Monday, December 22, 2008

The School on Heart's Content Road by Carolyn Chute

As with Chute's first novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine, this novel is really unlike anybody else's. And as with her first novel, I loved the opening sixty pages or so and then felt a diminishing return. Still the originality and the writing and a tender (sort of) ending make it worth following through (I originally, accidentally wrote falling through, which maybe is more what I meant). Anyway, the novel follows a commune and a militia, each in Maine, and how their goals and members intersect and collide. In some ways, especially in its social commentary, it's like a Don DeLillo novel, just not about the middle class. And whereas DeLillo has the television in the background saying "Toyota Celica" during a scene, Chute gives the TV a voice of its own (the novel is in alternating voices, most less than a page or two). This is what the TV has to say first: "Beeeee afraid! Low types of people are everywhere; in cities, in towns, in your backyard! In other countries. Drugged, crazed, mindless, evil is at large!" In order to distinguish between the voices, some of which are major characters (they get the most time), some of which are inanimate (the tv) or at least not human (a crow), Chute uses little typographical symbols to label them. This is the kind of thing students sometimes do with their word processors, and I used to discourage it (too cute for my taste) but lately I've gotten more interested in what writers can do graphically in their text, and here Chute's symbols are a help not a hindrance. And though they are a bit cute, or maybe gimmicky, it works all right with her voice, which is exaggerated and a little silly--which works to counterbalance the rather tragic plot.

A good moment of characterization of one of the main speakers, Mickey, a sixteen year old boy: "I was just taking the bus to school, to finish out the year at this school here. I don't mess with their books--you know, frig with them, write shit in them, or vandalize things. That's stupid. But I figured before the last day in June I was going to draw a picture of Mr. Carney sucking a pony's ---- on a separate piece of paper. And, you know, tape it into the book."

And I've never smoked but this seemed like a good, non-cliched way to describe addiction: "He has tried to give up cigarettes but he can't. Where the drive for food is felt in the stomach and the drive for sex is a hot spot between the legs, the drive for a cigarette is felt in every cell. It is a hunger shaped exactly like Mickey inside Mickey, a flaming Mickey shape screaming, I need! I need!"

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is in her seventies, which might explain the shortness of her novels lately. And this novel actually reads much more like a short story (admittedly a 165 page short story, but that's still how it feels to me) in that it works a great deal with implication, hinting at deeper things all around these characters, but not really giving up the details. Anyway, it's Morrison, so it's good enough for me.

Recently one of my undergraduates, a visual arts major, had some wonderful paintings in FAU's senior show (Hi, Jennifer) and in the art catalogue, she explained her process as painting a smaller stroke inside of a larger stroke. Which sounded cool, but also suggested a way of analyzing Morrison's technique in this novel. While in a painting viewers see the two strokes at once, here in a section of text Morrison will give the big stroke--a scene where you can see what's happening but you don't know why or to who or exactly what's going on--and then in a later section (often with a different narrative point of view), you'll get the big stroke filled in with a smaller stroke. For example, a character referred to as "you" will be revealed to be a blacksmith one narrator has fallen in love/obsession with. So the strokes are sequential, but one still fills in the other. It has the effect of first jarring the reader out of complacency, but then reassuring them that there is a truth and it will be told. I guess it's sort of how life works--you make sense--or a story--out of most things only later? I don't know if this is true, but it sounds pretty good.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

A casual remark in a recent department meeting about whether a piece of writing was journalism or memoir made me realize I was holding to a strict distinction between the two that isn't at all true anymore (if it ever was). Because the piece contained quite a bit of personal stuff I was calling it memoir while my colleague (rightly, I think in hindsight) was calling it journalism because of all the non-personal stuff. The difference in genre didn't matter in the slightest for our purposes but it did remind me that most of my favorite books by journalists (Oracle Bones, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, The Orchid Thief...) are at least in part memoir. And Dexter Filkins has written a book that is being marketed as a journalistic account of the Iraq war, but which has definite memoirish qualities. There was no way for Filkins to pretend that he wasn't a part of the events depicted--in one case, his mission (obtaining a photograph to illustrate an article) results in the death of a soldier. So this isn't an objective historian's account. But it's probably all the better for it.

I've been interested in reading accounts of the Iraq war by soldiers and have looked at a few over the years, but in many cases the soldiers lack the ability to address their subjectivity. Their accounts are interesting because they experienced high stakes events that I otherwise feel very removed from. But their prejudices tend to go unaddressed. What Filkins is able to do very well is acknowledge his own subjectivity (his liking and admiration for the soldiers he is embedded with, his fear, his thrill-seeking desires, his growing cynicism and callousness as the war goes on and life in the country worsens) and how that subjectivity influences his thinking. So while the journalist's code used to be objectivity, maybe in a post-objective world, the next best option (or possibly the better option) is objectivity about your subjectivity. Or in non-invented-theory-language: awareness of your own position.

One of the remarkable things about the book is how long Filkins stayed in the Middle East. He starts out in pre-9/11 Afghanistan but gets booted from there, and then spends many years in Iraq. As a result he is able to depict the change from the hopeful and cooperative position of the Iraqis in the early days of the occupation to the growing resistance and frustration as the country's infrastructure gets worse rather than better and foreign insurgents are able to enter the country. You really feel like you're getting the whole story so far.