense of crisis gradually, and has its “big bang” at the very end; the second novel refers back elliptically to isolated former events, but subsists in a constant state of crisis, though the “answer,” the wife’s philosophical statement, and an expected crisis of sorts does emerge at the end.
The novels both show a mismatched couple, however, and both novels begin at a point in the end of the time arc and then flashback and work forward to that time again. As well, the rallying slogan of students and feminists from the 1960’s and 1970’s, “The personal is political,” applies to both novels, both marriages, and is at the heart of our discussion today. As some may recall and others may come to know, the slogan “The personal is political” was popularized by feminist Carol Hanisch in her 1969 essay of the same name. As one may discover by consulting Wikipedia, “It was a challenge to the nuclear family and family values.” Whereas Jane Smiley’s novel makes the point directly, however, by showing how historically important events in the daily life of the nation affect a wife and her husband attempting to live together when it is clear almost from the beginning that they are not really compatible, Joan Didion’s novel makes the point in a more convoluted way, by showing another mismatched couple in which the wife is longing not for freedom of self-expression so much as for that very nuclear family life her husband disdains. Both wives lose a baby in the respective stories, Margaret to early infant death and Maria to an abortion insisted on by her husband because he doubts the baby is his. And both wives are far more affected by these deaths than the husbands, Andrew indifferently accepting the fact that his wife can never have another baby and that he must not engage in connubial relations with her, and Carter hardly able to feel properly about his wife as a partner at all, because he is (to give him some credit) as tortured as she is in their mutually hellish life of adultery, alcohol and drug abuse, and feverish party-going.
The most essential way in which these two heroines are alike is in the fact that both live their lives mainly as adjuncts to their husbands’ lives, and this is the part which ends up tripping them up. Margaret is typing handmaid to Andrew, who fancies himself a great public man and a keen scientific mind, and who ends up becoming a bit delusional and given to fits of mistaken grandeur. Her attention to his belief that everyone wants to hear everything he has to say, and that in print, is in addition to her dutiful practice of the tenets of housewifery of the time, the cooking, cleaning, and management of the household. Maria’s way of being an adjunct to her husband’s life is to star in minor pictures he makes, to trail along after him through his life of partying and so forth, even though they are estranged and thinking of divorce and he cheats on her and she on him in a casual way, and allowing him to dominate her in the matter of their differences about how to deal with the daily life of a small child they already have, Kate, whom Carter put in a home because she suffers from some sort of developmental disability.
The two heroines are different in some respects. Margaret is very practically oriented, and survives her life by taking care of ordinary matters, and using them as pegs upon which to hang her self-references. Maria, on the other hand, takes sudden drives up and down the coast, to Las Vegas, and stays in bed all day on some days, or makes tiny and repeated futile attempts to reach out to someone among the disaffected and brazen denizens and hangers-on of her and Carter’s world. Margaret makes purposeful friendships which help to see her through the days and nights, with Dora (a woman reporter who reads like a portrait of Willa Cather), Pete (a mysterious and charming Russian adventurer), and Naoko Kimura and her family, Japanese citizens of the United States who later suffer being sent to detention centers during WW II. Furthermore, she maintains the socially expected contacts with her landlady at a boarding house she once stayed in during her confinement and with neighbors and friends of her husband’s. Her revolution, though it comes at the end, is extremely slow in coming. Maria, on the other hand, is often dismissive of her husband’s and her own friends, because actually she feels so taut and miserable all the time that they bring her no relief, though she does spend some time with them. She is described by one reviewer, the blurb writer, as “catatonic,” and this, though not true in the technical sense, is true in the metaphorical sense: she can’t seem to effect change in any measurable way until the end.
Perhaps the main difference in them, however, is that in the end Margaret sets aside all the anxiety and care and trouble she’s taken over her husband and his books, and decides to write her own book, whereas Maria makes a suicide attempt which results in Carter placing her too (like her daughter Kate) in some kind of facility. But the difference isn’t perhaps as much as it might seem: though Maria’s solution is seemingly more self-destructive, Margaret’s choice is also destructive of the self she has always maintained, the dutiful wife and friend. When her friend Pete (and love interest) leaves town, she angrily does something she’s never done before and throws one of her husband’s thick and self-important letters into the back yard unread, to get wet in the rain and the dew. And she thinks to herself, “I have…no reason to be alive.” But far from actually causing her to kill herself, this thought gives her pleasure because it so contravenes what she knows are her husband’s beliefs. The main similarity is that finally both choose not to continue to follow in their husbands’ wake, but to call attention to themselves and their own needs, apart from the expected course of having a nuclear family as it appears in Private Life and the disapppointed ideal of Maria’s of the nuclear family model as it occurs in Play It As It Lays. Maria calls attention to herself by making an attempt on her own life, Margaret by electing to write a book of her own. How many heroines in how many novels and stories have we seen driven towards one or other of these extremes in order to survive as a woman in society? I don’t think I need to emphasize the point further.
