February 2009 Archives

After Dark


I burned through Haruki Murakami's latest novel, After Dark, in about three sittings. Sometimes described as a distillation of the author's standard oeuvre, I found it to be more like an overture: quick and light in its movement, it suggests Murakami's standard themes without exploring them in much depth. Were I putting together a Murakami syllabus, I might put After Dark at the beginning, to start a conversation that would deepen and expand with novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, A Wild Sheep Chase and Kafka on the Shore. As such, it would work well, introducing Murakami's preoccupations with the quester who wanders aimlessly, with the tendency of music to form unexpected alliances between people, and with the lost, escaped or misplaced woman (a sister in this case, although often a romantic partner) who must negotiate dreamlike landscapes of unspecified violence. It would also introduce the typically ambiguous Murakami climax and ending, although in the case of After Dark the resolution seems not so much ambiguous as nonexistent.

Murakami's language in After Dark suggests explicitly a screenplay. Perspectives are described in terms of camera angles, panning and zooming, and the dialogue among characters is sometimes conveyed in script form. In many places the narrator explains in so many words "our" role as a disembodied point of view devoid of ability to alter the course of events. My guess would be that Murakami is commenting, here, on the passiveness of traditional media consumption; one of the main characters, who spends nearly the entire novel in an existentially-motivated hibernation, is a beautiful young model named Eri Asai. One gets the sense that she has been observed, admired and consumed from without until her interior sense of self has completely deteriorated. Now "we" are one more external point of view, observing her but unable to help her. She is forced to negotiate alone the un-world of her deep sleep, and the strange dislocation (literal and metaphorical) at the heart of it. Again and again, in different ways, Murakami brings up the idea of a permeable or impermeable divide - between point of view and subject, between the respectable citizen and the criminal, between public and private, and, of course, between night and day. So in that sense, the semi-screenplay form is quite fitting.

For me, though, it also makes the novel less pleasant to read than other Murakami work. The prose is jerkier, more like a set of stage directions than a flowing narrative, and the dialogue seems insufficiently ingegrated into the prose. It also has that certain flatness of a play read silently; the lines rely on the creative interpretation that actors would give, and without it they seem lacking. In fact, throughout After Dark it kept striking me that this is one novel better-suited to life as a film - preferably directed by Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch. While all the stage directions are clunky to read, the actual images involved are intriguing and effective; to me, telling this story in film form would feel like cutting out the middleman. And Lynch would have to do very little adaptation to fit After Dark into his established oeuvre; as it ends, much like Mulholland Drive or the Twin Peaks pilot, we are unsure if Eri has met with triumph or defeat in her ordeal, or indeed whether the crisis was brought to any kind of breaking point at all. There is a scene where she attempts to communicate her plight to the outside world, and a point at which "we," as her disembodied audience, attempt to warn her of an impending danger. In both cases, the attempts seem completely unsuccessful, yet they form the only semblance of a climax available to the reader, and seem to represent some kind of corner turned. I generally adore this kind of ambiguity, yet Eri's story left me somehow unsatisfied; I wanted greater access to her, more meaty characterization - which, come to think of it, is just what her sister, the other protagonist of the novel, wants as well.

Despite my complaints, After Dark was an enjoyable way to spend a few days of reading, and there were some trademark sparkles of Murakami descriptive prowess. I particularly liked the phrase, in his opening paragraph, that describes Tokyo at night as "sending out new contradictions and collecting the old." As a précis, a Murakami primer or appetizer, it's quite effective, and whets my appetite for more.

True bone blood and beauty born


Ever since my high school boyfriend outed me to my youthful music idol as a slavering fangirl, I resolved to be moderate in my attitudes towards artists whose work I admire. Not that I want to downplay my enjoyment of their art, or affect a "too cool for enthusiasm" attitude. But I realized that day at the indie-rock festival how wrong it was that I was uncomfortable speaking face-to-face with this personable, modest woman, all because I had elevated her onto an unreasonable pedestal. I was unable to relate to her as a person, because my veneration of her got in the way, and I was unable to take myself seriously as a fellow musician, because of my veneration for her art. And that, it seemed to me, was a situation worth avoiding in the future.

