Saturday, March 2, 2013

Stories by George!

George Saunders has been getting some pretty serious (or at least seriously public) cred for his latest short story collection, Tenth of December.  For the past few weeks he’s sat comfortably in the top five of the NYTimes bestseller list.  A few weeks ago he read on Studio 360.  You may even have seen him bumbling through an interview/berating on the Colbert Report.  This attention may seem surprising for a semi-Avant Guard and generally subversive author writing in a genre (short stories) that is typically thought of as a little niche.  
          But the stories in Saunders’ book seem built for the spotlight. This may be because of how emphatically of-the-moment they all are.  Saunders is one of several writers today interested in writing that reflects the quirks and usually abasements of current American English. His paragraphs are peppered with “likes,” “ha-ha’s,” and the clumsy but familiar syntax of the information age.
I say information age expecting and probably deserving some eye rolls, but I think it’s a good way to contextualize Saunders’ unique style.  Take the opening lines from “Exhortation:” “I would not like to characterize this as a plea, although it may start to sound like one (!). The fact is, we have a job to do, we have tacitly agreed to do it (did you cash your last paycheck, I know you did, ha ha ha).”  Observe the layers of linguistic influence – the parenthetical exclamation point typical of text messages, the passive aggressive, Ted Talkish “we have a job to do, we have tacitly agreed to do it,” and the spelled out laughter that appears in pretty much every form of electronic communication.  The result is an embedded self-commentary running along side the actual content of the sentences.  For every statement made, there is an undercurrent of insecurity.  This story is a faux-memo sent to unmotivated employees (two classic Saunders moves, by the way, the faux-form and the workplace), so a certain degree of colloquialism can be expected in the voice, but even in his third person stories, Saunders uses this same tone of painful self-awareness – self-awareness that you might could attribute to the dramatic increase in self-awareness and just awareness in general brought on by constant connection to web-culture.
This prose style (especially familiar, probably, to David Foster Wallace fans) makes Saunders characters both exhausting and fragile, which fits these stories of men and women struggling to make sense of the flux around them.  Portraying this flux, I think, is what Saunders does best.  Each story takes place in familiar environments but always with one irreconcilable detail that seems to set the story in the not too distant future.  In “The Semplica Girl Diaries” a father keeps a journal of his struggle to find a way to live up to his daughter’s birthday expectations that are quite extravagant thanks to the influence of her affluent peers.  But instead of hiring an expensive clown, he has to rent a group of human decorations called Semplica Girls to hang in his yard.  In “Home” a soldier returns to his broken family after fighting in a foreign war and is bewildered by the MiiVOXMAX, which appears to be some miniature data-storage device. And in all the stories, the characters' stream of conscious oscillate between actuality and cinematic fantasies that often lead them to disappoint act of failed-heroism (see "My Chirvalric Fiasco").
These details emphasize what might be Saunders’ main focus: the anxiety of time.  His characters are constantly struggling to locate themselves in the narrative of history, but find the task daunting.  Are their worries and struggles at all comparable to the worries and struggles of their parents? Or their parents’ parents?  Will anything they teach their kids matter by the time they grow up? And, perhaps the question at the center of it all, is there anything at all constant about the human experience? The answers to these questions seem especially elusive these days with constant and frightening change. Saunders is not presumptuous enough to offer answers, but Tenth of December gives a chance to recognize in the voice and environment of the modern world something that is inspiring and commonly human, at least for now.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Rape" by Adrienne Rich and Political Poetics

by Adrienne Rich

There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
on horseback, one hand touching his gun.

You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:
he has access to machinery that could kill you.
He and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash,
his ideals stand in the air, a frozen cloud
from between his unsmiling lips.

And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,
the maniac’s sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.

And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best.

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

He has access to machinery that could get you put away;
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
your details sound like a portrait of your confessor,
will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?

If my intentions for posting this poem are not obvious, see here , here, and here.  Beyond that, I post this poem because it confounds any attempt to relegate rape to a rhetorical move a political pundit can use to score ideological cred with his or her party.  Unfortunately, this move is a common one in current politics.  The definition of rape is debated, not with the lives of rape victims in mind, but with the political careers of those arguing in mind.  Rape become an opportunity for people like Todd Akin to make abstract ideological proclamations that are divorced from the realities they pretend to address, i.e. the lived experiences of rape victims. Once an ideology escapes reality in this way it becomes nothing more than a tool for opportunists like Akin to exploit. 

This is what Rich’s poem resists.  The terror of rape, here, is irrefutable. She relies on poetry’s inherent resistance to easy mental ingestion to make a simplistic approach to rape impossible.  Although the title couldn’t be clearer, the identities within the poem are enigmatic: the cop is both prowler and father, confessor and rapist. This ambiguity makes reading the poem an uncomfortable experience, as does her harsh language, e.g.: “He and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash.” Also, the repetition of frightening lines like, “he has access to machinery that could kill you,” and “in the sickening light of the precinct,” create a tone of trauma in the poem. I point these elements out because they demonstrate how a poem can present a topic in an experiential way, instead of merely presenting information. 

According to Princeton’s latest Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, political poetry is all but impotent in the United States.  Whoever wrote the entry on politics and poetry had this to say: “Most comtemp. political poems, however offensive they would be to those who do not read them, are consoling to those who do. American poets write about the possibility of civic change, but their poems are – quite rightly – no longer of interest to politicians, statesemen, and political administrators, because few American poets begin from a belief in political processes or agents as worth of sustained scrutinty.  They rarely take politics seriously enough in political terms, nor do they present political problems as difficult to solve or as ethically problematic.”

Although I think Adrienne Rich confounds this diagnosis, I can’t think of many other poets who do.  I can sympathize with struggling to take American politics seriously, but the consequences of our politics are generally devastating both nationally and internationally.  But instead of blaming poets for politicians’ disinterest in poetry, I blame the readers and critics of poetry.  Every poem has the political potential to accuse, witness, and resist, but it is up to the reader of the poetry to access the poem’s latent political power.  A poem is silent until it is read.  I understand that political poetry bears the stigma of didacticism, but I hope Rich’s poem (and poetry in general) demonstrates that fears of didacticism are moot.  Rich once said, “Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” I think, as elections draw near, readers of poetry and literature in general need to give poems legs and teeth by making them public, along with their interpretations.  

Monday, November 15, 2010

If you were expecting a poem of the week you can go sit on a Pnin!

As I'm sure you've already heard by now from several friends and the news media, I failed to post a poem of the week this week. I've decided that instead of trying to play catch-up I'd build up my poetry power for next week. Besides I have a great novel I want to talk about, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin.

You might know Nabakov for his supposedly scandalous masterpiece Lolita. Believe it or not, he actually wrote lots of other books in both Russian and English, and of them, very few are about grown men falling in love with young girls! A perfect example of one of these novels totally unrelated to awkward romances is Pnin.

The novel tells the life story of Timofey Pnin in fragments, some from his youth in Russia, but most from his adult life as a University professor of Russian literature in the United States. Nabakov's initial description of Pnin and his interactions with his surroundings portray him as a bumbling buffoon, lost in the English language and just about everything else. This is how he's described on the first page of the book,

"Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappoingtingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail looking, almost feminine feet."

Nabakov, famous for his spectacular prose style, effectively shows the reader Pnin as the majority of the characters in the book see him - as a clown. At this point in the book I began to worry if I was merely reading a 200 page demonstration of how clever Nabakov can be with words, like listening to a bewildering guitar solo only to realize it existed independent of any song to anchor it down. I quickly realized, however, that I wasn't a cleverer reader than Nabakov is a writer.

Without abandoning the sardonic tone, Nabakov somehow begins to portray Pnin as a type of tragic hero. Behind the broken English is a man who's knowledge of literature -Russian, French, and English literature - is exhaustive. Underneath all the strange mannerisms and obsessed devotion to social formalities is a loving husband, step-father, and teacher despite his affection seldom coming back to him. By the end of the novel Pnin has evolved from a teacher who knows everything about Anna Karenina but seems to know little else, to a man who loves the beauty of the world around him in both people and objects so deeply that he wishes only to study and admire it without having to become a part of it. Unfortunately, he lives in a world where admiration isn't enough to survive on.

When I realized who Pnin really was I couldn't help but pity and admire him at the same time. I think this excerpt from the letter Pnin wrote to propose to his wife who later left him three times (you'll have to read the book to figure that one out) is one of the most telling passages in the novel of who Pnin is:

"I am not handsome, I am not interesting, I am not talented. I am not even rich. But, Lise, I offer you everything I have, to the last blood corpuscle, to the last tear, everything. And, believe me, this is more than any genius can offer you because a genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do. I may not achieve happiness, but I know I shall do everything to make you happy."

