Friday, November 21, 2008

On Wings of Song, by Thomas Disch

I was an occasional reader of Thomas Disch's blog, Endzone. Most of the posts were just ordinary musings, but there were also some brilliant bits of verse and an obviously immense intelligence on display. When I was looking at John Crowley's website a few weeks ago, I found out that Disch had committed suicide in his apartment.

Something about following a person's life online and then hearing this was really disturbing, maybe even more than when I heard about David Foster Wallace. Which was also tremendously sad.

This is the best of the tributes to Disch that I've read online. The story of his last days is pretty awful. I'm sure that money wasn't the only problem, but it's depressing to think that such a great writer might have been even partially compelled to end things because of a lack of resources.

Because he was, it turns out, a great writer. I picked up one of Disch's old novels, On Wings of Song, after I found out what had happened to him, as an ineffectual form of tribute. The book is out of print and I had to request it from library storage.

It is a brilliant novel, one of the weirdest and most imaginative I've ever read. Any description of the plot is going to sound a little silly, and I was resistant at first, I'll admit. I was never a big reader of science fiction growing up, and I'm still much more susceptible to silliness when it's wearing some armor and swinging a sword. But this book won me over quickly and entirely.

On Wings of Song is set in the near future. Most of the book takes place in Iowa, which has become a severely repressive place, both by law and convention. There is a faction known colloquially as the "undergodders" dictating most social policy, such as the availability of certain newspapers and radio stations. (Realistically, however, most of these media do end up getting into the state through surrounding, more progressive areas like Minnesota.) The undergodders save their most virulent hatred for the practice of flying -- I guess you could call it a "wedge issue" in this world -- which is the process by which people, using music, can escape their physical bodies and become creatures called fairies.

These fairies cannot actually be detected, although there are devices to trap them using sound and other stimuli. Fairies can, however, re-enter their bodies after flying and give accounts of their experience, but the experience of flight is often so intoxicating that many people abandon their bodies and leave them to die -- in a corporeal sense, at least, since fairies appear to be immortal.

I know, I know, it sounds silly! But trust me, give this book about forty pages and you'll be completely hooked. Its protagonist is Daniel Weinreb, the fairly ordinary son of a dentist who ends up, through a venial crime, in one of the state's prison camps.

After hearing a man sing in the camp, Daniel becomes obsessed with flying, which is actually quite difficult and requires both musical skill and something like depth of soul -- it takes complete involvement in a song that one is singing (along with, sometimes, the help of various devices) to achieve the escape velocity required to leave the body.

Along the way, Disch throws off some brilliant and terrifying details of this particular future. What makes his world so endlessly interesting is that it isn't monopolar. Unlike a fair amount of science fiction, everything in his world doesn't follow from one central conceit, with the rest of the author's energy going towards tracing obvious consequences and inventing bits of technological embroidery. Disch's world is actually alive and random and in flux; policies change and become more or less repressive, and there are economic and technological and social changes that don't all cut in a single direction.

I'll leave the disturbingly plausible P-W lozenge for readers to discover themselves, but here is an example of what I'm talking about. This is a description of part of Daniel's job at the prison camp, which involves:
.. the breeding of a specially mutated form of termite that was used as a supplement in various extended meat and cheese products. The bugs bred at Station 78 in all their billions, were almost as economical a source of protein as soybeans, since they could be grown in the labyrinthine underground bunkers to quite remarkable sizes with no other food source than a black sludge-like paste produced for next to nothing by various urban sanitation departments. The termites' ordinary life-cycle had been simplified and adapted to assembly-line techniques, which were automated so that, unless there was a breakdown, workers weren't obliged to go into the actual tunnels.
This horrific passage might not even be forward-thinking anymore; the book was written in 1978, and for all I know this is already happening in some form, at least for animal feed. But the primary appeal of this book -- for me, at least -- is not in futurological details, as impressive as they might be. And it isn't even the passages of extraordinary psychological perceptiveness scattered throughout the book. For example: "Grandison Whiting listened to the exposé [Daniel is talking about the abuses in the prison camp] with a glistening attentiveness behind which Daniel could sense not indignation but the meshing of various cogs and gears of a logical rebuttal."

With so many phrases in the book -- "glistening attentiveness" -- I thought yes, yes that's exactly right. (I also loved the line, "She was already, at fifteen, a fanatic in the cause of her own all-conquering good looks.")

So what is wonderful about this book? I'm not sure I know. Maybe its unpredictability, its ability to expand in the mind. Flying -- which Daniel keeps unsuccessfully trying to do as the plot winds its way through several twists and changes in perspective and location -- is obviously a metaphor for transcendence: artistic, athletic, religious, whatever. And even though the book stays true to its reality and doesn't seem like an exercise in connecting allegorical dots, the idea of flying becomes, by the end, incredibly charged and resonant.

It might especially connect with people (I am one) who are more moved by music than any other art, and enjoy singing and playing instruments, but have never quite been able to get good enough -- in technical terms and in terms of complete internal commitment -- to lose themselves in the process of creating music.

There is something, it is true, that is a little juvenile in this obsession with losing inhibitions. And, in a wonderful interview, Disch acknowledged that "science fiction, in our culture, is basically intended for children, or young adults, as they say, and a certain amount of science fiction has to fulfill the emotional and intellectual needs of 13, 14, 15-year olds."

He obviously wasn't trying to describe his own work, but there were parts of On Wings of Song where I felt like this was still true. There is a character named Barbara, for example, in the prison camp, who chides Daniel for not running away from Iowa at fifteen like his friend did: "In any case, Daniel," she says, "age has nothing to do with anything. It's the excuse people use till they're old enough to acquire better excuses--a wife, or children, or a job. There are always going to be excuses if you look for them."

Deep inside, I heard a little cheer from myself at 15, who is still in there somewhere. Because the emotional and intellectual needs of young adults don't actually go away; they just get wrapped in layers of complexity and compromise and tolerance (and wisdom?) But they can still be reached -- and should be, every once in a while, because they are legitimate needs and we muffle them at our own peril.

There are some things, though, that I do feel I've outgrown. I'm more bored than thrilled by sacrilege at this point, and the book's satire of fundamentalism didn't do much for me. Also, it doesn't end that well. In a scene near the end, when Daniel is singing a song about honeybunnies on stage after dyeing his skin to look like a black man (I think he might have been in a bunny costume, too) the old spectre of silliness finally re-emerged. Part 3 of the book in general, where this scene takes place, didn't click for me except in parts, and the conclusion is surprising but not really satisfying.

But On Wings of Song is at least two-thirds of a masterpiece, which is more than enough for me. It should really be back in print. I'm going to read Camp Concentration and 334 next, and maybe some of Disch's essays and poetry. I'm sorry I didn't find them sooner.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Great American Hypocrites, by Glenn Greenwald

I generally don't bother with political blogs but I've been making an exception lately for Glenn Greenwald. He's a good writer, and a more serious thinker than the hundreds of people around the Internet who lavish their intelligence on the daily minutiae of poll movements and stray gaffes. Over the few years his blog has been online, Greenwald has brought several issues to people's attention simply by taking the time to read the documents that the government releases, and this is while professional reporters have regurgitated the administration's press releases or reproduced quotes from opposite camps, assuming that the truth would somehow determine itself.

Greenwald also writes at length. He doesn't have the addictive but finally enervating habit of posting link-plus-half-a-paragraph entries each hour, and he doesn't jump on the story of the day to give you his "take." He isn't part of the echo chamber, at least not usually. Greenwald focuses, instead, on a set of his own central concerns. On a weekly basis, he discusses torture, indefinite detention, and warrantless surveillance (he was and possibly still is a practicing lawyer). Most media outlets covered these stories for roughly a week, almost nothing changed, and then the news cycle marched on to something else.

So if Greenwald is occasionally indignant and repetitive, I'm glad: Americans need to have these things shoved down their throats on a daily basis. All of these prisoners are still there, and some of them have been locked up for almost a decade without any opportunity to prove their innocence in a court of law. And the administration is either unwilling or unable to prove their guilt; considering the scant evidence that it has actually put forward, the latter seems much more likely. Yet people who were once paranoid about the encroachment of the federal government on fundamental rights have barely made a sound. I'm not sure what conservatism means anymore if it doesn't include some respect for the founding documents of this country and what were once the basic tenets of our system of law: habeas corpus, the necessity of warrants, every human being's right to humane treatment.

I wrote several years ago about McCain's finally pointless "stand" on torture. After I wrote that article, McCain had a chance to vote for legislation that explicitly banned waterboarding in February 2008. He chose not to, opting instead to leave in place the hazy set of regulations in the Military Commissions Acts from 2006, which McCain knew gave the president the right to determine the legality of any interrogation practice himself. Mccain had already lost my vote at this point, but he succeeded in also losing my respect.

Greenwald lays out the case against McCain in the last chapter of Great American Hypocrites. Like most of the book, the chapter seems hastily written and temporary in the way of most such political screeds. I wish I could recommend the book more highly because I really do admire his blog.

Greenwald's central points are at least interesting. Basically, he argues that the Republican Party has won most of its recent elections by engineering a narrative of traditional masculinity versus elitist effeminacy; or, if their opponent is a woman, by painting her as an excessively masculine, gender-confused weirdo.

The media has run with this strategy because it is extremely easy to understand -- the real man versus the professorial loser -- and also entertaining for viewers, since it makes the private lives of politicians increasingly "relevant" to the election. Even columnists that are supposedly liberal traffic in the same basic dichotomies because they lend themselves so effortlessly to readable satire (Maureen Dowd is an obvious example). And the narrative also plays to the insecurities of people who are increasingly stuck in stores and offices, and aren't sure how their lives fit into the old archetypal American narratives of personal courage and heroism.

This insecurity, Greenwald argues, is a driving force behind the bellicosity of the Republican Party. The neo-conservatives who pushed for war, to a rather extraordinary degree, are people that avoided service in wars they vociferously supported, while demonizing anyone that urged caution, including many who had actual military experience. Greenwald sees the standard-bearer of this mentality in John Wayne, who managed to get numerous suspect deferments in WWII and then spent the rest of his life cheering on other wars, while denouncing people who disagreed with him as anti-American. Naturally, Wayne is now an icon, especially with conservatives, for playacting the sort of heroic life that people long for. And today's heroism-by-proxy -- sending other people to fight and showing "courage" by keeping them there -- is essentially the same thing as playacting.

Unfortunately, Greenwald lays out these points in maddeningly repetitive fashion. Whole paragraphs of text are repeated verbatim, and certain phrases come up numerous times without alteration. Also, it is hard to analyze a frivolous phenomenon without occasionally seeming frivolous yourself. Gleenwald catalogues the spread of media chatter on a handful of largely forgotten stories, and it is as exhausting to read as it was to watch. The book's exposure of hypocrisy also includes dozens of prominent conservatives who defended traditional values while living lives that were either highly untraditional or genuinely debauched. So a section of the book is basically a long list, often of obscure figures and their salacious scandals, and it ends up feeling as pointless and gossipy, again, as the non-stories on TV. This kind of stuff, at best, belongs in an appendix as a form of highly anecdotal evidence, but Great American Hypocrites has no endmatter and no references, which seems strange for a lawyer.

I'm only bothering to write this review first to recommend the blog, and second because there is a little discussed quote from McCain near the end of Great American Hypocrites that I wanted to put online as my small contribution to election discourse. It's quite extraordinary (the bold is in the original). Greenwald begins by quoting the New York Observer's Jason Horowitz:
In a small, mirror-paneled room guarded by a Secret Service agent and packed with some of the city's wealthiest and most influential political donors, Mr. McCain got right to the point. "One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the bullshit,'" said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardia, an invitee, and two other guests.

That's the thoughtful, insightful view of the highly experienced, profoundly serious maverick for whom foreign policy a mastered discipline. Apparently, all Iraq needed for the last five years was some profanity-laced commands issued by the American President to the frightened sectarian simpletons, and harmony would have reigned.

Stop the bullshit, indeed. I would dismiss this as a stray remark if it didn't seem so typical of the attitude that has governed America for the last eight years. Conservatives complain about the nanny state, but when in power they don't actually work towards a lean, sensible government that sticks to a few basic responsibilities; their actual dream, as evidenced in this quote, is the daddy state, where resources that were once used to help people (deserving or not) are now used to punish those that step out of line. The daddy state doesn't tolerate excuses or bother thinking about root causes; it has no respect for privacy or sense of limited authority. Anything it does is automatically within its rights. And if the children complain, or don't step into line, the daddy state simply tells them to cut it out, and then delivers spankings when, mysteriously, they don't. It's a disastrous, patronizing, and profoundly stupid way to look at the world.

It's hard to get too enthusiastic about most American politicians, but I'll at least be thrilled to get rid of such people for a little while.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ask the Dust, by John Fante

I was on a plane when I came across Robert Towne's film of Ask the Dust, with Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. I remembered the movie getting bad reviews and was surprised to find that the portion I managed to see -- roughly the middle half -- was actually good. Or at least it exercised a certain fascination. This fascination was mainly born of the fact that something about the relationship between the two main characters -- Arturo Bandini, a struggling Italian writer in Los Angeles, and Camilla Lopez, a local Mexican waitress -- simply didn't make sense. Since most movies make entirely too much sense, this cloud of irrationality that hung over the two of them was weirdly alluring.

Here's what I mean. Arturo is obviously attracted to Camilla, and she essentially offers herself to him on several occasions, but what could have been glorious or at least reasonably satisfying sexual encounters dissolve into fury and abuse and violence, for no reason that I could make out.

Several months later, I picked up the novel -- it is widely acknowledged as a California classic -- and it quickly became clear that there is an explanation for this strangeness. The novel, unlike the movie, is not mainly about writerly ambition or racial self-loathing: it is about Catholic sexual guilt.

The strange thing is that Bandini is a nonbeliever -- a fairly virulent one, at times -- but he simply can't escape the habits of his upbringing. He is constantly thinking about mortal sins in which he does not actually believe. He is desperate for sex but so estranged from his desire that he can only experience arousal when alone. He goes to a prostitute and then runs away in terror, after throwing all of his money at her just so she'll leave him alone.

Bandini is finally only capable of being with a woman when he is pretending that she is Camilla. And this other woman -- his only sexual partner in the book -- is grotesquely scarred around the loins, so can barely bring himself to look at her.

Eventually, despite being unable to touch Camilla except in rage, Bandini declares that he is in love with her, and as far as I can tell he is sincere. He sends Camilla some conventional, mostly plagiarized woman-on-a-pedestal poetry. She is understandably amused and then annoyed by Bandini’s courtship, which alternates between declarations of love and racist insults.

Camilla, in any case, is already in love with someone else at the restaurant, a bartender named Sammy who has no particular respect for her and is occasionally abusive (he gets more and more hateful towards her as the book goes on). There is a telling passage when Arturo finally gets why Camilla wants to be with Sammy:
I understood it. She did not hate Arturo Bandini, not really. She hated the fact that he did not meet her standard. She wanted to love him, but she couldn't. She wanted him like Sammy: quiet, taciturn, grim, a good shot with a rifle, a good bartender who accepted her as a waitress and nothing else. I got out of the car, grinning, because I knew that would hurt her.
"Accepted her as a waitress" -- that's one of the key lines in this book. Arturo cannot honestly be with any woman, because he refuses to accept people as they wish to be accepted. The prostitute, for example, has no interest in talking, but Bandini (before he flees) insists on conversation to assuage his guilt over his own desire. All Camilla wants is a night or two of companionship, but this prospect is intolerable to him, and he ends up hating her for even making the offer.

This warped view of people is, I think, a problem for the book. Since Arturo narrates, there is not a single character besides him that feels real. And the author doesn’t give us enough in the dialogue to see through the cracks in Arturo’s perspective. The crucial relationship in the book is Sammy and Camilla: why does she keep going back to him? Why is her attachment to him so deep? But Camilla is given no chance to explain herself and Sammy is barely present, so we never understand the crisis that drives the last third of the novel.

What we have left, then, is Bandini and his obsessions. The sexual stuff is frankly not that interesting to me. In this particular way I think the world has gotten saner for most people. Bandini’s other focus –- his desperation to make it as a writer –- is a more durable and entertaining set of neuroses. The alternation between messianic arrogance and deep self-loathing that dominates the first part of the book is pretty hilarious. Bandini distributes copies of his single published story all around the motel where he lives, even putting them on chairs so people will have to pick them up to sit down. No one touches them. “It was disheartening,” he writes. “A big woman in one of the deep chairs had even seated herself upon a copy, not bothering to remove it.” And Fante makes (for me) more interesting use of Bandini’s religious preoccupations in relation to his writing:

My plight drove me to the typewriter. I sat before it, overwhelmed with grief for Arturo Bandini. Sometimes an idea floated harmless through the room. It was like a small white bird. It meant no ill-will. It only wanted to help me, dear little bird. But I would strike at it, hammer it out across the keyboard, and it would die on my hands.

What could be the matter with me? When I was a boy I had prayed to St. Teresa for a new fountain pen. My prayer was answered. Anyway, I did get a new fountain pen. Now I prayed to St. Teresa again. Please, sweet and lovely saint, gimme an idea.
The prose throughout the novel is filled with the same nervy energy, which seems easier to write than it actually is. There are several great passages and a lot to admire, but by the end I felt like something had gone badly wrong with the book. Around the middle of Ask the Dust there’s an earthquake, one character disappears from the narrative, and from this point on everything starts to feel increasingly arbitrary. Events happen faster and more chaotically, and there's an apocalyptic conclusion that has a certain power but finally feels artificial to me.

What is it about Los Angeles that seems to demand such endings? The L.A. novels I've read usually contain a small group of isolated characters, all from somewhere else, all without family. There isn’t a society behind them that represents any kind of continuity, so when the slim connections between these characters break, the entire world of the novel falls apart, and the author needs increasingly heightened and histrionic consequences –- deaths, madness, natural disasters -– to give these broken ties a sense of significance (or he needs to be indifferent to the actual idea of significance). It often makes for a great deal of vitality without anything approaching tragedy. I liked this book but it pretty much disappeared from my consciousness the second I finished it. It's definitely worth the day or two it takes to read, though.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Exit Strategy of the Soul, by Ron Sexsmith

I haven't written any music reviews for this website, because I'm not sure how you manage to convince someone of musical value through words. I used to devour music reviews in college until I realized that there was virtually no connection between how intelligent the reviewers seemed and whether their judgments ended up lining up with mine. So I stopped reading them. Now I look at the occasional interview with a musician I already like, or wait for recommendations from friends.

So I want to apologize for subjecting you to a music review. Because I'm going to attempt to convince you that Ron Sexsmith is a great artist, knowing in advance that there's no way I can do this with words. I only bother because it seems like very few people know about him. Sexsmith has released ten albums over the last decade and a half and keeps getting bounced from one label to another. Several of his old albums are no longer available, although you can usually find them used.

On first listen, his music does not seem like a particularly specialized taste, one that needs to be defended against philistines. It sounds, quite frequently, like soft rock, suitable for waiting rooms and supermarkets. His melodies are rarely immediately catchy, and he also avoids jarring dissonances, both in his singing and his instrumentation. His tempos are generally loping, with drumming that stays very much in the background. Very rarely will you find yourself tapping a toe.

In short, Sexsmith never insists that you pay attention to him. His music only opens up on repeated listens, where the listener is actually focusing – on the lyrics, the melody, the structure of a song. Unfortunately, the segment of the population that tends to be serious about popular music is likely to be put off both by the "unchallenging" surface pleasantness of Sexsmith's music and the content of his lyrics, which are often both coherent and hopeful.

Sexsmith tells stories, he relates morals, and even occasionally declares his faith. He has a song called "God Loves Everyone," and the lyrics, unashamedly and without irony, say just that. And although I don't believe this and I'm pretty sure it's not true, I believe the song. I'm willing to follow it past what I can reasonably defend. The point of music – or at least one of them – is to take us beyond the realm of the intellectually defensible, a realm that most people find exhausting now and then. So we sent up prayers and trouble deaf heaven with our cries – and the more beautiful we can make these cries, the higher up they get before they disappear. Which in my experience they eventually do.

I'm only willing to follow them up, of course, when I'm convinced that a musician isn't insincere or simply muddleheaded. But Sexsmith's lyrics are exceptionally smart and always leavened by doubt. His version of God in the afore-mentioned song, in any case, is a strange and abstract entity, clearly worked out in his mind independent of any organized religion. "The heart runs on faith / the mind on proof," he sings in "Poor Helpless Dreams," and Sexsmith never completely loses himself in one or the other. His love songs always acknowledge the possibility of disaster, even with the best of wills; and his songs of faith and affirmation make it clear that these are simply prayers, and do not reflect the world as it generally stands.

The only source of happiness that Sexsmith reliably returns to is the lost paradise of childhood. And if he occasionally gets sentimental, which he does, I am also moved by his music in a way that I'm not by even the best modern songwriters. Songs like "Seem to Recall" reach down into a place that few pieces of music have ever accessed for me.

An example: the song "Traveling Alone" starts with an image of a man getting on a train, and uses the words of the Christian marriage ceremony to signify our union not with another person, but with private obsessions: "From the dreams at hand there's no divorce / In sickness and in health / It's a fever that must run its course / Before you are well." And the song ends with a simple but beautiful metaphor for fundamental human isolation.
It's one on one, you and your soul
And nobody else
Just look around this train is full
Of folks who keep to themselves
These faces in windows
Heading out for places unknown
Though lives intermingle
Our thoughts are left to roam
All traveling alone
Is this great poetry? Maybe not, but it is a great set of song lyrics, and their impact on me partly depends on the melody that I hear as I write them out. I sat down once with my guitar to figure out how to play "One Less Shadow" - another great Ron song - and after a fair amount of time I got it mostly right and realized how strange and inspired Sexsmith's progressions are. By way of contrast, when I sit down at the keyboard to goof around, it is easy for me to plonk my way into discovering something that sounds okay, like it "could be a song." The hands finds their way to ordinary chords and try out variations on old tunes.

I'm fairly certain that most songs, and even some great ones, are written this way - composed at the piano or the guitar basically using trial and error. But when I play an inspired melody like "Here, There, and Everywhere," the chords don't run in the usual grooves; they're twisted and idiosyncratic, even while the tune seems as inevitable as C to F. The artist has clearly worked out the song and cast it into shape in his imagination. I'm sure there's plenty of tweaking left to do, but the heart of the song is coming from inspiration and not from someone's fingers chancing on a tune. I always feel this deeper inspiration with Sexsmith's best songs; they are simply beyond accident, beyond the range of musical dabblers like me.

There are a few caveats. Sexsmith doesn't seem particularly devoted to the production part of his music; once he gets the song right, he leaves the ornamentation and basic sound to other people who don't always serve him well. So there are some production disasters on his albums: the backing singers on "These Days," the bizarre tuba breakdown on "At Different Times," and any number of schmaltzy arrangements (no one seems to be able to entirely wreck the songs, though, and Sexsmith's versions are always the best). Also, while every one of his albums is worth owning, I don't think a single one is flawless; at least a handful of songs usually don't connect with me.

The current one, though, Exit Strategy of the Soul, is very good, and well-produced. Like his other albums, on first listen I regretted buying it; three or four listens later I realized my mistake. The album contributes another five or six great songs to the dozens Sexsmith has written over the last decade and a half, a period of productivity that is astonishing considering how quickly most great musical talents fizzle out.

I once had a stack of his CDs on my office desk, and a colleague assumed – because of Sexsmith's last name and the pictures of the slightly chubby man on all the covers – that this was music of the most extraordinary depravity. (I can't imagine what would have happened if I'd had some Bruce Cockburn albums mixed in.) But one of the amazing things about Sexsmith is that he is writing healthy, wise, inventive songs in times that don't seem to deserve them. Musical talent, as far as I can tell, is handed out at random, and most of the time it's given to people with almost nothing to say. So we should pay attention when it happens to be granted to someone with intelligence and insight, because it is a rare gift.

Update: I managed to see Sexsmith in Cambridge with about twenty other people. In his words, it was a "small but mighty audience." Almost everything promised a bad night. Sexsmith's drummer had bailed on them earlier in the tour, so it was just him and a bassist. Some of the crowd had come for one of the earlier, local acts, so they were milling around by the bar without really listening. And there was another band playing in the basement whose bass would vibrate through the floor in the middle of Sexsmith's songs, which was extremely annoying.

I was starting to feel bad until Ron got a few songs into his set, and then, during "All in Good Time," everyone in front of the stage started singing along. The dozen or so of us knew all the lyrics, and not just to that song. Looking around, it was obvious that there was profound devotion in this little group, which I hope was worth something to him. He seems to be pretty satisfied with what he's doing, in any case.

As for the show, Sexsmith was really good. The songs sounded a lot like they do on the records, although with some creative and unobtrusively brilliant guitar work to fill in for the missing instruments. I really recommend picking up one of his albums (his latest is very good) -- I can't think of another artist working today that engages me intensely in so many different ways.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Swami and Friends, by R.K. Narayan

I have so far read five of R.K. Narayan's fourteen novels. Every one contained beautiful moments, but in almost every book, at some point or another, I had an unpleasant sense of arbitrariness. Why is this happening, I thought, instead of something else? Plot developments seemed to fall from the sky, and the books meandered their way to conclusions that felt almost random. It was like the characters were being moved around by some inscrutable fate, and not by either the intelligence of the author or the dictates of their own characters. Many of Narayan's books strike me as reflecting a deep belief that no one is really in control of their lives. Of the books I have read, only The Painter of Signs has a certain sense of inevitability – the heroine has a very narrowly defined personality, and she follows it to the end – but it is also one of the dullest of Narayan's novels.

The one book of Narayan's that I am sure is a masterpiece is Swami and Friends. It is definitely the best book about childhood I have ever read. The feeling of arbitrariness that bothers me in Narayan's other novels now seems like it simply reflects the texture of pre-adolescence, where life hasn't developed a coherent narrative yet, only a series of mini-narratives: what happened on a certain weekend, a certain day in school. The world of childhood also frees Narayan from writing about sexual desire, a subject that he cautiously approaches in some of his other books with consistently unconvincing results.

Swami and Friends is Narayan's first book, the one that he struggled so much to get published in India until it made its way, through friends in England, to Graham Greene, who immediately recognized its value. The novel bears the marks of an early effort; the beginning is a little shaky (it gets better and better as it goes on) and the inspiration comes in fits and starts. There are little stories in chapters of five of six pages, and although elements sometimes carry over from one chapter to another, there is no real plot. A ten-year-old boy named Swaminathan (Swami for short) is going to school in the 1930s during the early days of the Indian independence movement, in a sleepy medium-sized city somewhere in Tamil Nadu. There is nothing extraordinary about him; he is not particularly bright or stupid, dull or spirited. He gets in trouble occasionally. He makes friends but is basically a follower of other stronger and more assertive children.

Narayan's conviction of randomness, of life simply happening to people, seems absolutely right for the world of children. One day, for whatever reason, father is angry, so Swami avoids him (the anger is never explained). A boy who was once a close friend moves away. The boy sends a card telling everyone in the class not to forget him and to write, but forgets to put down his address on the letter. In a few pages he is entirely forgotten. The book is so funny that the melancholy only seems to catch up with it at the very end, and it is easy to overlook the amount of insight and intelligence that go into even the simplest paragraphs. Here is an example:
Father was standing in the small courtyard, wearing a dhoti and a banian, the dress which, for its very homeliness, Swaminathan detested to see him in; it indicated that he did not intend going out in the near future.
"Where are you going?"
"Where were you yesterday at this time?"
"You are lying. You were not here yesterday. And you are not going out right now."
"That is right," Mother added, just appearing from somewhere, "there is no limit to his loafing in the sun. He will die of sunstroke if he keeps on like this."
I think the heart of Narayan's gift is in that little phrase "just appearing from somewhere." I didn't even notice it until I read the book the second time, but it so perfectly describes the feeling of being yelled at by your parents. One parent starts, and then the other person just seems to show up - from where? who knew they were even involved? - and begins to heap on more complaints that are not quite the same as the first set of complaints, making it difficult to find any way to respond. There are beautiful moments like this scattered throughout the book. And although the comedy can sometimes be excessively genial for my taste, Narayan is too honest a writer to ignore the cruelty of children to each other. Near the end of the novel, there is a moment of callousness that is all the more chilling for being small and unremarkable. And the book concludes with one of my favorite scenes in all of literature.

Greene said something about Narayan that I have always found pretty silly - "Without him," Greene wrote, "I could never have known what it is like to be Indian." Ignoring the question of whether being Indian is a single thing that can be figured out - let alone through reading! - Narayan's books strike me as a very odd sort of guide to India. I have spent a great deal of time in the part of India that (approximately) Narayan wrote about, and it is not a place that I recognize in his pages. Other than the little details of food and clothing, one would have a completely different vision of what life is like for most people in India from these novels. The sheer crowdedness is largely gone, and the hunger and desperate poverty seem to have completely disappeared. Now, the last thing I am interested in is pages of useless hand-wringing, but it seems odd that something that is so much a part of the texture of daily life - the beggars, the people living everywhere on almost nothing - merits almost no mention in Narayan's novels.

The only book where this doesn't seem odd is Swami and Friends. Because children are the one group that absolutely accepts life as it is, no matter how bad it might be for other people or for themselves. I was in New Delhi until I was eight; I'm sure there were people all around the city living in plastic tents or sleeping on the street, and I don't remember them being a source of any reflection for me. They were just another part of the world, like the air and the heat. My rather hazy memories mainly concern good and bad days at school, mean teachers, and games of cricket, which are exactly what fill up the pages of Swami and Friends. It is a shame that the book is no longer independently in print in the U.S., but you can find it in this collection. It is a great little book, one that I don't think I will ever get tired of re-reading.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Vachel Lindsay

When Vachel Lindsay died in 1931, Sinclair Lewis called him "one of our great poets, a power and glory in the land." He had already earned the admiration of Yeats and performed for larger crowds than any American poet today could hope for. Edgar Lee Masters published a biography of him four years later. Sometime around this point (or possibly even earlier) his reputation seems to have gone into decline. The only biography that one can easily find in libraries today is by Eleanor Ruggles. It was published in 1959, and on the first page she already seems to have doubts about whether Lindsay's work would survive. He merits a single paragraph in Randall Jarrell's essay "Fifty Years of American Poetry," written in 1963, although it is an appreciative paragraph: "He had more sheer imagination, sheer objective command," Jarrell writes, "than most of his contemporaries, so that several of his poems are perfected as almost none of theirs are."

Sometime between then and now, Lindsay's Collected Poems went completely out of print. I made it through college without ever hearing his name, and there are plenty of practicing poets today - I have made inquiries - who have no idea who he is.

Somehow I got interested in him. I think I read something about how he had once gone wandering across the Midwest, trading his poems for food and shelter (I am vulnerable to the romance of such things). Eventually I stumbled across his Selected Poems in a used bookstore. The back cover said that his most important poem was "The Congo," so I flipped to it. There were instructions for chanting in the margin, things like "A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket," and the first section was called "Their Basic Savagery." Uh oh, I thought. And then I found passages like this:
"Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM."

Bingo bango bongo, I thought, I will not be purchasing this book. Months later I came across a copy of the Dover Thrift edition of "The Congo and Other Poems." It is the only book of Lindsay's poetry that is still in print, and the store was selling it for forty cents. I decided that this was worth my money. I skipped the poems with chanting instructions and went straight to the middle of the book.

There were a few silly poems, a few sentimental ones, and a whole host of great ones. They were indignant, fanciful, profound, strange, and funny - and not like anything I had come across in American poetry. The only real point of comparison for me was Blake's early stuff. Lindsay's poems do not strike as deep as Blake's best, and his visual art is not nearly of the same stature (his drawings are included in the Collected Poems), but there are interesting similarities: the obsession with Swedenborg, the horror of industrial civilization, the mystical, slightly nutty significance they both draw from all kinds of events.

But there is an important difference. Blake - as funny as he can be - does not deliver his prophecies as a joke; I get the sense that he believes every word. With Lindsay, I can sense a canny half-smile - it is the look of someone at a party who starts acting a little crazy because he is surrounded by incredibly boring people. He means most of what he says, but he is exaggerating a little to get people's attention, to try to shake them out of their lifelessness, and also just to entertain himself. Here is a quote from his Introduction to the Collected Poems, entitled "Adventures Preaching Hieroglyphic Sermons." I think you can hear what I'm talking about:
There is just one way to convince citizens of the United States that you are dead in earnest about an idea. It will do no good to be crucified for it, or burned at the stake for it. It will do no good to go to jail for it. But if you go broke for a hobby over and over again the genuine fructifying wrath and opposition is terrific. They will notice your idea at least. I flooded Springfield with free pamphlets incessantly. And so I began to relish home-town controversy on its absolute merits...
I remember a quote - I think it was said in relation to Frank Lloyd Wright - that our great American men are always to some degree charlatans. The quote isn't worth thinking too hard about, but it has an element of truth. Lindsay knows that he is performing, but he also has a sense of his own ridiculousness. Here, for example, is how he explains his rise to popularity: "And to this general interest in poetry I attribute the fact that I, a speaker to whom not six persons were ever known to listen with patience, became a conventionalized "reciter" of my own verses almost instantly, and have since that time recited to about one million people."

His poetry has some very serious things to say, but it also has an ease, a naturalness, and a sense of fun that is rare in American literature. I should mention here that I agree with Sinclair Lewis: I think Vachel Lindsay is a great poet, one of the real ones. Not of Whitman's stature or anything (although it is stupid to keep making such hierarchies) but someone with important and delightful things to say that still deserves to be heard. I am not really sure why his work has disappeared. University neglect might have played a role. Schools tend to amplify the reputations of people who have supplied some sort of technical innovation, especially if this innovation requires extensive explication. People who broke imaginative ground without any obvious technical breakthroughs, or whose work usually found voice in traditional forms, tend to be out of luck. At least if they were not already established classics.

And so I read The Waste Land in three different classes, but not a single poem of Hardy's. Every work by Joyce, but not one story by Frank O'Connor. But whose books do I bother to open today? Lindsay's technical achievement - his contribution, I suppose, to the story of poetry - is his various chants, but anyone who looks only at those poems is not going to see why he is still worth reading. But look at everything else and - making allowances for lots of pleasant throwaways and some really bad, really silly stuff - I think you'll see what I mean: "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," for example, or the three poems in "A Gospel of Beauty." And so many of the moon poems are wonderful too.

I managed to track down the Collected Poems in a used bookstore, but it is hard to find and often expensive. The Dover edition contains some good stuff and is well worth your $1.50. But it is high time that someone like the Library of America brought out Lindsay's Collected Poems again. We need a good dose of his strangeness in this country, along with a solid slap in the face.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox

I'm drawn to coterie obsessions: books brought back into print after years of neglect, waiting to finally be understood by the enlightened minority. Who doesn't want to be a member of an exclusive club of admirers? And Desperate Characters is definitely an exclusive sort of book. No one I know has ever heard of it, and it is swimming in praise from notable writers, all of whom consider it an unjustly ignored classic. In the introduction, Jonathan Franzen calls it "obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow.” Obviously superior! And David Foster Wallace says that it is “a sustained work of prose so lucid and fine that it seems less written than carved.”

Well, I love a good carved book, so I picked up Desperate Characters a few weeks ago, ready to encounter a masterpiece. The novel deals with Otto and Sophie Bentwood, a wealthy and childless Brooklyn couple in their early 40s. Sophie has had two miscarriages but this doesn’t seem like one of the couple's major sorrows (neither partner expresses any particular longing for a child). Otto is a lawyer; Sophie, despite her obviously extensive education, doesn’t feel like doing most of the translating jobs she is offered, so she is largely idle.

The novel skips over Otto's life at the office, so we never see the couple engage in any productive work. Instead, we see them at home, sniping at each other – "half-consciously amassing evidence against the other," in Fox’s memorable phrase – and occasionally attending parties where people have conversations like this. Here is Sophie with her friend Mike:
“I wish I were Jewish,” she said. “Then when I died, I’d die as a Jew.”
“You’ll die as a Protestant.”
“There aren’t many left.”
“Then as a Gentile. I asked you, what’s the matter? Are you working on anything?”
“I haven’t wanted to work; it seems futile. There are so many who do it better than I do. I was sent a novel to translate but I couldn’t understand it, even in French. It simply irritated me. And I don’t have to work.”
“Tell me a little Baudelaire,” he said.
Who the hell talks like this? (She immediately proceeds to quote some Baudelaire, by the way.) Jonathan Lethem describes the dialogue as “bristling” and “hilarious.” I found it tedious and annoying. I don’t know how to locate anything like an actual human being in this kind of talk, and there is a great deal of it in the book. This exchange is close to the beginning of the novel, so I soldiered on, figuring it isn't always easy to get into an exclusive club.

There are three main engines of tension in Desperate Characters. First, Otto’s long-time law partnership is dissolving, and his former partner Charlie has been escaping with their old clients by spreading innuendos about Otto’s health and competence.

Second, Sophie gets bitten on the hand by a cat, and keeps putting off going to the doctor – at the very end, we are still waiting to hear if the cat has rabies (the two Bentwoods manage to catch the animal and get it to the ASPCA). If the cat does have rabies, Sophie will probably require a number of painful shots in her stomach.

The third engine is that the world is going to shit. Not only do the Bentwoods have a particularly unpleasant marriage, black people – yes, black people! – are taking over their neighborhood. There are drunk black people throwing up on the stoop; black people banging on the door and asking to make phone calls, black people leaving trash everywhere and generally making a mess of things.

I suspect Fox’s depictions of this de-gentrification will make many readers uncomfortable, but at least she is courageous enough not to hide behind the usual pieties. In any case, the Bentwoods are not racist; all sorts of poor people make them uncomfortable, even white ones. Here, for example, is a description of the Haynes family. The father is a caretaker for the Bentwoods' summer cottage, which has been trashed by some unknown intruders, and husband and wife have gone over to complain about the break-in:
Sitting around the kitchen table like collapsed sacks of grain were Mrs. Haynes and the three Haynes children, two boys in their late teens, and a girl a few years younger. The girl was immensely fat. From beneath a tangle of burnt-looking fairish hair, she was staring down at a copy of Life magazine, her mouth open.
Okay: I’m fine with the girl being fat, even immensely fat, and I’m fine with her reading Life magazine, but does her goddamn mouth have to be hanging open? Is this really necessary? I’m offended on artistic grounds, not moral ones, because this description is so entirely predictable. There is no longer any way that the Haynes family is going to surprise me: they have been summed up, and the rest of the pages in which they appear are entirely dead, because the author is only capable of hitting the same "white trash" button.

Luckily there is not a great deal of this; we spend most of our time with rich white people who read their Baudelaire with mouths firmly shut. Sophie visits a few more friends, they discuss Freud and eat potage fontange; all the while, her hand keeps swelling from the cat bite, and she puts off going to the doctor, convincing herself that it’s too small a matter to bother with. Otto is more and more stressed at work, and Charlie, his partner, stops by one night to talk with him and instead ends up taking a walk with Sophie, who doesn’t want to wake up her husband. In a scene that is utterly unconvincing, she confesses to Charlie that she had an affair recently and then hastily takes it back.

Two chapters later, we get the story of the affair, and it is the only part of the book that justified some of the extravagant praise. Francis Early, the other man, is genuinely fascinating, and there is real emotional intensity in this section instead of the haze of inexplicable nastiness that hangs over the rest of the novel. But this chapter soon ends, and we return to more pages of bitter spats, visits to friends, and anxiety about the breakdown of society. Along the way, we are treated to many passages of fine writing. Here is Sophie finally going to the hospital:
At the hospital information desk, a powdery old clerk told them to go back to the street and walk around to the emergency-room entrance a block away. There was no access from here, she said. She had the spurious helpfulness of an airline stewardess. Her smile did not conceal from Sophie her judgment: emergency cases belonged to a low social order in the hierarchy of disease. They left the reception room quickly, both of them unpleasantly aware of the special claustrophobic warmth that seems to be the natural climate of illness.
For a passage like this to be impressive, it has to be read very quickly, without thinking about whether any of what it contains is actually true. These are cocktail party aperçus; they only sound intelligent for a moment. Why exactly is the helpfulness of airline stewardesses spurious? And since when are emergency cases low on the hierarchy of disease? As for prose that Wallace says can be carved somewhere, just look at how many words are either confusing ("powdery"?) or entirely unnecessary. What does the word "special" add to "claustrophobic warmth"? Is "did not conceal from Sophie" all that different from the single word "revealed"?

This quote is entirely representative. For a book that is only 150 pages long, and has been described by several reviewers as perfect, the prose is continuously padded with needless distinctions. Thinking about a man she was drawn to, Sophie remembers "the way he'd nudge things with the unself-conscious and sober curiosity of a child or an especially alert animal." Such details should build to something, but there is never any sense of accretion in this book because its specificity is not actually useful. What is lost if it's just a run-of-the-mill alert animal, for example? Are we really getting closer to the truth by designating only the most alert of animals? And there are hundreds of sentences like this - it's like an aesthete swirling a mouthful of wine and trying to discover more and more obscure flavors. A substantial intelligence is deployed, but by an author that wants us to admire her penetration more than the content of her thought, which is consistently trivial and not nearly as subtle as it pretends to be.

I am honestly puzzled by the acclaim this book has received. What exactly is the insight that all of these writers are getting from Desperate Characters? There is certainly little pleasure to be had. Anyway, I will happily bow out of membership in this particular club. I don't have the money, in any case.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

New Grub Street, by George Gissing

It is hard to say why certain novels built around now defunct social conventions maintain their power, while others start to seem ridiculous. I've never been bothered by the fact that modern divorce laws would make Anna Karenina very different, and Tess remains moving even though we no longer place any great value on virginity. Sometimes, though, things have changed a little too much. Here, for example, is a description of one of George Gissing's novels, as describing by Orwell in an admiring essay:
In A Life's Morning an honest and gifted man meets with ruin and death because it is impossible to walk about a big town with no hat on. His hat is blown out of the window when he is traveling in the train, and as he has not enough money to buy another, he misappropriates some money belonging to his employed, which sets going a series of disasters.
What makes this novel different than Tess and Anna Karenina? Although the conventions in those books may be gone, the impulses that once animated them are entirely alive. People still associate purity in women with limited sexual experience, and although infidelity might not exile a person from her entire social circle, ending a marriage is still a deeply isolating experience. But what is the article of expensive clothing, today, whose absence would so isolate us from every hope of advancement in life? It is a convention that is too silly to be taken seriously, and I cannot imagine reading that novel for anything but its historical value (incidentally, Orwell vouches for the fact that, even in the early 20th century, "bareheaded men were booed at in the street.")

The old saw is that as long as an author gives the characters and their world a sense of solidity, as Jane Austen does, we will believe in the conventions along with them. But I can only follow this so far, and I admit getting annoyed even at Austen's immensely solid characters when they are shocked at trifling breaches in etiquette. I understand that it all makes sense in context, but I have no great desire (most of the time) to read about people contorting themselves in a bizarre, corseted world.

Which is, finally, a good way to describe much but not all of New Grub Street. Most of the book deals with people writing to support themselves in a society that makes almost no sense to me. Imagine a world where, purely through force of convention, literature is no longer a supremely impractical way to make a living - as I assumed it always had been - but the only possible labor for a man of education in a city without a fortune to support himself. A clerkship or any other sort of work would, it seems, be completely humiliating, so even people with no great love for literature churn out mountains of stories and articles and novels at incredible speed merely to pay the bills.

Apparently this was an actual state of affairs in late 19th century London. Gissing himself wrote this novel in two months (it is 500 pages long) and much of it is taken, with small variations, from his own life. The main plot involves a struggling writer, Edwin Reardon, and his wife Amy. Reardon has written a few books that have done okay, but under the pressure of paying the rent and supporting a young child, he has gone completely dry. His wife doesn't understand why he can't just sit down and fill up the pages, and the tension over money and his productivity starts to put a strain on their relationship.

I kept thinking, as I was reading, "Jesus, just get a regular job," but apparently even Reardon's wife regards such a step as utter degradation. She refuses to be married to any sort of common laborer, and the two separate when Reardon suggests that he give up on literature and go back to clerking.

Gissing does make the setting and era entirely convincing - in Virginia Woolf's description, it is "a world of fog and fourwheelers, of slatternly landladies, of struggling men of letters, of gnawing domestic misery, of gloomy back streets, and ignoble yellow chapels" - but, as you can see, this is not much of an inducement to read a book. What has kept it alive, I think, is its other major plot, involving the relationship between Jasper Milvain, an up-and-coming writer, and Marian Yule, a lower-middle-class young woman who helps her father with his own literary work.

For Marian, as with many of the people in this book, writing is little better than slave labor, done entirely out of necessity or compulsion. She is an intelligent and good-hearted woman whose circumstances have denied her any hope of escaping this routine unless she happens to come into some money. Milvain, too, has to make his own fortune, but he has more options. He studies the market, and is clever enough to learn to write in a light, racy style that he can tell is what people will pay to read. Throughout the novel, he maintains that unless one is a genius, there is absolutely no point in trying to follow some fastidious personal vision - just see what people want and then supply it. (His foil in this respect, and one of my favorite characters in the book, is a man named Mr. Biffen, who is assiduously working to polish a grim realist tale, sure to be a failure, called Mr. Bailey, Grocer.)

We are meant to dislike Jasper, but I suspect that he got away from Gissing a little, because by the end of the novel he becomes an incredibly lifelike, almost emblematic figure. There is some strange, disturbing modern quality about him, something that I would call pure "above-averageness" -- he is a man who is entirely incapable of both heroism and treachery. He helps his friends when he can and produces pleasant and intelligent work. He is witty, genial, sensible, and clearly on the road to success. We recognize him as suited for the world, and as the sort of man that most of us would like to be (and perhaps, in many ways, already are); but there is also something repulsive about his sensibleness, about the complete lack of inspiration and grandeur in all that he aims for.

But Jasper's is the time that is to come. Even with all of the focus on vanished convention - the obsession with marrying well and refusing positions beneath one's station - I think one can witness the birth of the modern literary world in this fat grim novel. From the success of a little paper called Chit-Chat, which is sold for pennies to people riding the streetcars, and caters to the so-called "quarter educated" (the paper has only tiny half-column articles with short paragraphs) to Reardon's failed attempts at writing a popular novel, we can see the mass audience beginning to take over the world of words. It is a world on the edge of a cliff, with many of the vices of the modern world and few of the virtues of the old one - and I've never quite come across its like in a novel before. Which is praise of a certain kind.

So, although I doubt many people will thank me for the recommendation, I think New Grub Street is worth reading. It has numerous flaws only partially attributable to the speed at which it was written: Gissing is not quite large enough as an artist to see past the world that he is writing about, and there are many sections where he seems to both attack and entirely accept the conventions of his time. But there is something about New Grub Street that is, finally, difficult to shake - and that is a rare quality even in books that I liked much more than this one.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters

I was reading a handful of books at the same time as the Spoon River Anthology, and it succeeded in winning my time away from its competitors and being finished first, which is definitely a sign of a certain kind of literary merit, and an especially impressive achievement for a book of verse. The Anthology is one of the few books of poetry that I would confidently recommend to people who don't normally read poetry. It is rare among classics of American poetry in actually having enjoyed, immediately, the popularity it deserved, and it even seems to have been a success in translation. Not many people talk about it today, but I don't think it has lost any of its appeal over the years.

The book consists of a series of short monologues by the inhabitants of a graveyard in a small Illinois town, all written in free verse. The dead know what has happened in the town since their deaths - "Do you remember, passer-by," one man says, "the path I wore across the lot where now stands the opera house" - and about the other townspeople who have joined them under the hill. Death has brought a certain insight for a few of them but most continue to strike the attitudes they adopted in life: they nurse grievances, blame their tormentors, and justify their actions to each other and to us. It is often the plainest monologues that are the most haunting:
Dow Kritt

Samuel is forever talking of his elm--
But I did not need to die to learn about roots:
I, who dug all the ditches about Spoon River.
Look at my elm!
Sprung from as good a seed as his,
Sown at the same time,
It is dying at the top:
Not from lack of life, nor fungus,
Nor destroying insect, as the sexton thinks.
Look, Samuel, where the roots have struck rock,
And can no further spread.
And all the while the top of the tree
Is tiring itself out, and dying,
Trying to grow.
Samuel, the gardener, has his monologue on the facing page. "Now I," he writes, "an under-tenant of the earth, can see / That the branches of a tree / Spread no wider than its roots. / And how shall the soul of a man / Be larger than the life he has lived?" Masters, as you can see from the quotes, does not write realistically in the voices of his characters. Except for his intellectuals and poets (and these strike me as some of the weaker poems in the collection) death has lent everyone the same, simple eloquence.

There are 244 separate monologues in the book dating back to the Revolutionary War, and they proceed up to the early part of the 20th century (the book was published in 1915). Some of the characters are entirely isolated - one person happened to die on a train passing through Spoon River - but most connect to at least one other person in the book: there are lovers, spouses, children, friends, victims and abusers scattered throughout the collection, and part of the fun of reading the book is flipping back to the index and establishing this web of connections. The characters intersect across a number of plotlines - a failed bank, an arson, a few political campaigns, and any number of illicit romances - that lend the book a certain coherence even as it doesn't really progress towards anything.

Sometimes these connections prove to be less illuminating than the individual poems. Masters has a weakness for somewhat mechanical ironies: the temperance crusader is secretly a drunk, the upstanding citizen is an adulterer, the town's priest is proud of saving a marriage that the wife believes poisoned the lives of the entire family, and so on. Masters also tends to re-use the same effects to achieve intensity (at one point I counted six poems in a row that ended with an exclamation mark) which lends a certain sameness to the weaker poems.

A larger flaw is his habit of forcing his own judgments into the mouths of his characters. Here is a judge, for example, that Masters clearly dislikes: "I reached the highest place in Spoon River / But through what bitterness of spirit!" Or another powerful man - named, with something less that subtlety, John M. Church - who declares that he "pulled the wires with judge and jury, / And the upper courts, to beat the claims / Of the crippled, the widow and orphan, / And made a fortune thereat." When Church's monologue ends with "But the rats devoured my heart / And a snake made a nest in my skull!" it seems less like an artistic statement about what waits for everyone and more a piece of bitter wish-fulfillment from the author (after all, no one's heart will end up in very good shape at the end). And apparently it is this pamphleteering instinct that marred the other narrative poems that Masters produced over the remainder of his life - May Swenson, in her introduction to this book, describes them as "dogmatic novels in verse," and I can easily imagine what she means from the weaker poems in the collection.

But the Spoon River Anthology is largely unmarred by such faults. It is one of the greatest ideas for a long poem in all of English literature and Masters rises to the challenge much of the time. The Anthology also makes a demand of the reader that very few good books make directly nowadays: think on your life. What are you doing, and why, in the time that you have left? Not the most original questions, obviously, but real ones - and a book that forces them on us could do much worse.
Lyman King

You may think, passer-by, that Fate
Is a pit-fall outside of yourself,
Around which you may walk by the use of foresight
And wisdom.
Thus you believe, viewing the lives of other men,
As one who in God-like fashion bends over an anthill,
Seeing how their difficulties could be avoided.
But pass on into life:
In time you shall see Fate approach you
In the shape of your own image in the mirror;
Or you shall sit alone by your own hearth,
And suddenly the chair by you shall hold a guest,
And you shall know that guest,
And read the authentic message of his eyes.