All of which is to say: my long-time resolution is being put to a severe test by the novels of Peter Carey.

On the plane back from New Hampshire in October, I was practically hyperventilating over the final pages of Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, having to stop after every chapter and decompress for ten minutes before moving on. On the way back from (appropriately enough) Australia, I devoured the entirety of his My Life as a Fake. And now, having just burned through True History of the Kelly Gang, I have to admit to a certain amount of giddy adulation. Carey's consistent ability to create a strong, vital narrative voice; the sheer creative exuberance of his language; the crippling pathos of his storylines and the way his characters grip your heart and won't let go: reading his work is artistically, mentally and emotionally an utter joy.

One of my favorite qualities in a novel is a narrative voice so distinctive that I carry it around with me in my head while going about my business, and Ned Kelly's is a beautiful example. The language and character development here are intimately linked, in a way much more sophisticated than the over-used equation of "writing in dialect" with "uneducated" and/or "stupid." Kelly's unorthodox grammar and punctuation do point, of course, to his lack of formal education, but his style as a whole does so much more, immersing the reader in a wild, hybrid, semi-Biblical landscape that flexes and reels through the narrative, at times becoming so taut that it approaches poetry, yet never seeming unnatural. From his first sentence, Carey had me:

I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.

Even in these scant lines, so much of Kelly is present: his anger and his tenderness, his self-justification and his inescapable ties to past and family. And, of course, his religion, for being poor Irish Catholic "currency" (the nominally free offspring of convicts forcibly settled on Australian soil) is at the heart of Kelly's identity and his actions.

One of the many things I love about Carey's novels is how thought-provoking and ambiguous their morality tends to be. From a self-sacrificing love expressed by a gambling addict as a suicidal bet, to a mysterious manuscript whose ownership is so murky that an obsessed collector is left wandering in a morass of half-truth, his characters operate within moral frameworks that are engaged with tradition, yet strikingly unique. Kelly Gang is somewhat less unexpected in its morality than either Oscar & Lucinda or My Life as a Fake - after all, the rise and inevitable fall of the folk-hero outlaw has a well-established canon behind it, from Robin Hood to Jesse James to Don Vito Corleone - but Carey creates a typically nuanced version of the stock character. Rather than taking to crime to alleviate the suffering of the peasantry, or out of dreams of glory, Kelly is born, like all currency, on the edge of the law, and slides gradually over the line under the pressure of poverty, police harassment and family loyalty. At the same time, he is far from a helpless victim of circumstance. Kelly is passionately engaged with his world and his system of honor; the tragedy lies in the radical difference between his understanding of what is honorable, and the definition held by the colonizing English police.

As an interesting take on the outlaw archetype, I particularly liked the scene in which Kelly resolves to start robbing banks. Railroaded into hiding after a police-killing that was two-thirds self-defence and one-third accident, Kelly comes to the realization that the only thing capable of protecting him and his brother from the police are the poor inhabitants of the bush, and resolves to win their sympathies by stealing from the relatively rich and giving to the dirt poor. This is a much more practical, yet still sympathetic, picture of the thought process leading to the Robin Hood mode of operation, than the standard assumption of selfless outrage on behalf of the peasantry. I liked it, and I liked Kelly. I also liked the way in which Kelly's genuine affection for, and identification with, the poor folks he wins over with his bank proceeds grows over time, until we get a passage like this one, a last celebratory hurrah on the evening he learns he is a father:

These was your own people girl I mean the good people of Greta & Moyhu & Euroa & Benalla who come drifting down the track all through the morn & afternoon & night. How was they told of your birth did the bush telegraph alert them I do not know only that they come the men the women with babies at their breast shivering kiddies with cotton coats their eyes slitted against the wind. They arrived in broken cart & drays they was of that type THE BENALLA ENSIGN named the most frightful class of people they couldnt afford to leave their cows & pigs but they done so because we was them and they was us and we had showed the world what convict blood could do. We proved there were no taint we was of true bone blood and beauty born.

Through the dusk & icy starbright night them visitors continued to rise from the earth like winter oats their cold faces was soon pressed through doorway and window and even when the grog wore out they wd. not leave they come to touch my sleeve or clap my back they hitched great logs to their horses' tails to drag them out beside the track. 6 fires these was your birthday candles shining in 200 eyes.

The real star of the show here is Kelly's language, and I admired the way Carey escalates the final tragedy by yanking the narrative out of his anti-hero's hands, to be finished by an antagonist - although, in typical Carey fashion, even that antagonism is tinged with ambiguity.

From first to last, a truly excellent novel, exhilarating and lovely. If we ever go together to meet Peter Carey, you can tell him I said so...just please don't tell him I have Ned Kelly posters all over my walls.

Cabinet of wonders...and racism, and sexism

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I read Thomas Cooley's The Ivory Leg in the Ebony Cabinet in conjunction with the feral children book I wrote on a few days ago, and the two accounts dovetailed surprisingly well. Whereas Savage Girls and Wild Boys was ultimately a study in the tendency of normally-socialized people to project their own hopes and expectations on the "blank slate" of a feral child, Cooley's book revealed our collective habit of projecting those same expectations on anyone we label "other," regardless of whether they can articulate their own reality or not. Not only that, but we attempt to cement those expectations in place as "objective reality" by grafting them onto a limb of science.

Cooley examines the dominant model of the mind in pre-Freudian America: faculty psychology, which divided the mind (brain) into separate "faculties," like compartments in a cabinet, each of which controlled different aspects of human character. Amativeness, Comparison, Combativeness, Philoprogenitiveness: you name it, it had a little brain-cubby in which to live. Each of the faculties was physically separate from all others, housed in a specific area of the brain, which is why those porcelain busts used by phrenologists have little numbered segments all over them. All the individual faculties, moreover, were divided among three areas: the Intellect, the Propensities or Sentiments, and the Will, which was a single, indivisible faculty. The theory went that a given idea or issue would pass through the house or cabinet of our minds on a predetermined path: observed first through the faculties of the Intellect, it would then be processed through the Sentiments, and thence to the Will, which determined our eventual action.

This schema, although it seems a little naive in a world so thoroughly acquainted with the unconscious and its role in determining human behavior, was not inherently racist or sexist, but Cooley argues that it quickly became so. Because the faculties of the "propensities" or "sentiments" soon came to be associated with female and "savage" people, whereas the all-powerful Will came to be associated with the qualities of whiteness and manhood. Women and people of color, it was thought, never fully developed the faculty of Will, and so were at the mercy of their whims and carnal lusts, with no "master" to keep them in line. In contrast to the perfect "balance" of faculties supposedly found in the well-adjusted male mind, the woman or person of color had a mind where certain Propensities in the brain were left unchecked. (Which, Cooley points out, was the same criterion used to describe madness.) This gave the backing of science to the idea that women and people of color needed a white male "master" to keep them in check, replacing in external form the Will that they supposedly lacked internally. It also enabled the establishment to "diagnose" as mad any woman or person of color who did NOT want to marry or live in slavery, since by definition a woman without a husband or a person of color without a white master was intrinsically mentally unbalanced. It was therefore an efficient way to invalidate whatever claims the system's malcontents might make; a slave leading an uprising? Mad! A woman who chose to live as a spinster? Insane! This seems quaint and hokey to us know, but during most of the nineteenth century it was literally true: a black person desiring to live free was thought certifiably insane.

There was, of course, supposedly unbiased scientific work that backed up all this quackery: comparative studies (not done blind), which showed a correlation between brain mass and intelligence; phrenological tomes demonstrating that the sloped forehead of the stereotypically "African" profile revealed a lack of the Intellectual faculties so well-developed in the Caucasian bust. One of the most sobering aspects of Cooley's book is its demonstration of the ease with which humans find evidence to support their preexisting hypotheses, regardless of what those hypotheses might be.

Cooley goes on to analyze the role of faculty psychology in classic nineteenth-century American literature, looking at the ways in which authors from Poe and Melville, to Emerson and Thoreau, to Dickinson, incorporate and play off (and even subvert) the mind-model of their time. He makes interesting points: Melville and Poe, he claims, both fear their age's vision of a human race utterly controlled by the white male Will, and present moral landscapes of horror in response to it. Certainly, there could hardly be an apter depiction of male Will gone mad in pursuit of whiteness, than Ahab and the whale. Emerson, says Cooley, was by contrast completely enamored of the idea of a world ruled by the Will, while writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass attempted to subvert the psychology of their times by essentially creating "white" black characters and "black" white ones. In other words, Stowe and Douglass were unconventional enough to import the standard set of "black" character traits into a white character, and the standard set of "white" characteristics into a black one, but too convention-bound to conceive of a character that diverged from one pre-set standard or the other. (In an interesting aside, Cooley uses Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin to illustrate the pre-Jamesian model of thought: instead of the "stream of consciousness" with which we are all familiar, nineteenth-century Americans envisioned human thought as a disjointed series of mental images, one following the last in a distinct order. This model derives from the idea that only one faculty of the mind is in use at a given time, and the issue under consideration travels from one to the next like a marble in a marble machine.)

My favorite analysis in Cooley's book was his discussion of Emily Dickinson's work, which, along with that of Henry and William James, began to turn faculty psychology on its head. Cooley discusses how James and Dickinson come to prioritize emotion over intellect or Will as the true indicator of "morality" and consciousness, and how Dickinson actually anticipates psychological breakthroughs of ten or twenty years after her death, when she writes about the subjectivity of individual consciousness. Dickinson is one of those rare writers whose work I enjoy much more after after reading criticism of it, and this was no exception. I never would have considered Dickinson's severe and gothic charms as an attempt to claim for the female and subjective the same prominence that the male Will once enjoyed.

That said, only my intense interest in the subject under discussion could have motivated me to slog through Cooley's labyrinthine prose. I tend to go easy on other writers for this, because it's a weakness I share, but come on, man. Three parenthetical remarks and two sets of dashes, in one sentence? There are MANY points at which Cooley's writing style interferes with his ability to communicate his already subtle points. Not only that, but he often seems to wander aimlessly from a discussion of one work to another, with insufficient warning or explanation of what he is doing, and leaves the reader with an unsatisfying amount of analysis of all works. The book's overall organization, too, is a bit odd: Cooley neglects to offer much primary-source evidence in his opening chapters, examples of works where faculty psychology was swallowed wholesale rather than played with or subverted. He then plunges directly into Poe and Melville, whose relationship with it is very complex and ambivalent, and only then attacks Emerson and Thoreau, the faculty-psychology poster-boys. This makes sense chronologically, but it's confusing from a conceptual point of view, especially given the lack of real grounding in the opening chapters. Overall, a fascinating subject, covered in a frustrating manner.

Savage and civilization

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Michael Newton's Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children was not all I had hoped it would be, which is actually quite fitting. Newton does his level best to tell the stories of children discovered living, either wild in nature, or isolated away from both human society and the natural world. In the process, he gives account after account of disappointments, failures and setbacks among those who attempted to "rescue" and rehabilitate these children. It makes sense, given the constraints on his research, that he himself similarly fails to engage with the children themselves, telling instead the stories of the "normal" people who surrounded them.

My disappointment with Newton's book came primarily from the unevenness with which he discussed the actual children involved in these stories. Too often, probably due to factors outside his control, a chapter would introduce the reader to a specific child's story only to diverge immediately, dwelling for the majority of its pages on the cultural perceptions, dreams, ambitions and philosophical essays written around or about the child by the luminaries (or not-so-luminaries) of the day. Toward the end of the book, Newton reflects:

In most of the cases described in this book it is now impossible to know the veracity of the stories. The evidence is too flimsy and mostly lost; and of course that does not matter in the least. For the deeper point of interest in these stories is what was believed about the children. By becoming objects of speculation, they opened up the fantasies of a nation and, in the stories told around them, we glimpse into our dreams.

Don't get me wrong. I agree with Newton: it is fascinating to examine the cultural reception of these children, to see the ways in which their contemporaries projected their own dreams and desires onto the supposedly blank slates of the "children of nature." In a neoclassical England of the eighteenth century, for example, Daniel Defoe and Dr. John Arbuthnot looked on the "wolf-boy" Peter's lack of socialization as a mark of his less-than-human status, opining that the human soul is only seeded into the body at birth, and must be developed by social intercourse in order to attain full humanity. By contrast, in a France of 1797, scarred by the excesses of the Revolution and awash with Rousseau's glorification of Man-in-a-state-of-nature, the wild boy Victor came to symbolize an untainted, radical innocence at odds with the "corruption" of cultured humanity. And in a proto-Germany saturated with Gothic romances, the strange tale of Kaspar Hauser, locked in a dirt room for twelve years, adopted by a fickle aristocrat, and murdered in a graveyard under mysterious circumstances, captured a cultural hunger for mystery and intrigue in a politically tumultuous time.

After a while, though, I found myself dissatisfied to dwell on what these children meant to other people. Frustratingly, I wanted to know instead who they were, how they experienced their own lives rather than what they came to symbolize for the dominant culture. And that is exactly the thing I will never know, at least without the aid of a fictionalized, imaginative journey. Because most of the wild children of the book never truly acquired language, or, if they did, they found it difficult to apply their language to the period before their discovery and socialization. In the rare cases where the formerly-feral child lived to adulthood, acquired language and could use it to express herself (as with Memmie LeBlanc, discovered outside a French village in 1731), the people interested in publicizing her story often discounted her words in favor of their own interpretations. Invested in the idea of Memmie's "savagery" and ties with instinctual nature, her own biographer discounted Memmie's statements about her past. Instead, Madame Hecquet chose to base a theory of Memmie's origins around the woman's unspoken affinity for an Eskimo doll, even after Memmie expressed doubts that the doll did represent "her people":

[C]rucially, Madame Hecquet chose not to depend on Memmie's words at all. It was not what Memmie said in this scene that bore her authentic self; it was that instinct, that 'natural unaffected sentiment' that made her act by directing her hands and her gaze to the Eskimo puppets alone. Words deceive; nature does not: 'Such, at least, was my reasoning on the distinction she made between them'...Memmie becomes a cipher, a bearer of truth she herself cannot understand.

This type of dynamic develops repeatedly in the various stories of wild children: many times, they attract interest for their potential to prove "normal" peoples' theories (about racial superiority, social development, moral "presence"), which makes for an awkward situation if the evidence or the children themselves start to disagree or disprove those theories instead. And if, rather than proving or disproving anything, the children seem to exist outside the expected framework of inquiry, their caregivers tended either to lose interest, or to attempt to force the facts to line up with their own preconceptions.

Newton does engage with these issues, and writes on them well, but in some cases the direct evidence he's working with is so limited that he has little choice but to devote five pages to the specifics of the child's existence, and forty-five to the press reaction, philosophical climate, debate over whether the child is "human," and so on. In the end I found myself disagreeing with Newton's claim that the lack of evidence "does not matter in the least". To me, it seems to pinpoint instead the critically frustrating core of these stories, which is that the children discussed are human yet unknowable, incommunicable. All we can know is what we (or "our" fore-runners, the normally socialized people of the period) choose to project onto the supposedly blank canvas that the children present. Yet those canvases are not really blank at all; it's just that the reality they represent is too foreign for us to comprehend, so we choose to imagine our own "meaning" onto them.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography