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Some serious God-talk for a contrary soul, no holds barred: Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers”

To reveal a truth that puts me in the rearguard (if anywhere at all) in the procession of people who expect things from a mysterious eternal source, not only do I refuse to give that source a conventional name, such as Allah, Yahweh, Christ, Buddha, etc., but I find great difficulty in being thankful.  I’m the grumpy child, the child who’s never satisfied, who grouses and complains about everything and wonders why things aren’t different, even though I myself haven’t perhaps done that much to make them different.  To others of more thankful vein, it sometimes seems that I believe we all enter the world with a certain amount of currency to spend, and I’m angry because I got shortchanged by the Powers That Be.  What Anne Lamott instead insists in her guidebook to prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers is that we’re all born with the same spiritual currency, and we can either shortchange ourselves and others, or recharge our “gift cards” by realizing that life is, in fact, a gift, and that we have the power to increase our appreciation and enjoyment of it, and to get both us and others through some of the rough spots.

When I first started reading her book, I found the trustfulness and the willingness to compromise with God annoying (as if one has a choice about compromising with an eternal principle, but then of course, she seems to think we do, in a sense).  She seemed to go from inspiration to inspiration, from eager acceptance of a divine force to a certain easy relationship with it, though she emphasizes throughout the book that these things aren’t true.  I had a certain skeptical “Oh yeah, sez you” attitude about it, which wanted to say that it’s just impossible to be so much on “hail-fellow-well-met” terms with some of the really suckassy things that happen, both in the name of God, and in the name of the negative principle (which some call “evil”), and which we’re asked to believe is a sub-province of God’s concern, one which he or she has reasons, mysterious ones, for not controlling better.

I continued to read, however, waiting for the “punchline,” as if someone were telling me a joke or tall tale; there had to be a punchline, a conversion scene, a “I-can-top-everything-I’ve-already-said-with-something-that’ll-knock-your-socks-off.”  I was getting near the end of the book and thinking that though less talented writers had sometimes given me something significant in less well-crafted words, that this epitome of the golden phrase had for once disappointed, when I found my passage.  This is something that usually happens to people in a prayerful audience when the minister or prayer leader says something that touches home, and then sometimes there’s an invitation to “come on down to the front and worship,” and that part always has infuriated me, and embarrassed me both for myself (my can sunk firmly in my seat, not budging), and for those who drift thankfully and solemnly down to the “front.”  In fact, I have only been in that sort of prayer gathering once or twice as a child or adolescent, the church I mainly attended not being so demonstrative, but existing, however thankfully, on a more “I’ll give you a call from my cell phone later” sort of relationship with divinity.

But certainly, thanks in part to the good humor and honesty of Lamott’s spiritual manual, for it is certainly something anyone in the habit of seeking illumination should have a look at, I had that important “ah-ha!” moment near the end.  I wasn’t expecting it, though so much of value had gone before (and I was sulky about that, because it meant I couldn’t dismiss the book wholesale).  Here, as if she knew me well and knew how many times I have dieted and starved and tried to get my avoirdupois under control, is the passage I ran across, full of simplicity and yet full of her particular brand of jesting about things which we often wince from, when they are dealt with by more solemn or thankless hands:

“You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you so don’t want the shame or the bloat.  And out of nowhere in the store, a memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegney’s.  So you do the wildest, craziest thing:  you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food.  You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory.  You’re not hungry for cocoa butter.  You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order….So you eat one berry slowly….Wow.  That tastes like a very hot summer afternoon when I was about seven and walked barefoot down the dirt road to pick them off the wild blackberry bushes out by the goats….Wow.”