Well, as usual, this post has gotten way out of hand and is longer than I intended, but I can't finish without talking about how amazing Nabakov's prose is. Or maybe it would be best if I put my favorite example of his writing from Pnin and let you write your own inner-body blog post about how great it is. This is a memory Pnin has of a childhood friend that occurs to him when he is at a gathering of Russian friends in America (it's long but it's worth it!):
P.S.: Notice how the tone struggles to remain formal despite the highly emotional content of the memory. The tone becomes a symbol of Pnin's whole character! Amazing!

"Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin - not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind, but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira's death were possible. One had to forget - because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one's lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of death in one's mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood."

That counts as the poem of the week.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Contest Winner!! Next time it could be you!

Hey citizens of the blog-0-sphere! This is Alexis Lopez, she's the first every What's Parker Reading Contest winner. She won a beautiful copy of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. If you're wondering why you didn't win it or why you didn't even know about the contest, it's probably because you haven't been reading the blog faithfully enough! Luckily this isn't the last contest you can enter. Keep your eyes open for more secret opportunities to win great literature!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A hearty poem of the week by Thomas Hardy...There's gotta be a better Thomas Hardy pun....

During Wind and Rain by Thomas Hardy

They sing their dearest songs-
He, she, all of them - yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face...
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss-
Elders and juniors - aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat...
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!
They are blithely breakfasting all-
Men and maidens - yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee...
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them - aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs...
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

In my search for a poem of the week I though it would be fun to have a love poem. Unfortunately there seem to be a lot more quality in death poems than in love poems, especially if you're looking for a poem of the week from Thomas Hardy. But don't worry! Good love poems do exist, and I'll find one for next week.

This morose little poem was published in Hardy's last volume of poetry when he was in his 80s. If you're familiar with Hardy you know he can be a pretty bleak dude whether in novels or poetry, but in his last volume of poetry he seems to have come to terms life long pessimism. However, he was the one who set these terms and they still come off pretty gloomy.

In this poem Hardy begins each stanza with a happy domestic scene like a family singing, or moving into a new house and then introduces Time to destroy whatever harmony the poem is trying to create. The structure of the poem lends itself well to the theme. The beginning of the stanzas is written in a song-like rhythm until "Ah, no;" the rhythm is broken and the long last line, loaded with a string of sharp syllables portrays Time's decay. Just as the devastating passing of Time seems to catch us off guard and only slows when we stop to consider the damage it's done, the last lines of each stanza come as a surprise.

But Hardy isn't just trying to bring everybody down. Believe it or not, the of inevitability of death isn't the only lesson the poem is trying to teach. There seems to be a correlation between what activity the family is engaged in, and the type of destruction time inflicts in each stanza. If they're singing as a family, sick leaves fall of the trees; that's not really so bad if you think about it, after all, the leaves will grow back in spring.

In each of the first three stanzas the family is finding joy in each other or in nature. Although time still arrives to crash the party, its damages are temporary: falling leaves, a storm, or a decaying rose. It's not until the family seeks joy in a new house with fancy carpet and clocks - "bright thing that are theirs" - that time takes its darkest toll.

In reminding us of that our deaths are inescapable, Hardy is not trying to cheapen life. Only when material possessions and status become the source of all joy do we become nothing more than a decaying name on a tombstone. Or as Hardy puts it in his cutting last line: "Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs."

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnamble: The best trilogy since the Anaconda movies!

This is a shot from Samuel Beckett's famous play Waiting for Godot. If you've never seen the play and can't tell from the picture, its a very bizarre. The whole thing takes place in front of that scraggly tree and consists of only four characters who each seem to be copied and pasted out of completely different plays. Because Waiting for Godot was my introduction to Beckett, I thought it would be a good way to introduce Beckett's trilogy Molly, Malone Dies, and the Unnamable; plus it was a great opportunity for a photo to be on my blog for the first time ever!

I'm sort of at a loss on where to start with these books. I can't really talk about plot, setting or characters because Beckett went to great lengths to make sure none of those things made it into any of these books. Well I guess that's not completely true, there are characters they just change names several times and sometimes become objects instead of people - unless people are really just objects in which case I suppose there are lots of characters in the books. In fact you could say there is setting too, if the the inner-mind of a armless, legless man sitting in a garbage can is a setting. There's actually plenty of plot to be spoken for as well, for instance in Malone Dies there seems to be someone dying, and someone is definitely looking for something in Molloy...

If I sound conflicted about this trilogy it's because I absolutely am. In these three books Beckett seeks to define the human condition in a way I've never before experienced in literature. In each book Beckett jettisons every literary convention (plot, character, time, setting) to see if maybe, hiding beneath one of them is the solution to the absurdity of existence.

He starts with Molloy, a man who says he is trying to find his way back to his mother's house but seems much more interested in discovering an effective method to suck on rocks, a dilemma he discusses for five straight pages. Next comes Moran, a detective assigned to find Molloy. Moron, however, eventually gets lost on his way to the job and becomes obsessed with establishing an abusive relationship with his son. Malone, in the second book of the series, is a dying man in a bed with only a notebook and a pencil to his name. His quest is to make a list of all his possessions before he dies which leads him into a deep scouring of his twisted brain. Finally, in The Unnamable, we have no names except the few the narrator arbitrarily decides to call himself only to abandon a few pages later. Whoever this narrator is has no arms or legs, can't talk or hear, and is sitting in some type of garbage can outside a chinese restaurant.

By the time The Unnamable begins the only remaining point of reference for the reader is that the words are still in English. Beckett's prose throughout the series resembles the structure of thought more and more until, in The Unnamable, even punctuation is largely abandoned. Throughout the trilogy, Beckett abuses and exhausts language as if it were a butter knife he's trying to use to hammer nails.

In the end, after Beckett has turned the novel-form upside down and inside out, the search for meaning proves inconclusive. Language still fails to communicate pure meaning. Pure meaning still doesn't seem to exist. I think Beckett is the only author I know of, however, who comes to this conclusion and makes it feel hopeful. The book seems to say, even if life's greatest dilemmas are no more meaningful than sucking on stones, at least there are plenty of stones to suck, and that is more than enough to justify existence, or as the last lines of The Unnamable read:
"I'll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."
So I realize that blog post was really long and might not have made lots of sense, but since you read all the way through you get a surprise! If you are the first person to make a comment after this post goes up, you win a free copy of Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man! Can you believe that?! That book is awesome and you get if for free! The comment doesn't have to be anything meaningful, just say, "I want my free book!" or something.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

New Poem of the Week that is three days late but still pretty good if you give it a chance!

Letter to N.Y. By Elizabeth Bishop

In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you're pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you're in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can't catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

-Wheat, not oats, dear. I'm afraid
if it's wheat it's none of your sowing,
nevertheless I'd like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.

Thanks everyone who commented on last week's post, all your first sentences were truly the most (notice the rhyme there?)

So to make up for being such a bad blogger, I picked one of my favorite poets for this week’s poem of the week. Although this poem isn’t really a typical example of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, what I consider to be her strongest qualities are definitely at work here.

What first catches my attention in Letter to N.Y. is the persona of the narrator, a mother writing to her daughter who is shockingly candid about what she means when she asks “where you are going and what you are doing.” She seems to have no misconceptions about what her daughter is really up to while away from home. “How are the plays,” she asks. “and after the plays what other pleasures are you pursuing.” Clearly the mother is not na├»vely asking for details of her daughter’s successes in the big city to share with the aunts and uncles at Thanksgiving.

As the letter goes on, the mother’s understanding of what life is like for an outsider in New York becomes even more penetrating. As she speculates about her daughter’s alienation, the language becomes characteristic of Bishop. With similes like the cab meter glaring like a moral owl in late night drives, and jokes as difficult to understand as dirty words rubbed off a slate, Bishop does more than convey these objects visually; she conveys them emotionally. We not only picture the glowing cab meter, we feel the sensation of watching the numbers on it spin with tired eyes returning home from a party.

The most stunningly effective image of the poem however is the morning sun on the buildings:

“and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.”

The poem shifts here from depicting a young woman seeking refuge from the dark, alien world of the city to describing the awe a person feels in a world of skyscrapers. The hurried tone of the descriptions of the alienation of nightlife in New York slows down and almost feels rural. Although the image of these buildings as a field of wheat is beautiful and majestic instead of intimidating like the cab meter or the trees in the park, it only further demonstrates the newcomer’s foreignness in the city. After all, like the mother says, “if it’s wheat it’s none of your sowing.”