September 2009 Archives

2666: The Part About Archimboldi (Part 5)


My readalong friends! Even though I turned the last page of 2666 and wrote the following post several months ago, I've been putting off publishing it because of my sense of loss at this fantastic readalong finally ending. The book alone would have been a great ride, but meeting all of you and having our discussions...let's just say, I feel lucky to have stumbled into such a special reading experience. And I'm psyched that so many members of our group will be meeting again for Kristin Lavransdatter, yet it's still a little sad to be saying goodbye to Bolaño. But enough sentimentality! Here's what I wrote after finishing 2666 all those months ago.

There's a lot of talk, in bookish circles, about "circular narratives": stories that take the reader on a journey, only to return, in the end, to the point of departure, imparting in the process a new perspective. Roberto Bolaño's 2666 also returns to the point of departure, to "the scene of the crime," as one character puts it. In many ways, The Part About Archimboldi deposits the reader back in the world of The Part About the Critics: a European world, insular, preoccupied with the struggle between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, and preoccupied with literature - preoccupied, in particular, with Benno von Archimboldi, the elusive novelist pursued by the critics of the first part, and here followed from his seaweed-obsessed boyhood, through his service as a soldier during the Second World War, and into his old age. Toward the middle and end of the fifth part, we even find ourselves back behind the scenes of the literature machine manned by Mr. and Mrs. Bubis, as we witness interactions at the publishing house and in the salons of literary critics. Once again we are treated to the light, satirical touch that characterized The Part about the Critics. (One of my favorite satirical passages of the fifth part concerns a woman at a dinner party whose unhappy expression escaped no one

"except Willy, the other literary critic, whose specialty was philosophy and who therefore reviewed philosophy books and whose hope was someday to publish a book of philosophy, three occupations, if they could be called that, which made him especially insensitive to indications of the state of mind (or soul) of a fellow diner."

There wasn't too much of this kind of high-brow ribbing in The Part About the Crimes.)

Nevertheless, I wouldn't describe the structure of 2666 as circular. In fact, I'd say it looks more like this:


The first three books tighten into an ever-more tense and surreal vortex, narrowing uncomfortably toward the mysterious wrongness in Santa Teresa, Mexico, which is related to the sexual homicides being committed there. Just as the third part reaches a climactic pinhole, the narration suddenly widens, becomes a stark, straightforward descent through a pile of dead bodies, the hardboiled chronicling of the female corpses of Santa Teresa, and of the inability of police, private citizens, detectives and seers to stop the perpetual appearances of more. As opposed to the increasing tension of the first three parts, I experienced the fourth part to be even throughout, tension released and stark reality confronted. Then, in The Part About Archimboldi, the narrative turns a sharp corner into something more like a traditional bildungsroman, in which a young boy grows up, lives his life and finds his calling: a calling which gradually curves toward the literary world of the first part, and a life which, even more tangentially, intersects with the Santa Teresa killings.

I can't decide to what extent I feel the loose ends are tied up as 2666 draws to its close - nor am I sure to what extent I want them to be. Surely, given the still-unsolved nature of the Juarez crimes on which those in Santa Teresa are based, it would seem wrong to provide an easy answer to the central, unanswered questions: what is the truth behind the killings? Who is responsible for them, and what has gone so horribly wrong in this person's mind and the world outside it? Maybe it's not possible to answer this last, despite the tidy endings of most detective novels: how to locate the ongoing sickness that makes humans engage in extreme violence, whether the atrocities of war, the mutilation of female factory workers, or the savage beating of a sexist taxi driver?

The whole of 2666 brings the world of reading and writing into contact with the world of violence, and it seems to me that they coexist, without negating each other. It doesn't seem to me that 2666 is asking "What is the point of art in such a fucked up world?" Often, this is the way the debate is framed, as if art must somehow overcome the world's darkness in order to validate itself. Bolaño, on the other hand, lets them exist simultaneously, each on its own terms. It doesn't seem to me that literature or art, in Bolaño, can rescue a person from violence or explain the violence away. Art doesn't even necessarily engage with the violence - the book that alleviates the tedium of Barry Seaman's jail time, for example, An Abridged Digest of the Complete Works of Voltaire, has little to do with the race-motivated violence that landed him inside. In fact, the title of this book is so odd-seeming that Oscar Fate remembers it later and laughs about it. But Seaman argues that reading - reading just about anything, he seems to mean - is an inherently useful activity:

Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other peoples' ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.

In other words, reading is a way of living one's life, a way of bringing oneself into contact with the vast vitality of existence. And some way of being present in one's life is necessary for survival, regardless of the rest of one's environment. Or maybe I should say it is an indicator of survival. I wouldn't go so far as to claim that The Part About the Crimes, the only section of the novel in which nobody seems to read anything (policeman Epifanio is even amused when his young protegé Lalo Cura asks if he can bring home some outdated detection manuals lying neglected in the Santa Teresa police station), owes its plethora of corpses to the conspicuous absence of books. But the two could both be symptoms of that underlying wrongness. And the underlying wrongness could be a lack of presence on the part of some person or some group of people - people who are not, to use Seaman's language, thinking, praying, talking to friends, expressing their thoughts, listening to other peoples' ideas, listening to music, looking at the view, walking on the beach, or, indeed, reading, but existing without presence in a void of destruction. Indeed, one of my favorite passages in the entire novel contrasts this destructive void with a compassionate, imaginative act not unlike reading:

"His name was Dmitry Verbitsky," said the one-eyed man from his corner, "and he died fifty miles from Warsaw."
        Then the one-eyed man shifted in his chair, pulled a blanket up to his chin, and said: our commander's name was Korolenko and he died the same day. Then, at supersonic speed, Ansky imagined Verbitsky and Kerolenko, he saw Korolenko mocking Verbitsky, heard what Korolenko said behind Verbitsky's back, entered into Verbitsky's night thoughts, Korolenko's desires, into each man's vague and shifting dreams, into their convictions and their rides on horseback, the forests they left behind and the flooded lands they crossed, the sounds of night in the open and the unintelligible morning conversations before they mounted again. He saw villages and farmland, he saw churches and hazy clouds of smoke rising on the horizon, until he came to the day they both died, Verbitsky and Korolenko, a perfectly gray day, utterly gray, as if a thousand-mile-long cloud had passed over the land without stopping, endless.
        At that moment, which hardly lasted a second, Ansky decided that he didn't want to be a soldier, but at that very same moment the officer handed him a paper and told him to sign. Now he was a soldier.