What’s perhaps most intriguing is that near the end of both novels, the two heroines each state a sort of philosophy or guiding principle. As Margaret finally realizes and says to herself with some bitterness (able at last to bring to recall a long-lost memory from her childhood because she can now face the truth), “There are so many things that I should have dared before this.” In a similarly memory-oriented fashion, Maria thinks to herself near the end of Didion’s novel, “When I was ten years old my father taught me to assess quite rapidly the shifting probabilities on a craps layout: I could trace a layout in my sleep….Always when I play back my father’s voice is it with a professional rasp, it goes as it lays, don’t do it the hard way. My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of the two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.” In a sense, though one woman is actively planning an overthrow of her husband’s dominance by imitating his way with the world (appearing in print), and the other is biding her time (perhaps delusively) in a care facility and planning sometime in the future to live alone with just her daughter, Kate, they each have plans. And to each, the marriage she has endured with some difficulty has become a metaphor for all of life, which shows how overwhelming to each the experience has been.
To many people, even some well-intentioned and fervent feminists, now as in the earlier days of the women’s movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the slogan “The personal is political” has seemed a trifle humorless and grim, engendering nightmarish visions and imaginations of constant negotiations in the bedroom, the boardroom, and in all facets of daily life. It is only when we un-demonize the word “political” (hard as that is sometimes, given the shenanigans we see career politicians getting up to) that we realize that human existence is a perpetual matter of negotiation and compromise anyway, and that to admit women into the ranks of those allowed to participate was never a matter of choice, but was always a matter of moral necessity, long though it took to happen. But if you would sweeten the pill a little, then why not have a look at these two excellent novels, Jane Smiley’s a slow-developing long-reading picture of a lifetime lived with the “intimate enemy,” and Joan Didion’s a tough, glaring, burning endictment of a decadent lifestyle lived under the Western sun, without relief in sight? You will perhaps find that even the portrayal of pain and frustration has its aesthetic parameters and pleasures in the hands of masters.
Today, I am sitting inside a comfortable beachside condo, enjoying a precious tea that a Russian friend kindly provided me with, taking in both its nearly indescribable aroma and its delicate perfumed taste. It’s a Basilur family tea imported from Sri Lanka, flavored with “natural cornflower, jasmine buds, blue malva, and flavor roasted almond.” The whiff seems at first to be that of an expensive chocolate, and then one thinks “No, not chocolate exactly–what is that delicious smell?” I have had the luxury of consuming the tea not only as a wonderful gift, but as something I didn’t have to question or think about much, except that I do sometimes after having a tea from Sri Lanka wonder about how they ever got their crops back in order after that frightful tsunami a number of years ago.
I’ve usually had lamb in the same way, especially enjoying having it with my brother, because he appreciates the visceral element in eating meat from the bone, possibly a holdover from our more carnivorous forebears, but when you see the two of us nibbling along the bones held aloft at a private family dinner (one where our company can’t judge us savages), you know we must be kin. And as I say, I’ve not usually given a thought to where the sheep come from, how they are raised, how deprived of life, not much in fact beyond what cut I’m eating and how much it costs. A standard consumer, then. And this in spite of the fact that we are only two generations away from Appalachian small-time farmers ourselves on our father’s side, though I don’t think they had sheep.
Since I’m trying to be as honest as the book I’m reviewing today is, I will confess that my word picture of the tea above is an attempt to make tea lovers (at least) salivate and want to know more. And it’s the very word pictures of the Appalachian countryside, scattered from beginning to end of Richard Gilbert’s book Shepherd, the gorgeous imagery and word poetry which demonstrate not only his love itself of the land, his accomodation to its demands that change with where it’s located in the country, but which also in a literary manner justify that love and draw in the eager reader for more. There is a price to be paid, of course, and that is the price of empathizing with both sheep and shepherd as they suffer as well as glory in life; still, the book itself is true as true can be to living especially in this sense: despite the pain endured and the trials encountered, one can imagine few who would rather go without it.
A general statement from a little past the middle of the book itself which expresses the author’s feel for his subject is this home truth: “Something is always going awry, getting out of control, and otherwise cheating one’s fantasies on a farm.” This might almost be juxtaposed with the statement of a friendly elderly neighbor from another section of the memoir, from a time when the author lived in Bloomington, Indiana in a more residential community before the farm in Athens, Ohio was even thought of except as a remote dream: “You’re happier than you know.” Yet, as one reads forward in the book but back and forth in time in the memoir structure of past juxtaposed to present and then retroactively again, one sees a man and his family going through a much-desired learning experience. One begins to appreciate that it’s the price in lives and lifetime which gives one the right to speak in tropes and epigrams, which are scattered throughout the book, both from the author’s own words and those of the many farmers and breeders whom he acknowledges as his teachers.
One famous epigram I can recall from our own neck of the Appalachian countryside, and which I also found when I went to college for the first time at a school that was located in the midst of an agrarian community, was this punning one: one seems to praise someone by saying “He’s outstanding in his field,” but a sly grin changes this into “He’s out standing in his field,” idly, of course, not a desirable condition for a farmer or an academic. And Richard Gilbert has worn many hats during his lifetime, among others those of both an academic and a sheep farmer, while keeping his sense of humor and his modesty intact as if he were constantly mindful of this very epigram. I first encountered him as a blogger not too long after I signed onto my own site in summer of 2012, and I’ve read his many excellent posts on narrative, memoir and memoir writers, teaching creative non-fiction to students, music, featured guest bloggers, and more (see Richard Gilbert). And this summer, I was finally able to read his memoir Shepherd, which I recommend not just for anyone who has an interest in farming or raising livestock, but for those with a sincere interest in memoir or even narrative fiction: the whole aggravated question of pacing, whether of restraining oneself when one desperately wants to go ahead with a treasured project or of knowing how to pace a memoir or fiction and make it suspenseful and fulfilling and true-to-life is at stake, and Richard Gilbert satisfies, even though he himself is constantly questioning and re-evaluating his own motives.
Like Socrates, the wise man knows only that he knows not, and Gilbert allows us to follow him along in his path across the farming scene, and lets us watch him make mistakes, celebrate successes, and confront the long learning curve of life and death that attends upon even the canniest farmer. He shows us himself in his most soul-searching, depressed, angry, and perhaps even unjust moments, a man willing to learn and seeking answers. He asks at one point, “Was I really just starting to see, so late, that having strong feelings didn’t make me special? That they certainly didn’t make me good?” Again and again, he evaluates himself (even to his genetic inheritance of a weak back) against his father’s plans, disabilities, desires, and accomplishments, and those of other farmers he knows. He describes his struggle to fit into an agrarian community that has its own traditions, suspicions, and ways of doing things, the most innocuous of which perhaps is what he calls “Appalachian Zen”: his friend and employee Sam’s advice to get to work, “Let’s do something even if it is wrong.” And of his imitation of his father, he finally concludes, after a visionary dream which comes to him near the end of his farming venture, “I’ve never seen that while I tried to emulate him, I also tried to outdo him.”
His farming wisdom and advice? As he says, “Many of my breeding-stock customers had [a] broader perspective from the beginning. They didn’t aim to make money. They came to farming seeking aesthetic pleasure and solace from an angry world. And a word had arisen to honor food produced with less control but more craft: artisanal. The goal wasn’t high production per acre, but food infused with love and time. Like art….For the highest quality, nothing beats small, slow, and inefficient.”
His philosophy? His philosophy is not of the cut-and-dried kind which can be communicated in one heartbeat, but of that learning curve, there is certainly at least one wise lesson to be taken in by all of us, and it can be found by tracing an arc from his first sentence (“Childhood dreams cast long shadows into a life”) through to the very last paragraph of his book, when he describes a “sacred moment” which comes back to him as he gets ready to depart his sheep farm for yet another home elsewhere. He remembers his Georgia boyhood on a farm, when he was four or five and was surrounded on a hillside by butterflies which “infuse[d] me with wonder and joy. Because I’m so young, I can’t name, but only receive, their gift: a revelation of life’s unfolding daily abundance: a miracle.” And in that word “miracle” is after all the solution to the vexed question of the learning curve of life and death, given us by an articulate, gifted, and knowledgeable memoirist who, while not mincing words about the negatives, avers that they are only the other side of the positives we prefer to see. But this is to anticipate the reader’s travels with Gilbert, which must be experienced as a whole and followed from beginning to end to fully appreciate such a grand American adventure, and to place the right value on such an inestimable gift to the reading community. Though it may not lead you to adopt a lamb, it will certainly lead you to ponder, laugh, cry, and dream dreams with at least one academic who has earned his agrarian stripes, and that human shepherd is Richard Gilbert.
The Dismantling and Reassembling of an Author’s Reputation–Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Jane Austen Book Club”
Once again, I had decided to read a book I was somewhat skeptical about because of all the hype it had received, and also because when a book has been made into a movie (as I understand this one has been) one has also the dual task, if possible, of being responsible for a comparison of the two, and I haven’t seen the movie. But to forge on ahead–this book is not at all what I expected from what I had heard. I had expected a sort of latter day imitation of Jane Austen’s world, in which (from what I had heard) the characters reading Jane Austen would begin to enact their own interior dramas and have relationships like those in an Austen novel, and would have happy or at least deserved endings, and then (as happens these days) there would be a reader’s guide to glance through for things I might want to think about, and then the book would be over. A “good read,” but nothing spectacular, no fireworks, just a calm, if poignant, reminder of “our Jane” and her achievements. A good read, be it understood, in the same way that Austen is a “good read,” requiring one’s wits for the piercing turn of phrase and one’s contemporary awareness that even Jane had her limits, mainly those of no longer achieving a sort of sexual politics we can nowadays feel comfortable with. After all, marriage is no longer the only game in town.
But this book refused to cooperate with attempts to dismiss it (and I’m not sure now why I was trying to be so lazy), at the same time as it didn’t seem that well done, I couldn’t think why. Perhaps it was because I was expecting a holistic experience, a standard “fourth wall realism” novel, in which (to borrow the term “fourth wall realism” from theater arts) the audience is allowed to maintain its fiction that it is looking at reality. It’s not that The Jane Austen Book Club had any strange events, particularly, or departed from what we know of earth as described by basic biological tenets: it was rather that the structure of the book itself bore a strange resemblance to something that had been dismantled and left on the floor or table in a partial state of reassembly.
True, there were six main characters in the book club, each of whom had a story in which they predominantly figured, and a book each which they were responsible for discussing of the six major works of Jane Austen featured in their discussions. And, there were subsidiary characters who impinged upon their awareness and the plot itself. But the six chapters of the months of the year during which they met, and the extra seventh chapter, and all the additional material included with the novel itself was a little confusing (the book had not a few odd pages of added random information stuck in here and there, and a strange editorial “we” narrative voice, apparently not representing any of the named characters, who spoke up now and then). More and more as the novel went on, it bore the character not of a “fourth wall realistic” novel, which was what I had been expecting from the hype, but of a shattered experience known rather to the postmodern novel, with its characteristic disorientation of the reader and the reader’s presuppositions.
In truth, though I was a little bored with the novel proper, I found the overall tribute to Jane Austen to be quite valid and valuable and interesting. And I don’t say I was bored because it was postmodern in its structure, but because the characters, along with the subsidiary characters who impinged upon their lives, added no real “flow” to the book. It was largely a novel in which each character was briefly sketched, given some lines to say, and made to move toward some other character in the book. The most significant sentence in the entire book occurs near the end of the novel: it says, in the mysterious editorial voice (none of the named characters), “We’d let Austen into our lives, and now we were all either married or dating.” This is presumably the “sop to Cereberus” of an Austen-like result that is meant to conclude the “business” of the tribute in the somewhat scattered pieces of the story line. The after-material is another case, however.
I found that I was easily more interested in the editorial job Fowler had done with the Austen legacy and its documents than I was with the novel itself. At the end of the novel, there is a “Reader’s Guide” (a brief and highly significant quoted paragraph); a quick run-down of the plots of Austen called “The Novels” (apparently intended to supply acquaintance and encouragement for those who haven’t read Austen yet); a section called “The Response,” which I easily found the most intriguing, composed of reactions from Austen’s contemporaries and family members and followed by those of famous writers and critics since; and then the inevitable “Questions for Discussion” and an index of “Acknowledgements.” Once I had made my way through this material, I “saw [the book] steadily and saw [it] whole,” and this allowed a reassembling in my own mind of what I think Fowler’s purpose must have been: I think it was largely an educational one, and though I don’t think the quality of the novel stands up to the quality of the overall project, I am glad I read the book, and can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, though I have expressed various reservations.
My suggestion to readers is this: if you are a new reader of Jane Austen, read at least one Austen of your choice before you read this book. Asking other Austen readers for a recommendation as to which one can be a frustrating task, because it seems that each novel has its own cadre of readers. Maybe looking at Fowler’s section entitled “The Novels” will help you choose. After reading the Austen novel, then read Fowler’s novel from beginning to end, for the purpose of comparing how a latter-day admirer of Austen may write, though I don’t think the two are comparable in quality (Fowler’s effort, though perhaps more familiar in its structure to our contemporary scene, seems a little thin and slapdash by comparison with Austen, and in having made her novel referential, Fowler has invited the comparison). Lastly, and perhaps side-by-side with reading other Austen novels, read the rest of the whole of Fowler’s fine attempt to interest readers in the author whom she so obviously admires, and especially read “The Response” section: everyone, it seems, has an opinion of Austen, and some differ widely (or wildly). My guess is that all-in-all, you will come away with a similar affection for Jane Austen, and a debt of gratitude to Karen Joy Fowler, for having put your feet on the Austen reading path to start out with.