ON ON BEAUTY–The Zadie Smith sensation

My short grapevine indicates that Zadie Smith’s On Beauty  is all the rage these days not only among individual readers, but among book clubs. And it deserves to be.
My other sample of Smith was The Autograph Man, which I found exciting and adventurous, full of exciting characters and situations, off-center dialogue and viewpoints, and yeasty with modern/age-old themes. Smith is at home in the mind of women or men, in academia or the ghetto, among blacks or whites, in England or America. Her love and mastery of language infuses both description and dialogue. However, in the end I thought The Autograph Man a bit strident and self-consciously iconoclastic. Not so On Beauty.
Set in a fictional Massachusetts University (small, private, liberal arts) Town near Boston, the novel centers on the Belsey family. The Belsey’s are a mix of race, class, and nationality that might have been considered too oddball to be believable even a half-century ago. Today, however, a fat Florida-born black woman married to a white English working-class-cum-academic and their mixed-race children seems well within the pale. As we enter their lives, the couple’s three children are on the brink of adulthood, the daughter (middle child) enrolled not only in the University but in her father’s class. The father-professor, Howard, is involved in a bitter academic feud with a (black, Carribean descended) London academic named Tipps over–of all things–an interpretation of a Rembrandt painting. In a manner that I can’t describe believably but which Smith renders natural and inevitable (it’s the magic writers can do, isn’t it? Transform “Are you kidding?” into “Of course?”), the argument morphs from art history to affirmative action to homophobia to family values and spills beyond the pages of academic journals to flesh and blood confrontation among members of both families.
As the dynamics proceed, we’re inside the minds and hearts of every member of the family, looking at the world through the eyes of mixed-race children who have their own special identity struggles with a dimension that most of us can only imagine. As the principal of a middle school attended by quite a number of such students, I can attest to the pain and confusion of their situation. Faced with one of those government race-identification forms, one student said, “They want me to choose between my mother and my father, right?” Right.
We’re confronted by strong-father/weak-father, liberal/conservative (“Taking the ‘liberal’ out of ‘liberal arts.’), plenty of race, sex, street, and halls of academe. All of that wrapped in powerful writing. And don’t let the MFA gurus tell you that your protagonists need to be strong, sympathetic characters. Not if you’re Smith.
You can’t sum up a work of this dimension in a phrase, but Smith comes as close as you can with the what to me is the telling line from the title poem (Not Smith’s): “The beautiful don’t lack the wound.”
Read this book.
1.0

MEDITATIONS ON MURDALAND–A NEW CRIME MAG

I’m startled to realize that it’s been a month since I added anything to my blog space. Flu, taxes, my annual stint with community theater (I direct), and that old standby procrastination have combined to delay me. But I’m back. To cheering crowds, I’m sure. So onward.
Murdaland Magazine is a brand new crime fiction (Yes, you lit fiction aficionados, it’s a [shudderandcollapse] genre mag) publication from an outfit called Mug Shot Press, and the first issue is terrific. The writing is high quality, the contributors ranging from well-established authors such as Richard Bausch to an ex-Sandinista from Managua. The story situations range from perversion that borders on–no crosses into–gothic to battlefield crime. You may think battlefields are crimes in themselves, but we’re not discussing that here.
What brought me to the magazine was an e-mail from my main mentor, Les Edgerton, whose fine story “Felon” is perhaps the finest of a fine lot. You’ve never been inside the mind of a criminal the thrilling way Edgerton takes you there–unless you’re into crime yourself, in which case you’ll be abel to identify and thrill even more. What’s more important, though, is the way Les subordinates the crime to the psychology. The Lit Fiction crowd will immediately label and dismiss “Felon” as an “action-driven” piece unworthy of consideration. But they’ll be missing a great experience, as will anyone who lets Murdaland go by.  The main character in ”Felon” presents as a man full of bravado who claims to have committed as many as ten or twenty robberies/burglaries in a single night. He’s the very definition of incorrigible, assaulting the world for thrills. By the end of the tale, however, we know we’ve been living inside the heart of someone crippled by fear and self-loathing. And check out the last sentence. Except don’t read it till you’ve read the rest or you’ll miss the meaning.
A nice pair to “Felon” is “Nasty Jay” by Cortright McMeel, who is, incidentally, the founder of Mug Shot Press. (If I found a publishing company to print my own stuff, is that vanity publishing? Not in this case. McMeel is a real writer.) McMeel’s protagonist has a number of similarities to Edgerton’s, but he’s nowhere near as self-aware. He’s a man who wants the world set up his own way and has no patience with those who would rather live their lives in a manner not matching his prescription. Like “Felon,” “Nasty Jay” is full of action and tension, but if you open yourself to truly reading the story, character dominates  The final action sequence is so startling and terrifyingly abrupt, I had to put the book down a minute before I could read the short denouement–and another great final sentence.
The endings of both stories carry implications of philosophy and thought that echo beyond their own action and characters. For “Felon,” it’s a dive into life’s mix of choices and circumstances, the conundrum of how much power we have to shape our lives as opposed to how much our lives shape us. For “Nasty Jay,” it’s a look into what constitutes authority, what brutality. At least those are themes that struck me hardest.
And there are plenty of other worthy pieces in Murdaland. It’s got more grit and gore than Ellery Queen, and Murdaland is not Agatha Christie Land. But the writing gets to the heart. That is, after all, where the blood is. Check it out.

Sitting up

THIS IS A THING TO BE KEPT

Things Kept, Things Left Behind is a coming-out celebration for a terrific writer named Jim Tomlinson. The inability to finish reading short story collections is one of my shameful flaws. I write the things, but I struggle to read them.  I buy Best American Short Stories nearly every year, read several, let the rest languish.  But the why of that failing is a subject for another blog because Things Kept, Things Left Behind is an exception–a group of short stories that captivated me.
You can begin with some of the names–Arnel Embry, Grandpa Coy, Dexter Chalk, Cousin Shuey– wonderfully evocative of the rural Kentucky environment where the stories are set.
You can go on to the smells.You’ll never run into a writer with a keener nose; and the images, impressive in themselves, don’t simply add texture to the prose, they become a primary tool for creating plot and character:
“She liked the familiar smell of him, slightly musky, with a hint of machine oil that lingered even after he’d showered. It was the smell of his work, the smell of lathes and grinders and milling machines. And it was not so different…from the smell of her father, the smell of locomotives.”
You can go on to the sentences–simple, clear, incisive, Carver-like. Try these:
“Sometimes she thinks of herself as a howl. The wail of a coyote, maybe, or a lone banshee, a shriek dying away in the night without reaching ears.”
or
“He feels the sting of her pity. It’s the last thing he wants from a wife.”
Add to these the common setting, the unerring sense of how psychological conflict evokes emotional and physical combat, and you end up with a series of tales that approach novelistic unity.
This is a debut collection, and the jacket notes say that Tomlinson is “hard at work on a novel.” I’d gladly read another collection from Jim, but I must confess, I’m really looking forward to the novel.
In the meantime, folks, go out and get this one. If you want an autographed copy, e-mail me, and I’ll tell you how.

sitting up clapping

WHO IS JEANETTE AND WHAT DOES SHE WRITE?

 

I discovered Jeannette Winterson because a friend recommended The Passion. I went on to The Power Book, and I had a new literary heroine. She writes more poetically than anyone I’ve read in a long time, loves language as completely as her lovers love each other. No one else I’ve read in modern fiction can render the ecstasy of physical/emotional love as vividly. Or the pain of separation and rejection. The Passion, in addition, takes in huge gulps of geography and  time as it follows its Napoleonic-age anti hero across Europe to the Russian Steppes and back to Venice. The Power Book does the same with the human heart and psyche as the computer upon which the book is being written becomes a metaphor for the mind and heart of the writer/lover. We are one with creator and the creation as we move through an engrossing plot. Sexing the Cherry, like The Passion, goes back in history for a look at the female heart. Not as engrossing as The Passion, it is nevertheless a literary accomplishment of great merit.

 

Imagine, then, my astonishment when a friend whose judgement I generally trust even when we don’t necessarily agree, took a course which assigned Written on the Body and pretty much dismissed it. “I wasn’t taken with it,” was her most definitive comment. I hadn’t read the book, but couldn’t imagine how someone who cared about language could wave away any Winterson. Sadly, I think my friend is right.

Written On the Body is a good example of how a writer’s best traits can betray. All the virtuosity of her love descriptions become tedious and repetitive. It’s a little embarrassing sometimes, as if you’re reading a journal instead of a novel, as if there’s no authorial detachment between the feeling and the event and its literary rendering. Too little of that which Joyce describes as taking the dross of human experience and shaping it into art. I hope I can persuade my friend to go to one of the other books for a second opinion. They’re short, after all. And as for myself, I’ll go for some more Winterson, certainly. The Whitbread ain’t the Booker, but it’s a considerable achievement, and I’ve not yet gotten to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

sitting up clapping

 

SHAME AND DISGRACE

I write today out of ignorance, but would rather do that than let the moment pass. Without advance planning I ended up reading the above entitled novels, the first by Salman Rushdie, the second by Paul Coetzee. They are the only works I’ve read by these two celebrated writers–thus my confession of ignorance–and figured it was about time. Disgrace I picked up at the library because it was a Booker winner (1999), Shame because it was there. Unlikely holiday reading, I’d agree, but I am glad I read them in tandem because you cannot imagine two more different treatments of similar themes.

Shame  is fantastic–not in the pop sense of high quality, but in the literal sense of worlds beyond reality. The book is filled with strange beasts and diseases. It travels through vast realms of soul, spirit, government, psychology, medicine, history, politics, religion, philosophy. It takes place in a country that is “not quite Pakistan,” and in a time that ranges from prehistory to the present. I am quite sure that those versed in Indian/Afghan/Iranian history find reams of allegory in the recounting of revolutions and coups and generals and presidents. Once again, I write from ignorance so can be of no help in limning these elements. However, they are gripping enough just on literary terms to justify the read–if you’re open enough to the fantastic. Why the title? Because the people of this country which is not Pakistan is full of notions of honor, and violations of honor bring shame, which brings consequences both for individuals and societies. Rushdie breaks many conventions of modern fiction, one of which is that of the unobtrusive author. This writer is right there all the time directing the reader at every turn, explaining what he’s doing and why–shamelessly, as it were–pulling us back from the fifteenth century to twentieth century London where a father slit his sixteen-year-old-daughter’s throat because she had shamed the family with her (reputed) sexual exploits. When such acts and attitudes reach the national or international level, you get what we now have. And this book was written in 1983.

Disgrace is a work of much smaller scope, but no less impact. The focus is on a literature professor fired for his affair with a twenty-year-old student. The professor is an unlikable sort, given to self-justification of the most fatuous kind, uncaring about others’ opinions to the point of ugly insensitivity.  Societally he is in disgrace, but he doesn’t feel either disgraced or persecuted. He’ll explain himself, but never engage in spin or justification, allowing his actions to speak for themselves.

Searching for direction now that his career is gone, Professor Lurie visits his daughter, Lucie, who is living on a small farm  some distance from his residence in Cape Town. The novel, through Lurie, plays itself out in the contrasts between urban and rural, black and white society/history, intellectual/artistic and agricultural, western and African mores.  In the course of the interaction among all these, we are led not only to understand his disgrace, but the disgrace of all of South African white society–and the degradation that has come equally to black and white society because of it. There’s also a hint of where the path of redemption might lie. Coetzee, though, unlike Rushdie, makes no attempt to explicitly outline any of this. It’s all implied through the look at part the life of the (flawed and often unattractive) protagonist. I do believe that Lurie needed to be about ten years older (he’s only fifty-two) to make some of the description of him work, but maybe they age differently in South Africa.

And a final word. There’s a lot to compare between McEwen and Coetzee. This is a novel which follows the thoughts and emotions of its main character in meticulous detail. However, unlike McEwen, who sometimes lets the joys of wandering around in someone’s noggin divert from the book’s central action, Disgrace is taut with suspense and excitement throughout.

1.0