There are so many details in this epic tome on which I would love to focus, which I'm sure would prove fruitful, but I'm overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of them. I'm intrigued, for example, at the prevalence in The Part About Archimboldi of people talking to themselves (a preoccupation of mine ever since reading Woolf's The Years). It's described as "a common sight" to see people talking to themselves in post-war Cologne, and, later on, Archimboldi is driven by a taxi driver who talks to himself. Merely examining the roles of taxi drivers in this novel could produce an intriguing study, as would contrasting Bolaño's portrayal of reading with his portrayal of writing. And of course, the sexualization of violence would be a fertile theme as well (taken, I thought, in an interesting direction by the naked crucifixion of Entrescu). So too, I would love to examine The Part About Archimboldi through the lens of all the references to detective novels (writing as similar to "the pleasure of the detective on the heels of the killer," for example, or the old woman's insistence that Archimboldi not "return to the scene of the crime") in light of the soul-numbing reality of the Santa Teresa murders outlined in The Part About the Crimes.

But alas, it's not going to happen in this blog entry. I look forward to many re-reads of 2666, and now that I have some experience of the novel, I can pick and choose what to focus on when I revisit it. MANY thanks to Claire and Steph for suggesting this readalong; I've benefited enormously from the book itself, and the act of reading it with so many other smart, perceptive people. Ciao for now, everyone!

Thoughts on Part 1: The Part About the Critics
Thoughts on Part 2: The Part About Archimboldi
Thoughts on Part 3: The Part About Fate
Thoughts on Part 4: The Part About the Crimes

(2666 is my eighth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing Chile.)

It's so exciting


Earlier today I stopped by Frances's Sunday Salon post, in which she links to some GORgeous cover art and an interview with its creator, one David Pearson. Man, his stuff is good-looking. And it turns out that, before he quit his job at Penguin, he was involved with a super-cool project I hadn't known about previously: the Penguin Great Ideas series.


It is no secret in my social circle that I have a weakness for appealing "setups": matching sets, coordinated collections, appealingly-packaged kits and contraptions. I got so excited about these beautifully-curated, bite-size chunks of philosophy that I woke David out of a sound sleep just so I could share the wonder with him.


You know what I think? I think anything that makes me psyched to read Francis Bacon (not to mention willing to read Henry David Thoreau) is pretty great. Of course I started building castles in the clouds around the idea of reading all eighty volumes in this series (there are twenty each in the red, blue, green and purple lines), but I thought I would start small and order the first four books of the first series to begin. That's Seneca's "On the Shortness of Life," Marcus Aurelius's "Meditations," St. Augustine's "Confessions of a Sinner" (which I read in my senior seminar in college, and which my thesis buddy would probably faint if she knew I'm planning to re-read), and Thomas à Kempis's "The Inner Life."


With a few exceptions, none of these are pieces I've ever considered reading. Three or four of them I've read before, five or six more I've had excerpted in college readers, but many more I've never even heard of - and that's actually one of the most exciting parts to me. In addition to the beautiful covers and appealing setup-ness of it all, I love the idea of reading philosophy essays in a curated environment, one that puts them into dialog with each other and juxtaposes something totally predictable with something that hits you out of the blue.


(Um, hits you out of the blue like murder and air raids? I didn't really intend that to happen.)

Anyway, hopefully I'll start reviewing these beauties quite soon. I'm really racking up the reading projects, but another one's still so exciting!

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West


Lest anyone think it's getting to be all Susan McClary all the time around here, with her "feminist" this and "alternative" that, I present you with my most recent read: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, otherwise known as "the most grotesquely violent novel I have ever read." That's right: this book is way more violent than Part 4 of Bolaño's 2666, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Ironically, I had taken issue with Bolaño's chosen point of view: we are only privy to the evidence of "The Crimes," rather than witnessing them first-hand. Anybody picking up Blood Meridian can certainly rest easy in that regard: most of the legion atrocities committed in this book are related in brutal, bullet-by-bullet detail - although, to call them "crimes" would be to ignore the fundamental moral vacuum that dwells at the heart of McCarthy's border country. Blood Meridian takes the romanticized, sepia-toned mythos of the Wild West, the legends about men escaping restrictive over-civilization and achieving a freedom to live in rough but rewarding brotherhood, and systematically destroys it in an avalanche of casual scalpings, gurgling pools of blood, and trees full of murdered babies hung by their jaws. Its bounty-hunting characters, far from the charismatic outlaws of folk legend, are blood-blackened butchers, completely lacking in the notion of any higher virtue than to survive as long as possible at the expense of anyone and everyone else. The times, far from being simpler, are fraught with war, exposure, and bare desperation. Almost every time I picked the book up, I encountered multiple passages that inspired me to make revolted noises out loud - and then, much to his chagrin, to share said passages with David as he tried to concentrate on something else. One night, as we walked the dog and I recounted the part about the man dragging himself through the desert after having the soles of his feet cut off, David asked, reasonably enough: " it good?" and I found, a little to my surprise, that I unhesitatingly answered "Yes."

What redeems this morass of gore-soaked treachery? It's easy to praise the beauty of McCarthy's writing, which most often struck me as breathtaking and only occasionally crossed the line into overwrought. Passages like the following, unfolding in a rumbling, biblically-inflected cadence that reminded me of Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, went a long way to keeping me reading whenever I was tempted to stop:

The sun rose on a column already ragged these six days out. Among their clothes there was small agreement and among their hats less. The little painted horses stepped shifty and truculent and a vicious snarl of flies fought constantly in the bed of the gamewagon. The dust the party raised was quickly dispersed and lost in the immensity of that landscape and there was no dust other for the pale sutler who pursued them drives unseen and his lean horse and his lean cart leave no track upon such ground or any ground. By a thousand fires in the iron blue dusk he keeps his commissary and he's a wry and grinning tradesman good to follow every campaign or hound men from their holes in just those whited regions where they've gone to hide from God.

