Showing posts with label Mary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mary. Show all posts

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Spot of Bother

Mary, my “virtual friend,” comes through again.   Who knew that some of the more interesting book recommendations would come from someone I haven’t seen in 45 years, an ex-employee who contacted me out of the blue.  She knows my taste in reading better than most, having before recommended The Ha Ha by Dave King and a couple of real classics, Stoner, by John Williams and Wallace Stegner’s The Angle of Repose. 

Maybe she suggested A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon because like the protagonist, George, I’m retired.  Dying is on his mind, not that death itself scares me. Perhaps the way we die might, but if I get lucky, one day I’ll just not wake up.  The real problem is an existential crisis as the world goes on while I return to nothingness from which I came.

So I have to agree with Haddon who writes somewhat amusingly, most men of George’s age thought they were going to live forever….Obviously it would be nice to go quietly in one’s sleep.  But going quietly in one’s sleep was an idea cooked up by parents to make the deaths of grandparents and hamsters less traumatic.  And doubtless some people did go quietly in their sleep but most did so only after many wounding rounds with the Grim Reaper.  His own preferred exits were rapid and decisive.  Others might want the time to bury the hatchet with estranged children and tell their wives where the stopcock was.  Personally, he wanted the lights to go out with no warning and the minimum attendant mess.  Dying was bad enough without having to make it easier for everyone else.

Haddon is an English writer and one better be prepared for some very understated Brit humor to get the most out of this novel, not to mention place and cultural references that might not be altogether familiar to an American reader.  As I read the book I had the vague idea of asking the author whether I could attempt to “translate” the novel into a screenplay, with an American setting and references – it seems to be so ideal for that treatment like the works of similar fellow novelists, Nick Hornby and Jonathan Tropper -- but alas the French beat me to it having already filmed it as Une petite zone de turbulences.

In many ways the novel reminds me of the much underrated Alan Lightman novel The Diagnosis which one could call a “pre-retirement” man’s nightmare of devolving into insanity, a Kafkaesque plight caused by the modern working world.  Unfortunately, I read that novel before I started this blog so to reconstruct it here for comparison purposes I’d have to read it again.  But I was aware of the main character’s dilemma as I read this book.

It is the post retirement world of George, who was a manufacturer of children’s playground equipment, which is the setting for a surreal illness of existential angst in A Spot of Bother.  George is convinced that he has a cancerous lesion, one that has been diagnosed as eczema, so nothing to worry about, right?  Wrong.  A spot of bother, indeed.

His mind was malfunctioning. He had to bring it under control….He needed a strategy. He…drew up a list of rules:

1.       Keep busy.
2.       Take Long walks
3.       Sleep well.
4.       Shower and change in the dark
5.       Drink red wine.
6.       Think of something else.
7.       Talk.

George is a disconnected introvert, and suddenly as I write this I’m thinking of some of Anne Tyler’s men, particularly Liam Pennywell from her novel Noah's Compass. There are definite similarities.

Back to George’s story which is but one of four in this novel, revolving about each other as a diagram of an Atom and its components, a dysfunctional nuclear family and its offshoots.  First, there is the story of George and his wife of many years, Jean.  But Jean has a lover, David, with whom George worked, and thus a second story.  Then there are George and Jean’s two adult children, each with their own tales of love.   Katie is intent on entering into a second marriage to Ray, a blue collar kind of guy, generous and loving to Katie and her son by her previous marriage, Jacob, but not having the “approval” of her family (and she wonders, of herself).  And there is Jamie, who has finally come out of the closet, bewildering his parents, madly in love with Tony, who has rejected him.  Angst to the fourth power.  But George is little touched by this as he slowly descends into a kind of madness, especially after secretly seeing his wife and David engaged in sexual intercourse on his own bed (it’s not a pretty sight and Haddon hilariously captures the moment and George’s reaction).

Yet at the heart of the story is George’s obsession with death which arises even when he is having fun with his grandson, Jacob.  He’s amazed by the child’s skill with technology.  Which was how young people took over the world.  All that fiddling with new technology.  You wake up one day and realize your own skills were laughable.  Woodwork.  Mental arithmetic….Maybe George was fooling himself.  Maybe old people always fooled themselves, pretending that the world was going to hell in a handcart because it was easier than admitting they were being left behind, that the future was pulling away from the beach, and they were standing on their little island bidding it good riddance, knowing in their hearts that there was nothing left for them to do but sit around on the shingle waiting for the big diseases to come out of the undergrowth. Hilarious, but true!

