WHAT WILL ATONMENT BRING?

Continuing on my blitzkrieg campaign to make up for the the fallow no-blog weeks of November, I look today at a literary rock star who is about to allow Hollywood to have a go at his work.

Ian McEwen has been hitherto untainted by the denizens of pop culture despite an international literary reputation. You don’t see his name on the shiny foil covers of airport paperbacks, and as far as I know Elton John has yet to compose a note or word in his honor. I’ve read not a great deal of his stuff. Atonement, Amsterdam, and Saturday is the entire list. They’re all worthy books, and I have no general quarrel with the plaudits he’s received. McEwen invests huge effort into researching a wide variety of professions for his books. Journalism and music for Amsterdam, neurosurgery for Saturday, and both medical and military historical techniques for Atonement, which is set in the first world war. Every professional character seems faultlessly at home in his/her professional skin to this outsider, and I’ve been assured by a surgeon friend that he indeed got it just right in Saturday, so I’m happy to assume the same for the other works. This would be a prodigious writing feat in itself, but accompanied as it is by the ability to delve into the psychology and emotion of the world she creates in rich, poetic language, McEwen is an all-around big-time author. For the ages? Certainly for our times. His greatest strength is to continuously monitor every emotional, physical, and spiritual nuance of his characters. He plays to the strength particularly well in Saturday, which takes place inside the head of one man on a particular–you guessed it–Saturday. To me, this strength is also an occasional weakness because McEwen wanders around in a character’s mind to the expense of a book’s action and through line. He then loses focus and dramatic tension.

I found this particularly true of Atonement, even though I think the book was ultimately more successful than either of the others, partly because of the work’s scope and depth and partly because it essays a fascinating psychological ambiguity which carried forth into the action. Thus, the reader can choose between or embrace at least two possible endings. Very juicy.

Which brings us finally to Hollywood. They’re making a movie of Atonement. Kiera Knightly stars. I have no complaints about Knightly. Pride and Prejudice proved she can act (I liked her in Pirates of the Caribbean also, even though Johnny Depp stole the show.) despite the fact that she’s too pretty for Elizabeth Bennett. She’s been almost as big a surprise as Reese Witherspoon to me, though nothing will ever equal the transformation from Legally Blonde to June Carter. But I digress. I think Atonement could make a fine film EXCEPT for that delicious ending. They’re going to screw it up. I know it, and I dread it. Hollywood won’t be able to stand it. But am I going to see it? Oh. Yeah. Kiera will be enough reason in herself. How about you?

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WHITHER ISABEL? 12/06

Isabel Allende shares a place with Louise Erdrich in the top echelon of writers of the last few decades. She has in common with Erdrich the ability to simultaneously enter the worlds of body, emotion, and spirit as well as those of the past, present, and future. The two women also share a penchant for the historical as well as for exploring the intricacies of families through the generations. I mentioned The Crown of Columbus in as an Erdrich example in my last blog, and many of her works use a fictional Faulkner-like world of places and characters. Allende has to her credit such fine works as House of the Sprits  Daughter of Fortune, and Portrait in Sepia which employ many of the same techniques. The last two books are of particular interest to me because of their immersion in the California gold rush era, of which I am an avid fan.

Allende’s first “hit” was her Eva Luna series in 1988, in which she made full use of her South American magical realism tradition. In one interview, she stated that Magical Realism is not an artificial technique, but a way of thinking, a view of reality  that is organic to her work. And therein lies the reason for the title of this blog.

No one except Marquez has made magical realism more accessible to English audiences than Allende. Her characters inhabit the bodies and spirits of animals at the same time that they live their mundane lives, and thus they can simultaneously wash a floors and fly. There is little value in the concrete and apparent, rather the life of the soul transcends–transforms–our daily dreck and therein lies what makes us human as well as what allows us to soar above the limits of our humanness.

Unfortunately, though, Allende seems lately to have turned away from her roots. Zorro is a rather pedestrian treatment of what seemed like natural magical subject matter, and memoir seems to have become her major interest. Her treatment of her daughter’s slow death in Paula is touching for the subject of its title character and revelatory in its treatment of the chaotic life of the writer. As an artist, Allende is in such control of her material, I was amazed to find her in such little control of her life, which it turns out is at least as interesting as her art. As the exiled niece of coup (via the CIA) victim, her background is fascinating just in its framework. However, she made what middle-class therapists might call life-choices along the way that exacerbated the severity of her plight, and she is unrelenting (and unsensational) in her treatment of her life. My Invented Country is, another memoir, spiced with observations on history and the comparative characters of Chileans and Americans. The reviews were a little mixed, suggesting that she’s better off as a novelist than as an historian, but that her life is so unique and her prose so powerful that the book comes off. It’s also apparently one of the first high-quality pieces of 9/11 literature. Her very latest, Ines of my Soul, an historical novel set amid the sixteenth century butchery of Spain’s conquest of South and Central America, has similarly mixed reviews. Some, like me, hearken for the old Isabel: Allende the magical realist has been replaced by Allende the historical re-creationist, and the results are not encouraging.

Even if she’s abandoned what brought me to her and what I have loved about her, I’m grateful for what she’s contributed to our literature and lives. I still have My Invented Country to read as well as Ines, and I haven’t yet gotten to Aphrodite: a Memoir of the Senses, which is reportedly about food and sex and aphrodisiacs. I know from reading Paula that Isabel knows plenty about food and sex, and I’m always willing to learn more. Onward and upward.

Sitting up

THE MIRACLES OF LOUISE AT LITTLE NO HORSE 12/06

I note that it’s been over a month since my last entry. Not living up to my website’s name, am I? At least as far as the blogging’s concerned. But I’m about to make up for it.

Louise Erdrich’s work is no secret. She’s been one of those rarities among artists–both popular and respected–at least since Love Medicine won the National Book Award around 1993. In ensuing years, she’s built

a universe of and constellation of characters comparable to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha county. Her marriage to novelist Michael Dorris (Yellow Raft on Blue Water is his best known; their collaboration The Crown of Columbus is a unique piece of historical fiction.) Their good work among Indian victims of alcohol is (See his The Broken Cord, the story of adopting a child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.) and the circumstances of his 1997 suicide are worthy of attention both within and outside the literary world. But I’ve just finished The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and want to use this space to revel in her magic.

The last Erdrich I read was The Painted Drum which disappointed me with its lack of dramatic tension. Little No Horse has no such problem. Every section, virtually every page, has its own story, yet each story is part of a whole in a novel that covers eighty-plus years in the life of Agnes DeWitt, who spends most of her life as the priest Father Damien Modeste serving his/her parishioners on the North Dakota reservation of Little No Horse. (To give you an idea of what a relentless storyteller Erdrich is, even her end notes contain the fascinating story of how the reservation got its name.) Of course, as usual with her, the story spans much more time and space–in both the earthly and spirit worlds–than the lifetime of this sham priest.

Erdrich’s prose is at once grounded in reality, earthy, and spiritual. I opened the book at random and happened on this one passage describing the child Lulu’s attempt to escape from boarding school by hiding under a traveling school bus:

….My teeth chattered at first but then the [exhaust] pipe under me, the middle pipe, grew warm. It ran straight down the center of me, warming me, burning me, although that would be in the end a complete surprise.

All through my life, to the mystery of my devoutest lovers, I have borne that central scorch mark–a think stripe of gold lighter than my skin, a line evenly dividing me, running between my breasts and vanishing between my legs.

And it is Lulu’s nature to embody the essence of both good and evil in her life, yet her inner nature is expressed in a decidedly unmetaphorical event. And so it is with even the smallest details of Erdrich’s writing. A character leans over, brushing her hair, and the hair will brush the ground, then root to it–if only for a moment–and a simple act becomes a metaphor for communing with nature. All in the space of fewer words than I have taken to describe it. And the reader experiences that communion at the same time as wondering what just happened. I guess what’s happened is a shock of connection between the spiritual/physical/emotional planes of existence, which is what we seek always in art. That unity of all the disparate pieces of ourselves that most of the time lie scattered yet always pull toward one another.

And that’s the reason I’m talking about Louise Erdrich’s whole body of work here. Before The Painted Drum for me, there was Tales of Burning Love, which is nearly as exhilarating as Miracles, but includes many of the same characters, or references to them. Each new approach to the Erdrich world, then, widens one’s understanding of the people, their history, their spirit.

Every artist is part of a tradition, of course, and Erdrich includes not only the magical realism of her Native American soul, but a number of distinctly American literary motifs, the most notable one for me in Miracles is the tall tale. The story of Nanapush and the moose as well as his subsequent wake/funeral deserves to be enshrined as right up there with Paul Bunyan–except it’s too risque to get into the children’s stoybooks. Another section is in a category of its own–have you ever read of a nun climaxing while playing Chopin?

One theory of art has it that the greater the volume of reality a work embodies, the more satisfying it is to the audience which experiences it. Erdrich embodies an enormous hunk of reality, and too read her work is to enrich our every aspect.

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WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? WHERE DOES IT GO? 9/6/06

Francine prose has written, apparently, the latest craft book classic. Reading Like a Writer is getting great reviews, and though I’ve read only chapter one, the commentary seems right on. Prose expresses doubts in her opening pages about the possibility of teaching “creative writing” at all. She speculates that such musings put her in danger of fraud charges from all the students to whom she has purported to do that very thing. My first blog explored this subject a little, and Prose’s book has set me thinking on it again, especially since she traces the development of her own skills not to MFA programs, but to that hoary bogeyman of all inspiration and creativity–English teachers.

Being an old English teacher myself, it comforts me mightily that someone from that vast audience I’ve harassed over the years might have taken some inspiration from all the lectures and assignments. But what comforts me even more is the notion that writing skill is develops not so much from devotion to cant and terminology (“action/voice/character-driven,” “the occasion for telling,” etc.) as from attention to fundamentals of syntax and tone and diction combined with careful and joyful reading, reading, reading. Successful writers don’t seek out the cubbyholes containing general principles of great books, drawing them out and dumping into their own work. Instead, they find individual examples that will best instruct one’s own work. Prose quotes general principles such as avoiding dubbing characters with similar names, then tracks down examples where great authors have violated that very rule to great effect. It’s not that rules don’t matter, it’s that their application and interpretation matters more. It’s like trying to interpret oracles. We need to become Tiresias if Thebes is to prosper.

Want more? Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton is another example of a book which, though very different from Prose’s, can help guide you along the same path. To paraphrase that little prayer–grant me the power to use the ideas I can, to let go of the ones I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Sitting up

WALKING ON WATER–Randall Kenan’s look at Black American Lives at the Turn of the Century

 

 

Randall Kenan* drew the  above title for his work from a haunting 1803 incident on an island off the Georgia coast. A group of chained prisoners, fresh off the boat from Africa, decided they didn’t care to be slaves. (The U.S. slave trade had been outlawed in 1798, but guess what? And aren’t we shocked?) The water had brought them to these shores, they said, so the water would take them back, and they walked together–chains and all–into the water at a place now called Ibo Crossing (Also spelled Ebo, et al, after the tribe to which they most likely belonged). The legend declares they did not sink, but continued across the sea and back home. The crossing is still said to be haunted, and there are those who will not drop hook or line in those waters.

The title is pivotal to the Kenan’s purpose–to find a unifying concept of black culture and identity by interviewing black people across the fruited plains and from sea to shining sea. His search turned out to be as simultaneously elusive and undeniable as the truth of what happened at Ibo Crossing. His conversations with hundreds of folk from Vermont to Saskatchewan to New Orleans to Atlanta and points in between and beyond reveal that, yes, there is a definite black experience or spirit in America, just as surely as those prisoners took to the stream. Whether his interviewees grew up in largely white environments with little or (in the case of just one interviewee who said (paraphrasing) nobody ever called her anything.) in places like the author’s home town of Chinquapin, NC, where whites were seldom seen during his boyhood, one and all talk about the need to see, talk to, pray with, bond with, and dance with with their racial kin. Still, the question of what gives rise to that call is as uncertain as to whether the bodies and/or spirits of the Ibo trekked over the seas or perished in the deep. Which might seem to suggest that the book is not worth reading since it never (as Kenan asserts in his introduction) achieves its goal. Au contraire. Why so? Glad you asked.

To someone like me, who spent a career trying to help develop educational institutions that respond to the needs of the many cultures of this society, it is instructive, if often discouraging, to find how universally  my ilk and I have failed. Or succeeded. Berkeley was the first school district in the U.S. to voluntarily bus children to integrate (1968). They’re still doing it, and the results seem academically nil. White and many Asian (some Southeast Asian groups are exceptions) succeed. Blacks and Hispanics, as a whole, don’t.  There are hundreds of success stories, and most people feel good about the process, but statistically, Berkeley’s not doing a whole lot better than the rest of the country, and there’s no clear proof that any gains are due to integration.

Integration is a big subject in Walking on Water. It’s a paradox. Integration and affirmative action have enabled blacks to rise to apparent power in the White House, the judiciary, the bar, operating rooms, and classrooms across the country. But many of Kenan’s subjects see a loss in quality of community life as the best and brightest move up and away and lose touch with their past. When I first started teaching, it was common knowledge that black students from the south (this was high school, 1964, so many of high school age had attended segregated elementary and jr. high schools) knew their fundamentals better than most of our California-raised students. Black colleagues asserted that the best brains in the black south were in the classrooms and pulpits, being denied entry into such places as law schools, medical schools. That, and the general loss of respect for institutions and those that represent them, has certainly assured that when schools go bad, black students get the worst.

I could go on and on, and already have. I’ll close with a story from my own little Kenan-like exploration of the subject. During his sojourn in (Pre-Katrina) New Orleans, Kenan asks many folks about the meaning of “Creole.“ I asked a Black Baton Rouge friend of mine from church the same question. He answered–as Kenan himself concluded–that it is a mixture of black, French, black, French-black, white and bunch of other stuff, including food and religion. We also talked a bit about the caste system among colored people in New Orleans, whose racial history is probably more complicated than any other city in the America because it included such a large population of free (if not fully empowered) property-and-even-slave-owning African-Americans. The darker you were (and still in some places are) the lower you were (are.) My friend described the “paper bag test,” which decreed that you were ineligible to attend certain events if your skin were darker than a paper bag. Another Georgian who had been listening to our conversation declared that there was also a “blue-blood test.” You were among the higher echelons if you could see the color of the blood coursing through the veins on the back of  your hand.

Randall Kenan may have failed in his quest for a definition of black culture in America, but he succeeded in giving all of us a definitive look at black experience in America at the turn of the millennium. The interviews and his masterful arrangement of them are part of it, but so are his trenchant comments and personal perspective. I’m grateful for this book and don’t believe you can consider yourself educated in American culture without it.

*I found out about Walking on Water during a short lunchtime conversation I had with Randall at Sewanee. He’s also the author of

A Visitation of Spirits was published by Grove Press in 1989. A collection of short stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, both excellent. He’s also a first class teacher and reader.

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