Wednesday, October 27, 2021

the dislocation is always present

The uncertain position we all maintain in life asking when will violence strike, when will devastation occur, leaves us looking like the hapless swimmers at the beginning of each Jaws movie. Innocent, tender, and delicious. Our legs tread water, buoyed by all that is right and good and deserved in this world, a house, healthy children, clean food to eat, love. While that animatronic shark, a beast without mercy, catches the scent of blood and locks in on his target.

"Sam?" I call softly so the bad guy won't know we're separated. There's no answer from downstairs. What is taking him so long to come back?

I hold the night the way I would a child who finally fell asleep. Like I'm frightened it will move. I am frightened it will move. I am always scared my life will suffer some dramatic, sudden change. I try to hear deeper, to not shift at all, to not breathe, but no matter how still I stay there's no report from downstairs. What if Sam is already dead, killed by the intruder? Maybe choked by a small rope around the neck? What if the bad guy, in stocking feet, is creeping upstairs right now, getting closer to my babies, to me?

Part of me knows he is. Part of me knows he is always and always will be.

I offer that passage as not only an example, but also a sort of summary, of what one finds in Samantha Hunt's story collection The Dark Dark, which I picked up on Seattle Independent Bookstore Day about two years ago and have ignored until last weekend.

The writing throughout is plain and uninflected, which seems to heighten the emotional content of the stories because the prose doesn't build, it chooses to merely present. The juxtaposition of plot weirdness and matter-of-fact language makes the weird seem weirder, so that's a good technique for a writer to know, a handy way to make sudden small shifts in the story's reality fabric jump off the page. An errant adjective can carry a lot of weight here.

Pulling off onto the soft shoulder, he felt a certain resistance from the undercarriage. The vehicle and the animal had been joined in a terrible unison. He sat without moving. Perhaps it wasn't a dog. Perhaps it was some other creature, a beast unnamed and unknown, part woman, part deer. The thought gave him pause. He sat. Not long but long enough to know the thing was truly dead. There'd be no watching it limp away into the dark night, no gnashing of teeth. He would not have to back the car up and over the creature. He would not have to kill it a second time.

Hunt writes about states of being, which is common enough in fiction, isn't it? She often uses the metaphor of leaving and/or returning home, or more generally: a place one has fled, and the place to which one flees. From the vantage of one of these locations the protagonist remembers why she has taken flight. In a few cases the dislocation is temporal rather than geographical; sometimes it's not the dislocation of the story's main character, but the dislocation is always present. Dislocation, in fact, is a major structural tool for Hunt, especially the dislocation of characters from their sense of reality. I've seen this collection labeled "liminal fantasy," which I think means something like Kafkaesque or toying with supernatural events, the kind of modern American literary version of magical realism, I suppose. Liminal fantasy has been going on since the dawn of storytelling, I'd say, but that's not a complaint and it's a fine thing for Hunt to be doing.

Earlier, Susanne's husband had detected a certain ticking in her. He'd packed their children into the car for a night of pizza and a double feature at the second-run movie theater, leaving her alone to explode, to splatter the house with a combination of things she'd ingested as a teenager--films and punk rock records that confirmed what she'd guessed back then: one dies alone.

The book explores these ideas of dislocation (dislocation which is sometimes only the painful distance of reality from desire) in many directions. If I have any complaint about the collection, it's that while Hunt is striking out in multiple directions, she is making similar explorations each time, and even if the digging is widespread and the discoveries startling, it's not necessarily always a deep exploration. I might prefer if she stuck with one or two excavations and really got far below the surface. Perhaps she does that in her novels, which I haven't read yet. 

The Dark Dark is a disturbing book, with the feeling that violence is right around the corner, behind the turn of the next page. I can't quite say I enjoyed it, but I certainly felt something and I read the whole thing in just a few hours, reading three or four stories at a time.

The quiet of afternoon nature films pervades the hallways. At the end of a long row of lockers the thirteen father together undisturbed. With the sun just so, buffed circles of wax are visible on the vinyl flooring. The girls speak softly, huddled in a whirlpool. The light is full of dust particles.[...] One mentions the tenderness of her breasts as she lifts off the ground. Words slip from lips; the current gently eddies. The girl in the air is joined by two others, floating, balloons. They glow, lanterns above, more and more girls still, until the last one, full of grace, so round, leavers her tiptoes and lifts off the linoleum. In the air, the girls dip and reel. One turns giddy somersaults. Weightless, swimming. "Woo," she might say. "That feels good." Big as stars. Beautiful as a poisoned sunset and just as far out of reach.