This seems so colloquial that one might almost miss the artistry.  And because I’m not a happy camper, I demand a certain level of artistry; I tell myself I deserve it, as a professional reader, but perhaps the truth is also that I sometimes engage in games of one-upmanship with other more fortunate writers, who’ve hit the print page.  That is, of course, my privilege, as a trained reader, but it also can blur the distinction between major issues of composition and minor faults or inattentions.  In Lamott’s quoted passage above, she not only hits on a huge human issue, the issue of displacement activity, a psychological phenomenon in which one urge or desire to act is replaced with something apparently less intense (in some cases, not this one, less harmful, as when a bird under challenge from another bird will whet its beak on a branch, or attack something inanimate).  She gets at the issue of real desires vs. cheap replacements that are no good for us.  And, she shifts the narrative from the “you” it starts out in to the “when I was about seven” part as if piercingly aware of the defensiveness people like me have to being rescued by gods.  Now, granted, berries are better, but in my ordinary life, “the wildest, craziest thing” I might do is to go into a health food store and buy blackberries.  Or at least, it runs a close race with other forms of genuine activity, because I’m likely, being on a reduced budget, to convince myself that berries at a health food store are way more expensive than a candy bar, which is cheap eats for all who dare disregard their health.  At any rate, this was my passage, the passage that particularly touched me.  It reminded me of all the times my five-year-older aunt and I rode up into the country with my grandfather on his repair truck (he worked for the Coca-Cola Co., and the big supply trucks often overheated or broke down up in the hills where they travelled in the summer).  My aunt and I usually found berry bushes, totally wild and unsprayed because they belonged to the earth, not to farmers or growers, and we collected and ate berries to our hearts’ content.  Now, my aunt is in a nursing home and will probably continue there, despite the fact that she is not very elderly, because she had a brain bleed about a year ago which decreased her ability to function.  Trying to take a page from Anne Lamott’s book, I attempt to place the one experience of her, speaking haltingly to me over the phone, side-by-side in the eternal scales with my youthful experience of gathering berries together, and thanks to Lamott, it’s a bit easier to do, even for someone like me, who feels a little safer on the non-trusting side of life.

So, that’s really all I had to say:  Lamott’s book is a lovely book, one that you may fight with as you like, but that may turn out to have something for you too in it, even if you are not profoundly spiritual, as I believe she must be.  After all, you don’t have to say “God,” or even “god,” or even “goodness me!” if you don’t want to.  All that’s required is a mindful attention to the up currents as well as the down currents, and a resolve to be a better, or at least a more completely whole, person. shadowoperator

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Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

Thoughts on synchronicity, Elizabeth Lesser’s book “Broken Open,” and a poem inspired by two near-autodidacts

Recently, I have been feeling out-of-sorts more than usual, and sunk in a sort of spiritual case of the doldrums.  So, I figured I needed to return once again to my old habits of reading more, crocheting less (though I’m backed way up with craft projects!), and writing poetry again.  As it so chanced, I got Elizabeth Lesser’s book Broken Open:  How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow off one of my library websites.

Now, when I read a self-help book, even a more spiritually-inclined one, it’s a rare day.  I automatically have my critical claws out for grammar and punctuation and style errors, since many such books are self-forgiving in their copy editing.  And as expected, I found a number of mistakes and one nearly unforgiveable error–to an English teacher, anyway–in which T. S. Eliot was quoted or referred to knowledgeably, apparently, but spelled T. S. Elliot.  These sorts of things always make me suspicious of the author, because I reason that if their message is so vital and earth-shaking, they could at least eliminate errors and distractions, somewhat in the way that the first steps of any spiritual routine that I am aware of first concentrates on accuracy and repetition of some chant or discipline or physical exercise done correctly, which them later morphs into a higher reality.  Maybe Lesser reasoned that she was already on a higher level and so didn’t need to be cautious about her basics, but that didn’t wash with me.  The book wasn’t done with me, however.

Sure enough, once I started reading, my old friend synchronicity gave me a visit.  As Lesser more or less quotes the prophet of synchronicity (that prophet being Carl Jung), what is not brought to consciousness returns to us as fate.  Thus, all the many things I’d been meaning to have another look at popped up at once in the references in her book.  There was Jung, Joseph Campbell (yes, the mythologizing Hero With a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell), Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I’d also checked out before opening her book, and various other not-new-but-surprisingly-recurring items.  So, I kept reading.  It was an uneven book, but helpful and except for what I believe she herself calls a few “hippy-dippy” moments, for which anyone can be forgiven who’s writing about such intangibles as spirit and its manifestations, a restorative read.  After reading her, I went back to the two-disc set of DVDs in which Joseph Campbell was interviewed before the end of his life by Bill Moyers.  Though their conversation is dense with reference and complicated points in storytelling, it’s an enlightening and provocative set of interviews, and well worth anyone’s time who wants to feel more in tune with humanity in general.

