Thursday, November 23, 2017

"Flowering Judas" (1930)


Katherine Anne Porter's story is set in Mexico during revolutionary times. It's a murky but cosmopolitan scene. Our main character, Laura, is Anglo. A vaguely menacing character, Braggioni, is Italian. And there are Indians, Poles, Romanians, others. Already I get a hit of the surreal sense of Latin American literature, or culture, a kind of acceptance of the absurd that requires no discussion. Laura is frequently described in nun-like terms, and she dresses and behaves modestly. Braggioni is interested in her—courting her, even, but not in any way that she appears able to decline. She's in a situation, somehow, where her best choice may be to go along with it for the time being. Her occupation is described as teaching Indian children. Braggioni serenades her, singing and playing a guitar. "She knows what Braggioni would offer her, and she must resist tenaciously without appearing to resist, and if she could avoid it she would not admit even to herself the slow drift of his intention." Braggioni was some kind of commanding soldier in the revolution, grounded in carnal realities and equations of power. Despite Laura's modest manner and reserve, or perhaps because of them, Braggioni lusts for her: "he wishes to impress this simple girl who covers her great round breasts with thick dark cloth, and who hides long, invaluably beautiful legs under a heavy skirt." Laura is more than a teacher—she obviously has a stake and specific personal reasons to be there, attending union meetings and visiting political prisoners. Even if she were interested in a relationship she probably wouldn't have time—but, again, she appears to have limited choice, beyond those for any Anglo woman in that time and place. As we come to learn, she is also somehow involved in subversive activity. There's a strong but fleeting suggestion that she may have provided the means for a political prisoner to commit suicide. There are many layers to reality in this story, and tearing one layer away also can have the effect of resetting reality to a new ground. Laura is afraid of Braggioni's vindictiveness, which could leave her even more vulnerable in a situation she seems more committed to than ever. The story ends with a bad dream Laura has after going to bed. There's a sense there are many days and nights like this still ahead of her—and many already behind her. The language and images are precision-fitted, and altogether it's a pretty good story.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

I tried to go into Blade Runner 2049 with an open mind, even though I'm inclined to be suspicious of all sequels, reboots, and the like, I'm really not convinced of anything yet about director Denis Villeneuve, I had gleaned enough about the response to know it's already considered a disappointment and commercial flop, and last but not least I knew it was nearly three hours going in. Four strikes, you're out, man. And there were more red flags too, one each for Ridley Scott, Ryan Gosling, and Harrison Ford, each a problem for different reasons. I'm officially tired of Ford's farewell tour of his career greatest hits, after the Star Wars reboot, another Indiana Jones on the way, and who knows what else. Philip K. Dick's name comes after all of the above in the credits, which is probably as it should be because the whole thing is not very Dickian at all anymore. It is Ridley Scottian, and Harrison Fordian, and maybe even young Ryan Goslingian before it is Dickian. But Blade Runner 2049 is Villeneuvian more than anything by way of his indulgence for high concept and tricksy plot developments, previously seen in Incendies and Arrival (at least). Sicario is the best and most exciting I've seen by him so far, looking for its complexities in the intricate levels of power in the cross-border drug trade, with everything else straightforward and somehow achieving a unique lucidity. Blade Runner, of course, is all concept and nothing straightforward, as received, and with the franchise now openly abandoning Dick and developing in other ways. It lifts a page from the Battlestar Galactica playbook and turns our tale of corporatism and human simulacrums into a story about robots interbreeding and giving birth, as opposed to being manufactured. This, you see—being born—is the dividing line between having a soul and not having one. It is all very busy building to a Big Reveal, which I admit seemed to play fair by all the rules I understand in these games of narrative peekaboo (and note that I'm not giving anything away). Yet it amounted to nothing—much like the reveal in Arrival, something garbled about perception and time and sadness. Blade Runner 2049 is long and feels every minute. Everything good about it is better in any one of the three or four cuts Ridley Scott already took at the original. At least it's beautiful. This franchise is a mess. Philip Dick wept.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Sacred Fount (1901)