One other thing that occurred to me last night is that Hunt's protagonists all interact with other characters, and those other characters come equipped with lives of their own; to have an opinion of the protagonist is not their main purpose in the stories. This is in contrast to Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, where characters exist merely in order for the protagonist to tell the reader how those characters feel about him, and exactly why they are mistaken in their opinions. Hunt's stories are full of people; Davies' novel is full of characters, but only one person. Hopefully I'm done talking about Davies now.

Monday, October 25, 2021

"The Devil knows corners of us all of which Christ Himself is ignorant."

Denyse had the normal dislike of a woman for the friends her husband has made before he married her, but I felt she was more than usually severe in my case. She possessed intelligence, conventional good looks, and unusual quality as an intriguer and politician, but she was a woman whose life and interests were entirely external. It was not that she was indifferent to the things of the spirit; she sensed their existence and declared herself their enemy. She had made it clear that she consented to a church wedding only because it was expected of a man in Boy’s position; she condemned the church rite because it put women at a disadvantage. All her moral and ethical energy, which was abundant, was directed towards social reform. Easier divorce, equal pay for equal work as between men and women, no discrimination between the sexes in employment—these were her causes, and in promoting them she was no comic-strip feminist termagant, but reasonable, logical, and untiring.
Boy often assured me that underneath this public personality of hers there was a shy, lovable kid, pitifully anxious for affection and the tenderness of sex, but Denyse did not choose to show this aspect of herself to me. She had a fair measure of intuition, and she sensed that I regarded women as something other than fellow-citizens who had been given an economic raw deal because of a few unimportant biological differences. She may even have guessed that I held women in high esteem for qualities she had chosen to discourage in herself. But certainly she did not want me around the Staunton house, and if I dropped in, as had been my habit for thirty years, she picked a delicate quarrel with me, usually about religion. Like many people who are ignorant of religious matters, she attributed absurd beliefs to those who were concerned with them. She had found out about my interest in saints; after all, my books were not easy to overlook if one was in the travel business. The whole notion of saints was repugnant to her, and in her eyes I was on a level with people who believed in teacup reading or Social Credit. So, although I was asked to dinner now and then, when the other guests were people who had to be worked off for some tiresome reason, I was no longer an intimate of the household.

What to do with Robertson Davies' Fifth Business? I assume that Davies told himself that the passage above was even-handed, neutral even, and didn't see the slant of bias running through it. Davies wrote a strange book of contradictions: his protagonist, a Protestant "hagiologist" who writes books about saints, claims sainthood for both a woman from his hometown and for himself, all the while resentfully misusing his still-living sainted woman in a series of thoughtless actions and then taking up willingly with the devil incarnate at the end of the novel. What Davies, or his narrator, doesn't know about saintliness is a lot. There is also a murder mystery in the last pages of the novel. So what have we got? A murder-through-hypnosis, a worshipper of saints who finds the only living saint in town to be an unknowable burden and source of constant guilt, a claim to sainthood on the part of the worshipper who uses this badge of sanctity to excuse his own selfishness, and a whole lot of small-mindedness into the bargain. A good writer could have a pretty fine time with all of this. Alas, Davies' treatment is stale, flat, and unprofitable. There's no irony, no self-awareness of the contradtictions; there's merely a haughty sort of Emersonian sense of rightness in all the narrator thinks or does. It is possible that I'm treating Davies too literally, that it's my interpretation that's stale and flat and his novel is quite clever but too subtle for me. I would be happy to see that demonstrated.

Monday, October 18, 2021

1970 must've been odder than I remember

I'm going to try to catch up on what I've been reading the last month or so. This post will be a disconnected, poorly-reasoned rush job. The usual, in other words.

My revisit to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot was a success. What a great novel that is. There are tremendous structural flaws (read the Notes to The Idiot and you'll see that Dostoyevsky wrote and submitted to his publisher the first quarter of the book with no real plan for the remaining three-fourths of the story and fought his way through to the end), and our author never quite figured out what to do with a couple of the main characters, but it's still a masterpiece. If I live long enough, I'll read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov again. Karamazov is one of my favorite novels.

Our neighbors down the block have one of those "little free libraries" in front of their house, and some months ago I pulled The Maltese Falcon out and carried it home, where it sat for some time and my guilt over keeping it grew. I am not a particular fan of Hammett, but I read The Thin Man a few years ago and I have an interest in detective fiction. What interested me in The Maltese Falcon were three things:

1. Sam Spade, the detective, puts together the facts of the case with very little actual detective work. He more or less trips over information or is told things by people who should know better. There are two or three instances in the book of Spade meticulously going through the motions of a detective, scenes described in minute detail (He searched the place from wall to wall. His eyes and thick fingers moved without apparent haste, and without ever lingering or fumbling or going back, from one inch of their fields to the next, probing, scrutinizing, testing with expert certainty. Every drawer, cupboard, cubbyhole, box, bag, trunk--locked or unlocked--was opened and its contents subjected to examination by eyes and fingers. Every piece of clothing was tested by hands that felt for telltale bulges and ears that listened for the crinkle of paper between pressing fingers. He stripped the bed of bedclothes. He looked under rugs and at the under side of each piece of furniture. [...] He examined and tested the metal screens over the drains of bathtub, wash-bowl, sink, and laundry tub. He did not find the black bird. He found nothing that seemed to have any connection with a black bird.), but our hero does not accomplish anything through these actions.The more like a detective Spade acts, the less effective he is in solving the case. I am not sure Hammett was aware of the irony, as he seems to think we should be impressed by Spade's diligence and care.

2.  The Maltese Falcon was published in 1929 and features an openly gay character, Joel Cairo. Hammett takes it for granted that Cairo's homosexuality makes him despicable for the reader, and his stereotypical queeny traits make him a figure of ridicule and an easy and obvious target of violence for surrounding characters (His bathroom-cabinet was stocked with cosmetics--boxes, cans, jars, and bottles of powders, creams, unguents, perfumes, lotions, and tonics. Two suits and an overcoat hung in the closet over three pairs of carefully treed shoes.) That last detail is very nice; who but a gay man would take such good care of his shoes away from home? And there's this scene:

Spade growled. "And when you're slapped you'll take it and like it." He released Cairo's wrist and with a thick open hand struck the side of his face three times, savagely. Who gets slapped in the face? Women and queers, folks. Women and queers. Amirite?

3. The prose is almost uniformly horrible. I remember being unimpressed with The Thin Man, but I am truly taken aback with just how awful The Maltese Falcon is in terms of writing. Examples are too many to count:

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face.


She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing. She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

That's all easily mockable, and pretty much what the writing is like overall, but it gets worse:

Spade laughed. He put a hand down on the bird. His wide-spread fingers had ownership in their curving. He put his other arm around Effie Perine and crushed her body against his. "We've got the damned thing, angel," he said.

Take a moment to appreciate the tortured poetry of "his wide-spread fingers had ownership in their curving". Why would anyone write that?

I'm currently torturing myself with Fifth Business, a well-known and well-reviewed 1970 novel by Robertson Davies. It's a short novel, about 200 pages in the Penguin edition I have, but it seems very long indeed. The writing, on the prose level, is mostly fine though I think Davies tips his hand to show how impressed he is with his work, usually at his weakest attempts at cleverness, but I can live with that, most of the time. What annoys me turns out to be the narrator, who I realized last night reminds me of all the worst things about the narrators in the works of Robert Heinlein: he swims in a pool of smug--almost sneering--arrogance while making noises about his humility. It's just a humblebrag in the form of a Bildungsroman, and perhaps one should not be a fly caught in the amber of his own time and condemn amber-imprisoned flies from the past, but Davies' old boy view of women (oh, they have their uses, those whore saints, but don't let's educate them because women and the educational system are not suited for one another) does nothing but grind on my nerves. I tell myself that the narrator will snap out of his provincial conservatism at some point. I tell myself that the author doesn't really approve of his narrator. I would not bet on it, though. He's put up his dukes to have his say and he's absolutely convinced he's in the right. 1970 must've been odder than I remember.