A tug of war between independence/originality and dependence/conventionality

glasscastle

What is one reviewing when the subject of the book is a memoir? Here is one answer, offered by Beth Kephart: “Reviewing becomes a warscape of its own when the reviewer of memoir chooses to forget that it is not the life itself we are asked to judge, but how that life has been swept up into words.”  (1)

From the perspective of language and narrative technique, then,  Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005) first-person narrative reads well, it is fast-paced, the style is unadorned, the structure well-thought out, there is not one word out of place. It is a matter-of fact, emotionless rundown of one daughter’s life with her family from when she was 3 to when she reached her early twenties. Hence, the book’s continuing popularity on this basis is deserved and understandable.  If one had to quibble with the chronology, Part I, “A Woman on the Street” already gives many of the forthcoming events away, so its place in the life account is questionable, as it discloses crucial character traits of the daughter-author and her mother, preventing the reader from  discovering these facts on her/his own.

However, a memoir is not simply a “life that has been swept up into words”. Words carry meanings, but these are both denotative and connotative, they create sentences, similes, metaphors, they build allegories, parallels, links, comparisons to other lives. Why write a memoir if you do not react emotionally and intellectually to what happened to you, either at that particular moment, or many years afterwards? Therefore, this review asks for what reasons the author keeps her emotional gut reactions and intellectual musings in a straitjacket throughout the account by using a sort of documentary narration (clearly, in any documentary, certain images are foregrounded, just like in this memoir). Given the tremendous impact on the author’s life stemming from her parents’ choices, one would expect some emotional and intellectual response/feedback/closure by means of a charged, metaphor-laden description. In other words, writing as re-living in order to make sense of what happened.  If this emotionless narration happens by design, then the result is significant, because it forces the reader to come up with the emotional and intellectual reckoning for herself/himself. If this cold narration just happened, then it leaves unanswered the questions about the author’s stance on child raising, values of self-reliance and originality, and, above all, on love between parents and children.

The Walls family’s life can be summarized in one sentence, although there are countless other themes which are not dealt with here (religion and superstition, sexual abuse, alcoholism, theft, family falling apart).  The memoir describes the upbringing of children in a conscious homeless and nomadic existence by an alcoholic father/dreamer and incompetent mother/visual artist. The parents are complex figures: the mother is depicted as willfully inept care-giver.  Rose Mary Walls sees “adventure” in every obstacle that life places before the family; she is an “excitement addict”.  She paints, sculpts, and is not interested in cooking or cleaning. Her motto is “What does not kill you makes you stronger”. Granted, the children brace for and face any eventuality with resolve, because complaining would not stop the roof from leaking or bring food to the table;but this resolve is often inadequate for the task. The shocking fact revealed later on in the book is that the mother seems to own a pretty valuable plot of land in Texas, which she is unwilling to sell, since according to her, it’s not hard times yet. She expresses constant frustration at not being able to devote all her time to her art. Also, she wants to act unconventionally apparently because her mother forced her to follow all kinds of rules and guidelines. She believes that everyone has redeeming qualities. The father is described as a dreamer and his constant promises of a better life are thwarted by his alcoholism. He makes up for his lack of funds by giving children poetic “gifts”, such as letting them choose a star/planet to be their own. Rex Walls has one compulsion: to build a glass house for the family, and when he is sober, he works on the plans with his children. Needless to say, this construction never materializes. Rex instills his children with love of nature and animals. Both parents are avid readers and insist that their children have access to books wherever they live, and that they attend school. The mother and the father abhor conformity, conventionality, uniformity, dependence, rules. They value individuality, self-reliance, self-confidence, non-compliance, originality, independence.

Clearly, it would be too easy to criticize Rose Mary’s and Rex’s parenting. The children lived through some pretty traumatic events which could have been avoided, and at least three of the four of them have seemingly stable lives now. Nevertheless, the reader does not know whether they are happy and what, in their opinion, constitutes love and family.

The Glass Castle raises at least two thought-provoking problems: one deals with the question of teaching “value” to children, and the other with having self-reliance.  If there is “value” in a clear starry night in Arizona, how does one reconcile it with the fact that in New York one cannot see such sky? What is the consequence of this for the child who chooses a star as a gift from her father? Or, what is the “value” of a plot of land full of underground oil deposits, if this plot is not sold, keeping children hungry and cold? In other words, “values” have significance beyond the strictly pragmatic implication: they carry psychological and emotional baggage, perhaps for the rest of one’s life.

The other concern, that of self-reliance, is a much more complicated matter, deeply ingrained in the American culture and politics. The belief in the individual’s strength to live a life of self-reliance and personal independence runs deep in the American psyche. In the memoir, though, self-reliance borders at times on selfishness. The mother believes that letting her 3-year old cook on her own strengthens her character and self-reliance. On this particular occasion, cooking leads to a fire and then terrible burns. Not only there are scars but also there is a possible pyromania developing in the child (stealing matches, starting fires, etc.). Undoubtedly, no parent is omniscient, and the consequences of events are truly unpredictable. So the question remains: what does “taking care of” mean and does not taking care of someone teach them independence? At what cost? Does suffering really lead to self-reliance and does it really teach abnegation and strength? What effects does telling children that they are special have on their individuality? Is not following sewing rules and then abandon the disastrous product a truly learning experience?

From another perspective, how do you help a person who does not want help, who thinks self-reliance is what keeps them going? Being homeless and unemployed: is this a lifestyle of dreamers or social and psychological misfits (sometimes bordering on mentally unstable)? The Wells use public libraries, hospitals, schools (but they are never on food stamps nor receive unemployment benefits, they don’t “accept handouts from anyone”): theirs is a half-hearted independence from services which society offers. Yes, Jeannette is ashamed of her parents in front of other people, but not when directly facing them. All in all, the memoir underscores the fact that there are no definitive wrong and right answers to raising children, but it also illustrates that love between parents and children is a very tender flower, easily bruised and repaired with difficulty, if ever.

In conclusion, these are some of the ideas raised by the book. If memoir writing is a cathartic undertaking, the author did not let us know how successfully she cleansed herself from her previous life, of the traumas and inadequacies which populated her development. Above all, how will she raise her children, if she has any?

___________

(1) Beth Kephart, “What does it mean to review a memoir?” http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-memoir-reviews-20151112-story.html

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Millennials and beyond: born to satisfy the “needs of the market economy”

dream

Youth (un)employment can be analyzed from various perspectives. Ken S. Coates and Bill Morrison chose the university and college systems as their focus in Dream Factories. Why Universities Won’t Solve the Youth Job Crisis (Toronto: TAP Books, 2016,  231 pages). The book is a collaborative effort of two university professors who together have been in higher education for almost 100 years, and they have researched colleges and universities for almost that long, so their academic credentials seem to stand on a solid ground.

The book is a well-developed indictment against the inability of today’s degree-granting institutions of higher learning to provide support, instruction, and preparation for young people to find and land a job. Although concentrating on the Canadian and US higher learning systems, the book makes it clear that world-wide, the situation is woefully similar (examples are given from the universities in China, Brazil, and various European and North African countries).  According to the authors, there are three reasons for the existing enthusiasm for higher education, which, however, are not reflected in the realities of the world of work: 1) sustained evidence that a university degree produces highly beneficial results, if not for everyone, at least on average, 2) major shifts in the industrial workforce, 3) changing attitudes towards work/physical labor (pp. 41-42). Not every graduate, however, enjoys the realization of the dream: specifically, arts majors earn less than unionized heavy-duty mechanics, graduates from lesser-known or non-elite universities struggle to find jobs even if their field is finance, law, or economics, or the tech sector. Many graduates work part-time without benefits. The following reasons underpin the tragic ineffectiveness of universities and colleges:

  1. they are reticent to change their mission, which, expressed in various ways, usually means to expand the mind, improve public discourse, celebrate the world of ideas (p. 16), i.e. they are not job factories,
  2. they are very expensive businesses which rely on government funding per student, so they are forced to accept candidates irrespective of their preparation, stamina, competitiveness, and willingness to study,
  3. their status is vastly overrated by the parents’ and society’s  interpretation of the no-longer valid equation Education = Employment (or learning = earning),
  4. they were seen as the only way to riches during the post-WW2 era, especially the 1960s, but this dream no longer holds true, since “knowledge economy” replaced natural resources and industry as the foundation for national and personal prosperity (pp. 20-21),
  5. they mass-produce graduates in a way that is disconnected from the needs of the modern economy (21), so they are not responsive to the job market,
  6. they (often for-profit universities) employ unscrupulous recruitment procedures and do not inform the prospective students truthfully,
  7. they have to follow the governmental push for accessibility, so they make the point that admission is not a guarantee of graduation (admit everyone and then cull the number to a manageable level in the first year),
  8. they accept foreign students (whose tuition fees are double or more than the regular ones) who may or may not stay in the country they studied in and therefore may not contribute to that country’s prosperity,
  9. they allow credentialism to be rampant,
  10. they do not appear to correct “the serious problems with the students’ basic skills, limited curiosity, lack of commitment to studies, and disengagement from learning as a whole” (64),
  11. they pave the way for those faculty members who engage in research and publish; university administrators emphasize political correctness and sensitivity to issues of gender, class, etc.: “The struggle to reassert the primacy of college teaching is shaping up as one of the epic professional battles of the twenty-first century” (64),
  12. the “dream factories” make parents save relentlessly, force students to get into horrible amounts of debt, without any specific, concrete return on this “investment”. “This is gambling of the highest order.” (p. 79).

There are numerous other reasons for the inefficiencies and out-of-synch status of higher education, including the demise of the American Dream, the rampant inequalities, the obvious lack of drive and interest on the part of students to learn for learning’s sake, the change in the job market, off-shoring, globalization, excessive naiveté of parents, shirking of responsibilities of governments, nonexistence of the desire of excellence, and many others. Of course, a number of caveats are discussed. Firstly, there is the fact that most “elite” universities do choose the caliber of the student (for ex., Harvard accepts fewer than 7% of applicants; p. 50), and these institutions attempt to go with the market flow and support studies in technology. Secondly, the statement that graduates do eventually find jobs is misleading, since this may involve driving taxis or serve hamburgers, so statistics are not a reliable measure to support the old adage learning=earning. Thirdly, data about those who drop out with debt burdens do not appear in the glossy universities brochures.

What suggestions do Coates and Morrison offer in order to bridge the gap between the universities and job market?

The situation, though grim in general, certainly is not without hope for the individuals. Thus, as a response to the realities of twenty-first century education and work, we offer the following ideas. First, parental and youth expectations need to be reined in – not everyone is going to be a rich professional. Second, the fixation on colleges and universities as the focus for youth aspirations must be drastically reduced. Third, these institutions must be reformed to make them more responsive to public needs. And fourth, the debate about the future of youth must be reoriented away from colleges and universities toward a more realistic view of twenty-first century job creation. (p. 138)

“Responding to the needs of the economy” and “relying on market forces to reshape programs” (pp. 146-147), needing “to be responsive to job market conditions” (149) are suggestions which dramatically underscore the seemingly desired  pragmatic purpose of higher education, according to the authors. Technical education (polytechnics) is likely the one to embark on, as well as education which provides highly skilled workers.

Moreover, there are routs to avoid university education, such as applying to companies which offer ad hoc skill training, i.e. firm-specific job training, on-line accredited short courses, open to everyone irrespective of their educational level, thus by-passing university education altogether: “companies do not need colleges and universities to identify, hire, and train top-flight employees.” (160) From this perspective,then,  it behooves the modern universities to focus on the career-readiness of their graduates. The authors suggest that “it is vital that families, with young people fully engaged, pay more attention … to the evolving North American and global economy” (180). They give the example of the fact that five years ago, a career in petroleum engineering was the best way to prepare for the future; however, the prices and demand for oil collapsed, the good jobs disappeared, so that career path is not the right one for today. The same path was followed by the financial sector. “Given all this, parents and young adults have to do the best that they can to prepare themselves for future uncertainty” (182). Possible creation of job openings from today’s perspective is in the care of the elderly, blue-collar work including the trades, technology, digitalization. However,  the future is uncertain, and “the promises of degrees seemingly perfectly aligned with the modern economy often prove illusory” (186).  Words for parents:  “Prepare your children for uncertainty. … Prepare them to be future makers, not future takers” (214).

The book is of course much more comprehensive as to the woes of the higher education system and to the possibilities of making it right than can be detailed here. What follows is my critique of some of the content as well as certain assumptions which I found problematic. The whole book is built on the premise that overall, things will go on as they have been for the past 10-15 years  now: there will be governments which will function as they have been, there will be the job market which will dictate the fate of billions of people, and there will be amazing entrepreneurs who will model their behavior for young people. It is therefore understandable that Coates and Morrison can state openly that higher education institutions should provide young adults with the means to satisfy the needs of the economy. This is a troubling statement for two reasons: it assumes that humans are born to fill the needs of the market economy (!) and it does not take into account that whatever job one may hold, that job is surely to be filled sooner or later by an AI, since it is cheaper for companies to employ robots rather than humans. If the only mission of universities and colleges is to  successfully  prepare young people for a job in the market economy, this process will certainly be taken over by a smart AI which will produce robots who can fill those jobs cheaper and faster. This is, after all, at the heart of the question of the universities’ existence: what do they have to provide, to whom, and at what cost? The answers offered in the book are deceptively simple: provide a set of skills (that the market requires), provide this not to everyone, and have governments and employers pay for it. Unfortunately, the authors do not  delve into the nitty-gritty details of the manner in which this is to be achieved.

In many instances, reliable data is not quoted in order to make certain claims: it is disturbing that some notions expressed in the book lack a clear source of information. Specifically, these notions revolve around 1) the arts programs, 2)  i. children and language as well as  ii. children and averages, 3) students from wealthy backgrounds, 4) students accepted to the university but not suitable for it.

As for 1), it  is disconcerting that arts programs are seen as offering a lower quality of instruction: “Smart applicants realize that they can often apply for a low-demand program, sadly, in the arts at most institutions, and wrangle a transfer later into a high-demand offering, like business”  (51). Anyone working in the faculty of arts can vouch for the fact that certain arts disciplines are not only rigorous but also provide a measuring stick by which excellence is easily demonstrated: it’s enough to mention foreign languages, literatures and cultures in this instance.

2) i. The authors state that children of professionals “hear thirty-two million more  words by the age of four than those of parents on welfare” (70), but they never cite the source of this information. 2) ii.  It may be true that we live in an age of egregiously spoiled children (54), but to claim that “By definition, half of all children are below average ; not all of them achieve great things” (173) without citing the source of the number does not add to our understanding of the meaning of the term “average”.

3) The authors claim that “Students from wealthy backgrounds end up wealthy themselves” (70); again there is no indication of the meaning of “wealthy” or in fact how does this bear on the woes of the university.

4)  I personally have said on many occasions that 3/4 of my students should not have been accepted to the university, and my fraction is just an impressionistic figure due to my experience, so I was struck that  the authors state that  75% of enrolled students do not belong to the university. I would have loved to see who came up with made this statistics and what criteria they used to come up with it. In any case, the number can simply show that not everyone is or can be made a university candidate.

The volume does not clearly state the responsibilities of the government, parents, job market for the education and future employment of young people.  Governments (partially) fund universities, but they “have surrendered educational decisions to the collective choices of high school graduates and their parents” (194), allowing these choices to be costly,  and haphazard. Parents tend to cling to the traditional idea that universities will provide a great paying job. Job markets work in unison with some elite universities but that touches only a small fraction of university students.

In conclusion, this book will surely make all readers think seriously not only about the role and value of the modern university, but also about the significance and purpose of the job market. There is no definition of “public needs” in this volume, so it is hoped that this will spark a serious and substantial discussion about whether, in fact, universities should exist. If institutions are to prepare young people for jobs, these institutions exist already, and they are the trade schools, 2-year colleges, ad hoc training schools for specific companies, various on-line degree granting courses, etc. As it is now – and this is my strong belief – students do not need to attend university to become pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer programmers, or AI researchers – they could learn all these things in less time, cheaper, and in a more focused manner. Workers in all of these jobs, however, can be and will be replaced by robots. The university should exist, but its study length should be two years, and the academic work should be devoted to those activities which humans, to keep being humans, ought to find pleasure in: access to and thinking deeply about ideas, and a fertile ground for unbridled imagination about numerous subjects and for no particular purpose. In case  the students have a job,  no job market will offer these to them, and in case they will be out of a job, they will have these to fall back onto.

 

Superficial wounds that run deep

Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle (Random House, 2008) is a fast-moving, smooth-reading, deceptively happy-ending narration. Taking cues from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, medieval Italian, Japanese, and Icelandic  tales of love, Davidson spins a post-modern tale set in unspecified contemporary North American city, interweaving episodes of gothic and romance literature with present-day scientific knowledge about the effects of burns, schizophrenia, as well as background histories of the major characters.

The novel offers numerous thematic elements whose prominence clearly emerges from the narration: everlasting true love even beyond the unexpected and bitter end, search for encyclopedic knowledge, life with cocaine and morphine dependency (the “snake”), artistic raptures, questions about actions and their earthly and after-life consequences, metempsychosis, need for continuity of human affairs through talismans and special objects. All of these add something particular to the plot.  Having grown up with drug-addicted foster parents, taking advantage of the library to quench his thirst for knowledge, and, later, on account of his good looks and lack of other skills, becoming a porn actor and director: all of these suddenly turn inconsequential thanks to one fateful Good Friday when he is about thirty years old (obvious echoes of Dante). He has a near-fatal car accident in which he is horribly burned (the gory details are spelled out in full) and deprived of his work tool, so to speak. Ending up in a hospital, he contemplates committing suicide as soon as he is released: his disfigurement, his lack of sexual organ, the loss of his livelihood and his film company mean that there is nothing left for him to do but end it all. The narration follows him in his hospital bed; he is taken care of conscientious doctors and nurses, and one uninvited character, Marianne Engel, the anchor which steadies the path of the narration.  She claims to have met the protagonist before (about 700 years before) and to have loved him then. At that time she worked in the Engelthal monastery as a scribe; he was a condottiero brought to the sisters since he was horribly burned. Marianne cures him now as she did then, and she keeps being in love with him through the centuries and now. At the hospital, Marianne’s tales of medieval romantic love, her artistic energy, kind disposition, nutritious food, make him abandon his desire to die. Once he is discharged, she takes him into her gothic-looking house, keeps taking care of him, and secures his future. She sculpts for a living: her grotesque stone sculptures resemble the strange medieval decorations on churches: gargoyles. She also starts to sculpt the protagonist.  Her artistic pursuit is spurred on by three special characters from her medieval life who assure her that she only has 27 more “hearts” to sculpt and then her last heart is to be given to her true love and let free. Having finished these “hearts”, she walks off into the sea never to be found again. Our protagonist passes his life writing his story.

The word “inferno” conjures images of raging fire burning the damned who deserve to be punished, because, in the Catholic tradition, they transgressed specific interdictions and rules.  Our nameless protagonist is not a believer and therefore he does not explain his predicament as a just retribution for his previous drug-filled debauched life.  In the novel, the role of Dante’s voyage through hell is only superficial: the protagonist has entered a hellish type of life, and he tries to understand it.  He too has a Virgil: it is Marianne who leads him – through narration of love stories –  to forget about his disfigured existence. There is no Beatrice, though, to lead him to God. Our protagonist lives his new post-burned life simply as a spectator:  unlike Dante who cries and is moved by the fate of the damned, he is not stirred by what happens around him, he does not seem to feel any gratitude to Marianne, or in fact even love. He is simply with her.              His pre-accident life was full of sex but devoid of love, full of drugs and alcohol but no moral signposts, no ethical concerns, no real friends, no real parents. He did not have healthy feelings of self-love or self-worth, but he demonstrated lots of vanity. The novel is a loud yearning cry for something to hold on to, something that would explain the consequences of one’s actions much like the deserved punishments of the damned in Dante’s Inferno. Alighieri’s epic poem, for a non-believer like the protagonist, is simply an imaginative tale, full of gory details; the connection between the literary work and the society that created it and the human stories underpinned by biblical teachings, philosophical works, scientific observations is totally lost. This is perhaps the significance of The Gargoyle: the protagonist’s cynical attitude of detached observer allows him the only activity that has a semblance of pleasure, that of reading anything and everything. However, this does not make him a wise man.

Every author inevitably toys with his/her readers. It is disconcerting, however, when the protagonist/author is cynically flippant about his readers, as is the case in The Gargoyle. This talking down to the reader happens also at special moments in the story, and it completely destroys the rich imagery that the reader was about to construct. Here are two examples:

“I have no idea whether beginning with my accident was the best decision, as I’ve never written a book before. Truth be told, I started with the crash because I wanted to catch your interest and drag you into the story.  You’re still reading, so it seems to have worked”. (p. 5)

In the middle of a long list of food items, he says “…guglielmo marconi (just checking to see if you’re still reading)” (p. 167.)

This meta-narrative ploy is not new, moreover, it too accentuates the novel’s postmodern construction.

In conclusion, the muddle created by juxtaposing  the past and the present, religious and secular images, imaginative tales and scientific descriptions of medical conditions perfectly illustrates the post-modern emptiness which underlies the result of the attitude “anything goes”. However, the nihilistic condition seems to drain out the protagonist  completely, and he stands out as a disfigured empty shell whose only real companion is a dog and whose only activity is writing. The sole effigies with a “heart” remain the heavy stone gargoyles, creations of an exalted artist.

*The top-right illustration comes from the 1487 edition of the  Commedia; printer: Boninus de Boninis (https://www.frizzifrizzi.it/2017/11/10/tesori-darchivio-alcune-le-prime-edizioni-illustrate-della-divina-commedia-state-digitalizzate/).

Memory loss, memory overdrive, and other concerns of ‘popular’ fiction

 

 

rosieproject

beforeigo

 

It would seem that, at first sight, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep (HarperCollins, 2011) and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project (HarperCollins, 2013) do not have any threads in common. The first novel describes a woman’s tragic and mysterious consequences of a traumatic memory loss and the second novel is a lighthearted look at an Asperger syndrome sufferer’s attempt to attain a love life. On closer inspection, however, here are some of the elements which allow for an interesting literary comparison:

  1. First person unreliable narrative. Both novels are written from the perspective of the protagonists; Christine Lucas (Before I go to Sleep) and Don Tillman (The Rosie Project). In both cases, they are unreliable narrators: Christine because she suffers from various forms of amnesia so she can narrate only those memories which she writes in her journal every day as she forgets everything while she sleeps and Don because he has Asperger syndrome and therefore his compulsiveness and obsessive logic leave out many normally significant facts. This unreliability, however, creates what could loosely be called a psychological thriller in the first case and  a lighthearted romance in the second case. Both protagonists rely on others to validate what they feel and understand of their own life. Christine has her lover and self-appointed husband as well as Dr. Nash  who supply her with descriptions or photos of past facts and actions which she then attempts to make her own. Towards the end of the novel, Christine’s best friend Claire is instrumental in saving her life.  Don has his two best friends who help him maneuver in social circumstances and who are the bouncing bags for his ideas on how to find a satisfactory partner. The unreliability of Christine’s memory means that the reader does not have steady consistent and trustworthy clues as to who it was that was responsible for her amnesia, but also who it is that is the keeper of her memories: the suspense then leads to continuous reading. The unreliability of Don’s narrative significantly adds to the unpredictable and funny resolutions of his search for a potential partner who is to “provide intellectual stimulation, share activities with, perhaps to breed with”.
  2. The role of memory. Both novels question the extent, utility, and role of memory, but the protagonists find themselves enmeshed with different definitions of what exactly memory does for them. Christine relies on her fragmented, sketchy, constantly recreated memory for the definition of her identity. Don, on the other hand, having exceptional memory, depends on his ability to recall minute details to further his search of or hold on to a possible life partner. Scientific research shows that our memories are never written in stone, but are re-elaborated, re-worked, and transforming continuously. This leaves the question open regarding whose memories are fabricated when an amnesiac is given created memories every single day. As there are almost countless novels whose plot relies on a character’s memory loss (see the list for specific examples in  https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/10996.Amnesia_and_Memory_Loss_Fiction), Christine’s plight has numerous literary precedents. In Don’s case,  his memory is nowhere near as prodigious as that of Funes in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Funes el memorioso, and therefore his situation is not tragic.
  3. Characters’ unethical behaviour. In both narrations, characters behave unethically: in Before I go to sleep, Christine’s lover and self-proclaimed husband  is not only deceitful and dishonest, but also pathologically violent. Although his love for her keeps him busy with taking care of her, this love is possessive and unnatural, as she is shielded from realities of her family life. His character, however, has not received a full treatment, so the motivation behind his violence and unethical behaviour is unexplained. In The Rosie Project, Don not only collects DNA surreptitiously but also has the samples tested without the subjects’ approval, a situation which no self-respecting institute for higher learning would ever allow. This unethical behaviour, however, is needed for the story to proceed in a certain direction.
  4. The Nature of love. Love takes on various forms and definitions in both novels. Christine’s situation is intriguing, since she does not know who she slept with when she wakes up every morning: perhaps sleeping around was her customary activity before her trauma, but that means she kept yearning for love and not being able to get it. That calls into question her marriage and her having a son: clearly, these do not need to be based on love. Her lover and self-appointed husband’s situation is every different: his love is overpowering to the point where he obsesses over her and in fact turns extremely violent against her. It is not clear what Don imagines love to be, and, being very methodical, his search for a partner involves a research project. Ironically, the woman whom he chooses does not make it on the list of prospective partners (for ex., she smokes, and he is against smokers!), indicating not only that opposites attract each other but especially that one cannot simply treat human encounters as academic projects.
  5. Pitfalls in writing the first novel. Both novelists are first-time authors, and as much as their good intentions result in readable stories, there are some stumbling blocks which detract from a thorough enjoyment of reading their creations. Firstly, Before I go to sleep is written from a woman’s perspective (an always contentious choice on the part of a male author),  but the character’s past before her trauma is not fully explained. This lack of  content makes the trauma almost unbearably judgmental: she was punished to the extreme for her marital infidelity. The feminine traits that the author proposes are petty. Even though she wrote a novel, she is an uninteresting, gray character without redeeming features, one who lets herself be controlled like a puppet even by her best friend. Her trauma only underlines these traits.*   The Rosie Project‘s protagonist is a university professor: not an original choice, but writing about academia without being stereotypical seems to be impossible.  Secondly, and more importantly, both authors (as well as countless others who write ‘popular’ novels) set their work in a vacuum: there is no sense of the general social, political, and economic environment to their stories: the protagonists’ issues are of a navel-gazing sort. Giving the characters a middle-class, pretty comfortable life lessens the impact which the narrations could have had. Fiction is not about accuracy, however, but if after having read the novel there is no answer to the question “So what?”, something really profound is missing.

*One member of our book club took it further: Christine is a perfect sex doll, as well as victim of violence. Instead of focusing on the violent man, the book focuses on the victimized woman.  Furthermore, the notoriety/popularity (?!) of the novel and the subsequent film illustrate the perpetuation of the disconnect between the act of violence/abuse and its result (so obviously put to the forefront in the news these days  on account of the abusive Hollywood bully).

Another side to Hawaii

molokai

The tension between history and fiction is realized in different ways by different authors resulting in all kinds of permutations where it is either historical facts that prevail or it is fictional narrative that overpowers history (and all the possible accounts in between). In Moloka’i (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2003),  Alan Brennert takes a tightrope walk which starts in 1892 in Honolulu and ends in 1970 in the Kalaupapa settlement on Moloka’i. The human protagonist is Rachel Aouli Kalama Utagawa, the non-human protagonist is leprosy. Rachel contracts leprosy at the age of 7; at the end of the 19th century, it is customary to separate children from parents and send the afflicted children to a leprosarium already in existence on another island, Moloka’i. The novel traces Rachel’s life story, concentrating on the manner in which her affliction develops, and also touching upon those historical facts which bring Hawaii into the political, economic, but perhaps not cultural spheres of the United States. Brennert’s desire to treat everyone fairly results in a very readable, heartfelt account of the fictional characters’ vicissitudes, but also brings with it some didactic aspects that detract from the human story.

Clearly, there is no more tragic turn to parents’ life than a severe illness of their child. The special relationship between Rachel and her father (mariner) keeps alive Rachel’s dreams of seeing the world even in the most secluded and separated leprosarium. What the daughter does not know is that her mother loves her as much but does not come and see her as she shelters another of her afflicted children whom she does not want to give up to the government’s care. Rachel needs her family support, but other than her uncle Pono who is with her at Kalaupapa (and who cannot have her live with him on account of specific regulations relating to her young age), she is left in the care of the nuns and doctors. Her situation does not make her totally hopeless: as much as the illness is scary, she participates in the life of the settlement, makes friends, marries, has a child (Ruth) whom she gives up for adoption, and opens a store with her husband, Kenji. The settlement is not a paradise (there are incidents of beatings, drunkenness, lack of good food, lack of special medicines, and there is the senseless murder of Kenji). But there are also examples of complete selflessness on the part of the doctors, nuns and priests who take care of the patients, who are also prone to human weaknesses and questioning their faith.

Rachel’s illness proceeds slowly; she is one of those patients who do not exhibit facial disfigurement although her extremities are affected. Once she is declared eligible for temporary release, she embarks on a difficult journey to locate her family and, above all, her daughter Ruth. Having lived in a secluded island, she does many things for the first time: she takes the plane, checks in a posh hotel, looks for accommodations, looks for a job. She succeeds in finding her sister and also her 32-years old daughter. The reunions illustrate the changing attitudes toward those afflicted with leprosy, since both her sister and her daughter keep in touch with Ruth after she returns to Kalaupapa because she is unable to obtain a job. Both her sister and her daughter attend Ruth’s funeral.

Ruth’s stay at Kalaupapa coincides with two momentous historical events for Hawaii: at the end of the 19th century, the peaceful but dastardly deceitful overthrow of Queen Liliu’okalani by the US Governor leading to the 1898 islands’ annexation to form a strategic asset in the war against Spain. The second is the Japanese bombing of the islands during the second world war. The US hegemonic presence of course is a two-edged sword, since it brings construction of more housing, recreational facilities, medical care, as the US health service takes over the leprosarium; but it also destroys the native way of life, the family culture, Americanizing every step of a Hawaiian’s life (from wearing shoes to using Cristian names, from abandoning native funeral rites and surfing, replaced by American ways and baseball). The author delicately weaves the US hegemonic stance and native victimization, never celebrating one over the other.

Leprosy, as the other protagonist, is a great vehicle for the exploration of human attitudes toward this affliction (ulcerous pus, maggots in dead flesh, ravaged faces, nauseating smell of sores, fingers and bones disappearing, gangrene, infections, muscle and bone pains, etc.), cultural and medical explanations of its course, psychological reactions and coping mechanisms which either make the patient stronger of make him or her more despairing. At the end, human ingenuity and steadfast desire to conquer this scourge prevail and in fact it is now a curable affliction named Hansen’s disease.

Alan Brennert succeeded in shining a strong and humane light on an aspect of Hawaiian history that few are aware of. His characters are credible and depict both human strengths and weaknesses. On the whole, human strength triumphs against all the possible adversities. Ruth comes through not as a hero, but as a person who can cope with adversity in her own way, given some help from well-meaning people. It is a great read, although some parts dwell more on the informational aspect of history than crafting the fictional account. It is clear that the author’s love of the islands and their culture shines through; it is not clear, though, whether he supports the unconditional revival of traditional native culture of the “pagan past” in the form of healing practices, retelling of myths, adopting traditional naming practices.

 

 

“Good Omens”: sublime and trite?

god omens

Good Omens is a novel which braids together a number of separate developing strands  whose ends meet one Saturday, the chosen day for the Apocalypse. One strand narrates why the end of the world does not happen,  since both the devil (Crawley – yes, there is nomen in omen!) and the angel (Aziraphale), having fallen in love with life on earth and wanting to appear to honor their respective duties, conspire to raise the Antichrist child (Adam) so that he does not obey what he was destined for. The trouble is that they raise the wrong child (Warlock), Adam having been exchanged in the hospital with another boy. The second strand forms the consequences of a book, of which only one copy exists, entitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,  Witch.  Agnes Nutter’s progeny, Anathema Nutter, possesses the detailed explanations of each prophesy written by the witch’s descendants through three hundred years of history. The third strand deals with the vicissitudes of witch-hunting by a descendant of the man who actually was responsible for Agnes Nutter’s  burning at the stake. Yet another strand brings us to the small village of Tadfield and the gang of four young children headed by Adam and including a converted Hell-hound.  The fifth strand follows the four symbols of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Pestilence, Pollution)  embodied in four Bikers (Hell’s Angels, so to speak) who wreak havoc on London’s traffic and do not really destroy the world completely. Each of them is followed on their duties (for ex., War, embodied as a read-head, is involved in arms contraband).  The endearing parts of the book are surely the comical manner in which technology is made to exasperate humans (initially Crawley’s doing, but later perfected by humans); fun with Crawley and Aziraphale having lunch at the Ritz, both giving financial support to the Witch-finders Army, etc. There are the appealing traits of Crawley (for ex., he loves his Bentley); the ironic look at dieters (Famine has a hand in that), and many more unforgettable images which make reading this book so much fun.

Any book which attempts to come to terms with the Apocalypse/Revelation of St. John has to be both sublime and trite. Sublime since it must face/describe/conquer/critique the future as prophesied; trite since the end is really unknowable, so anything goes. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett collaborated to give the end of the world a different spin, a spin which makes us laugh, forces us to define good and evil, leads us to consider human beings for all they are: capable of evil which no devil can ever conjure up. However, the book is lacking in the parallel thought giving humans “goodness which not even an angel can construct”. In other words, as usual, evil is more interesting than good.  On the surface, there seems to be only evil and good. To make things more complex, the devil sometimes acts for the good, and the angel now and then does evil. Moreover, as Crawley’s internal monologue indicates (p. 93), matters are not so clear:

There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm.  It wasn’t just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They’d come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout “The Devil Made Me Do It” and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

And, further on,

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.

So, if humans are humans, what about concepts such as God, the divine plan, faith, belief in heaven and hell? Crawley’s answer is that he has to follow the plan and obey it (he is scared of remaining in hell for all eternity, as it is a boring place, as boring as heaven).  If pressed, Aziraphale has only one answer: “ineffable”. That is, whatever God is and wills, is ineffable, i.e. unutterable, as well as forbidden to be uttered. In other words, unknowable because humans don’t and can’t express it in words. Without language, we cannot know; with language, we create our conceptual toolbox. The trouble is that this toolbox is being modified constantly. The subtitle of the book is The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. The word “nice” used to mean “foolish, stupid, senseless” (13c to 16c), then it meant “precise, careful”, then “agreeable, delightful” (18c); and now it means “kind, thoughtful” (1830 -today). Depending on your reading, then, Agnes’ prophecies may be foolish, or precise, or agreeable, or kind: you take your pick.

In Good Omens, Armageddon is nowhere near: the disaster has been averted by four children and a few adults, as well as by a devil and an angel. The four Bikers of the Apocalypse, however, did not perish, offering the possibility that the Revelation may as yet come true. As Aziraphale would have it, “it was all in the plan”, that is, if you believe in the ineffable plan. But how can you believe something that is ineffable? There is no answer to this question in the book, but the attempt at an answer is enjoyable.

 

Love, lose, live (not necessarily in that order)

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (W.W. Norton, 2006) offers all that an entertaining, thought-provoking, and richly-styled fiction should contain. Unlike other cases, its inclusion on The New York Times 2005 bestseller list is well deserved.

krauss

There is no doubt that the novel is entertaining and deceptively uplifting: the backbone of these positive reactions is created by the protagonist of one of the three main distinct but intertwined sections of the novel: the lovable, witty, imaginative, sensitive octogenarian, Leopold Gursky.  Despite all the adversities history tests him with (fleeing from the SS, leaving his family behind, disappearing from his Yiddish Polish hometown, living an immigrant’s life in New York, losing his one and only love to another man by coming to her too late, shadowing his son who never knew him, giving up one book he authored and losing the authorship of another he wrote), Leopold Gursky attempts to survive these painfully traumatic events and go on living as best as he knows.  His coping strategies are varied. For example, he is “trying to make a point of being seen”, such as dropping his change all over the floor in a crowded store. Clearly, this plan of action not only covers up his present loneliness but also balances out the times he was utterly alone while hiding in the forests.The act of appearing and disappearing,  being a leitmotif of the novel,  is also true of other people and things. He often imagines his death which in his opinion should happen on a day when he was seen. His witty comments open up different sides to him (for ex., “Put even a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza”, p. 5; “I consider it a small victory that he [the husband of his love] kicked the bucket first”, p. 85).   After ending up in New York, he became a very competent locksmith and the only time he is tempted to and actually does open a locked door was to get inside of a Broadway theatre where he could imagine his love Alma play her violin to a full house. Significantly, he writes one book to Alma, when in his twenties, then life gets in the way, and he starts writing again after his heart attack in his fifties.

The sections of the book devoted to his life are expressed in the first person narrative and labeled with an anatomical heart. Needless to say, Leo Gursky’s personality is made more complex by his use of the adversative conjunction which he is fond of in a phrase like “And yet.” which he ends with a full stop. This stylistic device, stopping the narration and seemingly adding a contradicting value to what was stated previously, illustrates Leo Gursky’s  humanity, fallibility, insecurity, and in the final analysis makes the reader question everything he narrates. This attitude is similar to that of the Italian author Leonardo Sciascia who is often referred to by the phrase Disse e si contraddisse (which, loosely translated, means “He stated something and then he contradicted himself”).

The thought-provoking aspect of the novel leaves the reader with numerous questions relating, for example, to the title, the meaning and force of words, the inspiration for and the function of writing. The title (not only of the novel but also of the first Leo Gursky’s book) is interesting: The = the definite article points to one definitive explanation; History = process of modification through time; of  = belonging to; Love = feeling of tenderness and affection. And yet, the novel contains many personal histories of the feeling of tenderness and affection, not  the definitive one. The three narratives of Leo Gursky, Alma, and Emanuel/Bird) all deal with the meaning and force of words.  Leo Gursky’s second novel is entitled Words for Everything, underlying the cognitive importance of language for the possibility of explaining and understanding our place in the world. The girl Alma’s narration is devoted to the search for her father’s past in order to comprehend the force that binds her mother to her father. This can only happen through Alma’s deciphering  of the contents of the book her father gave to her mother: The History of Love. Alma, as it happens, is the name of all the women in the book, and, importantly, means “soul” in Spanish.  The book is indeed the virtual meeting place between the teenager Alma and Leo Gursky who do not know about each other until the end and whose destinies intertwine on a number of levels.  The meaning and function of writing is dealt with both openly and also less so. When Leo Gursky, in his youth, offers to Alma, his love, his first written piece which deals with their village Slonim and the people who live there, “she shrugged and said she liked  it better when I made things up”. Then he gives her his second piece of writing, which contained all made-up things,  she reacts by saying that maybe he “shouldn’t make up everything, because that made it hard to believe anything” (p. 8). His third attempt becomes his final version of The History of Love, which destiny did not let her read.

Stylistically, this novel proposes a complex, rich, and varied narration. Each character (Gursky, Alma, Emanuel/Bird) has a special voice, expressive communicative strategies, and particular flights of poetic expression. There is also the unnamed author of the introduction to the Spanish version of The History of Love. Bird’s voice is that of a very young boy who looks for his place in the world by constructing his function as one lamed vovnik,  by engendering mystical, helpful, but also impractical attempts at what others construe as sublimation of the loss of his father. Bird’s love does not have one specific outlet, and it finds its place in mysticism. The teenage Alma’s drive to find out what underlies her parent’s  love for each other propels her to understand her father by learning to do things he used to do: camping, surviving in inhospitable places, knowing which plants are edible. The most intricate voice is that of Leo Gursky because he has two functions in the novel: he is the protagonist of Krauss’s vision and he is the author of his The History of Love, in this way, his voice is both biographical (in the first person narration of Leo Gursky’s life) and authorial (as the one who wrote the first The History of Love). The first person narration offers a number of poetic passages (such as Leo trying to burden his heart as little as possible by taking humiliations, displeasure, hardships to his other organs; p. 10). The most poetic is Leo Gursky’s The History of Love, which we as readers do not get to enjoy in its entirety (a pity), and we have to be satisfied with Alma’s mother’s English translation  of Zvi Litvinoff’s Spanish version of the original Yiddish (which apparently was lost). Gursky’s The History of Love contains poetic, comical, sarcastic gems which intrigue the reader and leave us wondering what else we are missing. The book contains parts dealing with humanity’s (love’s?) growth in stages (reminiscent of Giambattista Vico’s Age of Gods, Age of Heroes, and Age of Humans), such as Chapter 10, which describes The Age of Glass, when

“…everyone believed some part of him or her was extremely fragile. For some, it was a hand, for others a femur, yet others believed it was their noses that were made of glass. The Age of Glass followed the Stone Age as an evolutionary corrective, introducing into human relations a new sense of fragility that fostered compassion. This period lasted a relatively short time in the history of love – about a century – until a doctor named Ignacio da Silva hit on a treatment of inviting people to recline on a couch and giving them a bracing smack  on the body part in question, proving to them the truth. The anatomical illusion that had seemed so real slowly disappeared and … became vestigial. But from time to time, for reasons that can’t always be understood, it surfaces again, suggesting that the Age of Glass, like the Age of Silence, never entirely ended.” (p. 61).

In the final analysis, Krauss wrote about the multifaceted and yet specific meanings of the words love and loss: love of a father (for a son who he did not get to raise), love of a mother for her children, love of the daughter for her mother and father (who passed away), love of a young man for a young woman, love of a young woman for an older man, love for a friend; loss of a loved one on account of political circumstances, loss of a son, loss of hope, loss of a father, loss of a manuscript.  The loves and losses are intertwined and their metaphorical meeting point is the original The History of Love. One can discern echoes of Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka. Entertaining and seemingly uplifting, the novels ends with an indirect commentary on loneliness and vastness of the cultural loss suffered by  immigrants. Moreover, the book is also a statement about the various possible but really important  connections among humans of which they do not have any knowledge.  In conclusion,  Krauss succeeded in drawing this reader into her interestingly constructed fictional world.