Henry James apparently disavowed this short but interminable novel, declining to include it in a comprehensive 1908 collection of his work. Whatever else it is, The Sacred Fount is difficult and annoying, that's for sure. Even the typically anodyne Wikipedia has a note of impatience in its summary: "[A]fter a while, the narrator's theories begin to drive everybody, including the reader, a little nuts." Yes, and what's more, as usual, finding the antecedents to the pronouns is the hard part, with generous portions of "that to which he had earlier referred" and the like. The consensus appears to be that this nuanced narrator is overly interested in various sexual affairs going on behind the scenes at a weekend gathering in the country, and that might indeed be what this novel is about. I'm struck, however, that the basic clue appears to be who has aged among the weekend attendees, and who, improbably, has grown more youthful. Some of these people are 40 and look 25, that is, but their descriptions are rendered in such excruciating detail that I'm halfway willing to believe they actually are younger, and this is some kind of science fiction twist (after all, we've seen that James likes detective and horror stylings). "The sacred fount" is not sex, as most take it, but literally the thing Ponce de Leon was looking for. These richies have a line on it. Although that doesn't explain some of the unnatural aging of some of the other characters, so fuck that. The novel is probably short enough it could be mistaken for a Dick Francis in mass market paperback, but don't let that fool you. You're going to want to hurl this one across the room frequently, and you can take that as a recommendation underlining James's own instinct to avoid it—I read it so you don't have to—or perhaps you can take it as a personal challenge. After all, it's so short. It does have a kind of spooky Twilight Zone air somehow, as if the narrator is the only one truly alive there and the others come to life only when he engages them in conversation. Otherwise they are like murmuring extras in party and dinner scenes in movies like Last Year at Marienbad. If you're going to read The Sacred Fount, see if you don't agree with me that there really is some kind of potion or elixir these wealthy privileged characters are sharing with (and/or denying to) one another. They are visibly becoming younger even over the course of the weekend. In another week they might be teenagers. What the point of that could possibly be, I admit, is not a question I'm ready to answer yet. One theory that occurred to me is that James read Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray and it made him mad with jealousy. Following this came arguably his greatest period of work.

"interlocutor" count = 14 / 172 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

87th Precinct directory

87th Precinct: 11 books to read first
Tricks (1987)
The Con Man (1957)
The Empty Hours (1962)
Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here (1971)
Killer's Choice (1957)
So Long As You Both Shall Live (1976)
King's Ransom (1959)
Poison (1987)
Lady, Lady I Did It (1961)
Fuzz (1968)
Cop Hater (1956)

List of reviews in series order after the jump.

Fiddlers (2005)

I don't know for sure that Ed McBain knew this would be the last novel in his 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, but he probably knew at least that it was approximately the 55th. McBain was also known as Evan Hunter, but his real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino and he was a pro to the end. The case here turns on a series of murders that are linked by the gun and method used—a Glock and two shots to the face. The title returns to one of his characteristic titling strategies, a single word played various ways. One of the victims here plays violin professionally, and the killer complains that all his victims fiddled with his life. It's decently constructed if a little rickety. There's a great joke here when Meyer Meyer confronts the killer. McBain certainly seems to be making a point of including everyone (and, interestingly, mentioning many of their ages). So Genero is here, and Eileen Burke, and even Nellie Brand, the prosecuting attorney who often showed up conducting formal interviews at the ends of his books. It's a little bit like the last episode of Seinfeld that way. I was distracted by some of the details about age that were disclosed. For example, Steve Carella's twin children, Mark and April, are fixed at 13 years old. They were born in the second of three novels McBain published in 1959 ('Til Death). Similarly, Bert Kling is identified as being 33 and we first saw him promoted as a raw rookie in the second of three novels McBain published in 1956 (The Mugger). He wasn't 17—I remember him being more like 23 or 24, or perhaps 21—so it's evident that time streams across the whole series are somewhat flexible from character to character. I can't say it's a surprise, as the amazing floating ages of Mark and April alone have always led to certain dislocations of perception. Kling also takes one more relationship pratfall in this one, with troubling aspects of his personality revealed again. But he's also made out to be a martyr, with his age specified. In a way, a sad way, his whole life turns out to be a joke. But Fiddlers involves a lot of wistful sadness anyway, some on McBain's part and some on my own, as I felt the ending of the whole thing close in. Is it flawed? Of course. In fact, as I've worked on putting together a short list of the best from the series, I've been dogged by the lack of consistency even within single novels. And the larger project in turn is brought down a little by a sense of dead ends and missed opportunities. Sure, he could have done more. Like Oskar Schindler, we all could. But 54 (or 55) books, any one of which will fly fine on an airplane, is not bad. Not bad at all.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Frumious Bandersnatch (2004)

Like most of the later novels in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, The Frumious Bandersnatch is loose and uneven, with some aspects given more thoughtful attention than others. McBain concocts a plot based on Lewis Carroll and hip-hop. Most of the energy is spent on the first very long chapter, which details a sensational kidnapping that happens to be captured by a TV crew. A new performing talent, Tamar Valparaiso, is about to release a debut album, a concept album which riffs on Carroll's "Jabberwocky." (I'm not sure whether McBain knew it, but there was a '60s psychedelic rock band from San Francisco called the Frumious Bandersnatch, whose members went on to play with Steve Miller and/or Journey.) At the launch party for the album, on a boat in the harbor, Valparaiso is kidnapped in a daring, brazen, etc., and we're off and running. The jurisdiction of the crime falls to the 87th, but because it's a kidnapping the FBI is involved. Our usual hero Steve Carella is dispatched to work with them. But there are tensions because the FBI has no respect for local cops. Inevitably Carella shows them how wrong they are. Once again, Fat Ollie Weeks is here because McBain likes writing about him. He has some unconnected scenes as he starts to date a uniform officer, Patricia Gomez. Because she's Hispanic, Fat Ollie has to confront his own bigotry. It's pretty much predictable but there's a surprising moment at the end of one of their dates. Meanwhile, the main case takes an ugly turn at the end—McBain actually finds a new way to be cruel with the fate of the singer. Overall the Carroll element is weak, most of it built into the singer and her album. But McBain randomly inserts Carrollisms all the way, to keep the concept freshened and perhaps out of appreciation for the always strangely lyrical nonsense syllables. Otherwise it's all familiar elements present and accounted for, e.g., the late humanizing of Fat Ollie. Bert Kling and his African-American surgeon girlfriend Dr. Sharyn Cooke get some scenes. McBain's voice is still engaging, but he's less energetic, more prone to dated ways of thinking. Not bad if you're getting to all of them.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Fat Ollie's Book (2002)

I've been through nearly all of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain now, and it is finally just dawning on me that Fat Ollie Weeks is McBain's favorite character in the whole thing after only Steve Carella. Which, in turn, raises interesting questions about McBain's own Jekyll and Hyde personality tendencies. Carella is a boy scout practically as good as it's possible for a human being to be. And Fat Ollie is nearly the opposite. He's fat, he's a slob, he doesn't go by the book, and he's a bigot. The only thing they have in common is they're both good detectives. But heck, Fat Olllie doesn't even work for the 87th Precinct. He's always been part of the neighboring 88th. He came along in the '70s and then just never went away. It was confusing not least because there was already one outspoken racist turd, Andy Parker, who was always part of the series. He's even in this one. Unlike Parker, Fat Ollie is smart and entertaining, though he tends to be despicable before anything else. But McBain evidently saw something redeemable in him, made him slightly more vulnerable in places, and set him loose. This book is his great moment, more or less. He's hot on his own big case, the murder of a politician, and incidentally trying to recover the manuscript of a novel he has written, Report to the Commissioner, which was stolen with his briefcase. It's the only copy he has so he's a little desperate. Fortunately, the thief is also a character in the case, so that means we get to see sections of it. It is actually funny, which means McBain accomplished the feat of writing funny too, no easy thing. What he did not accomplish, however, was writing funny and writing a decent mystery story, let alone police procedural. This is all for the laughs, and they are there, but it also feels like a wasted 87th Precinct story. It's late in the series, when McBain was getting sentimental, injecting more reminders of past cases, and outright reminiscing. Fat Ollie's Book just kind of lays there, until the excerpts from Fat Ollie's book come along, and they are entertaining. Some of that is because it's such paper-thin recasting of reality in the 87th Precinct world, such as Fat Ollie hiding his identity by making his first-person narrator / detective a woman named Olivia Wesley Watts (as opposed to Oliver Wendell Weeks). Some of it is because he's trying to skate by his own grammatical ignorance. After asking a rhetorical question, for example, Fat Ollie's narrator goes on: "I guess you know better than me, [Mr. Commissioner]. Or perhaps even better than I." And some of it is just because it's all so absurd. On the other hand, I'm not sure Fat Ollie's Book would be funny at all to someone not familiar with the series. Even if you are, it's still not one to hurry to get to.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nocturne (1997)

Nocturne may not feel as tired as other late entries in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain—as tired, I say. It's still tired compared to titles before about 1980. The mystery story is complicated too, and gets hard to follow. One of McBain's favorite jokes here—he goes to it at least three times—involves people talking about that movie Alfred Hitchcock wrote called The Birds. Then other characters say they don't think Hitchcock wrote it. In fact, of course, McBain wrote it 35 years earlier under his Evan Hunter pseudonym. Another running joke starts with the death of the primary victim, gunned down point-blank with two shots to the heart. Most times this comes up someone says they saw that movie, and someone else says they don't think that's what it was called. It sounds like the reference is to One From the Heart, which was 15 years old at the time, but who knows? Happens in passing and never explained. The main case involves an old woman who is shot to death along with her cat. Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes are on the case, and yes, once again, Fat Ollie Weeks shows up working a case that might be related. He's not that offensive this time. Mostly he just works his case. The old woman was formerly a celebrated concert pianist brought low by arthritis and nagging hearing problems. Her granddaughter is also a pianist, but not as talented and more in the cocktail lounge style. The more I summarize the plot points the more contrived it looks. Cruel high school football players—or psychotic, really—are also on the town, preying on the vulnerable, though it's mostly played for laughs. That's the case Fat Ollie is working. Step away from McBain's storytelling voice and the jokes are not funny at all. Maybe that's a continuing problem, especially with these later ones. What once seemed dark and sardonic humor inflecting the action has turned steadily into easy cynicism, with exaggerations. People are bad enough. You don't have to exaggerate that. Save this for later, or read the series in order. Either way, this one can wait.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mischief (1993)

Though it's another Deaf Man episode, this police procedural in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain was more competent and engaging than I expected. It has numerous cases besides the Deaf Man story, and is also one of the very biggest entries by page count. The balance helps. More than anything, however, Mischief is an attempt at a statement on race in the wake of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riot which unfortunately falls short. There is a rap group here, Spit Shine—to start with, that strikes me as a terrible name. McBain's understanding of hip-hop is essentially stillborn. But at least he's trying? I liked the detective pairings in this one and how McBain used them to explore the chemistry of the characters. With McBain actively addressing both racial tension and political correctness, inevitably there will be wincing. Steve Carella, of course, gets the Deaf Man case, with Arthur Brown, the chronically underutilized African-American detective, here rotated more toward the front. Bert Kling and Andy Parker work an unlikely case of a serial killer. Someone is murdering graffiti artists (which McBain calls graffiti "writers"—I don't think I've ever heard that term). Parker used to be the chief designated racist in the series until Fat Ollie Weeks came along, but McBain still reaches for him as needed for the extra helping of obnoxious bigotry. Parker is always a reliable source of wincing, both for his sake and McBain's. Parker and his escapades are bad enough (very bad) so next to him Kling gets to play the good cop role, though he's often not a good cop. Mischief is also where Kling first meets a later love interest, Sharyn Cooke, an African-American forensics physician and surgeon. In many ways, the case that Kling and Parker are working is the A story here, though ultimately the Deaf Man is reserved for the finish—another elaborate crime with taunting clues as we go. In the social realism department, Meyer Meyer and Cotton Hawes are investigating seniors with dementia who are being dumped around the city. They have no ID and don't know who they are. If Mischief is dated and painful at least it is dated and painful in intriguing little ways, incidentally offering a profile of a white man with all the best intentions attempting to understand racial issues, and failing. I sympathize a little, because I'm sure I make my own mistakes, but that doesn't mean it isn't painful. At least it's a decent police procedural.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Fuzz (1968)

I got to this entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain late, partly because it's another odd bird as commercial product. Is this some matter of unusual holders of publishing rights? Even the kindle version is more expensive than most, which is the kind of problem seen more often in the 87th Precinct novels from the '90s and later. Fuzz was made into a movie in 1972, set in Boston and starring Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch, which might explain it. McBain wrote the screenplay using his Evan Hunter pseudonym. I haven't seen the movie. One of the plot lines is about teenagers who are hunting homeless people and setting them on fire, and shortly after the movie was released a number of copycat incidents occurred in Boston and Miami, for which the picture was blamed. That might explain it too, as similar problems followed release of A Clockwork Orange a year earlier and that movie was banned in London as a result. At any rate I'm glad it took a little while to get to it because Fuzz is actually a pretty good one, much better than the later titles I've been getting around to lately. It's short, barely 200 pages, but juggling three separate stories. The main case is another Deaf Man episode, with heavy emphasis on the masterful criminal masterminding, conducted with great mastery. As always, his antics are exaggerated to superheroic proportions. Here he is killing Isola city officials (with the greatest of ease) and demanding increasingly high extortion amounts to stop doing it. So it's a mixed bag—the Deaf Man episodes are always comic book jive, though Fuzz is not as bad as some of the others (notably his perfectly unbelievable introduction in The Heckler). The other two cases—the arson assaults on the homeless, and a weird stick-up plot that's there mainly to service the Deaf Man resolution—are more or less weak sauce, but McBain's writing is more vivid and freewheeling even than usual. Basically, it feels like he had more fun writing it. Whether it's worth paying the collectible premium is another matter, but you can easily enough get your hands on it for $10 or less.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Doll (1965)

The 20th novel in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain comes with a few mysteries of its own outside the covers of the book. Though copies are easily enough obtained, it takes a little extra work because presently it is out of print and there is no kindle edition. Doll is unusually violent, even for McBain, but not so much you'd think it would be just abandoned this way. The paperback I tracked down was printed in the US, but obviously edited for UK readers, at least in terms of its quotation marks, if not the variant spellings. Who knows? Anyone? It opens on a woman being slashed to death while her toddler daughter plays in the next room. The woman is divorced and a successful model, but with a dark secret to hide. It's an early use of a single-word title worked all different ways across the story. The dead woman is a model, or "doll," and her daughter plays with a doll during the murder, the doll that eventually breaks the case open. Other strange things: the much more grim tone than normal—very little of the light-hearted banter. Another would-be death of Steve Carella. A still grieving and totally broken-down Bert Kling, who is becoming the kind of bad cop everyone recognizes as such (compared with later in the series, when his lapses seem to be intended more on the order of overzealous bad form). In fact, it's so bad with Kling that he is booted off the squad. Temporarily, obviously—I'm throwing spoiler warnings to the wind here because Doll is just such an unusual entry in the series. Looking up fan reviews on Goodreads, I see that many consider it one of the best. The bad things are very bad here—heroin addiction and torture are more elements in play. But it does not feel like McBain is having much fun. He's not straining for effect here. It's just dark. But it makes me wonder about the circumstances of writing and publishing it. Is it really the high level of depravity that's keeping it out of print and off the kindle reading programs? I thought that stuff was more the norm these days. Did McBain himself have some say (or some specific lack of it) in suppressing it? Is it even fair to say suppressed? They feel like the real mysteries here.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Jaws (1975)

USA, 124 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Photography: Bill Butler
Music: John Williams
Editor: Verna Fields
Cast: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb

A few weeks ago, catching up on horror backlog during the Halloween season, I got a chance to see Frozen (from 2010, not to be confused with the Disney animation from 2013), which is pretty nifty and actually much better than I expected. Two particular things I noticed: the name of one of the production companies involved is A Bigger Boat, and in an interview director and writer Adam Green declared—tongue no doubt in cheek, but still—that he wanted to make a movie that would do for chairlifts at ski resorts what Jaws did for sharks at summer beaches. This in turn impressed two more things on me: the enduring impact of Jaws, and my basic immunity to its premise.

I mean that I'm not afraid of sharks, never have been, and never give them a thought. (Ditto chairlifts.) It's not like they're zombies or evil spirits or something. But I've watched people seized by the delicious agonies of the fear of them nearly all my life. That's just one more long-term effect of Jaws—adding sharks to the pantheon of classic movie monsters and/or gnawing human phobias (piranha too for that matter). The creature from Black Lagoon has nothing on these beasts, except similarly beautiful underwater footage. Over 40 years later we have a ridiculous Sharknado franchise going and some pretty good movies like The Shallows too. And they're all about sharks, which actually pose less danger to us individually than radical Islamic terrorists, tipping furniture, slips in the bathtub, or air flight crashes—probably combined.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

"The Cask of Amontillado" (1846)

Read story by Edgar Allan Poe online.

Edgar Allan Poe's dank tale of revenge, murder, and appalling cruelty is just about the perfect short story—a dark horror play with a twist ending and all elements laid in to support it. I'm about to give it away any minute so go read it if you haven't because of course that's where it is told best. In Italy, during carnival time, the first-person narrator Montresor lures a friend he has come to despise down to the wine cellar of his palazzo, offering to share a very good new wine he says he has acquired at a good price, an amontillado. Montresor's friend, Fortunato (O irony), is already half-drunk from the revels, wearing a jester's costume. The story, though it is dark and cruel, is also funny in many ways. Montresor's rage about Fortunato's unspecified "thousand injuries" and "insult," with his description of the rules for administering revenge, are as comical as they are mad. At one point, Fortunato challenges Montresor's claim to belong to the masons by asking him for the secret sign. Montresor reaches into his cloak and produces a trowel. On first reading, we don't know the significance of this any more than Fortunato and the gesture is more strange than explanatory. Later, when we know better, it is somehow even more funny—something about the mystique of the masons, perhaps, juxtaposed with the homely construction tool, momentarily like a scene from Laurel and Hardy. The setting in the catacombs of a palazzo is perfect—evocative of the 19th-century American view of Europe as a moldering graveyard, decaying and debased. Montresor's crime is impossibly perfect. He plays Fortunato with precision, luring him deeper and deeper into the catacombs. "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser," Montrosor notes early, later confirming that his crime is still unpunished after 50 years. In fact, it's all a bit too perfect. It might just be an impotent daydream after all. But it's a remarkable feat indeed to lull us as readers enough that we take sympathetic satisfaction from the crime as it goes down, relishing the pleasure of it with Montresor, though we have no idea what Fortunato did to deserve it. We see some ambiguous, potentially dismissive attitude by Fortunato toward Montresor, but not much. Mostly we are caught up in the seething rage and clinical precision of Montresor's monstrous deed. "[The wrong] is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong," Montresor also mentions as preface, and later he sees to that as well. Fortunato knows what is happening to him and, most importantly, by whom. "The Cask of Amontillado" might even be better than some of the revenge fantasies I've played in my own head. Don't miss those jingling bells on Fortunato's carnival cap.

"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe (Library of America)

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

This is the longest of the slave narratives gathered up in the Library of America volume, just over 200 printed pages. It's also from the 18th century, published in 1789. It has nothing to say about the American Revolution, but then Equiano's experiences in the North American colonies were limited and among his worst, in a life full of misfortune. He identified more as a European and lived his slavery years in the West Indies. I say his life was full of misfortune, but compared with many he had a good life. He chronicles some of the depravities he sees—he has particular revulsion for manufactured articles such as iron muzzles and thumbscrews. But what's more often shocking to me is the utter lack of value of Africans in society, except as property, in terms of money. For example, a black man's testimony couldn't be taken against a white man. It was against the law. Against the law. Thus, when Equiano is robbed and swindled, as he often is, he has no legal recourse whatsoever. I know it's arguably still like that now with the way many police departments operate, but at least there's the fig leaf of formal laws. At that time, in that place, it's as if Equiano's existence were simply negated. Another interesting theme I hadn't anticipated, but could have, is a continuing preoccupation with kidnapping. For obvious reasons it is actually the central fact of his life and many African lives, often occurring, as in Equiano's case, in childhood. He was 11 when he was kidnapped with his older sister, separated from her, and heartbreakingly reunited with her briefly. Then he never sees or hears of her again, nor indeed any of his family. As with the previous slave narrative, by James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Equiano also focuses on his Christian awakening and/or rebirth. It's certainly easier to see the appeal of religion in the context of 18th-century slavery. What I like about both of these first two memoirs is the sunny disposition of their authors. They are enduring levels of pain, privation, and danger I can barely imagine. They see a great many terrible things, and they are affected profoundly. But somehow they carry on. If it's from belief in the goodness of Christ, well, all right. I'll take those morals if a person really lives them. Equiano lived them, there's no question of it. There are always questions when it comes to text. I understand that. Even though it's the longest one here, it feels compressed and "edited for space." He lived a long, full, aware, and, yes, interesting life, and he left us this account of it as well. Wonderful stuff.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

"Home" (1978)

Story by Jayne Anne Phillips not available online.

Jayne Anne Phillips tells another story, which like "The Heavenly Animal" is also from her third collection of stories, Black Tickets, about fractured relationships in a modern media world. The first-person narrator, who goes unnamed, is 23 years old and recently returned home to live with her mother for an unspecified time. "I ran out of money and I wasn't in love, so I came home to my mother," is how she explains the situation. They watch the evening news most nights and worry about the general health of Walter Cronkite. Her mother is a professional, an "educational administrator," who works during the day and comes home and knits in front of the TV at night. They watch a lot of TV and attempt in various ways to connect. And they do connect, but they are also separated by the daughter's interest in exploring her sexuality. It looks—and not only to her mother—as if she is sinking into a life of serial monogamy, forever bewildered by an inability to forge something lasting. For the mother, it's alarming and depressing to see her daughter going that direction. The daughter, for her part, thinks her mother is just an old square. Her mother and father are divorced and there's some sense the father is dead now—a ne'er-do-well at best, as there is also a vague and ambiguous suggestion of sexual abuse. The narrative basically turns on the daughter inviting an old boyfriend for a visit. For the sake of the mother they stay in separate rooms, but they meet later for sex, which wakens and distresses the mother. The visiting ex-boyfriend is obviously a terrible relationship for the daughter—he's in another relationship and just taking advantage of an opportunity, though he's also sympathetic in other ways. I'm tempted to call the story dated because in many ways it could only take place in the '70s, but there's something broader and more universal about it than just that. It's a great example of a major direction for the short story after the '60s, with stories of broken families in American suburbs and a certain spiritual malaise (not actually Jimmy Carter's turn of phrase, but close enough), which lingered into the Reagan years and well beyond: divorce, TV, meaningless sex, temporary living conditions, and a grinding generation gap are typical elements. Phillips makes a pretty good job of it here, much better I think than "The Heavenly Animal."

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff