A Look Back at Look at Me

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When Jennifer Egan completed her final revisions for Look at Me in January of 2001, September 11th was just another date, Facebook wasn't even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye, and to tweet was a verb reserved for birds. Yet in her meditation on our collective preoccupation with seeing and being seen, Egan eerily captured the zeitgeist of the decade to come.

Egan's novel revolves around characters with special insights into the power of projected image. There's a fashion model who must remake her career after an accident (and then a plastic surgeon) have remade her face. There's a plain teenager girl who must struggle through the difficulty of having sexual desires in a high-school culture that reserves such things for the made-over. There's an aging high-school-football God derailed by an apocalyptic vision of a future in which people are assembled from parts as machines once were. And there's Z, a would-be terrorist who must disguise himself to infiltrate American society and destroy the "conspiracy"--the way America uses media to tempt the world into remaking itself in its image.

If Z's story is the most frighteningly prescient, it's Charlotte's, the model, whose is the most surprisingly relatable. As someone who is literally paid for her face, she is, as one (academic) character puts it, "a more exaggerated version of everyone's position in a visually based, media-driven culture." In a world where bosses check the Facebook's of interviewees and companies replace full-time employees with case-by-case hires from an online talent pool, self-presentation, especially online, is becoming as much a part of modern work as sending emails or filling in Excel spreadsheets.

This is especially the case once Charlotte tries to re-launch her career with the help of an internet start-up called Ordinary People, a web database of PersonalSpacesTM in which people from all different walks of life share their "Childhood memories. Dreams. Diary Entries," with interested subscribers. Of course, no web service that exists today is exactly like the one Egan imagines. No one (or very few) are paid to set up a Facebook or a Twitter, no one pays to read them, and anyone, not just those chosen as especially interesting, can set up one of these services. Yet it's hard not to identify with Charlotte when she finds herself thinking for her PersonalSpace while walking through the city. "Childhood Memory: Pretending with my sister that our lives were a 24-hour movie. Regret/ Missed Opportunity: I'd forgotten every line of 'The Eve of Saint Agnes.'" At the end of the novel, Charlotte's internet identity becomes such a performance that the real her is no longer needed to inhabit it. She sells her identity to live out her life in secret, under another name, while her computer-generated image becomes the first woman to give birth online. 

In this way she becomes the perfect illustration of the ex-jock's vision of "a disaster in which the genius of the Industrial Revolution would be turned on people themselves; whereby human beings would be assembled from parts just as guns and boots and bicycles had once been." That's not so different from what new-media theorist Rob Horning wrote about Facebook in 2011.

 

It implements freedom of self-representative choices as a mode of control; our identities are "unfinished" but contained by the site, which ensures that more of our social energy is invested in self-presentation there--selling objectified fragments of ourselves as though we are consumer goods.

 

But what makes Egan's novel so memorable is not only the accuracy of her insight but also her exploration of the inner lives hidden behind her characters' polished surfaces.  As Charlotte walks the city composing her online profile, she also hates herself for the ease with her thoughts conform to the new medium. In fact Charlotte, used to years of professional looking, develops a habit of searching for shadow selves: "possible selves [people hid] behind the strange rubber masks of their faces. I could nearly always find one, if I looked long enough." So Oscar, her sharp-dressing booker, is secretly sad; Paul Shepard, the World Bank employee she hooks up with one night, hides a calculating shadow self behind his nice, Mid-West exterior. Charlotte, behind her newly-made face, is disillusioned with her own hunger for fame, and Z, behind his near-perfect accent and calm façade, seethes with a rage that is also desire.

Not always flattering, but if there is any comfort to be found in the book, it is in these shadow selves. Egan insists that no matter how much a performance our public lives become, we will never really be factory made. Because once we have turned off the web-cam and logged off of our profile, our shadow self remains, free to confront the shadow self beside us on the couch with indifference, hatred, or even love.

Review by Olivia Rosane

Orphaned Feelings: A Review of Nicole Krauss's Great House

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Cover of "Great House: A Novel"

Nicole Krauss's Great House has avoided the baggage of "women's fiction" pointed out by Meg Wolitzer in a recent New York Times article; unlike other contemporary novels written by women, the jacket of Great House does not deal in domestic clichés, the "laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house" (Wolitzer). Instead, the cover is abstract, textual: a jacket which does not diminish the strong, serious stuff within.  

Great House is most remarkable in its central structuring device--it is anchored by the heft of an old, somewhat monstrous desk, a desk which connects the four otherwise disparate narrators weaving their dark tales. The first is a female novelist who holds onto it for a Chilean poet who then disappears from her life. The desk roots her to her apartment for decades and guides the writing of each of her novels: "One drawer was slightly ajar, one of the nineteen drawers, some small and some large, whose odd number and strange array, I realized now . . . had come to signify a kind of guiding if mysterious order in my life" (16). The preoccupations of this narrator as she gives her life story to another character, a judge in a hospital bed, revolve around this desk--her memories of it, her grief--now that it has been retrieved by another of the characters on behalf of the missing poet. Another narrator has given his life to the pursuit of furniture that had been lost by the Jews in the Holocaust. The novel, in some sense, is a lineage of the desk. 

Virginia Woolf wrote that a novel should have a vertical line going through it as an organizing principle--the chiming of Big Ben in Mrs. Dalloway and the lighthouse in To the Lighthouse --as though such a work is not a linear thing, moving ahead chronologically, but a circling one, rippling outwards from a solid centre. Though Great House spans full lifetimes, covering failed relationships of all kinds and the mysteries people are to one another, it does so anchored, always, by the enormous, ownerless desk.

The lineage of the desk is, of course, fraught. Its owners have led tragic lives, filled with secrets. The desk itself has a locked drawer: "The drawer had been locked for as long as I could remember . . . . I always instinctively reached for it first, awakening a kind of fleeting unhappiness, a kind of orphaned feeling that I knew had nothing to do with the drawer but had somehow come to live there" (21). All of the feelings--the loneliness, confusion, rage, and unhappiness shared by the characters--are orphans: we never truly understand their origins and neither do the characters. Instead, we grope in the darkness of a novel evocative of terror and refusing to explain. 

Besides the structure, one other remarkable thing about Great House is these evocations of terror: it is filled with imagery that works to create both mood and suspense but never becomes properly symbolic. Images and objects are not translated in a direct way into ideas; instead, they communicate pain and terror without making their meaning clearly known. The characters, similarly, are groping and do not share their secrets with the reader. There is a story of a mother who burns herself and her children to death. Furniture begins to seem like decomposing bodies, and the first narrator's life turns edgy with depression and anxiety when the desk is finally taken from her. Another character is described by his narrator, his father, as nonhuman, as strange: "There was a little moonlight, and from what I could see the stick figure looked like neither a man nor a woman, and not a child either. An animal, maybe. A wolf, or a wild dog" (63). Most secretive, most traumatized is the character of Lotte Berg, who tells her husband nothing of her experience during the war--the loss of her parents and her home--and who takes daily swims in the "swimming hole" that gives one of the chapters its title: "She'd approach the water's edge. For a moment she would stand completely still. God knows what she thought about. Up until last she was a mystery to me. . . . And then, in a flash, she'd disappear into the darkness" (77). Characters are ghostly, beastly, being swallowed up. Most fearsome of all is the titular great house, a Victorian which has "gone to seed" (110). Like something in a nineteenth-century Gothic, its inhabitants trap themselves miserably there, a sister, a brother, and a difficult, obsessive father who leaves to seek furniture lost during the Second World War: "Leah remembered the arrival of certain of these long-lost pieces . . . , tense and somber events that had terrified her so much as a small child she would sometimes hide in the kitchen when the crates were pried open, in case what popped out were the blackened faces of her dead grandparents" (115). 

Great House is haunted by history. The repetition of all of these dark images, these secrets, as well as the looming furniture and houses haunted not by literal ghosts but by family pain, did make it feel to me like a Gothic novel. The atmosphere is thick and eerie; the frightening mood and insinuation of secrets enough in themselves to propel the narrative. Suspense is strong, but, like everything in the book, somehow mysterious; I lapped the pages up eagerly without understanding why I was so curious about the life of the desk and its owners. The narrators take us through the long stories of their lives and we follow willingly, afraid for and compelled by the secret darkness at their heart.  

Of course, the novel is about alienation, about loss, about secrets, and all of these images and stories--the monstrous furniture and terrible deeds, the swimming holes and locked drawers, the blackened faces and wolfish children--do some symbolic work. But I think that this is not, primarily, how they function. Any such symbolism is interrupted and indeterminate. Instead, they compel us to feel as the characters do, to grope like they do, and to feel their fear. Objects first give life texture, keep us company with their heft, their  physical presence. The desks that anchor our lives do so first actually and then symbolically--first by being present and then by receiving the whole confusion of meaning we wish to pour into them. 

 Review by Liz Harmer

Dan Rhodes' Little Hands Clapping

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All of Dan Rhodes' fiction has in common a predilection for the odd, grotesque and macabre, and he is at his most grisly in 2010's Little Hands Clapping. In the opening chapter we are introduced to a grey old man who sometimes wakes up in the night to find a spider making its way towards his mouth. The old man chews and swallows the spider, then contentedly goes back to sleep.  Although Rhodes continues to refer to him simply as 'the old man', we learn that his name is Herr Schmidt, and that he is the resident curator of a museum of suicide in a town in Germany. This is not a museum that teems with visitors, and the old man likes it that way; he prefers to do as little as possible and takes no pleasure in anything except for the occasional cakes made by his employer, who is known only as 'Pavarotti's wife' on account of her being married to a man who uncannily resembles the late opera singer. The old man rarely speaks and, when cakes or spiders are not forthcoming, barely even eats, living on a meagre diet of cheese and crackers.

Of the trickle of curious visitors that comes into the museum, some arrive with a specific purpose in mind, one that is at odds with the designated aim of the place.  Pavarotti's wife intended it as a place that might discourage potential suicides, but its success in achieving this objective is far from definitive. According to one press cutting about the museum, it is 'incoherent and insensitive', though the same article describes it as 'a handy advice shop for the emotionally fragile.' At any rate, fairly regular suicides take place within the museum and, in a sinister supernatural detail, it is at the exact moments when people kill themselves in the building that a spider creeps into the old man's mouth.  It is in these deaths that the wider plot of Little Hands Clapping is grounded; Herr Schmidt has developed a professional relationship with a local doctor, Ernst Frölicher, who retrieves the corpses from the museum.  If the old man has strange eating habits, then these are more than matched by those of the doctor, who keeps four chest freezers full of cadavers in his garage.

The peculiar mixture of horror, comedy and pathos that Rhodes deploys comes to a point of intersection in Doctor Frölicher, whose cannibalistic habits are somewhat anomalous with his virtuous character. Frölicher makes a point of drinking fair-trade coffee and tries to keeps his freezers full so as to increase their efficiency.  His taste for human flesh is not a perversion, but an addiction; he assumes that all doctors must try it at some time but, having sampled a kidney early on his career, he is unable to quit - although some of the offal is now reserved for his dog. He connects the habit to his strict ethical code by treating his unorthodox disposal of the bodies as a means of protecting the museum and its management from disgrace.  The old man has no comparable ethics. He too wishes to conceal the suicides from Pavarotti's wife, but this is neither to protect her nor to subvert her work, but simply so that the responsibilities of his job are kept to a minimum.

The old man is a flat character, a straightforward villain  Indeed, Rhodes' characters are often pawns, whose frequently tragic destinies cannot be changed.  He never comes across as an omnipotent narrator, however; it is as though he is merely the storyteller, who narrates events as they happened.  This has been a constant in his work, which has often tended to eschew familiar locations in favour of more unknown places that can more easily be mythologised.  Although he is a British writer, he has set only one of his novels in the UK (Gold, whose action takes places in a quiet Welsh village), and a number of his short stories are completely devoid of any sense of place at all.  Little Hands Clapping is set partly in Portugal, but predominantly in the German town that is home to the suicide museum.  No distinctive details are assigned to this town, making it impossible to locate, and impossible to determine whether it is supposed to be based on an actual location.

However, one actual place alluded to in the novel functions as its cultural, even if not its geographical, setting.  This is the town of Hamelin, best known for the legend of the Pied Piper who was called in to rid the place of rats but, following a dispute over remuneration, also lured away all of its children. Indeed, Robert Browning's interpretation of the legend provides Rhodes with his title:

Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.

Hamelin makes an appearance in the novel as the birthplace of Pavarotti's wife, who was so disturbed by this story that she felt the need to do something positive - hence the founding of her museum.  Upon first glance, this may appear to be just one more of Rhodes' throwaway comments about a character's eccentricities.  But, in the context of this particular novel, it has deeper meaning, aligning Little Hands Clapping with the folktale tradition that is implicit in his earlier work.  By including the reference to the Pied Piper legend, Rhodes situates his placeless narrative in the same folkloric world; his Germany is the same Germany as that of the Hamelin of that legend.

It has the same black humour, too. Browning's version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin is at once playful and dark, telling the story of the ensnared children in language that skips like those children's little feet.  Rhodes uses comic rather than poetic language to produce his tone, but the resulting effect is similar.  The grey old man is a kind of inverted Pied Piper, and all the more sinister for his muteness.  While the Pied Piper legend tells of children being led away from their town, Little Hands Clapping tells of people being drawn towards the suicide museum.  But the darkly capricious style is not quite sustained for the entire length of the novel.  As it draws towards its climax, the uneasy humour descends into outright farce, reaching its nadir in an episode in which Frölicher's dog throws up a human penis.  One of the reviews of the suicide museum that are quoted in Little Hands Clapping describes it as, 'A curious mixture of stark, disturbing realism and high camp.'  This can almost be taken as a description of the text in which it is embedded.  Some of the events in the novel may seem to be absurd and unrealistic, but the book is consistently realistic in its portrayal of human feeling.  This earths the more outlandish elements - though not fully, leaving the novel teetering just over the edge of plausibility and confirming it as a modern and macabre folk tale.

Review by Alan Ashton-Smith
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The collected love letters in Simone de Beauvoir's A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren chart not only the passionate, tumultuous affair between the two writers, but also the social, political, and cultural changes from 1947 to 1964. When I picked up this book in a used bookstore, I thought that it would make a great coffee table book--one that could start engaging conversations and be read from time to time by guests or myself. This, however, was not the case. Once I started reading, I found myself caught up in the developing love relationship between de Beauvoir and Algren and intrigued by the recollections of day-to-day activities among the intellectual sphere in France and also abroad. As an English major, I have read de Beauvoir's more "academic" texts, but my time spent with A Transatlantic Love Affair provided me with an intimate portrait of a major literary figure that was refreshing. The nature of these letters, primarily love, provides a portrait of de Beauvoir that is not talked about in classrooms. The letters are prolific in their information, but much of what de Beauvoir writes can be categorized into three groups: her feelings for Algren; literature, theatre, and art; and the political, intellectual, and cultural atmosphere of France and abroad.  

Any romantic relationship, especially a "transatlantic" one, evolves over time, and de Beauvoir's letters intimately capture all the little moments of her relationship with Algren. The love relationship between the two was almost immediate; after just two months de Beauvoir ended her letter writing, "I am your wife forever." Despite their initial infatuations with each other, de Beauvoir comments quite frequently in the first letters about not truly knowing Algren. This shifts a few months later, when de Beauvoir writes, "I feel now, instead we are getting nearer and nearer through these letters." The reason that this collection of letters is so difficult to put down is two-fold: first the letters transcend and act as a mirror to our own personal love stories or the ones we hope to have, and second the letters reveal a poignant narrative of a relationship between two artists.  

Indeed, the intense desire to love and be loved that de Beauvoir relates in her letters to Algren makes the letters more of a love story than one would expect from reading only one partner's letters. Each letter contains quotable passages that would illustrate this, but the following highlights the intricate prose and also the crystallization of their bond: "Something happened when we said good bye in New York, and it was the beginning of love. But something happened too when I found you again in the Wabansia home and I stood quivering in your arms, and it was the fulfillment of love." The relationship between de Beauvoir and Algren shifted over time and eventually the letters she writes to him begin to change in subtle, but distinct ways. Because the letters of Algren are not included in this book, it is hard not to feel more sympathetically towards de Beauvoir, especially towards the end of the collection. Algren is definitively the one who ends their relationship in 1964, but their correspondence does not end bitterly. The last letter de Beauvoir writes to Algren is hopeful, she writes she is travelling to the States in 6 months and that she will "find" him. Despite the tinge of promise in the last letter, the ending of their relationship and subsequently the ending of their exchange of letters are heartbreaking. De Beauvoir never did "find" Algren, and the last letter in the collection is the end of their correspondence. 

The title of the collection of letters speaks to the love that is found in each of the letters, but, in truth, there is a lot more than love embedded in de Beauvoir's writings to Algren. De Beauvoir writes about the present turmoil and also about the war years, women's issues, and the differences between American and French culture. Simone de Beauvoir was part of the "intellectuals" in France, and in her letters she meticulously records the political atmosphere and the cultural changes occurring in France and Europe. When de Beauvoir and Algren start their correspondence, the political situation in France is tumultuous. The letters provide a portrait of the struggles between the Communist Party and the Popular Republican Movement: "two blocks in France now, just as outside: USA or USSR, De Gaulle or Thorez, a kind of civil war." The letters span a period of twenty years, and the letters act as a memoir of sorts of the life of an activist. At one point she writes about a radio engagement where she and Jean Paul Sartre spoke against de Gaulle: "I don't think we'll go on a long time; they will fire us, but it was pleasant to be able to say in so loud a voice what we thought." 

Perhaps the most rewarding part of reading de Beauvoir's letters is getting a behind the scenes view of the literati. De Beauvoir had an extremely close relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, among other French authors, musicians, actresses and actors, and philosophers. De Beauvoir writes about Sartre's work and the reception of his plays by the public and by Sartre himself. Through the letters, we get an inside look at Sartre and his work and also de Beauvoir's. One of her projects during her relationship with Algren that she writes about is her famous work The Second Sex. I had read The Second Sex in a course, but reading about her process of writing it in the letters made that text even more intriguing. In the beginning of 1948, a year before it was published, she writes, "I came back to my essay about women. I told you, I have never felt bad for being a woman, and sometimes I even enjoy it, as you know. Yet when I see other women around me, I think they have very peculiar problems and it would be interesting to look at what is peculiar in them." In everything that de Beauvoir writes about in her letters about The Second Sex, one gains a perspective that lends to a more thorough reading of that seminal text. 

I could continue writing about all the topics that can be found in the many letters Simone de Beauvoir wrote to Nelson Algren, but part of the joy of reading the letters is discovering the little secrets about de Beauvoir and her life. These letters are a snapshot of a side of de Beauvoir that is not found in biographies or her academic writing. Her love letters to Algren are a captivating portrayal of a love story--the full spectrum, from a passionate, romantic love to a compassionate, platonic affection--and her activities and intellectual thoughts. While that information seems to be inconsequential, compared to her love for Algren, to de Beauvoir, every sentence in her letters is alluring and fascinating. Reading these letters, one truly does feel as if one is a confidante of de Beauvoir and privy to her dearest and most private thoughts. 

Review by Sheri Gitelson 


Outsider Art: Victor LaValle's Big Machine

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British neo-fabulist Angela Carter wrote, "our flesh arrives to us out of history, like everything else does." That history is constituted by "the cultural impedimenta of our social class, our parents' lives, our bank balances." Yet it's a fact of most fiction that passes as realist now, more than 30 years after Carter's writing, that those impedimenta, most especially where social class and bank balances are concerned, are conspicuously absent. A writer like Victor LaValle stands out from the crowd of U.S. literary authors not only because his writing treads a ground similar to Carter's: a landscape where the mundane and the mysterious intersect, but also because his writing pays deliberate attention to the social class and bank balances of its major characters, characters who, while they are fighting for the souls of all of humanity, travel by Greyhound bus. 

LaValle's characters hail from the margins. Hardly surprising, as the legacy that they fulfill arrives out of America's darkest history. At the center of the novel is the Washburn Library, an institution founded in the 18th century by escaped slave Judah Washburn, deep in the Vermont woods (Vermont having outlawed slavery in 1777). The library's staff of "Unlikely Scholars," Black men and women, all narrowly escaped from lives of crime and addiction, work as paranormal investigators, chasing a sequel to the enigmatic revelation that led Washburn to found his library. The supernatural quests of these detectives, "spiritual X-Men," in one character's derisive description, mask a conflict between secret societies, dueling conspiracies of the oppressed, for control of Washburn's legacy.

Ishmael Reed, acknowledged among the "Black Eccentrics" who made "being a weird black kid" easier for the young LaValle, writes, "beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies." But the secret societies at the center of Big Machine are composed of real outsiders: the poor and working class, the homeless, the addicted and the criminal, those against whom most political and cultural warfare is waged. Big Machine starts with the marginalized and moves further outward, to those even more abject than its protagonists: a man kicked off of a bus into a snowstorm, an invisible army of the homeless, the possibility of redemption conferred by creatures who only inspire horror. The invitation to these most abject, to come back in, gives Big Machine its extraordinary moral and narrative power.

Big Machine weaves the conventions of genre literature with a philosophy of the oppressed. It represents a theological reckoning based on no familiar doctrine with an utter absence of irony. That absence is essential, because the subjects of Big Machine are the earth's most wretched. Big Machine's protagonist, Ricky Rice, introduces himself from the bathroom of the Utica, NY bus station. A janitor, armchair philosopher, and a tenuously recovered heroin addict, Ricky takes refuge in this bathroom when he receives a mysterious envelope: "What can I say? Lurking in toilets was my job." Ricky is hiding, not cleaning, on the morning the book begins, because a cryptic message and a bus ticket have summoned Ricky to the Library, where he joins a cohort of Unlikely Scholars: "We were a wild mix of people. Most of us were missing a couple of teeth somewhere in our mouths. Our fingertips showed scars and hardened skin from the years of cradling hot glass pipes." In the Vermont woods, they search local newspapers from across the U.S. for paranormal phenomena. Yet when Ricky succeeds at his search, the Washburn Library is revealed as one of two secret forces battling for control of a mysterious supernatural power. This struggle between secret societies pits the Scholars against the growing power of a demagogue, a rogue scholar and homegrown bin Laden who sends homeless men into acts of horrific, terroristic mass murder.

Mass murder isn't even simple in this book, though, because mass murderers taught Ricky the most profound lessons of his childhood. A "weird kid," Ricky was brought up in a Christian cult known as the Washerwomen, whose leaders massacred their own families. Part MOVE and part gnostics, the Washerwomen are perhaps the first indication that Big Machine's genre markings belie a deadly serious undercurrent. LaValle is a darker fabulist than Reed: Big Machine's struggle between secret societies is a battle between the outsiders and the abject, and even the falsest of prophets dispense wisdom.

No one would call Big Machine realist, yet it is decidedly concerned with economic realities, with how harshly economic circumstances constrain life and ambition. This is a theme LaValle could have learned from Jane Austen as well as Shirley Jackson, or Charles Dickens, or any number of social realists, yet it is frustratingly absent from much contemporary fiction. While saying that Big Machine follows the money might seem like damning with faint praise, in my book it counts as a clear division between literature that is flimsy and ephemeral, and literature with consequence. This attention to the fundamental necessity of American life--cash--makes Big Machine a substantial novel, not just good, but brilliant. In one of many such moments, Ricky laments that his recovery from addiction has obscured any other accomplishment, "Even when I stole and scammed and pulled knives on junior high school children, I still showed up for my shift at the movie theater, the restaurant, the bookstore. I took some pride in that, but it's a small victory, I guess. Certainly nobody else ever noticed."

This skill, sensitivity, and erudition with which LaValle represents the utterly abject makes Big Machine breathtaking. In a landscape of contemporary fiction where realism ignores the essential realities of the everyday, LaValle's attention to persons and details that are usually forgotten positions Big Machine within a literary tradition that demands sympathy for the most despised, whether that's Moll Flanders or Jesse Hexam. Ricky's partner turns out to be a sort of modern Moll. An alcoholic ex-prostitute, horribly tortured as a girl, her history is written on her body even more clearly than Ricky's: "she had these little nicks and bumps on her neck, half a dozen. They were razor scars. The kind you get from fighting, not shaving."

A book that wears its heart, and its genre, on its sleeve, Big Machine is a detective-horror fiction that betrays the influence, not only of an "eccentric" like Reed, but other traffickers in paranoia, suspicion, and mystery: Poe and Kafka, Shirley Jackson, even Flannery O'Connor, all of whom invoke genres and then explode them. As in the work of these past masters, the sensation of horror forces characters and readers into confrontations with profound mysteries. In Big Machine the mystery is both generic and divine, a system of genre conventions and a theological reckoning--one that is, in this instance, unchained from any religious doctrine. That reckoning gives the book its title: "Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men."

Review by Madeleine Monson-Rosen

Saul Bellow's The Bellarosa Connection

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At times I feel like a socket that remembers its tooth"
- Saul Bellow, The Bellarosa Connection

One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.
~Emily Dickinson, "Time and Eternity"

 

I had had a failure of memory the other morning, and it had driven me almost mad, writes the nameless narrator of Saul Bellow's 1989 novella The Bellarosa Connection.  I had a tune in my head. The words came to me:

Way down upon the...
Way down upon the ...
...upon the ______ River...
But what was the river called! (69-70) 

The narrator began the shaggy dog tale describing his retirement from a lucrative 40 year career "[a]s founder of the Mnemosyne Institute in Philadelphia," leaving "the Institute in the capable hands of my son," asserting that he "would like to forget about remembering" as he proceeds to do the ironic, emphatic opposite for the rest of the book.

When I first picked it out from a library shelf (I do own a Kindle) for a now unremembered reason, I was haunted by Bellow's prediction: "In your twilight years...you don't want to keep doing what you did throughout your life: a change, a change - your kingdom for a change!...but if you have worked in memory, which is life itself, there is no retirement except in death" (1-2). So Bellow was channeling not so much Richard III as Lear.

My memory beat the narrator's (Swanee!) before Bellow connected his punch (line), and I enjoyed the Skinner Box moment of stimulus-response as a little brain zotz of endorphin probably spritzed my amygdala. Altogether, The Bellarosa Connection reminds me of George Carlin's best stand up specials. It reads like a Remember Me! from a trinity-ghost of King Hamlet/Carlin/Bellow. The novella, which is ostensibly about memory and mortality, conjures in my mind Pavlov and the stainless steel Skinner boxes in my college psych lab where generations of pigeon memories were created/destroyed. It invokes my current reading of reports on memory research by neuroscientists in Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto. It parallels predictions about the end of the world (as we know it) not by Aluminum Hats but from the best (human) minds working in Artificial Intelligence who argue about the year 2045, when The Singularity may occur and computers with vastly more memory than homo sapiens will supersede our species, and [Star Trek's] Data rules. One need look no further than theorist Ray Kurzweil, who envisions a future in which developments in medical nanotechnology will allow us to download a copy of our individual brains into these superhuman machines, leave our bodies behind, and, in a sense, live forever. It's heady stuff.

Now I do recall what prompted my search to relocate Bellow's Bellarosa after all these years. Last November, Liesl Schillinger wrote a review of Julian Barnes's new novel The Sense of an Ending . At least two earlier books by Barnes were favorites of mine (The Sense of an Ending  and Arthur & George ), so I finally got around to reading Sense. Barnes's novel is also about memory, but his characters' disconnections contrasted so vividly with Bellow's cast that I had to go back to see if I remembered correctly. I was also reminded of another 1989 'memory' novel, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day that also holds up a better mirror to Mnemosyne*.

Both Bellow and Ishiguru recreated forgotten times through memorable characters like Billy Rose and the Fonsteins and Lord Darlington's butler Stevens in epic landscapes (Holocaust, WWII and postwar fallouts). Memory in A Sense of an Ending begins with postwar coming of age characters in domestic Britain. Maybe that accounts for the sense of diminution, but I suspect it is Barnes's choice of an enervated main character rather than zeitgeist. The 60's weren't the 40's, but there was plenty goin' on. Tony, the main character in Sense, was young in the 60's, and his present day "

tragedy, 'if this isn't too grand a word,' is that he avoids deep connection... In college he did not consummate his relationship with Veronica, telling himself that abstinence spared him burdensome conversations about "where the relationship was heading.'... But 40 years later, her mother's bequest reawakens Tony's memories of...Veronica...'Part of me hadn't minded not 'going the whole way,' he decides. It had protected him from 'an overwhelming closeness I couldn't handle.'  

By the end of Sense, why Veronica's mother - who had a child with another of her daughter's beaux - a suicide - left Tony a hunk of money remains distractingly inexplicable.

In contrast, by the end of The Remains of the Day, the reader understands Butler Stevens and quisling-fool Lord Darlington just as we do Bellow's cast in The Bellarosa Connection. Two 1989 reviews (by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William H. Prichard, respectively) expertly summarize and comment on Bellow's novella. Bellarosa is Holocaust-escapee Fonstein's Italian mispronunciation of Billy Rose, whose underground network in Rome saved his life, and whose desire to thank Billy Rose drives the plot. Fonstein feels connected to Billy Rose, but the show biz impresario rejects the idea. (You may have seen James Caan as Billy Rose in 1975's Funny Lady, playing Barbra Streisand's-Fanny Brice's third husband.) Fonstein's Jabba-the-Hut-sized wife Sorella pursues Billy Rose, and in a climactic scene, thematically set in Jerusalem, she confronts the savior-nemesis to get him to spend 15 minutes with her husband. Her rage results in her throwing blackmail evidence at Billy Rose, but her throw doesn't connect and the documents fly out a hotel window. At which point, the reader remembers Psalm 137 (King James Version): By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

The strange land in Bellow's story is America. Also strange is how US immigrants rise so fast to celebrity. The memory-expert narrator characterizes Fonstein, Sorella, and Billy Rose as grandiose. Billy Rose "had the high color of people who are observed--the cynosure flush" (42). Fonstein's escape from Nazi-Europe is an action-thriller chase. Sorella is literally huge: "She made you look twice at a doorway. When she came to it, she filled the space like a freighter in a canal lock. (48) And Billy Rose's reality eclipses fiction." On March 9 and March 10, 1943, he did produce the consciousness-raising We Will Never Die for audiences of more than 40,000 in two shows at Madison Square Garden. The event received substantial media coverage, carrying its message to audiences beyond those who actually attended the pageant. The pageant was next staged in Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall on April 12, before an audience that included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six justices of the Supreme Court, more than two hundred Members of Congress, and numerous members of the international diplomatic corps. 

'I did all I could,' said Billy. 'And for that point of time, that's more than most can say...Guys were sitting on their hands...FDR snowed those famous rabbis when they visited him. He blinded them with his footwork, that genius cripple. Churchill also was in on this with him. The goddam white paper.  So? There were refugees by the hundred thousands to ship to Palestine. Or there wouldn't have been a state...today. That's why I gave up the single-party rescue operation and started to raise money to get through the British blockade in those rusty Greek tramp ships.' (54)

     The Bellarosa Connection is a see-saw of thoughtfulness about memory in general and American Jewish memory in particular. The narrator's first person agonizes over his ironic career as a memory expert/teacher, arriving at an epiphany that he has nearly failed the test Sorella posed for him on the oft-quoted page 65: "The Jews could survive everything that Europe threw at them. I mean the lucky remnant. But now [1959] comes the next test - America. Can they hold their ground, or will the U.S.A. be too much for them?"

       The narrator answers her (and a callow young strawman at the end of the book) in the last paragraph (102), summarizing the effort of his memoir: 

Suppose I were to talk to him about the roots of memory in feeling...if I were to tell him what retention of the past really means. Things like: 'If sleep is forgetting, forgetting is also sleep, and sleep is to consciousness what death is to life. So that the Jews ask even God to remember...God doesn't forget, but your prayer requests him particularly to remember your dead. But how was I to make an impression on a kid like that? I chose instead to record everything I could remember of The Bellarosa Connection, and set it all down with a Mnemosyne flourish. 

If we forget, Bellow exhorts, our right hand will indeed lose her cunning.

     Rereading Bellarosa in 2012, I wondered what the author would write today. In 1989, he described the Fonsteins' math prodigy son as gone awry (101), a Las Vegas gambler whose method...involves memorizing the deck in every deal. (99) But Bellow's fears about secular assimilation appear not only unsupported but also zealously advanced by selective (more swords-than-ploughshares) memories of Zion than he might like. Saul Bellow (who died in 2005) would be curious about current memory research, accessible to non-scientists in two Discover articles: that memories are selectively altered just by remembering them, they do have a cranial location (engrams), and some memories are much better forgotten. Now, some of the best human minds are studying brain chemistry/architecture, and others are developing Artificial Intelligence that, come The Singularity, may subsume or supersede human memory. The Bellarosa Connection, Saul Bellow's endeavor to remember Jerusalem, an immortal longing that rivals Cleopatra's, eventually feels like discovering a splendid fossil who tries arguing against evolution.

Review by LS Bassen


Note:

*A titaness. The daughter of Gaia and Uranus and the Greek personification of memory.

WONDERLAND300.jpgThe modernist impulse toward innovation and experiment alive in James Joyce's Ulysses and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons lives on in Sandy Florian's On Wonderland & Waste (purchase). Florian writes at the leading edge of the contemporary. Whenever I teach a work of hers, my students comment to the effect that they have never before read such sentences. To praise a work of writing, the ancient rabbis would say it "defiles the hands." Imagine that a work "defiles the hands" if reading the work changes the reader irreversibly. As with On Wonderland & Waste, Florian's Telescope, The Tree of No, and Prelude to Air from Water are books for readers who want to get their hands dirty. Each exhibits a distinct idiom in which Florian recovers English as a fertile medium through which she engages topics literary traditions bequeath. Florian turns (tropes) those topics or commonplaces toward her singular meditations. In those turnings, Florian achieves her fictions.

On Wonderland & Waste collects short works encompassing a variety of Florian's modes of writing. If pressed, I might call these works prose poems, with several displaying traits of the dramatic monologue. But, in truth, the works in On Wonderland & Waste defy simple generic classification. Some of the pieces seem readable as straightforward narratives. For example, "Mornings" follows the routines of a charmingly laconic urban couple groggily entering their days. Yet "Mornings" invites the reader to become delightfully lost in a labyrinth where motifs echo, awareness shifts into and out from dreams, and time goes relative. Chapters such as "And Your Messages" and "Franchise" collage sentences together into brief first-person narratives of lyric intensity. The reader will encounter reworkings of Genesis, Hamlet, and other precursor texts. Florian's response to Hamlet, titled "Dumbshow & Noise," particularly astonishes by consisting almost entirely of words and phrases from the play recast by Florian into an anonymous drowner's haunting soliloquy. 

Though already going under, this drowner communicates words, which seems impossible, barring telepathy, unless telepathy itself is impossible. Wouldn't a drowner be capable of only a thrashing dumb show and water-garbled noise? Many ways to become a drowner exist, with or without water. An early attunement to finality may suffice. Several of Florian's chapters stage the narrator or a character, even the bluebird of "Evenings," as producing words without sequel in a moment without future. The reader overhears these words, these thoughts, as if in witness to the moment in which they take place. In the places where the thoughts or words occur, time slows to a standstill, random details take on an incredible fascination, past and future mix, and death as a meaningful act of the "I" becomes unknown, though dying becomes actual. These places harbor as much dread as desire, as much terror as beauty. The literary explorer Maurice Blanchot describes such places as defining the space of literature. There, words drift from semantic fixtures, paratactic interstices spark, and the literary artist works without a net. On Wonderland & Waste excels at transporting the reader to the space of literature. 

In this space, borders erode and boundaries blur, however much distinctions remain. The shellac wears off surface colors and they become achingly saturate. Tactile sensations give meaning the slip. Desires flare. Plato, or at least the Plato of Platonism, approached such literary space with trepidation. In the Republic, Socrates claims the soul has two aspects. One trusts numbers. The other images seduce. The number-trusting aspect listens attentively to voices arguing toward orderly oneness. A shoemaker is a shoemaker and nothing else, just as a circle is a circle and nothing else, for instance a triangle. Coursing with desires, the other aspect feels drawn to images mixing kinds or showing in the very same place and at the very same time a whale and a butterfly, a circle and a triangle. Socrates presses his interlocutors to agree the number-trusting aspect must control the desiring aspect. Perhaps, as desirous, the soul never can leave the Platonic cave's shadows and step into the sun's light. In stepping toward the light, the desirous aspect of the soul would lose distinction, reluctantly becoming orderly and numerable. If there is any shadow, there must be some light. What if light were to relax and let be?

If the commonplace that "writing takes courage" has settled into a cliché, Florian undoes that cliché altogether. In her book, desireful beings speak, despite the pressures toward their silencing yet in open awareness of silence. Their ways with words Socrates would have deep and wonderful trouble countenancing. Florian freely mixes genres and invites readers toward imaginal spaces where want calls with fine urgency. Images improbable in nature find welcome. On Wonderland & Waste includes image collages by Alexis Anne Mackenzie. In response to each of Florian's texts, Mackenzie created a collage. A given text's collage appears as a color reproduction on the page across from the text's title page. Students of mine have made a point of mentioning that all the collages (except bluebird's) feature the image of a woman. 

If tragedy in the Aristotelian sense involves the expiation of an excess, say of passion, then the term "tragic" would not quite describe On Wonderland & Waste. Rather, the book crosses the elegiac with the ecstatic. The ampersand in the book's title gets the reading eye quickly from Wonderland to Waste while adroitly insisting on the one as much as on the other: a wonderland thoroughly a waste, a wasteland thoroughly a wonder.

Review by Robert Savino Oventile

J. G. Ballard's Running Wild

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running wild.jpegAlthough J. G. Ballard has been on my radar for several years, it wasn't until I picked up W. Warren Wagar's Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things that the author really piqued my interest. Like many readers, I'd heard of Ballard in the context of David Cronenberg's 1998 film adaptation of Crash (which mustn't be confused with Paul Haggis's 2005 movie of the same name) and decided that I'd like to check him out, if I was ever in the mood to read about "people who get off while watching car crashes," as one of my friends summed the movie's plot up for me. Since I never really found myself in that particular mood, however, I didn't get around to reading Crash and Ballard's name simply appended itself to the ever-lengthening list of writers that I should probably read someday. When I read Wagar's fine study of apocalyptic fiction in preparation for my own course on the subject, though, J. G. Ballard leapt to the top of the list, thanks to the critic's insightful readings of novels like The DroughtThe Crystal World, and The Drowned World.

Unfortunately for me, I couldn't find any of Ballard's apocalyptic fiction, which is what really sparked my interest, so I settled for Crash and The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (the wonderful Complete Stories had not yet been released in the United States). Sooner than I would care to admit, I found myself thoroughly mesmerized by Crash and I quickly developed a taste for the so-called Oracle of Shepperton. Between the reading I had to do in preparation for the five courses I taught and the critical and philosophical literature I had to read as I finished my doctoral dissertation, however, I had little time or -- and this is crucial when dealing with a writer as cerebral and hallucinogenic as Ballard -- mental energy to devote to leisure reading, so I did not get a chance to revisit Ballard until this summer when, having finished both my dissertation and another year of teaching, I finally could jump back into his fiction. I began by reading two stories ("Billenium" and "The Man on the 99th Floor"), felt myself bitten by the Ballard bug again, and sought his fiction out in every bookstore I could find. With the exception of one small used bookstore, however, the selection of Ballard was usually limited to Crash and one of the two short story collections I'd already had. Needless to say, I snatched up Running Wild the moment I clapped eyes on the slim volume.

Part detective story, part social satire, Running Wild focuses on Dr. Richard Greville, a police psychiatrist, as he attempts to solve "The Pangbourne Massacre," a mass murder that has wiped out the entire adult population of an exclusive gated community thirty miles west of London. Oddly, no trace of the victims' children can be found anywhere in Pangbourne Villiage, a disturbing fact that leads investigators to assume the thirteen children and teenagers have been kidnapped. Lacking any real suspects in the case and, with only the most circumstantial evidence to go by, the police find themselves at an impasse and, out of desperation, turn to Greville for assistance in uncovering the truth about the massacre despite the doctor's having recently tarnished his reputation by filing "an unpopular minority report" on another mass killing (4).

As the reader follows Greville into Pangbourne Villiage, he or she becomes increasingly aware of an overwhelming media presence in and around the estate. Of course, given both the magnitude of the crime and the disappearance of thirteen children, neither the teeming crowds of national and international newspaper and television reporters nor the mass of tree- and roof-climbing "sightseers" outside Pangbourne Village seem especially out-of-the-ordinary (25). Likewise, the security cameras monitoring the inside of the estate are a perfectly reasonable extension of the safety-ensuring measures for which gated communities are sought out. Greville, like the now-deceased residents of Pangbourne Village, approves of the security measures, believing them to be signs of a highly-civilized culture improved by late twentieth-century social engineering. Still, as the reader slowly becomes aware of the sheer number of hidden security cameras and the proliferation of salacious television documentaries about the crime, the media presence becomes oppressive, even unnerving.

Embodying this discomfort with the estate's omnipresent security monitoring is Sergeant Payne, the local police figure assigned to maintain order at the post-massacre estate. Like many readers who will have guessed the identity of the culprit(s) within the first few pages of the novella, Payne is frustrated by the overly-optimistic doctor's inability to see the obvious cracks in Pangbourne Village's serene facade. Pointing out the regimented, planned-to-the-minute schedules of the residents, the parents' penchant for sending encouraging email from their bedroom to their children's personal computers, and the ability of the high-tech security cameras to peer into every nook and cranny of each house in Pangbourne Village, Payne paints a picture of a prison masquerading as an upper-class residential utopia.

Greville's obtuseness, not surprisingly, is one of the key devices Ballard deploys in what amounts to a timely satire of the bland, yuppified society celebrated during the height of the Reagan-Thatcher era. Greville's inability to see what's so obviously, forehead-slappingly amiss in the clockwork surveillance state of Pangbourne Village suggests that, deluded by uplifting rhetoric and sincerely wanting a better world, the best, most generous among us are complicit in creating a soulless and vacuous world of unparalleled convenience and banality.

Significantly, the darkest of Ballard's black humor appears during those passages when the doctor earnestly misreads obvious clues to the identity/identities of the killer(s) because he is so eager to believe the best about the residents of and philosophy behind Pangbourne Village. With Swiftian flair, Ballard has us laughing long and hard before, in a moment of painful self-recognition, we realize that we're not laughing at the well-intentioned Greville but at ourselves and our own tendency to believe what we want to believe about humanity, even when evidence to the contrary stares us in the face.

While the book may strike some as dated, Ballard is prescient in his anticipation of helicopter parents, reality television, the invasive potential of ubiquitous technology, many of the "unthinkable" mass shootings of the past twenty years, and tragedy-hungry media impresarios looking to meld news and entertainment.

Review by Erik Grayson