Or this:

All the creatures that had been at vigil with him in the night were gone and about him lay only the strange coral shapes of fulgerite in their scorched furrows fused out of the sand where ball lightning had run upon the ground in the night hissing and stinking of sulphur.

Seated tailorwise in the eye of that cratered waste he watched the world tend away at the edges to a shimmering surmise that ringed the desert round.

Amazing stuff. But, as one LibraryThing reviewer asked, are we supposed to wade through three hundred pages of unredeemed murder because of a few literary flourishes? If this were all the novel offered, even I (and I love a gorgeous writing style) would have to agree. But I think McCarthy is doing so much more. I think he's interrogating the nature of evil, and asking questions about action and intention which I'm still mulling over.

On one level, there is the Grecian inevitability about the books's narrative arc: the Mexican government, which has been colonizing Indian land that the Apaches have been defending, offers a bounty on Apache scalps. McCarthy makes the valid point that from this decision, the entire descent into chaos is unstoppable: the bounty hunters, a troupe of desperate and brutal Americans exiled from their own country, are given a hero's welcome, but they soon progress from battling the aggressive Apaches, to slaughtering peaceful Indian tribes in their encampments, to butchering and scalping the Mexicans themselves, to (eventually) murdering each other. After all, one scalp is indistinguishable from another. By the time the Chihuahuan coffers are bankrupted and the bounty rescinded, the entire citizenry is living in fear and a band of voracious killers is set loose upon the land, to survive however they can. Considering that there will always be a class of the absolutely desperate, every step in this descent is predictable to the point of inevitability: the Chihuahuan government brings about its own destruction in setting the bounty to begin with.

Most of the members of the bounty-hunting band, though, are operating on that basic level of survival: their brutalities are committed because in their experience, there is no other way. Either they have never been exposed to any different notion, or it's been beaten out of them by experience. Between the eleven-year-old kid who runs away from the shack of his alcoholic father, and the scarred and hardened product of Van Dieman's Land with his necklace of human ears, these men are products of the world in which they live - a world which allows no margin for hesitation. I think one of the functions of the extreme violence in the novel is to stress that McCarthy isn't apologizing for these men. The reader is constantly reminded what brutal, treacherous, repulsive people they are. The fact that they are unthinking products of their environment coexists with their actions, to some extent explaining but never excusing them.

Contrasted with all other members of the band, McCarthy gives us the larger-than-life figure of Judge Holden: educated and almost preternaturally skilled, he speaks five languages and is an accomplished draftsman, knowledgeable about art, botany, philosophy, and chemistry, facile with conversation and gifted with money. In other words, it's obvious that the judge, out of all the members of the band, chooses the life of utter brutality he's living - and furthermore, it's obvious that he enjoys it. The first time we meet him, Judge Holden walks into a revivalist's tent and exposes the preacher for a fraud: wanted in five counties, the judge says, the man's a pedophile and a thief. After whipping the rough crowd into a murderous mob, the judge walks away. A few pages later, we learn that he had never heard of the preacher before in his life; that all of his accusations were completely fabricated, and that the impulse spurring him to craft his lies was not one of passion or revenge, but of pure, undirected malice. This is a fair introduction to Holden: he's the spirit of darkest nihilism made flesh, a sharp-witted sadist who delights in control - of people, of situations, of information. He believes himself the rightful master of any person or landscape he encounters, and he delights in proving his sovereignty. And the question I pondered throughout all this was: is the judge worse than the other members of the band?

It's not like the acts performed by Holden are measurably worse than those performed by the rest of the gang. Every member in it actively seeks out and commits terrible violence, and the judge is no different. Does his bare enjoyment of the life he's living make him into more of a monster than the other characters? Something in my gut believes that yes, the judge is creepier and darker than the other gang members because of his nihilistic delight, because of his own conviction that he is an immortal god among men and that murder is his right. But something else in me believes that intention doesn't really matter here, that what matters are the actions of the characters, and that they are all equally heinous in that regard, the judge no more than the others. Because if I claim that the judge is worse, wouldn't I be implying that the others are better? And does it really make a remorseless mercenary "better" if he's murdering and maiming in order to earn a few bucks and some swallows of whiskey, rather than because he believes himself some kind of immortal war-god bringing men to a final reckoning? Furthermore, is it even valid to make this kind of moral distinction about a world itself devoid of even the most basic morality? I don't have the answers, but I'm indebted to McCarthy for bringing up, not for the first time, these very interesting questions.

(Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West was my sixth and final book for the What's in a Name Challenge, representing the "time of day" category.)

Death and the King's Horseman


Of all the Norton Critical Editions I've read recently (and it seems like I'm busting right through my back-log over the past few weeks!), the one whose extra materials I found most useful is Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman. Which is kind of ironic, since a big theme in this post-colonialist Nigerian drama is the cultural arrogance of western white folks who think that because they've been educated in England, they know best how to interpret and control the cultural traditions of the "natives" colonized by the Crown. As I perused the appendices of my scholarly volume, all working to foster an understanding of Nigerian culture and "background sources" in the predominantly-white US undergraduate population, I'll admit to a rueful smile. What would Soyinka think of the book I'm holding in my hands? Obviously, I don't know the answer, but my bet is that he would feel, as he did about many things, somewhat ambivalent. Son of Westernized Anglican schoolteachers and educated in the most toney of Nigerian prep schools before leaving for University in England, Soyinka identified as "truly bi-cultural"; out of this background came a deep grounding in the Western canon, as well as the Yoruba beliefs of his grandfather, and an acquaintance with the ways in which the English thought of their own subjective perceptions as "natural" and "universal," and anything else as barbaric. Perhaps this background explains some of the reason that, in contrast to many of his liberation-era contemporaries, Soyinka wasn't primarily interested in educating white folks about Nigeria, but about making Nigerian literature that referred to its own subjective universe. From the introduction:

Soyinka has no patience for those who argue that works of art are most effective when they are clear, direct and didactic ... [He] was unhappy with the romanticism, naïveté, and idealization of the African image in classic African novels such as Camara Laye's The Dark Child. He understood the political imperative behind such works - namely, the desire by a whole generation of African writers to counter the European image of Africa - but was categorical in his belief that idealization was not a substitute for what he considered to be literary truth. However, in explaining why he had disavowed and attacked movements that celebrated African or black identity, Soyinka was keen to insist that he was not against the idea of the African world as such ... He wanted the African world ... to be taken for granted as a self-evident cultural experience. As far as Soyinka was concerned, the artist's commitment was not to a particular idea of Africa, a set of political or ideological commitments, but the self-apprehension of the African world.

I have to say, I was cheering Soyinka on here, and I hadn't even started reading his play yet. I've always found it so awkward - almost dirty-feeling - to be reading a novel about a non-US culture, and suddenly get the feeling that its primary goal is to educate US/European/first-world readers about The Other. I mean, novels where the narrator (or even the speaking character!) takes time out to explain every culture-specific term she uses: how unnatural is that? It makes it really difficult to craft believable characters, because who stops in the midst of their dinner preparations to think to themselves, "Now I'll open the refrigerator: a large metal box in the corner of my kitchen, which keeps my food cold via an electric current running through coils near the floor"? This kind of aside is so disruptive to the narrative, and so inaccurately representative of how peoples' minds actually work. (And yeah, that's a comic exaggeration, but I've read examples almost as bad! Even in novels as acclaimed as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, I got this vibe.) In actual life, people take for granted their everyday surroundings and cultural contexts, and I applaud Soyinka for creating characters who do so as well. At the same time, it does make the learning curve on his play a sharp one for anyone coming to it from the Western tradition.

Nevertheless, an aficionada of English literature is never wholly at sea. Death and the King's Horseman opens in an almost Shakespearean manner: Elesin, the primary horseman of the late king, engages in verbal parry and thrust with his "Praise-Singer" in a way that reminded me of a kind of reverse take on Lear's relationship with his Fool. They're bantering about Elesin's planned transition to the land of the spirits and ancestors; the king he served has died, and it's now his duty (along with the King's favorite horse and his trusty dog) to join his master. Central to the play's tragedy is the different metaphysical realities of Yoruba people and their English colonizers: for the English, an act they understand as "suicide" is both a crime and a sin, as well as the end of a life, whereas in the Yoruba cosmos (according to my Norton, at least), Elesin is merely helping the natural order of the world continue on its course by helping the spirit of his King through the door to the world of gods and spirits. Elesin greets his impending transition with cocky joy; he radiates strength and will, dancing with and around the market women, and singing a long song about the foolishness of those who attempt to evade Death. His Praise-Singer is his straight-man and his counter-point as he teases the women, and claims, on his prerogative as an honored man about to pass to the next world, one last young bride:

ELESIN      All you who stand before the spirit that dares
The opening of the last door of passage,
Dare to rid my going of regrets! My wish
Transcends the blotting out of thought
In one mere moment's tremor of the senses.
Do me credit. And do me honour.
I am girded for the route beyond
Burdens of waste and longing.
Then let me travel light. Let
Seed that will not serve the stomach
On the way remain behind. Let it take root
In the earth of my choice, in this earth
I leave behind.

In contrast to this vital, cocksure young horseman, we are introduced to the colonial bureaucrat Simon Pilkings, all set to attend a fancy-dress ball with his wife Jane (in ceremonial "death cult" attire confiscated from the natives, no less) when he gets word of the rumor that a local chief is about to take his own life. Because the Prince is visiting the colony, and because Simon wants to show he is in charge, he takes it upon himself to "save" Elesin from his impending death; tragedy ensues.

Despite certain references and metaphysical contexts of Yoruba life that might be unclear to Western readers, it's obvious that Soyinka is drawing heavily on the traditions of the Western canon as well. The contrast between Elesin's nobility and Pilkings's essential pettiness, for example, is communicated brilliantly through the differences in their modes of speech: whereas Elesin delivers most of his speeches in the nobility of blank verse, Simon's and Jane's speech is utterly banal prose, peppered with bourgeois British colloquialisms:

PILKINGS      You know the Prince is on a tour of the colonies don't you? Well, he docked in the capital only this morning but he is already at the Residency. He is going to grace the ball with his presence later tonight.
JANE      Simon! Not really.
PILKINGS      Yes he is. He's been invited to give away the prizes and he has agreed. You must admit old Engleton is the best Club Secretary we ever had. Quite quick off the mark that lad.
JANE      But how thrilling.

Without giving away too much of the plot and the tragic denouement, I'll just say that the final scene of the play does interesting things with this dichotomy that's been set up between the blind demands of bureaucracy and the individual's ability to be noble within the context of his or her own society. Soyinka apparently despised and fought against the tendency of critics to interpret his play as merely a chronicle of an oppressive colonial encounter, and pleaded with his audiences to look beyond the historical details of the play to the metaphysical truths within. I think the most universal message that I got out of Death and the King's Horseman is that even the traits we hold most intrinsic to our personalities - our confidence that we will react a certain way in a certain situation, our vitality, the decrees of our moral compass that X is right and Y is wrong - are dependent, not only on our general background and upbringing, but on our immediate circumstances, and can be altered forever in a single moment.

Death and the King's Horseman, like all plays, loses a lot by being read on paper rather than watched in performance. I don't read a lot of drama, for exactly this reason: plays yearn to be interpreted by a company, and reading them to myself always comes off as flat. Soyinka's work suffers perhaps more than most drama in this regard, because his Yoruba characters use music and dance as important modes of character expression - modes that are obviously not present in my head. Still, I am glad I read this play and some of its accompanying materials, and I would leap at the chance to see a good performance of it live.

(Death and the King's Horseman was my ninth and 800-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)

Delta Wedding


I've been writing a lot lately about feminist musicologist Susan McClary and her ideas about the need for an alternative narrative practice. McClary goes in search of a mode of storytelling that does not dwell in a land of perpetual desire, of constant striving for a climax or resolution which, once achieved, spells the end of the story (the so-called "phallic" or "heroic" narrative arc), but that instead stresses pleasure over desire, that glories in what McClary calls a "voluptuous 'being-in-time' quality" - an examination of what we have and who we are, rather than what I want and who I would rather be. Understandably, when I've written about this in the past certain people have commented thusly: "That's a cool idea, but what would a "non-phallic" novel look like?" Well now, my friends, I can tell you: for a heartbreakingly beautiful example of prose that savors its own moment, its voluptuous being-in-time, look no further than Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding.

The plot of Delta Wedding is so simple it's basically contained in the title: Welty gives us subtle, lush, yet endlessly dynamic portrait of a large family in the Mississippi Delta, preparing for the wedding of their second daughter as the bustle of life goes on around the group and its individual members. The Fairchild clan is always in motion: "there's always so much - so much happening here!" cries an aunt delightedly, and Welty excels at capturing the lovingly oppressive whirl of the packed plantation house, bursting at the seams with arrivals, departures, personal legends and their aftermaths, cross-currents of conversation, momentary crises and unlooked-for delights. Yet many characters realize, or feel, at different moments, that for all the whirling bustle of the Fairchild life, there is a way in which their constant state of iridescent change is itself an unchanging landscape

Robbie put her hand up to her head a minute as she danced, against the whirl. Dabney was dancing before her, by herself, eyes shining on them all...Indeed the Fairchilds took you in circles, whirling delightedly about, she thought, stirring up confusions, hopefully working themselves up. But they did not really want anything they got - and nothing, really, nothing really so very much, happened! But the next moment Miss Primrose and Miss Jim Allen arrived with so much authority and ado that she almost had to believe in them.

Throughout this novel, Welty plays with the tension between the changing and unchanging, the momentary and the perennial. In describing the Delta twilight, she writes, "It was not yet dark - it would never get dark." A baby is about to be born who will carry the name of his dead war-hero uncle, long remembered by the family. And at the close of the book, one of the youngest children tells her cousin "My secret is...I've seen it all afore. It's all happened afore." Welty situates her narrative at a day of transition - a wedding, after which Dabney Fairchild will leave her parents' home. Change: and yet, Dabney and her new husband Troy will still live in a house owned by the Fairchild family, only a short ride away. This seeming change is just another step in the process of perpetuating the close Fairchild family ties into another generation. The clan as a whole functions as its own character, and yet individuals walk their own paths within it - sometimes honoring the status quo, sometimes rebelling against it; sometimes craving the attention of the Fairchilds, and sometimes longing to escape. Even Dabney's marriage is conceived as a kind of rebellion - she is marrying "beneath her" as a gesture of independence, to the dismay of much of her family. But at the same time, many of her other family members have also married out of their class, including the favorite son, Uncle George, on whom everyone fawns. So Dabney is simultaneously challenging the family structure, and yet fitting in perfectly with it; moving away from it, and yet forming its next branch. Delta Wedding catches her at that exhilarating, headstrong moment of youth when her passionate resolutions have yet to be tested or compromised:

The eagerness with which she was now going to Marmion, entering her real life there with Troy, told her enough - all the cotton in the world was not worth one moment of life! It made her know that nothing could ever defy her enough to make her leave it. How sweet life was, and how well she could hold it, pluck it, eat it, lay her cheek to it - oh, no one else knew. The juice of life and the hot, delighting taste and the fragrance and warmth to the cheek, the mouth....

"I will never give up anything!" Dabney thought, bending forward and laying her head against the soft neck. "Never! Never! For I am happy, and to give up nothing will prove it. I will never give up anything, never give up Troy - or to Troy!" She thought smilingly of Troy, coming slowly, this was the last day, slowly plodding and figuring, sprung all over with red-gold hairs.

Like Virginia Woolf (of whom Welty strongly reminds me), Welty astounds with her ability to communicate the unexpected yet crucial importance of certain crystallized moments in time - the tiny catalysts that prompt a blaze of emotion or insight out of all proportion to the initial tiny spark - and the deep, quiet pools of reflection that unfurl within her characters at the oddest moments - while picking up a piece of cake at a rehearsal dinner, or waiting for the photographer to get everyone posed in a line.

"Not for me, not for me," she murmured, stunned at the sight of George at that moment offering the loaded [cake] plate to her. It seemed to Shelley all at once as if the whole room should protest, as if alarm and protest should be the nature of the body. Life was too easy - too easily holy, too easily not. It could change in a moment. Life was not ever inviolate. Dabney, poor sister and bride, shed tears this morning (though belatedly) because she had broken the Fairchild night light the aunts had given her; it seemed so unavoidable to Dabney, that was why she cried, as if she had felt it was part of her being married that this cherished little bit of other peoples' lives should be shattered now. Dabney at the moment cutting a lemon for the aunts' tea brought the tears to Shelley's eyes...

One of the things I most treasure about both Woolf and Welty is the subtle and perceptive ways they both portray human communication. A lot of modern, and modernist, writing focuses on the ways in which our standard modes of communication fall short: a husband and wife are unable to say "I love you"; a supposed mourner feels nothing at his mother's funeral; two lovers make wildly erroneous assumptions about one another's feelings; a gulf grows between a father and mother because they cannot discuss their dead baby. Welty and Woolf explore these truths as well, but they also portray the flip side: the fact that, just as communication often fails when we try for it directly, so too it often succeeds in unexpected and unlooked-for ways: the glance of empathy that connects two sisters across a room full of family; the way the minds of two old friends can flow easily in and out of each others' thoughts; the unexpected welcome of an errant daughter-in-law by a family expected to reject or punish her; a favorite uncle's genuine compassion when his niece steals his pipe in order to give it back to him as a present; the self-sacrifice of two maiden aunts, giving their most precious possession to a headstrong young bride. Welty seems to argue, here, that although we can none of us predict or wholly understand ourselves or others, and although our attempts at connection will seldom work as we intend, there are still moments of true, loving communion available to us in the world, and they will come to us unexpectedly, as gifts.

It seemed to Ellen at moments that George regarded them, and regarded things - just things, in the outside world - with a passion which held him so still that it resembled indifference. Perhaps it was indifference - as though they, having given him this astonishing feeling, might for a time float away and he not care. It was not love or passion itself that stirred him, necessarily, she felt - for instance, Dabney's marriage seemed not to have affected him greatly, or Robbie's anguish. But little Ranny, a flower, a horse running, a color, a terrible story listened to in the store in Fairchilds, or a common song, and yes, shock, physical danger, as Robbie had discovered, roused something in him that was immense contemplation, motionless pity, indifference...Then, he would come forward all smiles as if in greeting - come out of his intensity and give some child a spank or a present. Ellen had always felt this about George and now there was something of surprising kinship in the feeling ... In the midst of the room's commotion he stood by the mantel as if at rest.

(Delta Wedding was my fifth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1940s.)

BBAW: Interview with My Kingdom for a Book


I think the mutual interviews are such a cool feature of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and I'm excited to be contributing my interview, with Beatrice of My Kingdom for a Book. Beatrice reviews, as her blog-header says, "mostly paranormal romance" - obviously, she and I focus on different types of books. At first that made me a little nervous, but I ended up having a lot of fun putting together questions for someone with such different tastes, and I hope Beatrice had fun too! (Also, I have to thank my love of Candy and Sarah at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for educating me enough about paranormal romance to sound remotely intelligent in this interview.) Thanks, Beatrice, for the good questions and thoughtful answers! Beatrice's interview with me will be posted on her blog later today.

You are a busy blogger! Tell us a bit about yourself and your three blogs (I thought I was busy with two!).
I love reading books, and I love writing, so being a book review blogger just seemed natural! I started blogging at My Kingdom for a Book about a year ago, just in time to participate in last year's BBAW! My other two blogs grew out of conversations with my friends. One is about being single. I am actually planning to close that one down soon because I've met someone and can't really blog about being single any more! My third blog is about trying out different churches in my area, kind of a like a mystery worshipper. I really do love to write, so the three blogs seems like fun instead of work! I am also hosting a book club for romance novels over at AOL's, I am very excited about that. And other than reading and writing, I am a special education teacher!

What makes a really great paranormal romance, in your opinion? Why are those two elements (romance and the supernatural) a great combination?
A great paranormal romance for me is novel. There are so many different paranormal elements that you can write about--werewolves, vampires, other shifters, fairies, demons, and I even recently heard about killer unicorns! I want to read something different, and paranormal romance is an ideal place to find the novel. I also enjoy a nice, steamy sex scene or two as well!

Examining the flip side for a moment, what are the most common pitfalls that ruin a paranormal romance for you?
I am actually pretty easy to please. There aren't a lot of paranormal romances that I don't find interesting. If they are trite or not well-written, I have a hard time. If they are the same old story, that's uninteresting to me as well. I'm not sure that I've read enough bad paranormal romances to have come across a common pitfall.

My impression is that paranormal romance is a genre that's totally exploding in popularity right now - any ideas on why that might be?
If I had to put my finger on one reason, it's escapism. It's a difficult time in the United States. People are looking for something to take them away from their worries. Paranormal romance fits that need. It's close enough to real life to be believable, but far enough that it takes people away for a little while. On top of that, there are ways to make the relationships in the paranormal romances seem like they are destined to be. Relationships are shaky now as well with the divorce rate over 50%. What woman wouldn't love to know that they'd made the right choice? I know that it would make me feel a lot better!

You went to the recent BlogHer conference in Chicago, and it seems like you had an amazing time. What are your top take-aways from that experience? Did it change how you feel about blogging at all?
I did have an amazing time! I love talking about it, so thank you for asking! One of the top things I learned was about what an amazing online community there is! There are so many incredibly talented women out there. They're making a difference in the world. There are moms who have spending power and affect what their readers are eating, watching, the toys they're buying for their children.. There are book reviewers who affect what people read. There are activists who are changing the world they live in. It really left me with a feeling of empowerment about being a woman.

You make no secret of the fact that you don't like books that portray vampires as nice guys. Why is that?
I don't like vampires as nice guys because I see them as predators. I like being at the top of the food chain! I don't want to think that there's some big bad out there that's going to try to eat me! I know that in general, predators are doing what they were made to do. Wolves, eagles, and other predators don't enjoy causing pain in their prey--they just want to eat. Vampires go beyond doing what they were made to do, in my opinion. They revel in mayhem and murder. It just seems like the epitome of evil to me.

What's your favorite paranormal element (vampirism, ghosts, demons, telepathy, etc.)? What intrigues you about it?
Christine Feehan's Games series holds a special place in my heart. It's about genetic manipulation that results in different abilities--telepathy, sound manipulation, and so forth. I have always wanted to be telepathic myself, so that appeals to me. Some extra abilities would be pretty cool, too!

Which are your favorite book blogs, and why?
My favorite book blog is Rip My Bodice. I've read a lot of the books that they review, so I know what they're talking about. Plus, they're really funny! I also like Texas Red Books, and The 3Rs Blog. I met both lovely ladies at BlogHer. I love opportunities to meet blogging, tweeting, social-media using people in person.
Other than that, I'm embarrassingly a bad follower of book blogs. Keeping up with everyone is a full-time job! I could spend all day reading reviews. Usually, I pop by quite a few different blogs on a semi-regular basis. Funny keeps me coming back for more.

I'm going to ask for three recommendations:
1. If someone had never read a paranormal romance before, but they were a fan of mainstream romance novels, do you have a suggestion to start them out?

I would probably recommend Christine Feehan's Game series to start with. It's close enough to reality that it would help ease into the paranormal genre. I also would recommend some of Heather Graham's paranormal romances. She writes quite a bit about ghosts and things that most people do not believe are too far out of the realm of reality.

2. What about a book for fans of supernatural/action plots, who are thinking about spicing things up with a little romance?
How spicy are we talking? Hehe. If you're looking for action, I highly recommend J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood. If you're looking for a fun read with really quirky and interesting characters, I love Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series. It's so much better than the show, although I do enjoy the show as well.

3. Lastly, what about a recommendation for all readers who just love a juicy, well-written novel with great characters and a tight plot?
Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series! It's about a werewolf named Kitty--I love the irony. I would also recommend Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series. I love how rich the lore is in her books.

And finally, because you review paranormal romance I have to ask: vampires or werewolves, and why? ;-)
Werewolves, of course! I don't know if I could deal with the whole dominance/pack dynamic if I were to date one. I like the raw, uncontrolled aspect--it seems like it would make men more masculine!

BBAW: Blogs I love


Book Blogger Appreciation Week starts today, and participants are asked to spotlight a few of our favorite non-shortlisted blogs. With a short detour to congratulate my bloggy friends Frances and Richard for their well-deserved short-listings in the "Best Writing" category (you're both awesome, guys!), here are a few book blogs I always look forward to reading. The list is, of course, too long to include everyone who should be here!

  • EL Fay at This Book and I Could Be Friends always posts essays that are insightful, thought-provoking, and, what's more, fun to read. She's been dipping into social analysis of various apocalyptic and vampire novels recently, and I've heartily enjoyed her posts (and our conversations) about the social and racial subtexts of vampire and zombie stories.

  • Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles branches out into lots of neglected genres, such as eighteenth-century novels of sensibility and biographies of Romantic poets, and she writes about them so enjoyably that I find myself seriously pondering picking up books I never would have considered without her. She thinks carefully and astutely, and I always enjoy reading the results. Also, I really relate to this post she wrote about being torn between reading for depth or breadth. Always a tough call.

  • Cynthia at Catching Days is not a "book-blogger" per se, although she often writes about books; she's more of a creative writer who blogs about the literate life. I love her meticulous, observant approach to the world around her, and the way she prizes the details. She's also been doing an interesting series on the daily routines of different writers - it's always interesting to peek into other peoples' daily structures.

  • I'm sure I won't be the only person giving a shout out to Claire at Kiss A Cloud, but hers is one of my favorite book-blogs - not only does she write beautifully about the reading life, but her visual aesthetic makes her entries a joy to look at, and her warmth and intelligent enthusiasm have been a lovely part of my book-blogging experience thus far.

  • And finally, I always look forward to reading the thoughts of Sarah at what we have here is a failure to communicate. She writes thoughtfully and well, and her taste is eclectic enough that I've learned about many books I'd never have known about, through her site. I knew for sure she was a kindred spirit when I read her recent review of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and she expressed her "deep, wonderful feeling of delight": my thoughts exactly.

And now, I'm off to explore other peoples' recommendations! Enjoy Day One of BBAW, everyone.

Kristin Lavransdatter Readalong!



Richard and I, co-participants in Claire and Steph's Bolaño readalong, realized a week ago that we were going to be totally beside ourselves once it finishes at the end of this month. It's been completely amazing to read this novel with so many other fantastic bloggers, and we don't want it to end. Our solution? Continue right on reading together, this time with a different book!

So, here's the scoop. Starting in October and continuing through December, we'll be tackling the three volumes of Sigrid Undset's classic Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, one volume per month. Aside from its similar bulk, Kristin is going to be a very different ride from 2666: set in medieval Norway, its three volumes track young Kristin from early childhood through marriage and into old age. In the process, Undset portrays a Scandinavia in the process of transition from old belief systems to Christianity, and populates it (so I hear) with a host of interesting, complex characters. The books are often called "modernist" (they were originally published in 1920-1922) which fascinates me because I've never read modernist or experimental fiction set so far in the past. Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, and Kristin is her best-known work, so I'm looking forward to giving it a try.

We'll be reading the Tina Nunnally translation, which won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prize in 2001 and apparently restored a number of the more experimental passages, which had been excised from the original English translation. It's available from Penguin in both omnibus and three individual editions.

Just like with Bolaño, people will all post their reviews of each section around the end of the month, and we can compare notes. The casual schedule is as follows, with pagination from my omnibus edition, pictured above:

  • October: The Wreath (pages 1-291)

  • November: The Wife (pages 295-697)

  • December: The Cross (pages 703-1124)

Feel like reading along? We've got an awesome group so far:

Just looking at that list makes me so excited to get started. Anyone who feels the same way is welcome to join in; just leave a comment here or on Richard's blog to let us know, and we'll corral everyone's entries for easy reference when they start appearing.

I can't wait!

Sister Carrie


Sister Carrie is one of a specific handful of American novels that I learned about in school, but (until now) never actually read. Along with those of Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Edward Bellamy and to a certain extent Stephen Crane, the works of Theodore Dreiser were always presented to me as more important to history than interesting as literature - not exactly the kind of ringing endorsement that inspires a person to run out and buy a book today. These authors were exposing social ills and introducing literary naturalism; they were unafraid to confront the American public with previously-taboo topics like the lives of prostitutes, or corrupt business interests. But lord, implied my high-school textbooks, were they ever dry and boring. Even in English classes, these authors were lauded mainly for paving the way for those writing after them, who took the social freedoms they pioneered and added a livelier prose style and a more compelling cast of characters. Recently, thinking about everything ELSE my high-school textbooks got wrong, I began to wonder if this generation of authors are really as unreadable as all that, and figured I should do my own bit of experimentation. Sister Carrie was my first foray into this early-20th-century American naturalist enclave, and it was an enlightening journey.

First of all, let me say that I can understand why Dreiser has been neglected. I would describe his prose as "utilitarian": it gets the job done, but doesn't involve any pyrotechnics. With the likes of Hemingway and Welty bursting onto the American scene a few short decades later, I can see why Dreiser's businesslike approach came to seem outdated and clunky. It's an odd, transitional-seeming style: more journalistic and less ornamented than your purple Victorian prose, yet not so aggressively streamlined or giddily experimental as the work of many Modernists.

The place smelled of the oil of the machines and the new leather - a combination which, added to the stale odours of the building, was not pleasant even in cold weather. The floor, though regularly swept every evening, presented a littered surface. Not the slightest provision had been made for the comfort of the employees, the idea being that something was gained by giving them as little and making the work as hard and unremunerative as possible. What we know of footrests, swivel-back chairs, dining-rooms for the girls, clean aprons and curling irons supplied free, and a decent cloak room, were unthought-of. The washrooms were disagreeable, crude, if not foul places, and the whole atmosphere was sordid.

(I chose this passage because it gives a fair idea of Dreiser's style, but also because I think it's hilarious that "clean aprons and curling irons supplied free" would be an item on the agenda for workers' rights. Where have my free curling irons been all these years of working, I'd like to know?)

I can also understand the criticism of Dreiser's characters for being undeveloped or unsympathetic, but I think he's actually making a conscious choice here: his super-naturalistic narrative method, combined with some cynicism about people rationalizing their own laziness, means that this is more a novel about circumstances acting on players than about individuals taking control of their own destinies. The young protagonist, Carrie, moves to the big city and quickly becomes overwhelmed with how hard a working-class woman has to labor in order to earn her living. When she's presented with the opportunity of being taken care of by a man and living with him out of wedlock, she drifts into it without ever taking decisive action. Similarly, Drouet (the young man) never plans to lure Carrie into a life of sin; he just finds it distasteful to be tied down in a real marriage, and so puts off the wedding indefinitely. The other characters drift similarly through their lives, finding reasons not to disrupt the momentum that has built up around them. I think Dreiser, like many socially- or socialist-minded writers, is using Carrie, Drouet and Hurstwood as Everyman characters; his book is more a portrait of the material conditions and social forces in turn-of-the-century Chicago and New York than of particular individuals within those cities.

I wrote in my thoughts on The Good Earth that this universalizing approach is not my favorite novelistic technique; I tend to prefer stories with highly-individualized characters and distinctive narrative voices, not to mention innovative, well-crafted prose. Nevertheless, it's a tribute to Dreiser's storytelling ability that I had a hard time putting Sister Carrie down. He uses the tools at his disposal in compelling, sometimes surprising ways: one of my favorites was the way in which he played the characters off each other, enlisting the reader's sympathy first for one, then for another. All three of the main characters act very poorly at certain points, and all three fall prey to the lure of habit and drift along in their unsatisfactory lives for painfully long periods before they are finally spurred to make some kind of change. As a reader, I found myself either frustrated with or cheering for all three characters in sequence as the novel progressed. And although any given character may be acting badly at a certain juncture, the fact that I had been rooting for them only fifty pages earlier meant that none of the three was ever wholly unsympathetic.

In fact, Dreiser works so hard to keep Carrie, Drouet and Hurstwood emotionally accessible to the reader, even at their most selfish and unlikeable, that I was reminded of the work of contemporary writers like Toni Morrison and Dorothy Allison - writers who make a point of empathizing with characters usually beyond the pale. I remember how conflicted I felt, reading Morrison's The Bluest Eye, at the author's empathic portrayal of a father who rapes his own daughter, and I wonder whether readers in 1900 would have found Dreiser's subject matter to be equally shocking and conflicting. Probably so, judging by its history: it was withdrawn from publication for being "too sordid," and only after Dreiser cut many suggestive passages did Doubleday agree to publish the expurgated version. In another triumph for Norton Critical Editions, I read the appended catalog of the passages cut in the initial publication, which was fascinating. To my surprise, many of them involved scenes in which Carrie gets cat-called and solicited on the street - surely the fact that this happens is no mystery to any urban woman? I certainly deal with it whenever I walk downtown. But maybe, at the turn of the century, men only felt confident cat-calling women who looked working-class, so the middle-class readers of Sister Carrie would not have encountered the behavior? I'm not sure how to feel about the suggestion that public humiliation of women has been democratized in American cities over the past century, but it's interesting to think about.

But cat-calling is just one small aspect of the loving-yet-critical portraits of 1890s New York and Chicago in this novel. Dreiser is at his most vivid when depicting the inhumane conditions of city life and the unfettered, dog-eat-dog realities of pre-regulation American capitalism. It's this, along with the frank portrayals of cohabiting out of wedlock, that made the book famous, and I think the urban landscape is really the star of Dreiser's show. The reader gets a strong sense of a world full of possibility ripe for the picking - all the young men, like Drouet, streaming in from the countryside to secure sales positions, the newly-constructed glass-fronted buildings housing newly-incorporated retail firms, the movers, shakers, and hangers-on in the untamed melee of exponential urban growth. And one also sees vividly how the skirmish-and-grab for that pool of possibility creates a class of casualties, left even more to their own devices than the modern urban homeless. Dreiser does a good job of communicating the extent to which all his characters are performing without a safety net, and even the highest is capable of a dramatic fall. I think I preferred Sister Carrie to The Good Earth because Dreiser's cities-as-characters are so dynamic. I'm not sure turn-of-the-century American urban literature will become my new favorite genre, but Sister Carrie was certainly enough to convince me to give it another try.

(Sister Carrie was my fourth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1900s.)

My life in books


I found this fun little exercise over at Of Books and Bicycles, and just had to put together my own list. The directions read, "Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It's a lot harder than you think!" I limited my answers to titles for greater comedic effect, but each one is linked to my review for full author info.

Describe where you currently live:
The Good Earth

If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
The Magic Mountain

Your favorite form of transportation:
The Ivory Leg in the Ebony Cabinet

Your best friend is:
A Quiet Life

You and your friends are:
Savage Girls and Wild Boys

What's the weather like:
After Dark

You fear:

What is the best advice you have to give:
All About Love

Thought for the day:
A Good Man is Hard to Find

How I would like to die:

My soul's present condition:
Inventing English

I travelled among unknown men

I TRAVELLED among unknown men,
        In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England! did I know till then
        What love I bore to thee.

'Tis past, that melancholy dream!
        Nor will I quit thy shore
A second time; for still I seem
        To love thee more and more.

Among thy mountains did I feel
        The joy of my desire;
And she I cherished turned her wheel
        Beside an English fire.

Thy mornings showed, thy nights concealed,
        The bowers where Lucy played;
And thine too is the last green field
        That Lucy's eyes surveyed.

                              -William Wordsworth

We've just returned home from an epic family-reunion-slash-business-trip-slash-cross-country drive, and while it was amazing and encouraging and all things good, I'm SO GLAD to be home. I love travel and I'm already plotting my next adventures. Even so, it's always so special to come back to the place I belong. Hello, bed! Hello, books! Hello, half-dead houseplants! How I love you all.

Everyone who commented on my Bolaño entry, I haven't forgotten you. I will be over to comment on your entries just as soon as my bags are unpacked and my shower is taken. Ah! Hooray for being home.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography