Wednesday, October 28, 2020

THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

In one of my favorite literary quotes, Randall Jarrell defines the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room is Jarrell's kind of novel, a good book with a host of flaws. First the flaws. Too much of The Mars Room seems obligatory, cliched, scripted by popular culture. There has to be a prison break in the novel, for example, not because Romy's escape is at all credible but because that's the expected climax of a prison story. There has to be a tough Latina, an outrageous intersexual, etc. not because they add anything to the novel but because that's how our culture imagines women's prisons post-Orange is the New Black. Elsewhere, the entire Richard "Doc" Richards storyline could've been excised by a more stringent editor, and the book would've lost nothing except a character who wandered into Kushner's imagination from the world of James Ellroy. Likewise, Romy's victim Kurt Kennedy seems to have been lifted from a Robert Stone novel. In fact, the entire novel seems to steer too close to Stone, as Kushner's earlier The Flamethrowers foundered on the rocks of DeLillo. (I'm the rare Kushner reader who considers Flamethrowers the weakest of her three novels and Telex From Cuba probably the least flawed.)

So what's so good about The Mars Room? A pathway into the novel's profoundest insight can be found in its ending, which I initially rejected as a failed attempt at epiphany that collapses into the hoariest Romantic nature cliches. Further consideration, however, led me to revise this opinion. The ending's nature epiphany and Romy's ambiguous capture (or killing) actually succeed as an encapsulation of the Kunderan "secret the novel asks about" (quoting from my favorite passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kushner's deepest theme is something we might call "the prison in the garden": the transformation of America, in its citizens' imaginations, from a land of Romantic promise to a carceral state. No, that ending isn't flawed at all; it's Kushner's ticket to the Great American Novel sweepstakes, her book's major statement about the way we live now.

Another plus is Kushner's prose. Like much well-reviewed contemporary litfic, The Mars Room impresses me most at the level of sentence, paragraph, voice. Kushner arc welds some marvelous metaphors, ably ventriloquizes a diverse set of characters, and can orchestrate a paragraph of free, indirect narration into a soliloquy that ironically reveals a character's ultimately fatal narcissism. (I'm thinking specifically of the long paragraph on pages 304-305 of the hardcover, in which Kurt Kennedy thinks around his visit to Cancun and his obsession with Romy/Vanessa.)

But even with these important positives, the book still feels rather 'thin,' a minor novel trying desperately to be major. Given that I had the same thought about Jesmyn Ward's two recent National Book Award winners, this probably points to a larger problem in our culture--about which, see the parenthetical last paragraph of my post on Jesmyn Ward, below.

Swings and Misses: On Jesmyn Ward's First Three Novels

Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward's first and least heralded novel, Where The Line Bleeds, is the kind of book critics like to call 'promising.' Just good enough to spark interest in what the writer might do next, it's an unexceptional example of MFA program social realism, more a member of the Dreiser-Farrell-Wright school (descending ultimately from Zola) than the Faulkner-Ellison-Morrison line (with ancestry in Melville, Hawthorne, Poe) to which Ward is generally considered heiress-presumptive. This novel lacks any of the gothic strangeness that energizes the best American fiction. Nor does it feel like a tale that particularly needed telling. And Ward's tale and telling are far too predictable. Still, it was a good enough novel to hold my interest to the end (if it had been 200 pages longer, that might not have been the case) and push me forward into Ward's next story of the African-American inhabitants of the southern Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage.

Salvage the Bones begins (here comes that word again) promisingly. There's an immediately engaging narrative voice, an agon with Faulkner signaled by an explicit intertextual relationship to As I Lay Dying, prose that pumps up the lyrical volume, and even a hint of the gothicism notably missing from her first novel. But within the first hundred pages things start to go awry. The intertextual thread is lost or dropped, an initial gothicism gives way to the less interesting realism of Where the Line Bleeds, and even the prose flattens as the Katrina wind rises, causing this reader to lose interest even as the action climaxed. (The fact that this novel is, again, very predictable didn't help.) The beginning of Salvage the Bones makes Faulknerian promises that the Steinbeckian-Caldwellian remainder fails to fulfill. Harold Bloom might have called this an example of a failed agon. Ward faced Faulkner and flinched.

If Salvage the Bones was 'a swing and a miss' at William Faulkner, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a too-slight, minor attempt at an agon with the Toni Morrison of Beloved and Song of Solomon. It's a very well written book--there are nearly perfect sentences, similes, metaphors scattered (albeit too thinly) throughout all three of Ward's novels--but the supernatural elements somehow fail to Morrisonianly mesh with Ward's more topical concerns (mass incarceration, police violence), and the book overall seems a thin, too-predictable, un-rereadable thing. Ward's rather tepid magic realism doesn't grant her novel the "anything can happen" quality we find in Garcia Marquez and Morrison. I was impressed, but not overly impressed. Still, I'm hopeful. Jesmyn Ward's first three novels chart a progression toward artistic excellence and imaginative originality--also, a movement from strict realism to a gothic-tinged Morrisonian magic realism--so I await with interest her fourth novel, hoping it will blow me away. Her first three did not exactly strike me with gale force.

(And now to parenthetically turn to the elephant in the room. Why did Ward's two relatively minor novels win National Book Awards, the same honor given to such undeniably major works as Ellison's Invisible Man, Bellow's Augie March, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Styron's Sophie's Choice, Walker's Color Purple, etc.? I suspect that the answer has less to do with individual judges advertising their wokeness than with a general decline in the quality of American literary fiction. Litfic in America has hardened into a safe, delimited, academicized genre that no longer has much room for huge groundbreakers like Invisible Man or Gravity's Rainbow. Of recent NBA winners, only William Vollmann (who won for Europe Central, one of his more accessible books) imagines novels on that fearless level. Our culture also seems to have lost the 'sweet spot' where high artistic quality and bestsellerdom can coexist, a spot occupied forty-some years ago by The World According to Garp, Song of SolomonRabbit is Rich, The Executioner's Song, Sophie's Choice, etc. We have a smaller literary fiction today, I sadly and pessimistically suggest, because our high culture is contracting under pressure from a low, lucrative, relatively mindless, and wildly popular techno-culture. People who spend their ever-contracting semi-free time looking at antisocial "social media" aren't in the market for difficult fiction. The fictions that move them are provided by Russian intelligence.)

BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin

If Junot Diaz's Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the definitive contemporary American immigrant novel, Colm Toibin's defiantly old-fashioned Brooklyn, written around the same time, is an immigrant novel Jane Austen could (almost) have written. (Since I don't idolize Austen, that's not exactly a compliment.) Indeed, Toibin even lifts the lineaments of the typical Austen plot, hinging on the central female character's single life-defining decision of whom to marry. But unlike the best of Austen (Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Emma), Brooklyn is a too comfortable, too sentimental, overly nice novel; duplicitous characters, unlikable characters--in short, interesting characters, are kept carefully minor. But perhaps the harshest criticism I can make of Brooklyn as a work of literary art (and I should probably mention here, parenthetically, that I rather liked the book--almost as much as I'm liking slagging it) would be merely to mention that the novel adapted perfectly to film. I think virtually everything in the book made it to the screen, with only a few minor alterations. It translates to film as easily as a men's room sign translates to Spanish. This is an indication not of the film's Stroheimian greatness but of the novel's slightness. No one who has seen the movie need read the book, a work that comes to seem, weirdly, like a slavish novelization of the film adapted from it.

HOTEL DE DREAM by Edmund White

In a conversation about Jean Genet (on KCRW's "Bookworm" program), Edmund White described himself as a "minor novelist," and his late, short novel Hotel de Dream might have been written to prove this uniquely modest self-characterization. It's an interesting minor novel--not great, not even exceptionally well written, little more than an intriguing jeu of the literary imagination. When I heard that the Nabokov-praised author of Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, A Boy's Own Story, the definitive biography of Genet, a good brief life of Proust, and The Beautiful Room is Empty (my favorite of his novels) had written a novel on the topic of Stephen Crane's perhaps apocryphal male prostitute novella, my hyperliterary mind was intrigued. But another part of that mind suspected that Hotel de Dream would be what it is: yet another 'piggyback' novel in the imaginatively bereft subgenre Michael Cunningham made lucrative (with help from Nicole Kidman and a fake nose). This novel finds White doing Cunningham's already unoriginal thing. It's clever and interesting, but nothing more... For the real problem see below:

At age 51, I no longer have time to waste on books that don't blow my mind. Or at least breathe on it strongly enough to redden the coals.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

After reading a half-dozen Cambridge Companions...

At the end of a week spent reading six volumes in the Cambridge Companions to Literature series (namely, the CC's to Narrative (i.e., narratology), American Gay and Lesbian Literature, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, William Faulkner and Herman Melville), I declared myself disappointed and underwhelmed--and unsurprised. These collections of essays by various academic specialists in the eponymous writers and fields display no enthusiasm, no passion, no wit, no humor, no joy in the writing, and very little in the way of original ideas--although I know the academy well enough not to have expected much of the last. The Gay and Lesbian volume taught me little I didn't already know (I'm fairly well-read in Gay Studies / Queer Theory and, more importantly, the best of the literature these theories foreground.) and demonstrated the depressing extent to which potentially revolutionary ideas have been carefully sealed away inside 'Academia Inc.' by means of exclusionist jargon, the numbing repetition of dogma, and the embrace of an identity politics-motivated counter-canon that's actually narrower and much less inclusive than the lists in the back of Harold Bloom's Western Canon. On the positive side, queer theory impresses me as the polymorphous perverse side of contemporary intellectualism, and I'm impressed by Judith Butler's idea of heterosexuality as an anxious mimesis of an imaginary ideal. That's an idea good enough to steal--except in my case no larceny is necessary, for I've independently developed an existentialism-influenced concept of personality-as-performance that subsumes sexuality into a more general performance of subjectivity.

In the Pynchon volume, I was briefly intrigued by Brian McHale's notion of the Modernism-Postmodernism distinction as a shift of focus from epistemology to ontology, from questioning knowledge to questioning the 'subjects' who claim to possess it. It seems a powerful abstraction until you apply a bit of intellectual pressure and watch how quickly epistemology and ontology become inextricably intertwined. A theory of knowledge, pushed far enough, becomes a theory of being, and every ontology necessarily implies an epistemology. But at least McHale's idea, unlike most in these volumes, is good enough to mentally argue with. For the most part, these books consist of essay after essay in which academic minds cruise along institutionally-approved rails and arrive at expected conclusions. It's all as predictable as the train from Leonardo da Vinci Airport to Termini Station. To adapt a line Henry Miller wrote (and attributed to Anais Nin), the English Department needs a blood transfusion. Indeed, it needs more than that...


Lorrie Moore, for whom I had hope, disappoints me with the first half-dozen of her COLLECTED STORIES, a hefty, great-looking Everyman's Library volume that deserves better contents. The stories are alphabetically arranged, so the first six form a mini-retrospective of her career, and from this I judge her to be an above-average 'program writer'. Her prose is surprisingly good, her voice sometimes flashes a caustic humor, but her work doesn't approach greatness. These aren't stories on a level with Munro or Proulx or Carver. There's nothing shockingly new or wow-inducing in Moore's work, no revelations. She composes the sort of entertaining, work(wo)manlike stories typical of MFA program professors (we can even fairly classify her as an 'academic writer' a la David Lodge); and like most capos of the MFA mafia, she's handicapped by the 'write what you know' dogma. Like her professorial contemporary George Saunders, she's too traditional for her own good (Saunders' overpraised oeuvre consists mostly of warmed-over Donald Barthelme, and his stories' irrealistic surfaces serve to advance an underlying, and ultimately conservative, sentimental humanism.), and like her fellow prof Richard Ford, her reputation has likely been artificially inflated by her institutional affiliation. She's worshiped by former students (like the one whose hagiographic introduction dubiously graces this collection), but I can't find the knockout greatness in the work. What I did, repeatedly, find was a tendency to end her stories with unearned epiphanies. Instead of putting in the hard imaginative work required to bring a complex story to a satisfactory conclusion, she simply pulls an arbitrary epiphany out of her buttcrack and calls it an ending. Lorrie Moore leaves my mind unblown. What Gore Vidal grandly called "the matter of America" deserves a better teller.

THE DEER PARK by Norman Mailer

Coming to Mailer's Deer Park after Play It As It Lays throws into relief the weaknesses of the former novel: a prose too-often clumsy and cliche-ridden, only rarely rising above mediocrity and sometimes suffering pratfalls in the attempt (and in many spots descending to near-Dreiserian dullness); characters that either strain credulity or seem the merest ciphers from Central Casting; a blond, blue-eyed, six-foot Hitlerian posterboy of a narrator who seems an obvious (and slightly sicko) authorial compensatory fantasy; sex scenes sadistically bound by mid-1950s censorship (for which we certainly can't blame the author, but still... Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch around this time.) All of this detracts from the novel's major plus, an exploration of sexuality (including, by more than implication, the homoerotic element in male friendship) that at least equals Lawrence.

Another negative: early in the novel, Mailer's choice of an impotent (anti-)hero narrator signals an intertextual relationship to The Sun Also Rises. Always boxing Papa, Norman here follows up his Farewell to the Bell Tolls (The Naked and the Dead) with a post-WWII California Sun. But, as in all of his many rounds of Ernest-fighting, Mailer's merely shadowboxing in the ring of his mind; Hemingway has already won the bout. Having established his hero's impotence, Mailer wastes no time curing it, an artistic and imaginative failure of the first order that figurative transfers the stigma of impotence from character to author. Norman's the one who can't get artistically hard (and keep his hero soft), while Hemingway stands there rigid, pharaonically displaying a novelistic dong impressive enough to keep Jake Barnes soft for the duration of Sun.

PLAY IT AS IT LAYS by Joan Didion

 I should have read this thirty years ago... Why didn't I read this back in the early nineties?... These thoughts recurred several times while I read--belatedly, inexcusably--Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays. Long an admirer of Didion's journalism--Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are beautifully written cultural landmarks that deserved their 'instant classic' status--I have inexplicably avoided her fiction. (Similar story between Susan Sontag and me, equally inexplicable: enjoy re-reading the essays, haven't read the novels.) So when the first volume of the Library of America's collected Didion came into my hands, I was very pleasantly surprised by the excellence and risky beauty of her second novel. (Here's hoping the LOA soon publishes a two-volume edition of Sontag's fiction so I'll have another opportunity to be surprised.) Play It As It Lays, seemingly an artsy, au courant (for 1970) novel of affluent angst among the Fitzgeraldianly careless moviemaking side of Sixties Los Angeles, surprised me by turning explicitly existentialist at the end, Maria's journey terminating (or, more precisely, continuing) in nihilism and death, existential anxiety taken to its limits. Stylistically engaging and formally original, this short novel is, at the very least, what critics call 'a minor classic' (maybe we should lose that minimizing adjective) and deserves to be as much of an LA landmark as the Getty Center or LACMA. It's the kind of artful, existentially engaged novel no American writer writes anymore. (Well, Rachel Kushner at least tries to write them.) I finished it mourning the fact that it has birthed no native sons or daughters.

FLOW CHART by John Ashbery

Eighty pages into Ashbery's Flow Chart, in the restored Library of America edition, I found myself just beginning to understand it--this book-length poem that ideal readers will perpetually 'begin to understand,' without any of that Keats-derided "irritable reaching after fact and reason"--I began, that is, to understand it as a kaleidoscopic late-late-Surrealist love poem. As such, it belongs to the line of Surrealist art about love and sex highlighted in the ca.2002 exhibition catalog Surrealism: Desire Unbound--an exhibition JA probably saw at the Met (incidentally, for our purposes, since it arrived a decade after the poem's publication). I also find obvious affinities with Dada, Pop Art and, more pointedly, the assemblages and 1960s paintings of Robert Rauschenberg--as well as their ancestors in the collage paintings of Picasso and Braque from the 1910s. Ashbery's text also winks and nods--obscurely, its gestures clouded by Cubist cigarette smoke--towards other, more specifically literary precursors (of the sort that might have popped into the late Harold Bloom's echo-capturing mind as he read the poem): The Bridge, Leaves of Grass, The Cantos, and that lodestar of Modernist difficulty, The Waste Land. And of course (bien sur), Mallarme and the French Symbolists are in here too, swirling in the Ashberian cyclone.... Ashbery's poem, however, embodies a difficulty beyond the High Modernist, a difficulty we might consider characteristically 'postmodernist,' due to the work's anarchistic skepticism with regard to language, meaning, narrative and form. If such earlier Ashbery books as The Double Dream of Spring, Houseboat Days, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror might be collectively considered JA's Ulysses, Flow Chart is his Finnegans Wake. A work of remarkable local beauty (line by lovely line, image by startling image), it presents difficulties of global interpretation (the Alfie question: "What's it all about?") that might keep its select few readers guessing for lifetimes--or lead them to run up the white flag of aporia and surrender to France, reducing the poem to a textbook illustration of Derridean radical skepticism, the post-structuralist circulation of meaning, and any number of other ideas powerful enough to keep grad students off crack during the 1980s.

Upon finishing this first reading--complete but necessarily inconclusive, like any reading of Ashbery's best works--I thought Flow Chart a remarkable enigma, an exquisitely difficult pleasure with enough moments of beauty to inspire multiple readings and the desire to pluck the mystery out of the poem's heart. I hesitate only slightly before calling it a great poem (the hesitation a first-reading's hedge); it is Ashbery's magnum opus. And as to what it's all about: all is what it's about. It's a tragic, comic, goofball meditation on life, death and everything in the indecent interval between. It is 'about' (in the sense of 'man about town') the Lucretian-Epicurean rain of imagistic atoms flowing from John Ashbery's mind to his writing hand as the nineteen-eighties stumbled to a close.

This is all but a raw, tentative reaction to a first reading of Flow Chart, and as such it fits the blog, because Mindful Pleasures for the past 12 years has been a place to prose-out my raw readerly reactions. Pretty much everything here is a trial piece. If I'm ever able or willing to write the book-length commentary that Flow Chart deserves, I will title it, from the poem, Exquisite Nitpicking.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Unpopular Opinion #257: Contra 'Cultural Appropriation'

When asked what it means to be a humanist in the twenty-first century, I like to quote, unoriginally, that locus classicus of humanism from the ancient Roman playwright Terence: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto": I am a man, and nothing human is alien to me.

As a humanist, I consider the entirety of human cultural production to be the inheritance of every human being. This idea obviates and negates the currently popular discourse of 'cultural appropriation,' an idea born of identity politics, tribalism, ahistoricism, aesthetic ignorance, misdirected political energy, and a kind of xenophobia just as stupid and pernicious as that spouted by Trump supporters wearing MAGA dunce caps. Anyone who has studied deeply any aspect of human culture--art, politics, economics, religion, whatever--knows that the history of culture is a history of cultural appropriation. To appropriate another Latin tag, ex nihilo nihil fit: Nothing comes from nothing. Every cultural product--every poem, every painting, every novel, every economic theory--comes out of, is influenced by, borrows from, earlier products of its own and other cultures. This is how cultures live and grow. Or as that great literary cat burglar T. S. Eliot once wrote, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." Years ago on the Guardian books site a commenter remarked that the brilliant contemporary London writer Iain Sinclair "stole everything from the Situationists." I replied with the following sarcastic mini-diatribe:

"Yes, in the same sense that the writers of the New Testament stole the Messiah idea from the Old Testament, later Christians stole the Jewish sacred texts and renamed them the 'Old Testament' (what chutzpah!), Homer stole the Troy and Odysseus tales from folk tradition, Socrates stole his peripatetic philosopher shtick from the Sophists, Dante stole Hell, Purgatory and Paradise from mystics and theologians, Shakespeare stole the events of Titus Andronicus from Ovid's tale of the rape of Philomel and the Sonnets from Sidney and Surrey, Milton stole from the book of Genesis (which stole from even more ancient Mesopotamian sources), Blake stole from everyone Milton stole from as well as from Milton himself, Fielding stole from Cervantes (as did Sterne, Diderot, and all the postmodern novelists from Barth through Rushdie), Joyce stole from Homer, Woolf stole from Joyce, Nabokov stole from Lewis Carroll (who stole everything from poor, pedophilic Charles Dodgson), and so forth and so on unto the last syllable of intelligent writing (which may be written any day now). As T. S. Eliot (and George Eliot, who stole from Balzac) knew, it's not whom you steal from; it's what you do with the stuff you steal. And Iain Sinclair has done fantastic things with what the Situationists left lying around."

A similar expostulation might be written for every field of human endeavor. In art history, Picasso invented Cubism partly by appropriating the figural style of African masks; in turn, Latin American painters such as Diego Rivera, Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta appropriated some of Picasso's styles and techniques. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist appropriation of Japanese prints is well known, but more obscure is critic Kirk Varnedoe's argument in A Fine Disregard that the characteristic style of those prints was influenced by European Renaissance paintings and drawings, prints of which circulated in Japan in the 1700s. Likewise, in the history of cinema we might mention Akira Kurosawa's appropriation of John Ford and Quentin Tarantino's later appropriation of John Woo. In the history of thought, Marx and Engels were influenced by American anthropologist L. H. Morgan, a student of Iroquois culture. In politics, Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) was appropriated partly from the writings of Thoreau; Gandhi's idea was then appropriated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the American Civil Rights movement, and so on... 

The life of human culture knows neither borders nor oceans nor differences of tongue. Appropriation is the beating heart of culture. If we attempt to police or control it, we might stop the heart and kill the mind.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost

Here's a close reading of Robert Frost's little masterpiece of ambiguity, "The Road Not Taken". It's a poem commonly oversimplified, with one of the two likeliest interpretations almost always overwriting the other, so this reading will seek to bring out the work's often overlooked complexity and difficulty.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

We are with a wanderer in the woods, some latter-day Thoreau or Muir or John Burroughs, an American Romantic naturalist escaping urbanism to commune with the wilderness. But we are also in a more specifically literary elsewhere. Any poem that begins with a speaker "in a yellow wood" should remind us of Dante at the opening of the Inferno, lost in a symbolic selva oscura, a dark or shadowy woods. This echo, however faint, should put perceptive readers on guard against an unproblematically optimistic interpretation of the poem. We are dealing here with something more than an archetypal American nonconformist's self-congratulatory ode to individualism. Something different and darker is also going on.

The most important word in the line--indeed, arguably the only word of poetic import, since the others serve simply to state a situation and construct an allusion--is that curious adjective, yellow. Why not 'an autumn wood,' or 'a colored wood,' or even 'a turning wood'? Why does Frost characterize the wood by specifying a single color? (Most North American woods contain more than one species of tree and thus turn multiple colors in the autumn.) This word choice, like the infernal allusion in which it is embedded, is Frost putting us on guard again. The color yellow suggests not freedom and self-determination but weakness and subjection to sickness. It is the color of excrement (urine), of jaundice, even of death. More colloquially, yellow connotes cowardice rather than courage (In Frost's day, cowards were commonly called "yellow."), so a wood of this color should trouble an interpretation of the poem as an encomium to the courage to choose an untrodden path.

And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

Far from eagerly choosing the less trodden way, the speaker regrets the necessity of choice. Like all of us, in the honesty of our ids, he wants it both ways, wishes life were both-and instead of either-or. If only he could miraculously Jehovah himself into multiple personalities and still remain a single entity (yes, Frost is slyly, satirically nodding toward the three-in-one dogma of the Trinity), he could dispel the anxiety--technically, existential anxiety--that keeps him paralyzed here at the fork in life's road.

And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Peering into a possible future, he can see only a short distance, is blind to where the path might lead. But more interesting than this banal paraphrase is the fact that he chooses to look down this path seemingly at random: it's a toss-up; neither path beckons, and he could look either way. We might also note Frost's choice of the word undergrowth as another darkening device. Slant-rhyming with 'underground' and used in conjunction with the speaker looking down, it again faintly rings the dark Dantean bell. One of these paths might lead to an Inferno, the other to a Paradiso; inability to choose leaves him in a Purgatorio of angst.

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And this most momentous choice is, like the lesser choice two lines earlier, seemingly random, a coin-flip. The two paths are essentially indistinguishable. The choice is a monument to that boyish 'whim' Emerson celebrates in "Self-Reliance": "I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company..." (And just as we oversimplify this poem by reading it as Emersonian self-congratulation, we imbecilize Emerson by ignoring the proto-Nietzschean darkness in his work.) In Frost's twentieth-century context, it can be understood as the necessary Sartrean existential choice performed in a world of Camus-esque absurdity and meaninglessness. Like every important life-choice, it's a leap into the unknown.

And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

And immediately our speaker denies the whimsical, absurd nature of his choice and begins to retrospectively rationalize it. He chose this second path not at random--perish the thought!--but because it was grassy and less worn. The choice, thus rationally arrived at, defines him as a ruggedly individualistic nonconformist, one who chooses the path others fear to tread.

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

But he can't even convince himself that he has made a rational choice, for the evidence of his senses, that empirical 'best evidence' of scientific rationality, forces upon him the fact of similarity. Neither path is noticeably less trodden, neither road not taken by common travelers. He has chosen a path as well-traveled as the other. His ego-affirming, archetypally American identity is founded upon nothing more than a momentary delusion. (We would not go too far afield were we to mention the comparable mentality of Trump supporters. Believing themselves bravely nonconformist in their denial of 'political correctness,' science, decency, reason, etc., they are in fact as slavishly conformist as the stupid red hats they wear.)

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

From its opening interjection to its closing exclamation point, the line rings as false as a paper bell. Again, the speaker can't even convince himself, as the next lines show.

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

Unidirectionality is the tragedy of time. It can go only forward, never back, never really repeat. Even if the chosen path loops around to this fork again, we will have been changed by our going and will re-arrive as slightly different selves. The choice is once and forever, and therein lies the root of existential anxiety, leading to a vertigo even more paralyzing than the one that rendered Jimmy Stewart incapable of saving Kim Novak. Frost's narrator knows this, but represses the knowledge as soon as it worms its way into consciousness.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

The sigh is a carefully crafted Frostian ambiguity. We sigh in disappointment, frustration, yet also in times of intense happiness, contentment, satisfaction. Here it might signify an irruption of bad conscience before the narrator's self-protectively delusional final pronouncement.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

Why the pause, why the Dickinsonian dash? I--I think it dramatizes the speaker's final choice. Recounting his tale, he can either tell the truth of randomness and contingency, or he can ease into self-mythology. Of course he chooses the well-trodden path of mendacity.

I took the one less traveled by,

A lie, as we know. The paths were equally worn. With this bit of deception, and self-deception(?), the speaker eases himself into the cultural role slotted out for him: he is the self-made, self-determining American man; the rugged individualist, the proud nonconformist (Emerson: "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist."), the walker along the road less traveled. But the slot is not a flawless fit. That repetition of I is a sign of anxious self-doubt. On a level deeper than his imagined lie, he's so uncertain about himself that he must speak the self-signifying pronoun twice. The gentleman doth protest one syllable too much.

And that has made all the difference.

At the beginning of this reading, I called the entire poem a "little masterpiece of ambiguity," and that's also a fair description of its last line. As in the writings of Jacques Derrida, interpretation here centers upon one's understanding of difference. The word is a hinge upon which the line (and the entire poem) turns toward optimistic and pessimistic readings. Optimistic interpretations swing difference in a positive direction, hearing the speaker say that his life has turned out much better than if he had taken the other path. Pessimistic interpreters read a negative difference; we hear the speaker sigh in disappointment at the beginning of the stanza and understand him to be lamenting the botch of his life and the fatal choice that caused it.

Is one interpretation more valid than the other? When I began this close reading, I was tempted to say no. I intended to end the reading in a classic deconstructive aporia, a point of radical undecidability between mutually exclusive interpretations. I was then going to point out the ideological distortion that promotes one reading over the other. But over the course of this writing, I have determined that the poem is considerably less ambiguous, and the ideological distortion much more severe, than I had imagined. As I hope I have demonstrated, the pessimistic reading is clearly more valid than the optimistic. It goes more deeply into the text, teases out Dantean allusions, and deals forthrightly with contradictions (e.g., the lack of substantial difference between the paths) that an optimistic reading must either finesse away or ignore.

Why, then, out of two competing interpretations, one substantially more convincing than the other, do most general readers choose the facile positive over the complex negative? Likely for the same reason that strict party line American voters will identify as 'Independent' when a pollster calls. The hegemonic ideology of our culture values the appearance of independence, individuality, autonomy, freedom. Americans mouth the words and feel their power even when they belie them in every moment of their lives. We are therefore ideologically primed to accept the optimistic interpretation, even in the face of contrary textual evidence. The extent to which we read "The Road Not Taken" as a positive statement of nonconformity is a good measure of the extent of our ideological programming. When we read Robert Frost's poem, the poem also reads us.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The First Sentence Project, No.1: Philip Roth's SABBATH'S THEATER

This post inaugurates a new feature on Mindful Pleasures. The First Sentence Project will be a series of occasional close readings of opening sentences that I find brilliant, remarkable, or merely unusual. We begin, out of sheer joyous, Dionysian dirtymindedness, with the first sentence of Philip Roth's fierce and filthily funny 1995 novel Sabbath's Theater.

Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.

That's it: nine words, none of more than two syllables, comprising a sentence that can only in the most technical sense be called 'complex.' And not only is this Sabbath's Theater's first sentence; it is the entirety of its first paragraph. Let's pause over these seemingly superficial details to appreciate the Rothian irony. This novel that is in many ways--linguistically, stylistically, sexually, philosophically--Roth's most extreme work, a novel of excess and transgression written in a prose that ranges from Hemingway-Carver minimalism to Joycean complexity and the comic heights of mock-Euphuism, begins with a spare string of straightforward mono- and disyllabics. The novel that is arguably Roth's most unrestrained performance begins in ironic restraint.

Let's examine the line word by word:

Either. That's no way to begin a novel, certainly not a novel starring that Dionysian antihero, that paragon of polymorphous perversion, that personification of the irrational id, that self-ordained "monk of fucking," Mickey Sabbath. Does any other major, canonical novel begin with the word either? I can't think of one. It's a word that fits more comfortably in a computer programming language: Either do this, computer; or do that... It's a signal of bald, logical statement, a signifier of rational discourse. And therein lies its irony in this context. For Sabbath is not a Kierkegaardian either-or kind of dude; he's a both-and man. He wants it all, both the nasty and the tender, both King Lear and crack, both James Joyce and piss-drinking, both pussy and asshole, both life and death. He is to logic and reason what R. Crumb's Mr. Natural is to Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty.

forswear. An interesting archaism--and again, not a word one is likely to find in the first or any other sentence of most contemporary novels. In good Sabbathian fashion, forswear both elevates the line's diction to a near-Shakespearean height (thus setting up the next word's precarious fall) and sounds the first subterranean note of the novel's Hamlet theme (part two titled "To Be or Not To Be," Nikki as the lost Ophelia, Sabbath as the suicidal Jersey Jewish Hamlet haunted, of course, by the ghost of his mother--that little substitution is worthy of Woody Allen) by containing the demand of "the fellow in the cellarage," the underground ghost of King Hamlet: "Swear!" If Roth checked his dictionary before deciding on 'forswear' (most writers would probably have chosen 'forgo'), he would've found that the word means both "to renounce something under oath" and "to swear falsely," the latter being the only way Sabbath could have sworn this particular oath.

fucking. Another fine old English word, but hardly an archaism, fucking nosedives the sentence's diction down to obscenity, where Sabbath lives. As James Wood has shown in my favorite passage of his How Fiction Works, this kind of breakneck register-shifting is a stylistic hallmark of Roth's novel, so it's entirely appropriate that it first occurs in the first sentence. That said, the usage is, I believe, unique in the Roth oeuvre. There's fucking aplenty in Philip Roth's novels (although fewer 'sex scenes' than most people seem to think), but I think this is the sole time he dropped the F-bomb in a first line, a choice entirely appropriate to his most extreme book.

others. There are always others. The other is Sabbath's necessity and his curse. While Sabbath's Theater depicts, on its surface, a compulsive penetrator of others, much of the pathos of the novel lies in its depiction of a Sabbath multiply penetrated by others. A porous subject, he's being figuratively fucked in every orifice by the ghosts of his dead. Drenka, Yetta, Nikki, Morty--these are the most important players in his private theater, the puppets his unconscious controls.

or. The mate of either. Just a conjunction, folks... Nothing to see here. I'm not going to push this close reading into absurdity by noting the or/ore pun and suggesting that Roth here constructs a hidden metaphor (metaph-ore) for the mining of Sabbath's consciousness that is the primary action of the novel... No, I'm not going to mention that.

the. This definite article is easily passed over, but there's a subtle oddness deserving of mention. If Sabbath is fucking so many others--which, to add another turn to Roth's ironic screw, he actually isn't--why is the relationship with Drenka the affair, a singular thing? Perhaps because Drenka, the ostensible 'speaker' here, understands that this relationship has crossed into the region of what, for Sabbath, might be the ultimate taboo: love.

affair. In the tradition in which Roth writes, nothing is more novelistic than an affair. From Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina to Rabbit, Run and Fear of Flying--hell, from the Provencal troubadours to Sarah Treem--adultery has been close to the heart of Western fictionalizing. In addition to immediately placing his novel in this tradition, Roth's word choice also efficiently sets up the initial conflict--while simultaneously misdirecting us to expect a novel of adultery instead of the existential crisis narrative Sabbath's Theater very soon (thanks to the death of the affair's partner) becomes.

is. The simplest verb, is is the sharpest possible contrast with the first half of the sentence's forswear and another example of Roth's uncharacteristic restraint.

over. and out. Every ending stinks of death, and the ending of this sentence is no exception. Like most of middle and late period Roth, Sabbath's Theater is death-haunted. (Early Roth, by contrast, is haunted by the possibility of life (sex) in a repressed Fifties America.) The trajectory of the entire novel, like that of this sentence, moves from fucking to death--when everything, the whole affair of life, is over.

[you]. But unlike Roth's sentence, my reading is not quite over yet. No reading of this sentence should end without a nod toward its absent presence, the mangy dog that does not bark, the subject to whom it is directed. Between either and forswear, Roth suppresses the word you, subject of the sentence, signifying the sound and fury of Sabbath. That Roth's least repressed central character is suppressed in the first sentence of his novel, made to haunt it like the ghosts that haunt him, may be the subtlest irony hidden inside these nine (ten) words.

As in the history of cubist painting, after analysis comes synthesis, so let's put this sentence back together and listen to its music:

Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.

Listen to those rhyming long e's at the beginning of each clause (either, the) and how they're complimented by the slant-rhymed o's at the ends (others, over) and how this sonic orchestration is further held together by the alliterating f's of the first half that are picked up by the double f in affair. Listen to forswear beautifully rhyme with affair (a rhyme worthy of a fine poet). Or look at the repeated o's strung across the line like Christmas lights (forswear, others, or, over). Listen... The late great William H. Gass, whose style of criticism I'm imitating now, might've loved this fucking sentence.


Readers of this blog who've been wondering what the hell I've been up to for the past year can satisfy their curiosity by reading my latest book, Suicide: A Memoir, now available for purchase as an ebook and a paperback at Amazon. Here's the back cover description:

At age fifty, Brian Oard--writer, blogger, art critic, intellectual, aesthete--found himself at the bottom of his life. Broke, hopeless, going blind, suffering severe depression and social isolation, facing the prospect of homelessness, and stressed to the breaking point by caring for his dying elderly father, he decided to end his life. This brief book is the story of his journey to and through suicidal depression. We follow the author from his initial loss of hope, through the decline and death of his father, to his preparations for suicide, climaxing on the morning of his planned demise, when he thinks his way out of death and into the possibility of a new life. Combining brutal, self-lacerating honesty with flashes of grim, gallows humor, it is a harrowing work of psychological insight. Written in a powerful prose both beautiful and poetically compressed, it is also an impressive, original work of art.

To almost quote D. H. Lawrence: yes, I have come through--through suicidal depression and into the opening act of a new life. It's hardly a spoiler to mention that the last line of my memoir is, "This is me, bouncing." From the bottom of my life in rural Ohio, I've bounced all the way to western Colorado, where I was delighted to discover that screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo (Johnny Got His Gun) was born in nearby Grand Junction and is memorialized in a public sculpture of the writer at work in his most creative place, the bathtub. So there are now two leftist writers in Mesa County, Colorado, and here's a picture of both of us:

It's been a major and completely unpredictable change of life, this disorienting relocation to Kit Carson country. I arrived here at night--rocketing over the Rockies in a steep ascent out of Denver--and experienced severe landscape shock when opening my windows the next morning onto snow-capped mountains, a massive mesa of black volcanic rock, and a big beautiful blue western sky. I, who have always lived in the Midwest and faced intellectually and artistically eastward, toward New York, London, Paris, Dublin, am now a westerner (Watch out, Cormac, 'cause there's a new bad motherfucker in town.), and I'm experiencing the coronavirus epidemic not by hunkering down in an eastern house and binge-watching The Wire, but by 'social distancing' the western way, as illustrated by this picture of your umbral author standing on a cliff along the Old Spanish Trail and looking down on the Gunnison River. It's not all bad.