This morning, I was feeling disgruntled again, so I decided to try to put down my thoughts in a poem, and boy, did I!  It may not be the best poem in the world, may in fact be thought of by some as very prosaic, but it’s three pages long, and I think encapsulates the experience I’ve recently been having.  Though the mystic in the poem is a “she” (as a sort of indirect nod to Lesser, though I wasn’t consciously writing about her), the real figure I was thinking of was a sort of femininized Campbell, a spirit guide.  As well, I thought of Kenneth Burke, the great rhetorician of roughly the same time frame as Campbell, who had many illuminating thoughts about the human situation as well, though his most flagrantly spiritual thoughts were protectively couched in terms of how rhetoric functions.  These two men were both loosely or closely at different times associated with teaching and universities, but both were often autodidacts in the sheer amount of syncretic learning and thinking they did, on many issues.  So, here’s the poem, in all of its perhaps dubious glory.  I have to apologize for the length of this post, but without all its parts, I don’t think it would make sense.

The Only Road in Town
(To Kenneth Burke and Joseph Campbell)

Wayfarers
We all are,
The signposts irregular
  and confused.
As children,
Proud of new abilities
To scan and read,
We make fun 
Of the ancient spellings,
Pronounce them in the
  distorted fashions
They seem to suggest,
Ignorant we, ignorant-seeming they.
Seeming, in fact, is what we know,
How things seem to interpret
  themselves out,
Lazy children, letting things
  go their own ways.
We think we split into many myriad paths,
I a doctor, you a lawyer, he a merchant,
She a mystic,
And we all shrug at her especially,
For she keeps insisting
That there's only one road in town.
But when we need, in the middle
  of the night,
It's her words we try to recall,
And if we are shameless of our pain,
We dial her up,
Hold her on the phone for hours,
Not thinking about whether or not
She too has children, or a garden,
Or a husband who's leaving
Because he can no longer
Stand the mice roaming in the cupboard
Which she refuses to kill
Because she wants to drive them out gently.
We laugh at her when we gather,
Sometimes to her face,
Which she takes in good part
Even while saying "You'll see,"
And we do see sometimes,
Though we are always newly astonished
That someone could hold that askew-view
Perpetually, instead of only now and then.
When we think we need God,
We speak about it timidly to her,
And usually her only,
As if she were a purveyor of pornography
Or other specious wares,
And we not wanting to be known to be
  a customer.
She doesn't tell us we need God,
But only confirms that we have something
  like a soul, needing water like a plant,
Though which plant and body of water
She refuses to say, only nourishing us
  with a taste of it
Through her listening and her rare words.
Her words too are signs, reminiscent
Of the signposts of old, though more intriguing
Through being more abbreviated and scant.
She lets us be, and it seems so rare and refreshing
Just to be let be, to share her sun,
To live under the same stars
With someone who seems to breathe sun and stars,
And breezes and antelopes and gazelles and tigers,
All in one.
Her rare earth is ours, for a while,
And though she can't explain it to us,
And doesn't try with phrases and such,
We respond like heliotropes and sunflowers
To her being, and go away feeling refreshed.
There comes the time, though, when we lose her,
Whether through our mortal dereliction or her own,
And we reach to try to preserve the intangible,
To recover the spirit that even those lazy children
We once were seemed to recognize in themselves.
And when we ask, from our deathbed or hanging
  solicitously over her in her moment of departure,
"Tell us, which road shall the funeral cortège take?"
Seeking either her last advice or her last wish,
She says but "The only road in town."
And we are thrown into tactless confusion,
Scrambling to assign a coherent meaning
To words that seem much like the signposts of old,
Contradictory, sublime, but oxymoronic all the same.
It may be then at that moment that she restores us
To the common lot, the way of it all,
To our not being doctors, or lawyers, or merchants,
Or even mystics, but to a being we can rejoin
Now that we have completed this leg of our journey,
This fine spectacle of a wayfaring,
This conundrum of existence,
And we are she, and she is we, and then someone departs,
Via the only road in town.

©by Victoria Leigh Bennett, 4/28/18

 

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Poetry and its forms and meanings, What is literature for?

“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”–Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself”

As the French playwright and thinker Jean Racine once claimed, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”  Horace Walpole echoed the sentiment, but put the two clauses in the reverse order.  Whatever the order, the sentiment is one that often applies to the way fiction, not to mention drama, works.  The unique thing about the work of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is that it produces both feelings at the same time in those who read it, not the usual sense of tragicomedy, but a studied blankness of effect and affect both at the end of each of her short stories in this book, which bears the subtitle “Love Stories.”  And this is not a case in which one can blame the translation, which those who know Russian claim is an adept one (by the translator Anna Summers, who has translated others of Petrushevskaya’s works as well).

I say that there is a “studied blankness of effect and affect both” because there is:  the blankness of effect is contained in the continual twist which takes place at the end of each short story, where one is expecting a sense of resolution.  There is in each case a sense of nothing really being resolved, but a sense of reality, of truth to real life and to the way thing actually happen, of the oftentimes inconclusive result even of big events in life.  Just because so many other fictions proceed by well-worn formulas, this lack of final effect produces its own sense of surprise and shock, and often a rueful chuckle at one’s own expectations.  The blankness of affect relates to the marked restraint of feeling in the narrator’s exposition of her characters and their situations:  she doesn’t feel sorry for them in the conventional sense, doesn’t play sad little violin solos on her creative instrument, and doesn’t encourage the reader to feel sorry for them either.

And yet, one does feel for these characters, when all is said and done.  It’s the author’s own sense of balance and discipline in dealing with the sorrowful facts of these character’s lives, with their strange and funny solutions to their predicaments, with their often unmerited suffering and undeserved rewards, which make this book the book it is.  It’s as if the author took a whiny, mournful, disgruntled little series of events, and removed the vital connections of characters’ trajectories up and down in feeling and action, and instead put a laugh here, and a poignant remark there, in places where they weren’t before expected.  And she doesn’t pull her punches, or bestow or waste any sympathy on her characters; such sympathy as they deserve, they may or may not get from the other characters (and in a final way from the reader, at the end of each story), but they don’t get it from the narrative voice, which is calm and full of detail and fact, but which only supplies these and insists that the reader come to his or her own conclusions.  Yet, from this restrained puppeteering, there is tenderness, coming from who can say where?  All one knows when reading is that Petrushevskaya is like a canny and watchful parent, who without apparent doting or pride harshly pushes her progeny forth, in such a way that she cunningly wins that doting for them from the audience, who feels for them that they have such a dragon of a progenitor that they surely deserve to be lauded and made much of by their auditors.

Even the title of this book is one which bestows that strict tone of restraint on events:  the major events of that story, “there once lived a girl who seduced her sister’s husband, and he hanged himself,” are ones which are taken away from the reader who hopes to follow the path of major events.  The title instead insists that there is something else of importance, and it is thus that the reader must enter the story and supply the feeling, the startlement, the connections between event and feeling.  This is a book which rewards curiosity and investigation well, and which gives the reader sated by ordinary fictional motifs and sallies the charge of a lifetime.  I hope you will read it soon, and discover just how original a talent Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is.

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My all-time favorite Halloween movie, and why (without spoilers)–“An American Werewolf in London”

Now it’s time, my readers, for my nearly annual Halloween post, and though I would like to cast a few shivers down your spines myself, for the sheer glory of being able to say that I could write almost anything and get by with it, I’m not talented in several directions, and that’s one of them.  As well, it may sound funny to say that a particular film is my “favorite” scary film, when I have not made a habit in even the slightest way of either watching scary films or posting on them.  Nevertheless, to my way of thinking (and when I was young I did have a penchant both for scary films and television shows, when I could sneak them past the household censor), this is the film to which no other scary  film I’ve seen trailers of quite manages up, and the standard by which I measure all chills and thrills of that kind:  “An American Werewolf in London.”  Here’s why:

There is a strong human emotional response to being frightened, and that is to giggle nervously, as if hoping that it is all a joke, and not true.  Films and fictions which play off that reaction are usually more successful simply because (for example) a dessert which has both sugar and a little salt in it tastes better than a dessert would just with sugar:  the “salt” of the successful horror film is the comic moment (as in, “I’m taking this with a grain of salt,” indicating only partial belief, hence the tendency to giggle, as if being teased).  This moment seems to reassure us that all is not as bad as it would seem.  But of course, in a true horror film, once that comic moment has passed, a truly horrific scene follows, and if done correctly, scares us even more.  Some films have played on this, but none I’ve encountered do it quite as well as this by now venerable movie.

For example, this movie has not one but two stock or stereotypical kinds of situations to play off of, both of which it uses to both comic and horrific advantage:  the horror film’s moments of heightened activity, such as the witches’ den and the warning given there, the original werewolf’s initial attack, complete with only partial visuals of slavering jaws and reddish eyes, the results of the first attack along with the discounting of the werewolf story by local police, and so on and so forth.  The second strain of stereotype is a play on the by-now-familiar ruefully comic routine concerning the naïve or innocent American in the Old World, of which London is the example in this case, though of course the story must begin on the moors, as is only appropriate and conceivable, playing on both American and British urban suspicions of rural settings and the people there.  Though there are also moments of gore, they are not in the forefront as much as in more recent films (or at least, in the trailers I have seen, and yes, ignored), as this movie is quite intelligent and doesn’t depend entirely on the “oh, gross!” factor for its success.  Of course, there must be a love interest, which in this film is played by the lovely and extremely talented Jenny Agutter, as a nurse in love with the young American.

Without spoiling it for you (and believe me, I haven’t begun to tell you about all the scary and funny moments of this film), I cannot do more to persuade you to see this film for the first time, or if you’ve already seen it, to see it again.  So, have a happy, scary, safe and funny Halloween, and don’t eat too much candy (you never know when you might need to run from a monster or visiting American on the loose)!

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Heat, love, fear, discovery–literary suspense in Pen’s and Bruni’s “Desert Flowers”

Paul Pen’s novel Desert Flowers, translated by Simon Bruni, begins with a simple, natural, and graceful flow of narration as–and for that matter stands as–an overwhelming and sometimes frightening testimony to family and parental love, no matter the cost or parents involved.  Daily routines, though sometimes seeming a trifle eccentric to one or the other of the family’s members, are the accepted currency from each of them to the others, the things they are teased about or provoked into sharing and demonstrating.  And though romantic love “like that in the novels” between individuals, whether younger or older, is featured as a corollary subject, it is made to seem smaller, less compelling, and in the end less significant in some respects, than the deep and abiding love that a child and parent (or the two parents of a child) have for each other, even when one or both are in the wrong.

Desert Flowers, named for the mother and five daughters at the center of the novel’s focus, all of whom have floral names, is also a tense and original suspense novel, one which manages to paint in the hues and tones of mystery here and there amidst the familial picture as it develops.  It is possible almost to breathe in the sere desert air, to observe the changes of morning, night, sunrise, twilight, to sense the quotidian dangers of the plants and animals around about, to live with the characters in their pictured surroundings as the prose first pauses, then races ahead, then takes a moment to accustom the reader to variations of momentum and balance as quickly changing as a desert sky and as awe-inspiring.  After a heart-stopping opening prelude introducing the parents, Rose and Elmer, at night, when they at first believe (prophetically enough) that there is an intruder in the house, we change to a slow adagio of a first movement, which blends various repeated melodies of the family’s daily harmonious routines, making them seem uncharacteristically bland at first by comparison with Rose’s initial panic, which smacks more of the usual self-proclaimed suspense novel.  When the reader has been kept waiting a bit impatiently to find out the cause of her alarm for a sufficient period of time in which to wonder about Rose herself, however, the pace quickens suddenly and unexpectedly with the addition of a different theme of a stranger appearing without warning in the center of the family group when Elmer is away from home.

As with many real situations, the characters Rose, Elmer, and the young stranger, Rick, end up playing a game with each other in their struggles to one-up the opponent without departing from the strictures of good manners and seemly deportment.  But little by little, a second movement of the piece develops after an interlude of time when Rick is trying to piece together clues about his host and hostess and their family, almost as if he has some reason or other to find them suspect.  In this second movement, it is rather Rick who emerges as the questionable party for a time, and we follow his footsteps as he does things which do not suggest that he is a good guest or at least not one without flaw.

To continue the metaphor of a piece of music, the third movement is a movement of secrets half-revealed, with all three of the adults participating in the jumps of logic and understanding taking place, a movement of back-and-forth recriminations and accusations, whether made silently in the quiet of the desert night and one’s own mind, or in the daylight confrontations amongst the three of them.  Though the book has been an interesting and pleasurable read up until now, it is this movement which produces that frisson of luxurious fear in the readers’ minds, and a temptation to start choosing sides.  But that must not be yet, for there are two more movements to come, and compelling reasons why all three adults are vital and worthwhile beings.

The fourth movement is one of quick and unanswerable violence and retribution, yet exactly who is being punished?  The answer is not as obvious as it might otherwise seem to be, as even the children come in for their share of the suffering, however unnecessary or undeserved.

The fifth movement is one full of surprises, not only plot twists and a final, rewarding fictional ending that has elements both of justice served and of a cliff-hanger; there are also surprises, here at the very end, in some of the characters, whom one might otherwise have thought of as already fully developed.

All in all, this is a fine work of what one must after all call literary suspense fiction, since it has both the evocative and lovely language of the portraiture of the characters’ surroundings and the terse, carefully underwritten language of the literary thriller.  It’s not often that a book which starts out so very innocently and wholesomely, with a family’s daily concerns and small victories and challenges, has one unable to stop turning pages by a little before the middle of the text, but so it is here.  I would recommend it to anyone who truly enjoys literary suspense.  Shadowoperator

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Teens in extremis and showing that a presence is better than a legacy–Jennifer Niven’s “All the Bright Places”

By and large, I do not read much YA fiction.  Nevertheless, I have sometimes been sufficiently attracted by the combination of an appealing or curious title and a front cover which promise between them a “good read,” and so it was in this case.  Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places chooses to initiate the reader’s awareness of bright places and just what makes them doubly bright sometimes, with her hero and heroine both having made their way individually to the top of a school bell tower, where they become better known to each other while each is in the midst of a personal moment of crisis.  The hero, a senior boy named Theodore Finch, one of the “bad boys” and quirkier persons in the senior class, meets up with Violet Markey, who is basically a good student with a deep personal grief in her recent past.  Though they are vaguely cognizant of each other as members of the same class, their serious acquaintance has previously ended there, since Violet is leery of being seen as a friend of someone so markedly different.  But all that is about to change.

Theo takes it upon himself to rescue Violet from the predicament she’s gotten herself in by not only helping her down from her precarious perch on the opposite side of the tower, but by also allowing her to pretend to all and sundry that it was she who helped coax him out of an apparently suicidal state.  Both of them are seeing school counselors already at the beginning of the novel, he for his perverse behavior and school-skipping, she for grief counseling concerning the death of her slightly elder sister Eleanor in a car wreck earlier.  Since everyone in the school comes to believe the fiction that Theo was the one helped down, his gentlemanly behavior in deferring to her puts him in an even more serious situation, not only with his counselor but also with most of the students, who consider him a “flake.”  With some initial resistance from Violet, gradually the two become co-workers on a Geography project (exploring the state sites of Indiana, which is where the novel is set), then friends, then lovers.

There are other subjects in the novel, however, and the major one does not even become apparent (or at least exteriorized) until near the end of the novel, in Theo’s sections (the novel is divided up into a back-and-forth narration style something like journal or diary entries between Violet and Theo, with occasional quotes from their Facebook messages to each other).  Some of these subjects include school bullying, the hypocrisy of some teenage friendships, dating mores, family relationships in split or fractured families or families who have suffered a loss, and parental abuse, to name a few of the more obvious.  Over and above all these, and woven in with them as it gradually becomes manifest, the major subject is one which I will not spoil by revealing; it has something to do, however, with one of the reasons the “bright” places seem so very bright in Theo’s and Violet’s world, a reason which Violet only gradually becomes conscious of as she is drawn into the magical, sometimes contrarious, sometimes without-rules world of Theo Finch.

For, Theo’s manically-charged celebration of life, which he shares at his best moments with Violet, periods during which he thinks of himself as being “awake,” alternate with black moods like his abusive father’s, during which he isolates himself and calls himself “asleep.”  As Violet eventually starts to improve in her own life, becoming less sad and morose due to Theo’s attentions to her, we see Theo beginning to slip once again and in a serious way into a state which has before only been foreshadowed in the novel.  Though he does part ways with Violet during a meaningless quarrel the two of them have, he leaves a legacy for her which, nevertheless, though she treasures it, is less valuable to her by far than his presence.  It is this legacy, “all the bright places,” that he enables her to enjoy, and the author, Jennifer Niven, comments upon it expansively not only in her sections addressed directly to the reader, but in her list of help agencies and organizations for the benefit of people like her two characters, Violet and Theo.

Having said all that I’ve said about the seriousness of this novel, I think it’s important to add that the material is very lightly handled, and with due respect for the target audience.  The attitude is both mature and maturity-seeking, not for a moment “talking down” or sounding a note awry, though there are pictures in the novel of well-meaning adults who do not manage to avoid these troubles.  All in all, I think this a novel well worth a read, even for someone who is no longer a teen, or even a young adult.  And after all, we were all young once, as people sometimes say, and many of us have confronted similar issues or persons, whether young or not.  I hope you will have a chance to read this book, and will share my admiration and respect for its author and handlers.

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A Partially Realistic Novel, Yet One Full of Conundrums and Mysteries: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Kukotsky Enigma”

The title of this novel at the start prepares the reader for something out of the way and curious, yet it doesn’t come up to the actual novel itself in strangeness and states of compositional alienation. it’s a 2001 novel, hence still fairly recent, translated into English in 2016 by Diane Nemec Ignashev.  It is in fact the translator’s afterword which adds part of the mystery to the novel, as it is her word that is the only explanation of some of the outré, bizarre, and fantastic elements of the book itself.  And her explanation in at least one particular seems a little off-center.  But to begin at the beginning:

“Since the end of the seventeenth century all of Pavel Alekseevich Kukotsky’s male ancesters on his father’s side had been physicians.”  As with many a traditional Russian novel of family dynasties, The Kukotsky Enigma proceeds to give some family back history, and then leads into the immediate history of Pavel’s own childhood fascination with his father’s manuals, books, and charts of the human body.  The young boy is particularly drawn to the fold-out flap anatomy book, wherein there is a “naked lady” with a fold-out womb and other organs.  As a child, he is half-afraid that if he is discovered looking at the book, that he will “get his ears boxed,”  but as it turns out, his father actually gives him the gift of a better anatomy book, one with two hundred forty-five drawings, and leaves him to examine it.  It is a book by Leonardo da Vinci, “one of only three hundred hand-numbered copies.”  From here, the boy spends “his happiest hours” in his father’s study, looking not only at anatomy books, but at books on natural history, zoology, and comparative anatomy.  His father’s next munificent gift is a microscope, and from that point on, the course is set for a life in the medical sciences.

One of his father’s friends in obstetrics and gynecology takes the student on when he reaches university age, and though his father dies and his spendthrift mother uses her time trying to retain her former state of elegance in the reduced circumstances of their 1920’s living space being “consolidated” to include three more families, Pavel retains his position and goes on developing his medical skills.  Something strange happens to him, however–the first enigma to bear the name Kukotsky.  He realizes on examining a patient that he is able to see a “full-color schematic image” of tumorous cancers inside her body without ever opening her up, and this gives him pause.  This is a gift which comes from somewhere unknown, which neither his ancestors nor his generous father could have controlled.  He calls it “intravision” and never speaks of it to anyone.  It has a price, however:  even though it improves and increases over the years, he has to live the life nearly of an ascetic in order to get it to operate.  Too much food, or physical contact of an intimate nature with women could temporarily disrupt his gift.  He, however, in order to further his gift, is willing to abide by ascetic conditions, and misogynistic ones.  At this point, he meets up with his future wife, Elena Georgievna Flotov, though he doesn’t recognize her as this at first.

The difference seems to be that she appears on his operating table as a patient, and it is necessary to remove most of her female organs; thus, she is a woman and yet not a woman, a delicate, womanly presence of grace and femininity, yet without the key things that might cause her to get pregnant again.  Quickly, he arranges for her, her tiny daughter Tanya, and her servant Vasilisa to come and live with him, and when news arrives that her husband Flotov has been killed in war, he immediately marries her and adopts Tanya.

From here on, the novel progresses for a while as a family novel, not only of this family, but of another family, Ilya Iosifovich Goldberg (a wayward genius geneticist) and his twin sons, Vitaly and Gennady.  Ilya is in and out of prisons because of his stated views, not even so much about politics, but about genetics issues which the powers that be believe can affect political things and people.  The twin sons, as they grow up, are in friendly competition with each other over Tanya.  And then, due to a tragedy amongst other, poorer people known to Pavel and Elena slightly, another little girl, Toma, is adopted into the family, which causes a permanent schism between Pavel and Elena, though they still live together.  Tanya enters training in medical research and then due to stresses in her family and society, leaves without warning, staying out all hours of the night and worrying her family.  Pavel takes to drinking too much, a habit which stays with him for the rest of the novel.  At this point, the realistic quality of the novel breaks off, and Part Two begins.

Another major conundrum of the book, Part Two, opens with a woman lying in a sand dune, and progresses with her joining a group of unknown people without names, who are going from someplace unknown to someplace else equally uncertain, led by a man known as “the Judean.”  This part of the novel reads very much like a fantasy novel, and yet it seems to me to be an approximate vision of the afterlife, as it might be.  It is this part of the novel which most closely suggests the original title that Ulitskaya, according to the translator’s afterword, had originally given the novel:  Journey(s) to the Seventh Dimension.  It is all very impressionistic, and yet after a while, one begins to recognize a few of the previously appearing characters in these strange new beings with odd names.  Some of them, however, don’t even appear in their realistic guise until the next more realistic section after Part Two, which continues the family saga(s).  Though the translator explains that some of the book is supposed to intimate characteristics of Alzheimer’s (which illness Elena gradually develops, particularly in Part Three), I stick by my impression that this section, with all its mystery, is quite like a fantastic version of the afterlife, perhaps Limbo or Purgatory, though without the religious connotations.  Then comes Part Three.

Part Three progresses with the family sagas again, until there is a sudden dislocation to talk about the murderous career of a former violent guard named Semion Kurilko.  The story follows him for several pages, without explanation, until suddenly he makes contact with one of the characters we’ve been following, and tries to murder him.  But then, Kurilko is hanged; still, we don’t follow the other character anymore, and the section ends.  Another compositional enigma!

Finally, the book ends with a short Part Four.  The subject is of two parts:  one is a picture of Elena as “Granny” to her granddaughter Zhenya, after Pavel’s death.  Though Granny lives with Toma (the poor adopted child) and her husband in another tiny apartment, it is Zhenya (heavily pregnant) who comes to bathe and take care of her.  Elena seems actually to have Alzheimer’s in this section, which was prefigured in earlier Part One and Part Two by some of her moments of disorientation and the odd journal entries she made at those times.  So, actually, I suppose, it hasn’t been entirely unprepared for.  The second part of the last subject is not of age, senility, or death, but of birth.  The book ends with the two sides of the united family grouping around the new birth, and Ilya Goldberg planning to come back from America to see the baby.  Thus, Pavel’s original interest in treating the diseases and ailments of pregnant women (not totally to exclude the major subject of his securing abortions for women who desperately needed them, amidst much societal animosity) circles round again in his posterity, though the male line of doctors which was followed at the beginning is at the end replaced by the female line of women giving birth and tending to their own.

I have made much of the curiousness of this book, and I have to say that this does not indicate that I did not thoroughly enjoy it, which I did.  It is a fine novel.  The puzzles come in when one considers the method of construction of the novel itself, and the sometimes abrupt switches from subject to subject following the divisions into sections.  Also, the two major characters in the novel, Pavel and Tanya, both die before the end of the novel, and Elena, a distant third major character in the course of the realistic sections, receives much of the emphasis if one considers that original title about “the seventh dimension” as a synonym for Alzheimer’s, and the fact that she outlives the other two.

All in all, this is quite a major achievement, and it is obvious why it won the 2001 Russian Booker Prize.  Such questions and ponderings about the structure and the substance as I have raised are meant not to denigrate its quality, but to emphasize just how much there is here to think about, how much about life we can stand to reflect upon.  And it is a rich contribution to literature about Russian life in particular, inasmuch as it locates the characters in their times and traditions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some areas around the Black Sea.  It is rare to come across a novel which can not only paint the picture of family relations in a complex situation, locate those families with respect to the professions and trades, and finally put the whole in a societal framework which makes the entire book more comprehensible to readers from cultures all around the world.  This novel is such a novel.

 

 

 

 

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