Monday, March 30, 2020

up next: rain of toads

It's hailing. We can hear the stones hammering away at the walls and roof. I look out my window and watch the raised beds whiten over with thousands of pellets of ice. Fifteen minutes ago, the cat and I were in the back yard, warming ourselves in the sun. Okay, Jehovah, we get it. We get it.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Wonders in the post

Today's mail brought a treat, which I hope to begin reading this weekend. Go to Marly's website to learn more about the novel. No, I mean now. Go on, git.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

et ego in the Ark

The brothers are hungry and tired. At dusk, once the sky turns powder-blue with ragged gashes of ember-red, they cycle northwest in search of food. A swarm of black asters hangs low in the sky, haunting the streets with the roar of their blades. People walk briskly, gripping their bags to their chests. Blackvest vans skip red lights. Teenagers stand in groups on street corners, swigging beers, smoking, laughing, listening to tunes.
The mood of Patrick Langley's novel Arkady is a little Lord of the Flies, a little A Clockwork Orange, and a little bit of Graham Greene's "The Destructors." Also, possibly, some strong hints of High-Rise. But Arkady mostly lacks the violence of these novels, and Langley seems uninterested in the grotesqueness of Ballard's vision. All of which is to say that Arkady is a dystopian novel, set in a parallel London in the present age, a London where there are riots in the street, where the army forcibly turns residents out of blocks of flats, where the noise of police drones is ever present, where towers of glass are surrounded by crumbling and abandoned suburbs. Something has happened here, but we never know what. "They've broken the economy," one character says, referring to the televised scene of a horde of white-collar workers being chased from an office building. A tottering police state with riots organized over social networks. Construction cranes fill the downtown skyline, abandoned factories and equipment fill the regions at London's edge.
There are cities within the city. Unofficial districts have appeared in public parks and empty yards. Dwellings, assembled from scraps of fabric, metal, wood and wire, hunker and lean against brick walls and mesh fences. Plywood shacks spring up in a matter of minutes, bashed together with gaffa and nails: the rickety mansions collapse under heavy rain and are repaired within hours. Tents flourish overnight like nocturnal flowers, dusted with the exhaust of passing cars until the colors fade like someone turning down the saturation.
The book follows two brothers through this London: Jackson and Frank, orphans of a sort (their mother disappears in Spain--maybe--when the boys are quite young, and their father is arrested--maybe--for her murder) who attend a miserable public school and live in a tiny flat with an old man named Leonard. We never learn who Leonard is.
He saw the boat a short while later. Something about the angle at which it rested, not quite flush with the wall, intrigued him. He had passed other boats already, barges with protruding ribs and rotten boards, boats with busted hulls and gaping sides. But this particular boat looked different, promising, and oddly familiar, like a face he dimly remembered but could not put a name to. As he edged towards the boat, step by slow step down the wall, Jackson was overcome by the sensation that he was walking towards his own death. By stepping into the lightless void of the boat's interior, he would enter a kind of Hades: a dark inversion of the city he hated and loved, around which he would drift like a pale, forgotten thing, a shadow of a shadow of a shadow. He liked the idea of oblivion. If this boat was his tomb, so what? Nothingness would be a relief.
Jackson and Frank, and the humane portrayal of their relationship, is what connects Langley's work to that of Golding and Burgess. Intelligent boys on the verge of adulthood, sorting out the rubbish ideas of both their own minds and the mind of the world, inhabiting their little marginal lives while immense and violent forces move all about them (in the second half of the book, a community of squatters is evicted from an abandoned property in a long fire-lit chapter that reads like a battle scene from the Iliad). Jackson and Frank are heroes and they are nonentities. They matter to nobody and nothing except each other. It occurs to me that Arkady is written in the long tradition of the Odyssey, a story of lonely travelers seeking home, crossing foreign lands while encountering strangeness and danger along the way. Life as incomprehensible unsettledness, our steps tracing a path toward, we hope, a place to rest.

Monday, March 16, 2020

prevention is better than cure

Light rail station, Seattle, Monday morning during rush hour. Usually there are fifty to a hundred passengers waiting. Today there were fewer than twenty.

Seattle is not exactly on lock-down, not exactly under a curfew, but restaurants have closed for all but carry-out and delivery orders, public assemblies have been forbidden, and everyone who can work from home is being urged to do so. I am sitting at my desk in my office at the university as I write this, because I can't work from home very efficiently, though this morning I'm setting up my laptop with a VPN so that, possibly, I'll be able to stay home tomorrow. Not that I mind being at the office. It's quiet during this epidemic and I've been able to get a lot more done than I usually can. I do not so much miss the pitter-patter of tiny feet. I do wonder where I'll eat lunch, seeing that the on-campus food services are all closed (though thank heavens for the still-open espresso cart).

I work at a medical school, and students in their third and fourth years have all been pulled from clinical training, meaning that hundreds of interns are, even as I write this, returning home from healthcare facilities over a five-state region, a sort of reverse diaspora if you will, that will last until at least the end of April. Medical schools across the country are all wondering how to continue educating students during this COVID-19 event, with an eye to making sure no student graduates late. There is a whole post-graduate resident education machine that depends on the academic calendar being kept, an international pipeline that feeds physicians into the healthcare system.

Someone, maybe one of the physicians at the CDC, referred to the epidemic as a war, and I am reminded, on my travels around this now-very-quiet self-quarantining city, of scenes in Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War novels, images of exhausted citizens behind closed doors in Budapest and Athens on the eve of German invasion: shops boarded up and streets still as death, nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait, yet the trams are still running, empty.

To take my mind off of all this, I'm reading an Agatha Christie detective novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train. Yes, again with the trains. Blue Train is an early novel, unevenly written but with an interesting narrative structure built around a shifting point of view in each chapter. It's in many ways a very 18th-century sort of book, with a lady's companion character who could've stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. Poirot, as usual, is testy and delightful.

Monday, March 9, 2020

knowing everything's nothingness

I first saw Max von Sydow in "The Greatest Story Ever Told," which I watched on television with my family, probably in the early 1970s. I first noticed von Sydow in "The Seventh Seal," which I watched at a theater on the UCD campus as part of a Bergman festival. During that same week I also watched "Through a Glass, Darkly," and "Wild Strawberries." Good stuff. I've seen von Sydow in any number of films since then, but whenever I see or hear his name, I always first think of that exhausted knight, making his way home through a plague-ridden Europe.

Here in Seattle, it is not exactly a plague-ridden landscape but the freeways, trains, and buses were all sparsely populated during this morning's commute. My office, which at full capacity holds more than forty staff, is down to seven people today, the rest all working from home. Classes are being held remotely, meetings are being canceled or held by video or phone. Since there are no students on campus, there are no student workers at the espresso carts. Don't you worry: I managed to survive the morning because I Am Very Brave. After all, walking a half a block to a different coffee stand and waiting longer in line is not exactly playing chess with Death.

Mighty Reader and I are both now in the third book of Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy. Harriet and Guy have fled Bucharest for Athens, arriving only a few days before Italy declares war upon Greece. There are no ships nor planes to evacuate British citizens, so the Pringles are trapped and allegedly (one never knows what news to trust) the Italian army has already crossed the frontier and is marching upon Athens. Out of one frying pan and into a different but similar fire, in other words. Guy Pringle continues to be annoying. He is no Antonius Block. But then neither are any of the rest of us.

"I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk."

Thursday, March 5, 2020

patient n-1

Subway station mural at closed platform in Westlake Center, Seattle WA

Seattle, as you may have heard, has had an outbreak of COVID-19, also known by the charming name of the coronavirus. I keep expecting COVID-19 patients to have halos, but that's not happening. Transit drivers turned up wearing face masks today, despite the WHO advice that a mask is only sensible if you are either caring for an infected person or believe you are an infected person. Mostly, you should keep your hands sanitized. Here at my office, we all have bottles of hand sanitizer and sanitizer towelettes. The conference rooms are stocked with sanitizer dispensers. The place smells like alcohol and artificial fragrance, which makes me sneeze, which alarms my coworkers, which perversely amuses me.

Seconds ago, I received an email that begins as follows: 

Dear staff, we are excited to announce the opening of a COVID-19 testing clinic for employees.

It's as if the university has opened a new staff lounge. I'm awfully excited about this new employee benefit. I am attempting not to be cynical, but if I'm truthful, I believe that my colleagues and I will all come down with the virus, all suffer from moderate-to-severe flu symptoms, and all recover from it. Lost work time and productivity, misery all around, but probably not the end of the world. Though I am no physician. But I work surrounded by physicians, who are not walking around in latex gloves and surgical masks.

Even so, it feels as if COVID-19 is one more sign of the Apocalypse, with earthquakes and tornadoes and wildfires going on all around us. Mighty Reader and I are reading Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War series, which books early on establish a sense of growing dread and manage to keep up that sense of rising crisis for hundreds of pages without relief. Our protagonists sit waiting in Bucharest as the Nazi forces prepare to invade Romania, telling themselves that when the invasion inevitably comes, they will have enough time to escape. Meanwhile, the local fascist elements are on the rise and the king has abdicated. It's all very tense. Fortunes of War was a poor choice in the way of escapist literature. It is, however, quite good.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

the pale shadows of masters and slaves

Imagine my surprise to realize that Nabokov's Pale Fire has irrevocably changed the way I read nonfiction. His translation of Lermantov's A Hero of Our Times has a section of end notes that point, in the main, not inward to Lermontov or Lermontov's novel, but outward and away from the novel, to our translator Vladimir. I'm willing to claim that Nabokov's experiment with the Lermantov, and the subsequent Pushkin translation, were warmups for the tour de force of Pale Fire, in which we learn that paratextual materials tell a story of their own. A couple of years ago I read Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in an edition that had more footnotes than text. I could not shake the feeling that I was reading a work of fiction wrapped in another work of fiction, and that the editor would soon begin to describe a murder mystery or a tale of eldritch horror. Alas, no such luck, but the feeling that even the footnotes were a fictional device didn't go away. I continue to read footnotes and endnotes as if they reveal a hidden story about the narrator/editor. I also increasingly flat-out read nonfiction as if it's a novel, which frankly improves the experience.

I recently read Frederic Jameson's short "nonfiction" book The Hegel Variations, a response to or a rereading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (first published in 1807). Naturally, I read Jameson's book as if it is a novel, a work of fiction, and Jameson is the unreliable narrator. He claims to be talking about Hegel, to be reinterpreting Hegel and correcting some longstanding misreadings of the Phenomenology. But what Jameson actually does is what all philosophers and literary critics do: he reads himself onto his subject. Or perhaps what I mean is that he's reading Hegel as if--and only as if--Hegel shares the opinions and morals of Jameson, which should be quite a surprise to two centuries of Hegel scholars. Of course, in my showing, those Hegel scholars of the last two centuries have been doing the same thing that Jameson does. And Jameson talks, for nearly 200 pages, not about Hegel but about Jameson, using Hegel as a ventriloquist dummy. Which is fine, because this is what always happens when people write about other people: we learn almost nothing from the abstracted version of the alleged subject, but we learn loads of stuff about the author who presents the abstracted version of the alleged subject. See any history book, for example. See Forster on the novel. Et cetera. See The Ring and the Book. Anyway, I read The Hegel Variations as the story of a philosopher trying to gain traction for his own views on the back of a long-dead writer. It could've used more humor and sex, to tell the truth, and less jargon. As what could not?

I was going to quote Jameson and respond to it with my own thoughts, but really that's the least interesting thing about my having read The Hegel Variations. The most interesting thing is the idea that one can do something interesting as fiction with the form of a nonfiction book. Nabokov did not invent the nested narrative with interlaced commentary (I credit Cervantes with that), but he certainly made me aware of the possibilities. The narrator of my novel Mona in the Desert discusses some of these ideas, which some of you may be able to read about someday if a plucky publisher picks up the novel.