May 2012 Archives

Gordon's hammer

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Frizzly_haired_Jaimy_Gordon.jpg
Gambling is a turn-off for me on a variety of grounds.  First, boredom.  If I make an effort, I am capable of enjoying a game of chance, but fundamentally outcomes determined by chance, rather than effort, frustrate me.  And frustration is boring.  Second, aesthetics.  Las Vegas is vulgar.  Race tracks are ugly.  OTB is seedy.  Lotteries are cheap.  

Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule overcame my prejudices -- captivated me before prejudice came into it -- by pointedly undermining both these objections.  I loved spending time in this novel -- "in" being warranted by its transporting prose that invoked a fresh imaginative space, as well as a seemingly altered physical state.  I didn't take my pulse while reading, but I bet it slowed, so relaxed was the pleasure I took in the plot's unhurried unfurling.  So: not boring.  And: not aesthetically offensive.  To the contrary, though the novel canvasses an impressively broad array of ugliness, the writing imbues life with that rare and treasured quality: beauty.

What most impressed me, though, was the novel's gentle inversion of my hierarchies.  Roughly speaking, I don't respect the way addicts deal with the world.  I recognize that not all gamblers are addicts, but I respect non-addict gamblers even less than the addicts: the non-addicts, at least, have some control over their behaviour. 

And yet what I felt for the gamblers in Lord of Misrule was not contempt, but empathy.  Luck is the nasty wild card in the pack from which we all draw.  However meritorious our hand, the unworthy get lucky, and the deserving go unrewarded.  This situation is reality.  It's also very difficult to accept.  Nor do we like to discuss it or remember it.  The role of luck in the lives of every successful person is not unlike the diagnosis of a venereal disease: unspeakable, forgotten or ignored if possible.  For this condition, Chekhov prescribed his hammer ("At the door of every happy person there should be a man with a hammer whose knock would serve as a constant reminder of the existence of unfortunate people").

Gordon discusses it unforgettably.  Her gamblers are the unrewarded.  Worthy and unworthy alike, they are undone by chance.  Gambling is part of their ritual for trying to keep it together, part of their fight to thrive.  Their stakes are no different from those of the Greek and Roman protagonists wrestling fate: life and (sometimes) death; but, even if not death, unbidden metamorphosis, radical change, upheaval. 

Yet despite the epic stakes, these gamblers have none of the distancing glamour of mythic forerunners.  Losers, all of them, they are above everything accessible.  They invite embrace and seem to reciprocate, even without being lovable, or even particularly likable.  In their company, the enormous role of luck comes to seem, if not acceptable, at least bearable.  Even, at times, beautiful.

Image of
young Jaimy Gordon from a 1983 interview in Gargoyle Magazine.

Happy endings, horror-style

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Shirley_Jackson.jpg
The Haunting of Hill House casts a pleasant pall, inducing in the reader a physical state of mild anxiety that seasons, as much as it quickens, the page-turning.  And the book contains one truly dreadful scene that left me revolted: in the middle of the night, Nell and Theodora sit up in their beds, holding hands in the dark and cold -- holding so tightly they can feel the bones in each others' hands -- listening to ghostly babbling from the next room.  Then the sound of a child being hurt and crying interrupts the babbling, and Nell summons the courage to shout, "Stop it!"  At which point, the dark dissipates, the light is on, and Theodora wakes, asking Nell why she is shouting.  Nell (and I!) are overcome by the question:  "whose hand was I holding?"  (p. 120.)

But for all the marvelous frightfulness of The Haunting of Hill House, the scary aspect of the story is not the supernatural manifestations of evil.  To the contrary, the terror arises from the profound -- ordinary, realistic -- isolation that Nell suffers.  Although Nell tells herself that she is a "human, . . . a walking reasoning humorous human being," (p. 120), humans are social animals, and Nell consistently endures deprivation of normal social contact.  Instead of being mothered, Nell must nurse her mother through illness.  Friendless and jobless, Nell lives on the despised periphery of her sister's family.  Nell is so without succor that when she needs support, she thinks back to an encounter with a stranger, an old lady who promised in passing to pray for Nell.

Nell's exile from the terrain of familial, communal and social human interaction -- from the web of human connections against which our identities emerge -- from the context humans need to be human -- evokes another heroine of another iconic ghost story: the governess in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  The governess also appears without recourse to necessary human support: her boss has instructed her never to contact him, and she seems to lack intimates (parents, siblings, friends) who can provide her with guidance.  That neither woman has a paramour or husband goes without saying; indeed, the implicit assumption is that both women are virgins -- unloved, unwanted, adult innocents.

The significance of these protagonists' ambiguous social standing is not, as Edmund Wilson would have it, that socially neglected women are likely to be sexual hysterics prone to hallucinations, but that the liminal space both women inhabit is the horror in these stories.  Nell and the governess belong nowhere -- no lover, people or home claims them (with the caveat that evil Hill House does exert claim over Nell, which explains part of her attraction to it) -- but they have done nothing to warrant such exile: they lack even the definition of the banished.  The mechanics of their bodies function, and their physical existence confirms "life," but human life has only theoretical existence outside the context of human society.  As social animals denied the "social," Nell and the governess live in earthly purgatory; like the category-transgressing "dead restored" (p. 64) -- Quint and Miss Jessel -- in The Turn of the Screw, Nell and the governess are, in a sense, themselves ghosts.         

In both stories, our horror derives from the plausibility of such a fate.  The supernatural manifestations and the deaths they precipitate in both books are a relief -- a venting of the tension arising from the unavoidable risk we all bear of occupying in our life times a purgatory, of finding ourselves in the borderlands between the living and the dead.  By this measure, death, with its unambiguous finality, is a kind of happy ending.

That thought brought me lingering sadness as I closed The Haunting of Hill House: what a miserable person Nell was, and what a pathetic life she led.  The total absence of redemption -- neither cruel nor sentimental, but simply fact -- is the scariest aspect of this book, and the way Jackson guides the reader to this culminating truth and supports our absorption of it is a triumph.

Image of Shirley Jackson from www.shirleyjackson.org.

Beautiful and useful

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David_Orr2.jpg
David Orr: a likeable critic in my book.  I've read him in The New York Times Book Review for years now, and I find him reliably worthwhile.  He supports his critiques clearly and logically.  His writing is impartial, light and entertaining.  When he says something's good, I understand why; and when calls a bad poem a bad poem, his judgment seems fair, not mean-spirited or ungenerous.

These wonderful qualities are present in abundance in Orr's book, Beautiful and Pointless.  It's a quick and lovely read, a kind of beach book for poetry lovers, and I mean that as a highest compliment.  The pleasures it affords have more in common with, say, badinage enjoyed at a lively, rejuvenating high tea, than with the rewards of solitary repose in the presence of depths of emotion and intellect.  Which is not to say those depths aren't there: just that their weight doesn't intrude on the fun.

DM_Thomas.jpgAll the same, I do have a complaint.  In Beautiful and Pointless, Orr does not say about poetry what I think is important about poetry.  And I want to have my own opinions reinforced by this delightful and knowledgeable public expert.  I really wish he would have accommodated me.   

What do I think is important about poetry?  I'm glad someone asked.  I read poetry for two reasons.  First, poetry enables access to irrational terrain.  Humans are hard-wired for rhythm, perhaps because of the heart, our fundamental drum.  Rhythm is our sixth sense: it enables us to absorb and process information from our surroundings in a manner similar to the other five senses.  And just as the taste of a madeleine sent Proust into the reverie of À la recherche du temps perdu, perception of a rhythm can guide us into the often-unnavigable regions of our irrational selves.  Music and poetry are our arts of rhythm, and they open us in ways that remain closed when our approach is strictly rational, verbal and logical. 

Second, the relationship between poetry and prose is one of mutual enrichment.  I recall Kay Ryan saying (where, I wish I could remember) that, after waking, she would return to bed with tea and toast and prose, and read until something sparked an impulse to write a poem.  Her description of her method struck me because, at the time, I was reading poems each day before sitting down to work on my second novel, The Swing of Beijing

Stephen_Dobyns2.jpgNor has it escaped my notice that my favorite contemporary writers are poet-novelists: DM Thomas and Stephyn Dobyns being two of the most prominent.  In The White Hotel, Thomas delivers in the long form narrative the visceral experience typically reserved for poetry.  In so doing, he affords modern readers the closest opportunity they're likely to have to know how ancient listeners of epic poems felt.  In Winter's Journey, Dobyns writes deceptive rambling monologues that seem like stream-of-consciousness portions of a novel, but in the aftermath resonate as if one's insides have been washed through a stream and sun dried in mountain air.  I don't know if reading poetry will make me a better novelist, but I'm willing to overdose on poetry in a quest to find out.

While I'm not surprised that Orr fails to list "will make Maya a better novelist" as a reason for reading poetry, poetry's capacities to support a richer and fuller experience of our own lives (through access to the irrational) and to augment our experience of literature (through its dialectic with prose) both strike me as core competencies deserving of mention. 

But Orr's focus is elsewhere.  A person who writes a book called Beautiful and Pointless is, logically enough, not so engaged with the functionality of his subject.  Also, notwithstanding the book's subtitle, "A Guide to Modern Poetry," the book might more accurately be termed, "A Guide to Modern Poets' Motivations."  Throughout his chapters on "The Personal," "The Political," "Ambition," and "The Fishbowl," Orr explains the conditions under which modern poets work and their mindsets and goals (to the extent they can be gleaned).  Orr's empathy for, and identification with, the poets is obvious and engaging. 

All the same, people have been writing, reading, reciting, and enjoying poetry for all of human history.  A medium capable of commanding that kind of attention is unlikely to be pointless.  David Orr is a great person to make that argument.  I wish he had.

Images of David Orr and Stephyn Dobyns from The Poetry Foundation.  Image of DM Thomas taken by Maya Alexandri.

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This page is an archive of entries from May 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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