The author writes with in compelling unpretentious style, cramming these stories into one hundred and forty four interconnected chapters (yes, 144 or about 3 pages each).  Yet it’s a very readable, engaging work, full of droll humor and some pathos.  It seems to gather momentum, exhorting you to read on.  All these stories converge in the end, a little too neatly in my opinion. Although the book is not in the same league as the three novels I mentioned at the onset of this entry, Haddon is a talented young novelist, so perhaps his best is yet to come.
A Recent Sunset

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Stoner Redux

Recently Mary sent me a New Yorker article by Tim Kreider, The Greatest American Novel You've Never Heard Of  (published last October) as a wake-up call to read John Williams’ Stoner. 

The book had been rediscovered abroad, and brought back into print by the New York Review of Books.  One of my favorite UK novelists, Ian McEwan, has championed the book across the pond when interviewed for an article; Literature needs more Lazarus miracles like Stoner

It was republished with an insightful essay by John McGahern who, sadly, died at about the time of this paperback edition was published (2006).  The author of Stoner, John Williams, died in 1994, never to see his greatest work become critically acclaimed.

When Mary sent me the New Yorker link, I immediately ordered the book, although I was continuing to read William Trevor’s short stories, so many of them and so delightful, that it will be on my reading plate for some time to come.  So the intention was to put Stoner in my reading queue which is building, and building.  But when the novel arrived, the New Yorker article kept reverberating, and I was fascinated by the cover of the paperback (apparently you CAN tell a good book by its cover!) and I found myself putting it at the top of the queue and, ultimately, interrupting reading the Trevor collection.

One of the points made in the New Yorker article is somewhat inexplicable to me: Despite its pellucid prose, “Stoner” isn’t an easy book to read—not because it’s dense or abstruse but because it’s so painful. I had to stop reading it for a year or two, near the middle of the book….  Yes, it is painful at times, but much of Dickens and Hardy can be painful too but still compulsively readable.   How anyone could put this compelling novel aside is bewildering.  The author of Stoner articulated the very reasons I “fell in love” with the protagonist.  John Williams was once interviewed and said:

I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important ... The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job.  Teaching to him is a job-a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was ... It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something, you're going to understand it. And if you understand it, you're going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher ... You never know all the results of what you do. I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.

The essence of the story is about a man who grew up working with his parents on their farm.  The time is before the onset of WW I.  He knew nothing else but scratching out life from the fields, his worn hands those of a laborer.  It was hard work and there were diminishing returns from the land so when his father heard about the state college having a program to study Agriculture, so he sent his only son there, with the hope he would emerge with new techniques which would lessen their burdened lives. But William Stoner would never return to his former life, becoming instead a teacher of English. 

Here the exterior story and the inner story run parallel but at odds with one another.  His life is besieged by an unhappy marriage, isolation from his wife Edith and daughter Grace, and plagued by an enemy in his English Dept, its Chairman, Lomax (as evil a character towards Stoner as Claggart was to Melville’s Billy Budd), and by Lomax’s favorite student, Walker, who Stoner thinks unworthy of becoming a teacher.   He argues this with his one friend, the Dean, Gordon Finch, “it would be a disaster to let him [Walker] in a classroom…..if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as….the only hope is to keep him out.”  But Finch is also now part of the real world and he has become increasingly removed from Stoner.  Then finally the real love of his life materializes, Katherine, a student, but ultimately it is to be a love denied.  Meanwhile his inner life is blossoming, finding in literature a certain kind of perfect harmony and tranquility. 

Both the New Yorker article and the Introduction to the NYRB edition quote the same nearly opening lines as I bracketed in pencil in the book.  It sets the tone and the themes like a piece of sculpture captures the essence of its subject.  It foreshadows the very end at the beginning, unusual for opening lines: An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

His discovery of the love of learning and literature comes at the end of his college years (he thought of the years before, the distant years with his parents on the farm, and of the deadness from which he had been miraculously revived). And he comes to his profession almost by accident, his mentor, Professor Sloane saying “but don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?...Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.” Suddenly Sloan seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded.  Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love.  It’s as simple as that.”

The joys of learning, teaching, moving forward in intellectual endeavors, counter balance worldly affairs.  The University is a refuge from life itself.  And then he finally discovers he is indeed a teacher: The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print - the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly…..He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.         

However, his personal life is not what he imagined it would be.  Edith, his wife, is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda (and as the New Yorker article astutely observes, you could almost describe [Stoner] as an anti-“Gatsby”).  Edith is unstable, almost child-like, and like Zelda ultimately tries to find some self identity in the arts.  They are totally estranged from each other, although living under the same roof. As one would imagine, their daughter, Grace, is impacted by this, ultimately getting pregnant to escape their home, moving to St. Louis, her husband (who she marries after she finds she’s pregnant) dying in WW II  (in fact, the novel bridges WW I and WW II).  She remains more or less in a trance, answering most questions Stoner asks with “it doesn’t matter,” over and over again, perhaps homage to Melville’s Bartelby similarly saying “I prefer not to.”  She becomes an alcoholic.

The absolutely exquisite, compact writing is what makes this novel great.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, where we come from and where we go during this brief encounter with life resonates in the pages.  Shadows, light, darkness, death, and nature figure prominently in the narrative, particularly the farmers’ fields Stoner comes from. Here he is burying his father:  They buried his father in a small plot on the outskirts of Booneville, and William returned to the farm with his mother.  That night he could not sleep. He dressed and walked into the field that his father had worked year after year, to the end that he now had found. He tried to remember his father, but the face that he had known in his youth would not come to him. He knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand. He broke it and watched the grains, dark in the moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers. He brushed his hand on his trouser leg and got up and went back to the house. He did not sleep; he lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him.

After his mother dies, he lays her beside his father, and probably this is where the novel’s prose is bleakest, but rings so true. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.  Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives, and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them.  Slowly the damp and rot would infest the pine boxes which held their bodies, and slowly it would touch their flesh, and finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances.  And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.

But counterbalancing the dark aspects of life pushing Stoner along (sometimes the reader wondering whether he is a participant in his choices), is Stoner’s euphoric discovery that his choices are one of the mind, not in day to day living:  But choices is what excited him in his work, such as when he was planning his own book, an esoteric study of the English Renaissance.  He was in the stage of his planning his study, and it was that stage which gave him the most pleasure – the selection among alternative approaches, the rejection of certain strategies, the mysteries and uncertainties that lay in unexplored possibilities, the consequences of choice….The possibilities he could see so exhilarated him that he could not keep still.

And it is his love of his work, in spite of the slings and arrows dealt by his exterior life, which grows and grows in the novel.  He stands up for academic integrity, at a great cost to himself, but on his death bed has his doubts about the meaning of it all: He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance.  And what else? he thought. What else?

It is a remarkable novel, doubly remarkable that it went unnoticed for so long.  As the New Yorker article points out, so was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.  The latter I discovered for myself (and reprinted when it was long out of print). 

 John Williams' Stoner can easily stand besides Yates’ work as one of the more important American novels of the 20th century.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

First Novels

I’m always on the lookout for the emergence of new American literary talent.  My contemporary literary “companions” such as John Updike (who passed away five years ago now) and Philip Roth (who has chosen to retire from creative writing) have been silenced, although I still manage to find novels or short stories to reread or even read for the first time by them, ones I’ve missed in the past. 

A couple years ago I came across two first novels by promising young writers,:ones I will follow with interest.  I said the following about Eric Puchner’s Even if the Dream Isn’t Real The Dreamers Are: Here is a serious contemporary writer who knows how to tell a tale, paint a picture of American life through his characters, make us feel moved, walking the line through the comic-tragic, drawing us into something important about family relationships.  Only two months later I read another first The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall saying,   It took a younger generation, Jonathan [my son] to be precise, to introduce me to some fresh, intelligent and extremely moving literature, not only Eric Puchner's Model Home which I thought was a fabulous first novel, and now his second recommendation, another first novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall which was published in 2001 (Puchner’s novel is more recent, 2010).   

These are extraordinary first novels, major literary talent.  Udall has published his follow up, widely praised as well, The Lonely Polygamist which I have yet to read.  Interestingly, both the Puchner and Udall novels are set in the west and southwest ….perhaps the new home of the American dream or the American nightmare.  However, the two novels differ greatly in their perspectives and voice, Puchner reminding me somewhat of Updike, Cheever, and Yates, while Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is a little Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Rule of the Bone and The Book of Mormon –  oh, and throw in the Paul Newman film, Hombre, about a half breed Apache….He is an orphan but like Oliver Twist has to go through a horrific childhood before emerging into the sunshine of a loving caretaker.

In that same entry I reviewed Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn whose main character Lionel Essrog, has Tourette's syndrome, and is impaired as is King’s protagonist.

So behind the times as usual, I just read another worthy first novel, an extraordinarily sensitive work, Dave King’s The Ha-Ha, published almost ten years ago, this one recommended to me by my friend, Mary, who lives in Minnesota, and found me on my blog last year after a mere interval of some 44 years from when I had hired her fresh out of school for the publishing company I then worked for.  Towards the bottom of this entry is the email she sent, telling me that I was her first mentor and perhaps changed her life.  Pretty heady stuff for both of us and since then we have struck up an email relationship of some substance, recommending books to one another and generally keeping in touch. 

She revealed that soon after I hired her I had recommended that she read Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, ironically, his first novel (written in English) and also bearing a small resemblance to The Ha-Ha.  How this novel went under my radar screen, I shall never know, but I am indebted to Mary for bringing it to my attention, so the teacher becomes the student.

It is everything a good novel should be, intensely readable, one you can hardly put down, while dealing with huge themes in the lives of ordinary people who simply are trying to survive and connect.  It is also a coming of age novel, with hints of Huckleberry Finn.  Spoiler alert, I discuss aspects of the novel below which reveal things you might want to discover for yourself if you should chose to read it.

It is the story of Howard Kapostash, “Howie” and how his life is changed, not once but twice by seismic events, one a war and the other love. The tidal wave of the Vietnam War continues to ripple throughout our lives and especially through its veterans.  The “ha-ha” of the novel (a boundary wall concealed in a ditch so that it does not intrude upon the view) from which the novel derives its ironic title is a metaphor for the barriers Howie faces and a celebration of the individual will as he navigates them.

Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun floated through my mind while reading the novel, Trumbo’s portrayal of the destruction of an individual by war (WW I) being the most extreme rendering ever written (and filmed). In a sense, Howie bears some resemblance to Trumbo’s Joe Bonham, a soldier who is a quadruple amputee, trapped in his own body with no way to move or to communicate.  Howie, after only 16 days in Vietnam is hurled into the air by a land mine, and emerges brain damaged, but with therapy he is finally able to resume his day to day physical activities (unlike Bonham), able to take care of himself, although permanently unable to speak, read, or write.  He returns to his parents’ house where he grew up, at first descending into drugs and self pity until finally resurrecting himself, inheriting their home after his parents die and some money and taking in borders to help defray the cost of running it. One of these is a young Asian woman, Laura, who makes soups for a living, using the well-supplied kitchen in Howie’s home. Laura becomes his secretary in a sense, taking care of the bills, assisting him to continue to live somewhat independently on his own.  She does this in return for a rent-free residence and because she feels admiration, perhaps even love, for Howie.

Howie makes a life as a mute, working at a nearby convent, mowing the lawn, occasionally playing a game with his John Deere tractor, coming precariously close to the ha-ha.  He stays in touch with his first and only love, Sylvia.  They shared one idyllic, sex-filled weekend before he went to Vietnam but now are only friends.  Sylvia has a drug addiction, as well as a 9-1/2 old son, Ryan, who has a nameless, absent black father, so Sylvia and Ryan are two other characters trying to scratch out a life.

The action at this point is fomented by Sylvia’s sister who performs an intervention, hauling Sylvia off to a rehab center to kick her drug habit. But what to do with Ryan?  Without notice, Howie finds that he will be Ryan’s caretaker for an indeterminate amount of time, two damaged people, one a mute and the other a confused angry young boy who will have to live in this non-traditional household while his mother recovers.  Howie’s covert love for Sylvia makes it impossible for him to refuse.

