Category Archives: Current Reading

Galatea 2.2

coverI’m currently reading Richard Powers’s fifth novel, Galatea 2.2, and the book is pulling me in two separate directions. On the one hand, something must be right when a novel can give you lines like "thought looks away from the distraction of what is" and "desire was the voicegram of memory." Moreover, this book not even spews out poetic thinkers like that with impressive regularity, but it ponders the cerebral infrastructure beneath them.

But on the other hand, I’m finding that at least half of this book feels phoned-in.

Powers has a good premise for Galatea 2.2. It’s thus: Richard Powers has been awarded a one-year appointment to a new $50 million cognitive research center (the token humanist, he calls himself) in the university he attended as a grad student. At loose ends and just finishing up his fourth novel, about which he feels a quiet dread, and stymied at the beginning of his next, Powers prowls the halls looking for something to do.

It’s not long before Powers is brought into a cognitive-literary wager: a number of scientists who believe that cognition cannot be reduced to mechanics bet a misanthropic colleague named Lentz (who believes the opposite) that he cannot create a machine that will fool an impartial human. The way they will test the machine is by having it digest all the works on a 6-page list Powers had to master for his master’s degree and answer questions about them. If the machine can do better than a human (to be picked later), then the misanthrope Lentz the bet. Guess who gets to be Lentz’s assistant?

This part of the book is very engaging, and I think this is a great premise for a Richard Powers novel. Powers gives us a good feel for what a sad, lonely jerk Lentz is, particularly with expressive dialog, and vividly renders his and Lentz’s interactions as they work on this artificial intelligence. For instance, after Lentz sees what a bad typist Powers is, he says

How the hell are we supposed to get anything done? What do you peak at, twenty words per minute? And what you lack in speed you make up for in blundering. What’s with the three-and-a-half-finger method, anyway?

And later on, Lentz, who enjoys derisively calling Powers "little Marcel" says:

Marcel, don’t try to impress me. Save that for your hapless readers.

Reading this part, I get the feel that we are exploring the development of two characters, with the scientific erudition necessary to understand cog sci a well-integrated digression. From time to time there’s a bit too much explaining–first we did this, then we did this, then we did this–but for the most part the plotting is strong and I’m curious to see what happens with the bet and Powers’s writing career. Moreover, Powers’s subtext–comparing writing a novel to creating an artificial brain that thinks like a human–is very provocative. For good measure, he makes some very astute forward-looking remarks about the Internet (in 1995, when the novel was published, the Internet was not nearly the phenomenon it is today), and integrates it into the discussion.

Where this book is faltering for me is with the other plot. This one tells of Richard Powers the recent grad–his relationship with a woman he met while teaching an undergrad class and the writing of his first novel. The problem here is that it always feels like I am reading this narrative at a distance. The characters of young Richard and his love (only known as "C.") feel like 2-D representations of your typical couple at loose ends after college. This part is described, not told, which is a shame, because I have seen what Powers can do, and he can do much more than this. For example:

We were alone. For the first time in our lives, neither of us was going anywhere. We navigated from winter night to winter night, in a state where winder starts in October and rages on into May. In an apartment halfway along its forced march from genteel to desperate, we made a home too familiar for words.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of fly-over narration if used sparingly to jet us past certain spots, but when virtually the entire story is narrated in these bland, distant terms, we have a problem. I don’t want to be told that "we made a home too familiar for words," I want to see it being made. Moreover, there’s no suspense in this plot. We know Powers will write his novel and become a famous author, that his relationship will end badly. The only thing in it for us is a vivid portrayal of it happening, but we’re not getting that. And, lastly, halfway through the novel, I’m still not seeing the links between this narrative and the other one. Other than to flesh out the character of Powers, I’m not sure why it is here.

My whole dislike of the young Powers narrative is exacerbated by the fact that the present-day narrative–the one where Lentz and Powers are building their great literary brain–is so damn good. Powers is undertaking a scientific exploration of some of the more interesting ideas raised by 20th-century literature. That is a pretty good idea.

Not only that, but he is taking almost every chance offered him to sling a few shots at literary academia. For instance, after a digression into how many billions upon billions of neurons need to fire to just say "the boy took the ball" Powers declares

Every postmodern postsolipsist, I thought, should do a postfrontal neurology stint. . . . Once they saw the bewilderingly complex fiber in its impossible live weave, theorists would forever opt for the humblest, least-obtrusive sentence allowed them.

Amen.

Also, there is a kind of running gag about how the task of making a computer that can talk about books like a human is simplified by the majority of lit professors, whose stilted, empty lit crit sounds more like a computer every day. That’s funny.

So, as I dive into the second half of Galatea 2.2, I’m hoping that either the young Powers narrative winds itself up or gets a little better. There is lots to like in this book, but, unfortunately, there’s also more than a little bit to not like.

The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian

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I have a tried-and-true way of telling if a like a book. It’s pretty simple and it never fails. It’s this: any time I read 200 pages of a book in less than one day, I like it.

That recently happened to me with Chris Adrian’s new novel The Children’s Hospital. Its premise is that God unleashes a new flood to drown the world under 7 miles of water. All that’s left if a children’s hospital that’s floating off, literally, God knows where.

I scarcely need to tell anyone that premises like these can be fatal. Libraries and bookstores are littered with poor apocalypse novels that have dull characters and go nowhere. It’s not easy to make a book like this feel like it lives up to its promise, but Adrian has pulled it off. I think he largely succeeds because he’s not concerned with some grand explanation or some intense meaning. Rather, he simply uses this incredible backdrop to tell the tales of very real people. And it is for that reason that I think this book works so well.

I wouldn’t call The Children’s Hospital magic realism–not by a long shot. It seems to me more like straight-up realism where the magic has been woven in almost unobtrusively (whereas in magic realism it’s meant to poke out). Adrian seems primarily concerned not with magic but with characters, and there are some very memorable ones here.

The main character is Jemma and she’s very well drawn–there’s a series of vignettes that relate her childhood (about 100 pages total), and any one of them reads like a masterful short story. I’m not a big fan of child characters in books or movies or whatever, but I like Adrian’s. A number of the sick children manage to be endearing while also being annoyingly childish (it seems to usually authors err too far to one side or the other on this)–they felt real to me and I even liked some of them. Even relatively minor characters in this book are personalized with imaginative details (somewhat reminiscent of the work of Edward P. Jones).

In a BookForum review of this book, Gideon Lewis-Kraus remarked that it’s "the sort of book you want to reread slowly, then quickly, then slowly again." I think this is dead-on. I found the characters so engrossing and the plot so interesting that I read this book very quickly, but there’s also a lot here to reward a close read. Once I finished, I went right back and started combing through the book for more, and as I went back through it–slowly–all sorts of this started jumping out at me. This is the hallmark of good construction.

Then also there’s Adrian’s prose, which is often worth savoring, even as it draws you in to read more quickly. For example:

When I was five years old, I tried to kill my sister. All day long I tried to kill her. In the morning I put mothballs in her cereal, but our mother woke up and threw them away, not because she smelled the naphthalene, but because she thought cereal was for trailer park kids, and on the days when she could get out of bed in time–a century’s weight of ghosts kept her sleeping or staring at the ceiling in her darkened room until noon many days–she would make us fancy omelets.

One of the things I most dislike about apocalypse novels is the insistence that they tell us something. I think messages spoil many books of this sort, and one of the things I like most about The Children’s Hospital is that it is not concerned with message. That’s not to say it doesn’t have anything to say–you’d have to be dull as a rock to not come away from this book thinking something–just that Adrian never gives us the least indication that he’s concerned that you get something from his book. Rather, he just wants to bring his incredible world to life. He lets you decide what it means, and if you do decide to read this book I recommend trying to get a friend or two to read it with you because you will have a lot to debate and ponder over.

I feel like with The Children’s Hospital I’ve got this reading year started off on the right foot. Although it is early to say these kinds of things, I do think that I’ll be surprised if come December’s list of best reads I’m not remembering back to this book.

Triangle by Katharine Weber

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I’m fairly enthusiastic about Katharine Weber’s new novel Triangle. The book takes place in 2001, but the story goes back to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. Prior to 9/11, this fire was the worst workplace disaster on U.S. soil.

The plot centers around a composer named George Botkin, who has figured out how to turn the biology behind things like DNA and proteins into beautiful music, and his longtime partner Rebecca. Rebecca’s grandmother Esther is the last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

At various points throughout the novel Esther narrates the events of the fire (for example, as part of an oral history in 1961, and during a trial not long after the fire). When she does this, we see her shifting vantage (due to passing time), as well and the evolution of her English (Esther being an Italian immigrant). Weber handles this very well, capturing Esther’s spoken English and providing some subtle, tantalizing changes in her story.

Botkin’s music is something of a counterpoint to Esther’s side of the novel. Like Esther, he’s interpreting source material that he can never really know or understand (e.g. DNA), but he can still come up with some very meaningful results. (People are very moved by his music and he eventually makes musical DNA "portraits" of way-too-rick egocentric people like Ted Turner, making Botkin the most famous composer of his time.)

The Esther and Botkin strands of this novel are brought together via a mystery surrounding Rebecca’s personal history, that I won’t get into here. Suffice to say, it’s a pretty good plot device that moves the novel along well. Throughout, Weber’s storytelling is very good, and there are some very entertaining quirks (including a zealous feminist scholar who interviews Esther and makes for a hilarious sendup of academia).

In the end, I would have preferred for Weber to be a little more obtuse with her ideas (it’s a little too clear wher she’s going, and the overlap between Esther and Botkin is a little too obvious). But still, Triangle packs an entertaining story (told in some innovative ways), good writing, some very interesting metaphors, and some intriguing ideas about how we understand history and the world. It also touches on 9/11, but without directly addressing it. Given the glut of books that have (unsuccessfully) tackled the subject head-on, I found this refreshing. I recommend the book.

Wittgenstein's Mistress

Last week I finished reading David Markson’s excellent Wittgenstein’s Mistress. The book consists almost completely of one-sentence paragraphs (there’s a few that extend to two sentences).

From this rather startling framework, Markson creates a strong sense of scene and character, while building in a highly philosophical subtext. Although the philosophy is almost never overtly stated, it would be difficult to read Markson’s sentences (especially the careful juxtapositions he has worked in) and not come away with a sense of the language games he is playing.

In a certain way, I think Wittgenstein’s Mistress is kind of a complimentary volume to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Like Markson’s book, the Tractatus is a philosophical book about language that consists of a number of sentence-long paragraphs (Wittgenstein even numbers them for us). Also like Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a lot of the philosophy in the Tractatus is unsaid. This is because Wittgenstein was well aware of the limits of language–some concepts can’t be expouded upon, but only implied–and he wrote his book in that spirit.

I’d argue that in each book, Markson and Wittgenstein are approaching the same territory, but from opposite directions. Wittgenstein uses nonfiction, specifically philosophy, to get at the concepts he wants to understand, whereas Markson is using fiction, specifically character, story, plot, to explore the very same concepts.

I think that what makes reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress such an enjoyable experience is that it’s almost entirely left up to you to make the connections. Ostensibly, the sentences are simply items that the arrator typed with a typewriter over the course of several months. That’s all the logical organization Markson gives us, and it’s up to us to figure out the deeper connections at work here. (As a sidenote, I Markson’s sentences very effectively capture the workings of memory and the feel of musings.)

At times, Markson will provide hints (they’re never heavy-handed), but mostly it’s up to you to establish how these sentences link together and what it means about the narrator and about language. It’s a brilliant bit of giving us just enough information to imply meaning, but leaving things open-ended enough for a truly expansive reading of the source material.

First Sentences

I think Ed’s got a meme here. Best first sentences in fiction. Ed quotes one from Anthony Burgess that is pretty strong.

I’ll look to Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street (which I am currently reading and finding excellent and relevant, despite its original publication date of 1973). The first sentence of this one is good, but the first graf is even better:

Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statemen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic. Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation. Even if half-mad he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors. Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity–hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs. Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.

Lost in the Funhouse

Lostinthefunhouse It was while reading DFW’s long story (novella, really) "Westward Goes the Course of Empire" (from Girl with Curious Hair) that I first heard of John Barth’s classic story, Lost in the Funhouse." DFW’s story itself was an attempt to destroy the world created by "Lost in the Funhouse;" in "Westward Goes," DFW referrs to "Lost in the Funhouse" as "the greatest metafictional story ever." Then I saw on Girl With Curious Hair’s copyright page that DFW tells us that portions of his collection were first scribbled in the margins of "Lost in the Funhouse."

I quickly realized there was a serious gap in my reading.

When my copy of Barth’s collection Lost in the Funhouse arrived, I first turned to the book’s seventh story, "Lost in the Funhouse." (Unlike some collections, Lost in the Funhouse is meant to be a cohesive whole, and you may even see some benefits to reading it all in order.) Some of Barth’s technique seemed somewhat dated (largely because so many writers were inspired to imitate the very story I was reading), but it was clear that I was in the presence of a master. Regardless of my familiarity with the metafictional aspects, the story was brilliantly conceived, a layered work that both captured the tried-and-true essentials of voice and plot while making implicit, profound points about writing and authorship.

Perhaps the most efficient way to describe "Lost in the Funhoues" is as follows: In the story Barth includes a diagram, with four points labeled A, B, C, and D. A corresponds to a story’s beginning, B it’s instigating incident, C it’s climax, and D its conclusion. Included at the beginning of Lost in the Funhouse is a strip of paper (the longest and shortest story ever). On one side are the words "ONCE UPON A TIME THERE" on the other side ""WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN". We are encouraged to cut the slip of paper out and connect points A, B, C, and D (labeled on the corners of the paper) to make a mobius strip. If you were to do that, the points A, B, C, and D on the strip would bear the same relationship to one another as do the points A, B, C, and D in "Lost in the Funhouse."

I’m finding the rest of this collection to fit this template in one way or another. Some of the stories here have the trappings of the conventional short story–plot, 3-D characters, symbols–but sure enough, Barth finds ways to subvert them (both subtlety and not-so-subtlety). Others of these stories are clearly written to challenge preconceived notions of what a short story is. One of them can have any one of 4 narrators (the 3 characters and Barth himself). Another one consists of the story telling itself.

All the pieces in this collection are united by the common goal of pushing the form forward, of a conscious attempt to not repeat what has come before. It’s an admirable goal, and history has clearly spoken as to whether Barth achieved it or not.

Hopefully, I’ll have time to write more about this collection in upcoming weeks. There’s lots here to talk about.

Previous readings.

Europe Central

Europe_central_1With Oprah author James Frey in the news for possibly fabricating part of his million-selling memoir, it seems like a good time to look at Vollmann’s use of historical characters in Europe Central. Unlike many memoirs, which are at pains to hide their fabrications, Vollmann’s book is quite clearly labeled as fiction even though the author delves into the minds of many well-known people, including composer Dimitri Shostakovich, documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen, artist Käthe Kollwitz, Russian general Andrei Vlasav, German Field Marshall Palus, and even Adolf Hitler.

Rather than pretend any historical objectivity, Vollmann freely confesses his fabrications. Much of the book revolves around a supposed love triangle among Shostakovich, Karmen, and Elena Konstantinovskaya, but in an afterword (entitled "An Imaginary Love Traingle"), Vollmann tells us "for my own narrative purposes I have invented many of the interrelations between these three individuals." The same could be said for many of the other relationships Vollmann establishes in Europe Central.

So what are these "narrative purposes," and why has Vollmann assiduously researched (and footnoted) this book if he’s just going to make things up? Well, one could always say something about the inherent subjectivity of any telling of history. One could also say that fiction can be more finely tuned than truth, giving Vollmann better abilities to get his points across.

Those answers are certainly true enough, but I think there are others that are more interesting. For one thing, there is the narrator (or narrators) that tell many of the chapters. In this review the narrators are summed up as "The Bureaucrat." That’s not a bad name, although I prefer to think of these narrators as nameless internal spies; members of the German and Russian secret police that spy on potential dissidents, like Shostakovich or Palus.

These narrators are characterized by a couple of things: intimate knowledge of their subjects, but, despite that knowledge, a fundamental lack of understanding of their subjects’ lives. These senses, they’re somewhat like Vollmann, who is removed by over 50 years and must imagine what his characters are like and must "spy" on them by reading history books, correspondence, and such. In order to further their very different purposes, Vollmann and his narrators must invent a good deal about the people they are tracking (of course, Vollmann is much more at liberty to admit his inventions than, say, a Stasi agent would be).

So, perhaps Vollmann is freely inventing lives of his historic personages in order to better get into the minds of some of his narrators.

I think there may be one other reason, and that is to be found on page 453 of Europe Central. On that page, it says:

To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human. It frightens us because it proves the truth of that gravestone epitaph so common in the age of Holbein: What I once was, so you are. What I am now, so you will be. . . . Since death itself is nothing, the best our minds can do to represent it is through that expressionless face of bone which one day will be ours, and to which we cannot help imparting an expression. . . . That is why SS-Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein cannot help clothe the skull in beloved Berthe’s image.

"Beloved Berthe" is a woman that Gerstein was in love with, now dead. All that remains of the dead is a skeleton, brittle bone and brittle facts, but the soft flesh of personality and history melts away. When confronting the dead, it is too much to accept the fact of their death, and so, like Gerstein, Vollmann clothes the dead in the image of a beloved, someone alive, or close enough in memory, that more than just a skeleton remains.

Previous readings of Europe Central. 1

Previous readings.

The Ongoing Moment

Ongoing_momentI’m really enjoying Geoff Dyer’s photography "encyclopedia," The Ongoing Moment. I put encyclopedia in quotes becuase you might be skeptical as to how a 304-page book arranged in no particular order can be an encyclopedia. Fortunately, Dyer addresses this concery on the very first page (in the book’s first paragraph, no less). In making his photographic encyclopedia, Dyer draws inspiration from

a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ described by Borges. According to this arcane work ‘animals are divided into: (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones . . .

Some of Dyer’s subdivisions might include: (a) blind people; (b) backs that tell more than fronts; (c) nudes that are not sexy; (d) letters of the alphabet. What Dyer does is to take one of his categories, such as blind people, and then to track it from photographer to photographer. For example, he starts with Paul Strand’s classic photo of a blind woman, and then follows it with variations on that theme by Lewis Hine, Gary Winogrand, Walker Evans, and others.

As Dyer follows his theme from photograph to photograph, he tosses in interesting tidbits about the history of photography (for instance, Paul Strand placed two lenses at right angles on his camera so people would not know if he was taking a picture of them), while making insightful observations.

The whole thing feels very much like Richard Klein’s Cigarettes Are Sublime. In both books, enthusiasts are making close readings of certain themes; Klein drew his themes from things having to do with cigarettes, Dyer from photographs. Another similarity between the two is that both authors aren’t afraid to walk out on a limb with a particularly tenuous reading.

Both books also have to do with the passage of time. In Cigarettes Are Sublime, Klein argued that a cigarette was like a little unit of time that you could hold in your hand. The amount of time corresponded to how long the cigarette took to burn.

In The Ongoing Moment, Dyer asserts that a good photograph should look forward to the future of its subject. Thus, when we are old we should be able to gaze upon a portrait of ourselves from years ago and in it see intimations of the person we have become.

In both cases, the authors are concerned with a quality of their subject that is outside of the way we normally look at time. Their books, like Borges’s encyclopedia, are organized not by chronology but by theme (Dyer even encourages us to skip around his book) and look for connections that cut across the different strata that the 20th century is generally divided into (i.e. Roaring Twenties, the hippy era, the Cold War). Interestingly, both books show that when artists take up similar themes, no matter how much time separates them they end up unwittingly replicating one another.

Previous readings.

Europe Central

Europe_central

I’m a little more than halfway through William T. Vollmann’s National Book Award-winning Europe Central, and it’s pretty great so far.

To be fair, I had my doubts about this book going in. After all, owing to what he saw as a lack of accessibility, Vollmann himself thought he had virtually no chance to win the award. When a guy like Vollmann is calling his own work inaccessible, well . . .

Not only that, but I figured I had this book pretty squarely pegged going in. In Europe Central, we have a man who is known for running around warzones and witnessing horrible things writing about perhaps the biggest meat grinder of the 20th century. So my assumption was that this was going to be a book heavy on gore and warfare. Not that I’m wholly adverse to reading a book like that, but it’s probably not among the things I’m most interested in. Still, I heaved Vollmann’s tome and got ready for a long, hard battle.

Boy was I ever wrong.

Easily the biggest, most welcome surprise about Europe Central is the amount of art criticism Vollmann manages to work–compellingly, I might add–into the plot. Anyone who has been following this book at all knows that Shostakovich figures pretty heavily. What you might not know is that Vollmann provides brilliant readings of at least three of his major works (his first piano sonata, his eighth string quartet, and his seventh symphony), and neatly folds said readings into a gripping love triangle.

But, as they say, there’s much, much more. Early on, Vollmann provides a wonderful account of German Expressionist Käthe Kollwiz’s travel to Soviet Russia (in the 1920s) for an exhibition of her art as Communist propaganda. Like with Shostakovich’s music, Vollmann provides beautiful evocations of Kollwitz’s paintings, as well as showing how she, as an artist, fits into the greater narrative he is trying to create.

I’ve also found readings of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Russian filmmaker Roman Karman’s work.

All this is not to say that Vollmann does not get into the meat of the war, so to speak. The middle portion of the book (the part I’m in right now–perhaps 260 through 620) does shead the more cultural elements to deal directly with the fighting ot he war. Still, judging from the table of contents, it does look like we’ll be returning to the artists. Moreover, even in these war parts, Vollmann is showing a very light touch with the carnage he chooses to bring in. These war-based elements are more about intriguing character studies against the backdrop of the Central European conflict than simply documenting the carnage.

Previous readings.

Note: In an attempt to shake things up around here, I’ll be discussing what I read, as I read it, for the foreseeable future. In other words, expect more of this.

John Henry Days — Colson Whitehead

John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead (Anchor Books: 2001)

"Race and Modernity in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist", Michael Berube, published in The Holodeck in the Garden: Contemporary American Fiction (Dalkey Archive: 2004)

"E Unibus Pluram", David Foster Wallace, published in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Back Bay Books: 1997)

The Soul of Wit

1.

Right about now, irony and sarcasm are pretty hot stocks.
They were the magic at the center of the 1990’s most popular, and most clever,
sit-com (Seinfeld), they’re used in
commercials every day to sell products, and, really, they’re a big part of
everyday humor. If you’re like most people, you find irony and cynicism funny.
You can enjoy it pretty much everywhere you find it, from the witty guy on ESPN
to that uncle of yours who’s pretty quick. And you may even think it’s a good tool
with which to critique modern America (e.g. the many anti-W bumper-stickers, or a good Michael Moore documentary).

But, let’s go a little bit further. Let’s not only say that you
enjoy the humorous application of sarcasm and irony, but you decided that
sarcasm and irony were going to be your guiding principles. You were going to
take them as your Gospel. You would fill every day with knowing remarks,
second-guess the agenda behind even the most generous of gestures, laugh at all
the sentimental scenes in movies, rant at how unrealistic TV is. Are you
imagining this? If so, you are beginning to get the tiniest idea of what the
press junketeers in Colson Whitehead‚Äôs John Henry Days are like. 

What’s John Henry Days? John Henry was a railroad man, a
steel-driving ex-slave who bore a hole in a mountain so the train could get
through. He’s an American myth, a legend who could work harder than any ten men
combined and died moments after beating a steam-driven drill in a race. In
short, John Henry was a man’s man, a strong sonofagun who never lost a
steel-driving race. he even beat the steam drill. And then he died.

In Whitehead’s book, this manly American legend becomes a
stamp. The Post Office has created a series of four stamps commemorating
American heroes and John Henry is one of them. In honor of the event, Talcott, West Virginia, the tiny backwater town
where Henry is supposed to have made his mark, is hosting John Henry Days, a
festival to coincide with the stamp’s release.

Whitehead’s press junketeers (the incredibly cynical folk) have
been sent to Talcott to cover the stamp event, except that only one of them
(J., our main character) is actually writing it up; the rest are just
freeloading on the food, beer, and trinkets. A bunch of cynical middle-aged
writers out in the country pretending to cover a two-bit hick festival,
sponging off the locals and having a grand time with themselves. Yep, John
Henry Days
is that kind of book.

2. 

Something must be said for John Henry. The man may have been
a veritable He-Man of the steel-driving circuit, but nothing could have
prepared him for the metaphorical burden that Whitehead loads him up with.
We’re talking quintuple-duty plus here.

First off, you have to know that Whitehead is no stranger to
well-themed literature. His first novel, The Intuitionist, brought
together the Great Northern Migration, African-American integration, race and
disability, and African-American “passing” into a taut narrative of elevator
inspectors. The main conflict was between inspectors who did things the old
fashioned way, opening up the elevator and looking at its guts, versus the new
intuitionists who could mystically diagnose an elevator just by feeling it.
This central metaphor became the bedrock that supported, and linked with,
everything else Whitehead added in. 

In short, the new-old inspector conflict was a clever focal
point that all of The Intuitionist’s major themes passed through. John
Henry takes over the thematic duties this time, and in John Henry Days Whitehead has greatly expanded his reach, taking on
not only the ongoing debate of African-American integration, but the
commercialization of culture, an exploration of what pop culture is, how it is
transmitted, and what it is for, the search for meaning in our heavily-mediated
world, and a survey of what it is that is distinctly American.

Making John Henry our common point of reference for all this
is wise, as it renders an intricate, sprawling book all the more
comprehensible. Make no mistake, John Henry Days is a huge 400 pages. The book
darts around several narratives across over 100 years, which is a lot to keep
track of, even for John Henry. In fact, if this were Henry’s burden alone,
Whitehead’s themes would quickly mix up like a swarm of bees. What keeps
everything orderly and allows Whitehead to plays his themes off one another is
Henry‚Äôs supporting cast, of which the press junket reporters are just one part. 

Actually, the junket can be divided into three parts: J.,
One-Eye, and Misc. J. is our anti-hero, a man so tired with his life that he
has decided to go on junket after junket without any break for an entire
year–a Lou Gering-esque feat of junketeer endurance. One-Eye (who lost an eye
in a slapstick accident) has also grown tired of a meaningless junket life, but
his response is the exact opposite: he wants to remove himself from the
mystical List of junket reporters. The rest of the junketeers are the sardonically
black human backdrops against which J. and One-Eye are illuminated.

Whereas the junketeers come off as jerks shielding
themselves with sarcasm, the other characters in John Henry Days feel
more like tortured souls who imbibe sarcasm to help get by but haven’t quite
become masterful like the junketeers. There’s Pamela Street, whose father was just a little
obsessive-compulsive when it came to John Henry. He amassed the largest
collection of John Henry-related memorabilia in the world (in his one-bedroom
apartment), became a horrible parent and real weirdo in the process, and turned
his apartment into a John Henry “museum” that no on ever visited. After he
died, Pamela put his stuff into storage and now the city of Talcott,
keen to make John Henry their ticket to rural tourist-flytrap prosperity, wants
to buy the collection and put it in a new John Henry Museum.
Pamela has some issues about this since she hasn’t yet figured out how to
grieve for her bad father. Giving the stuff up is the logical fix, but for some
reason she can’t.

There’s also the stamp collector, Alphonse Miggs. His life
was so miserable and directionless that he turned to stamp collecting as a way
to fill up all the hours he spent not enjoying time with his wife. He ended up
specializing in railroad stamps and it’s not giving away too much of the plot
to say that he plans on doing something decidedly bad at the big John Henry
stamp commemoration event at the pinnacle of John Henry Days. He’s desperately trying
to give his life over to something meaningful, and his wife, his job, and his
stamps aren’t it.

The character traveling through the mythical John Henry
isn’t a person at all; it’s the Ballad of John Henry. In a series of
glimpses and remembrances, Whitehead shows this song’s century-long gestation.
Throughout the 20th century, a succession of songwriters and poets add verse
after verse to the ballad until it arrives at modern day Talcott, in the form
of an African-American native son who sings it during the event’s invitation-only
send-off. It is a force that transcends the tacky money-making festival, a
viral bit of culture that managed to preserve itself against the assaults of
commercialization. When the ballad is sung early on, all the junketeers and
weirdoes and eager city planners in attendance for the stamp festival are
momentarily taken by its poignancy. 

In a sense, John Henry carries each of these characters
because he is the reason they have all come to Talcott. Similarly, what John
Henry represents–genuine American culture spun into content for purposes of
making money–has brought each to Talcott as well. The junketeers are there
because content-making is how they earn their living. Pamela is there both
because the city wants her father’s collection of culture/content and because
she needs to come to grips with her fear of letting go of her identity as the
“daughter who hated the man who collected John Henry” in favor of figuring an
identity of her own. Alphonse is there because he’s addicted to the culture/content,
just like Pamela’s father was. And lastly, the song is there as some leftover
part of culture that refuses to be assimilated into the capital-cash-nexus, a
fragment of history that’s become so real that it defies attempts to forge
simulacra of it.

There’s one last thing that has been brought to Talcott:
John Henry. Actually, Henry was technically not brought to Talcott because he
never left. According to the legend, he died in Talcott right after he finished
off the steam drill. Subsequently, a statue was erected in his honor (now shot
at for fun on Saturday night by wayward local youth), and his body is supposedly
interred at a cemetery on the mountain he was drilling a hole through; however,
the cemetery has long since become overgrown (literally) by weeds and it’s
virtually impossible to locate anyone‚Äôs grave, including John Henry‚Äôs. 

3.

Just as the Talcott locals have made Henry the bearer of
their fortune, so has Whitehead make Henry the bearer of his indictment of
Talcott’s choice to make Henry the bearer of their fortune. In John Henry
Days
, Whitehead is exploiting American culture to attack the exploitation
of American culture. 

As far as this concept goes, Whitehead is a little late to
the party. John Henry Days was published
in 2000, roughly 20 years after a school of writing alternatively known as
post-post-modern, hyperreal, or image-fiction began inhabiting the realm of and
using pieces from popular culture in its fiction. Of course, just because
Whitehead wasn’t around when image-fiction was getting started doesn’t mean he
can’t use the style to spectacular effect. But first, some more about
image-fiction.

In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace
describes image-fiction as employing the same vernacular as the postmoderns,
self-conscious irony, and applying it to the realm of pop culture, especially
the culture seen on television. 

The new Fiction of Image uses the transient received myths
of popular culture as a world in
which to imagine fiction about “real,” albeit pop-mediated, characters. (emphasis in original)

By this definition, Whitehead’s fiction, especially John
Henry Days
fits in pretty well with the school of image-fiction. In
particular, Whitehead exemplifies image-fiction in his language. He has an
exceptional ability to write in the style of self-conscious irony, consistently
describing everything from decrepit office anonymity to a folksy county fair in
this vernacular. 

The results are breathtaking: Whitehead’s book feels about
as stark and dry as a book can be without inducing suicide.  To get a true feel for the irony and cynicism
that infuse this vernacular, you’d have to read John Henry Days for about 50 pages, or to the point that things
like this sound normal: “Set above the cutting plate like a divine
illumination, the red heating lamps warm the sweet meat. The red light is a
beacon to the lost wayfarer, it is a tavern lamp after hours of wilderness
black.” That’s dry, and Whitehead keeps it that way throughout. At one point, he
even describes a city fair entirely in declarative statements. 

Abstract horror for the fast walkers when they fall behind
the dawdlers.  Invective, calumny.
Finally maneuvering around to find the agent of delay is infirm, disabled,
acquitted. They split up. They are left waiting at the meeting place and
despise their companions. Excuses are tendered up and down the rows.

This goes on for pages and it works because it’s all in a
wry, eye-winking tone. The book is telling saying, “Look at the hicks enjoying
their festival. How very rural of them,” and is sarcastically pleasant to the
reader, who probably isn’t a hick. But it also hits home in the reader because
Whitehead captures common experiences. We’ve all been behind annoying people
who walk slow, so even as we laugh at Whitehead’s send-up of the fair, we also
know that we partially laughing at ourselves. The book enmeshes the reader in
the very irony that it’s made its lingua
franca
. 

This is all very nice, but Wallace goes on to say that much
of image-fiction fails because it doesn’t transcend its material. Sure, savvy
writers can ridicule the contemporary world to death (and in very creative
ways), but according to Wallace that’s all part of the joke: the contemporary
system has co-opted self-conscious irony for its own use and, from a standpoint
of critiquing the system, much image-fiction fails because it simply reinforces
a vernacular that the system itself exploits to great effect. In other words,
this kind of image-fiction isn’t any more creative or subversive than a
low-rated sit-com, which uses the same methods and subjects to garner its cheap
laughs.

John Henry Days
walks right up to that boundary of co-option but doesn’t pass over. To be sure,
it’s a very dark book filled with sad, pathetic people and Whitehead plays them
for all they’re worth. We do laugh at these people’s expense. We’re made to
mock their ways, to find pleasure in the pathetic things they do to make their
lives a little less miserable. But we also identify with them and their
sarcastic ways so our laughter is uneasy. Is he making fun of them or us?

  It’s an unsettling kind of sarcasm, something that a sit-com, which wants to make the watcher feel special and superior, never would dare.

Further, Whitehead hasn’t written a book wholly devoid of
hope. Although the majority of the people in John Henry Days are happily co-opted cynics, One-Eye, J., and
Pamela each rebel in their own ways and succeed to various degrees. It’s here
that Whitehead finds his hope. Earlier on I said that John Henry was made to do
some heavy lifting. Well here’s a little
more:

Before [the song of John Henry] came into ballad form, the
men used to sing it as a work song, to keep the rhythm of their strokes. . . .
They sang it like a song of resistance. They wouldn’t go out like John Henry.
But maybe were condemning him instead of lamenting him. His fight was foolish
because the cost was too high. . . . You could look at it and think the fight
continued, that you could resist and fight the forces and you could win and it
would not cost you your life because he had given his life for you. His
sacrifice enables you to endure without having to give your life to your
struggle.

The image of the railroad workers singing the song of John
Henry to keep time and as a cautionary tale strikes me as rather much like the function of irony. Both irony and the ballad are
tools to make the everyday struggle easier. However, just as the ballad keeps
the railroad workers from stepping out of line, irony is also cautionary in
that it keeps you from going and doing anything crazy, anything that might seem
too sincere. After all, that would be uncool and you’d be exposed to the jokes
of your ironic friends.

But the ballad, the entire John Henry myth, can also be seen
as giving hope. It can be seen as an inspirational tale, that one railroad
worker chose to do things his way, and even if he died in the struggle you,
knowing what he discovered, might live. That you, who can look back on the
ironic exuberance of the 60s, the decline of the 70s, and the decadence of the
80s, can know where that rebellion went wrong, that even though it eventually
was turned into commercials and dated rock stars hawking corporate wares, you could
see how their culture died (or ‚Äúwas co-opted‚Äù) and not do that yourself. 

4.

While reading John Henry Days, a book that often came
to my mind was Don DeLillo’s Underworld. There’s good reason for this.
DeLillo’s earlier White Noise and Underworld are both somber,
urban tales that fit into the image-fiction camp by virtue of their obsession
with pop culture and the way it is exploited in interwoven webs of people
watching people. Underworld had a
couple central metaphors that did the heavy lifting I’ve ascribed to John Henry and both DeLillo’s and Whitehead’s
books wove these metaphors into very personal struggles, making them meaningful
on several levels.

I bring DeLillo up because Underworld is a gigantic meandering book and in a lot of ways John Henry Days is like its little
brother. This book sprawls far beyond its 400 pages, as Whitehead fits in bits
and pieces dating from the 19th century right up to the year 2000. One section
of the book, perhaps a quarter of it, is composed entirely of scenes with no
logical chronological relationship from one to another. Each is wonderfully
done, describing J.’s narrative, a 30s musician adding to the John Henry’s ballad, a little girl discovering
said ballad, random children from Talcott that we never hear from again, and a
turn of the century professor researching the John Henry legend. It’s a strange
mélange that reminded me of nothing more than the seemingly-jumbled feel of Underworld.

 In John Henry Days,
not only is Whitehead carrying the torch for the likes of DeLillo, but he’s
doing it in admirable fashion. Given the substantial success of Whitehead’s
debut novel and the caliber of this follow-up, which is a great leap forward, I
have extremely high expectations for whatever novel Whitehead writes next. If
it’s as much of a leap as John Henry Days
was, then it might just be an Underworld
improved and updated in form and content for a post-9/11 world and written from
an African-American perspective.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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