King beautifully summarizes how Howie has arrived at this point: It’s all the things that I've gone down, everything that didn't happen to me that I always thought would. It's being an exemplar of the admirably rebuilt life, the days spent zigging a holy lawnmower around paradise, the nights with strangers in my home. It's having a child on furlough from another family, from Sylvia's family it's wanting to do the best I can. Pretending I don't still suffer from nightmares that set me bellowing in my sleep, while Laurel and the others pretend they don't hear. It's that maybe I wasn't so much to begin with, but everything that was worth parading has been gone for so long I barely remember it. It's wondering by what queer twist I survived, and why I was given sixteen days and a lifetime of bleak endurance.   It's the futility, always, of being understood.

And so the novel then unfolds, how our mute protagonist who has led a lonely love-starved life for so long, and how the nine and a half-year-old son of a former girlfriend he must suddenly care for change each other.  They warily bond through baseball (another metaphor for bringing them into society) and along with Howie's roommates they cobble out a nontraditional family as they wait Sylvia's emergence from rehab.

Howie’s feelings for Sylvia, if anything, have deepened while she’s in rehab.  He even fantasizes a life with her upon her return when he checks on her house, walking though it imagining how things could be, knowing full well, they will never be like this:  All these photos and keepsakes are so familiar that I rarely give them thought when I come in. In my mind I walk through the door and this is my house and I call out, “Honey I'm home!”—a phrase so familiar it's become a joke. Sylvia doesn't answer but I hear her chuckle. She's in the kitchen making sandwiches. There’s a knife-tap on the mayonnaise jar and the movement of the shadow on wallpaper. I take a breath.  The house smells fresh, it's summer and we keep our windows open. I don't smoke a pipe. I brought our boy back from baseball practice, and I can't wait to tell my wife how he hustled when he hit that double. “You should've seen it,” I’ll say, and give her a peck.  “Beat the throw by a mile!” Then Sylvia will say she'll catch a game soon, and that's enough to look forward to, because really it's father-son time this Saturday morning sports thing and that's how we like it.

Consequences of actions hang heavily over the novel, how Howie has developed a certain dignity in spite of his travails and then how they unravel as Ryan's mother's impending arrival approaches, finding himself almost in the same condition as when he returned from Vietnam, a victim of a war. He knows any relationship with Sylvia is impossible, but he realizes how achingly he will miss Ryan:  Already my dream life with Sylvia has become a chimera, patently unrealistic and foreign to the world I inhabit, the self I am. I can feel myself packing it up for storage, just as I did several decades ago.  But what I can't stow so easily away is the prospect of waking tomorrow with no Ryan in the house and as I listen to the peepers pulse out their strange, orderly rhythm, I don't know what I’ll do.  I don't remember how I lived before….As for the other stuff -- how happy I've been and how thoroughly I love him; how he's giving me something I never ever have known -- all this I hope he understands already, or will figure out for himself as he grows older.

Ultimately, it is a tale of how people connect, amend adversity, and are held together by love.  One last visit to the ha-ha by Howie in the middle of the night brings everything together:

I wonder if I should say a prayer or if I'm being influenced by the surroundings. I feel a little drunk. Through the silence the echoey whoosh of traffic below the ha ha, a sound like waves. The moon slips behind a cloud, the night is dark again and I decide to pray something that's not a prayer so much as an imagined wish; and I wish the first thing that bubbles into my head. I wish for Ryan to be well loved his entire life. That's the key to happiness I think. I wonder what Sylvia wishes for Ryan; then my mind is pulled from my prayer, and I think that for a few weeks he was well loved by all of us, and we were loved in return. I was loved by Sylvia once –I’ll always believe that -- and I was loved more than I deserved by my mother and dad. And I loved them. I wonder what kind of tally this makes for one life but I have my excuses. I’d loved more people if I hadn’t been injured. I never knew why I survived, but I was glad I made it. I didn't imagine any other way to feel.  There’s the period to be proud of, two years of autonomy, sobriety, and endurance. Why does nothing stand out?

I’ve quoted liberally in parts of this entry to reveal King’s profoundly sensitive writing style.  This is an exceptionally moving, meaningful first novel, an unqualified success.