THE PULITZER PRIZE AND JOHNSON’S TRAIN DREAMS

1–WHY NO 2011 PULITZER FOR TRAIN DREAMS OR ANYTHING ELSE?

Train Dreams was short-listed for this year’s Pulitzer, the Pulitzer that was never awarded for reasons which will, apparently, never be explained. Michael Cunningham wrote a two-installment article in the New Yorker( http://nyr.kr/MSxOei, http://nyti.ms/PbvdqS) explaining how the jury came up with the short list, but even they were not privy to the committee’s final deliberations.

My own verdict–Johnson got shafted. I’ll start with Cunningham himself, a Pulitzer winner for his novel The Hours, which I thought was a cumbersome, pretentious mediocrity. There have been others of the same ilk from the Pulitzer folks, including last year’s Tinkers which got a big ho-hum from this corner. So, my trust level either with the committee or with Cunningham is not high.

The other two books on the short list were David Foster Wallace’s uncompleted Pale King, in progress at the time of his suicide, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!. I haven’t read Pale King, but judging by what I got through of Infinite Jest, I have to think it would not have been for me. However, enough people think so highly of Wallace that I’m willing to concede the fault could be with me. For Swamplandia!, no concessions.

The idea of that self-indulgent, overwritten, half-realized novel existing on the same plane as Train Dreams is absurd. Cunningham points to its exuberance and promise, both of which are evident, but a major literary prize awarded for potential? A question not to be asked. The jury read over 300 books and conferred periodically about their progress, so they can’t be faulted for effort, but the results? Yeah, there’s fault. And as for the Committee itself, well, Johnson got shafted. Period.

 

2–WHY TRAIN DREAMS DESERVED IT.

 

   9781250007650 Denis Johnson demonstrates not only his skill but his versatility in this exquisite gem of a novel. And how different from Tree of Smoke, which is a book of wondrous scope and full of the cadences of war. Train Dreams is a meticulous portrait in miniature of one unremarkable life lived in a limited area, and every move and emotion and sentence Johnson chooses to put on the page is precious.

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DENIS JOHNSON

Robert  Granier is a man uncertain of his origins who lives in the Northwest. His education is minimal. He works in the woods. He works on the railroad. He builds a cabin, lives with his wife and child. . . and so on. I won’t detail more of the book’s action, but it proceeds in pretty much this step-by-step fashion as we follow Granier–not quite chronologically–through his life. How does Johnson keep a reader’s interest in a subject of such narrow and seemingly uninteresting substance? Like Wendell Berry, he makes each “insignificant” moment vibrate with protoplasmic intensity, reminding us that every life and every moment of every life matters. He does it by laying down sentences crafted with skill that I–and certainly Karen Russell–can only dream of.

–I got so I’m joined up too tricky to pay me, he told his boss.

–[He remembered]“the places of his hidden childhood, a vast golden wheat field, heat shimmering above a road, arms encircling him, and a woman’s voice crooning and all the mysteries of his life were answered.

–A pile as high up as a man  could reach with a hoe.

–“I’m not a doctor,” he told her. “I’m just the one that’s here.”

–The dog was  a big male of the far-north sledding type.

–In the dark he felt his daughter’s eyes turned on him like a cornered brute’s. It was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck. All of his life Robert Grainier was able to recall this very moment on this very night.

And so on, on every delicious page.

STATE OF WONDER STATE OF THE HEART

 

 

Last Ann Patchett I read was too long ago. Bel Canto probably.   State of Wonder brings me back in touch with her power. A prodigious one it is. Heart of Darkness is the mother of State of Wonder. Try choosing a better parent.

We’re up the Amazon instead of the Congo, but we’re most definitely with the heirs of Mistah Kurtz. This time commercial exploitation teams up with science to scoop at the soul and essence of the primitives for the benefit of the civilized. All in the name of good. Science, pure and cold as a lab, sails upriver in the person of Dr. Swenson and attempts to carry on its work in secret away from the corruption of the commercial world. Except she can’t quite because she has to cash the checks the company–Vogel; i.e.”bird–sends to keep her going. Vogel boss, the nefarious Mr. Fox, sends emissaries after her. If they make it through the gate guarded by an adolescent-weird couple named Bovender (a combo of “Bovine” and “Provender”?) They disappear on a boat piloted by a deaf child named Easter (Tell me you couldn’t do a study just on the names in this book.), then the jungle swallows them.

 

Finally, we follow protagonist Marina on the boat (She swallowed a spider to catch the fly. . .)  Marina lands. Is immediately stripped of her western trappings, given a native shift and native braids. She encounters the redoubtable Swenson (lately her stern and godlike mentor), snakes, dreams, malaria, insects, poison arrows and poison frogs. There’s a good tribe and an evil one. It’s a world of jibberish and sign language. Even her science doesn’t fit. Conrad’s Marlow has nothing on Marina for pure bafflement and wandering in mental and emotional circles. She’s looking for love and for expiation from the great secret sin of her life. She didn’t necessarily come here for that, but it turns out she did. Where else do you find such things if not at the most elemental core of being? And you don’t necessarily want what you find on such a quest.

Marina is a central character in Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. That Marina is lost at sea, then redeemed, having managed to maintain her purity despite barbaric attacks that would have infected a lesser soul. I can’t see many parallels between S’s Marina and Patchett’s, but given the suggestiveness of the other names, I’d bet they are there and I’m just missing them. Or maybe there’s another literary Marina I don’t know about.

Whatever the case, Patchett’s created something marvelous in this book. Marvelous indeed.

FATHER TURK

Not many of us get to name ourselves, but it’s just, fitting, and instructive that Mustafa Kemal awarded himself the surname Attaturk at the same time he directed in 1936 that a law be passed requiring all Turks to acquire an official last name. It had been customary to give infants a “belly name” when the umbilical cord was cut. “Mustafa” means “chosen” and is one of the appellations of the prophet Muhammad. “Kemal” means perfection, a name he acquired in his late teens under variously-related circumstances. The naming customs, however appropriate for a rural and static society, created confusion in the modern, rationalist state which was Attaturk’s ideal for Turkey. Astoundingly, people obeyed, by and large, and got themselves a last name, and had a lot of fun deciding. He did the same thing with music, with the alphabet, clothing, with virtually every phase of Turkish life, and he changed Turkey from a polymorphous, quaint collection of scattered tribes into a regional power with a distinct culture and population.

How the hell did he, one man, do such a thing? Charisma, charm, brains. A wide range of talents and skills both military and civilian. A certain amount of ruthlessness. He ordered his share of hangings, shootings, imprisonments, deportations. But he was no Stalin, and as a devoted anti-cleric, he did nothing in the name of religion. There were no mass slaughters (The Armenian holocaust took place well before he assumed power.) And you can throw in a good crisis. The 300+-year old Ottoman empire was tottering at the turn of the century, was pushed toward pseudo-democracy by reform-minded young Turks, then pretty much finished off by the WWI.

Turkey sided with Germany in that one (Though it remained shrewdly neutral during the next big conflict). The Allies–Italians, Brits, French–moved in and partitioned Istanbul (somewhat a la Berlin post WWII), largely with the cooperation of the Caliphs and Sultans who were willing to do anything to save their luxuries. The allies were ready to partition the rest of the country as well, and the Bolsheviks wanted their share.

From out the ranks of the army into this chaos stepped Mustafa Kemal, who organized a parallel government and political party in Ankara, far away from Istanbul, and engineered an essentially bloodless revolution that toppled the Caliphate, marginalized the clerics, and steered Turkey toward a legitimate, if secondary, place among the world powers.

He was an autocrat, was Ataturk, but not a tyrant. Elections happened regularly, even though he chose the slate of candidates. Somehow people bought in and followed him. Perhaps they listened because his true goal was a greater Turkey, not  a greater Ataturk. There were depredations by and to Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, though he didn’t demonize any group or institute or necessarily approve of the campaigns except under the rules of warfare of the time. It’s hard to see how the expulsion of  Greeks and Armenians could have been avoided after the allies had used them as hammers against the Turks, confiscated property and lives. In any case, the final treaties that made Turkey a state turned it from cosmopolitan, heterogeneous society into a homogeneous Muslim one. The new country was much the poorer for losing all the skills and culture the Judeo Christians brought to the society. Later, many Jewish refugees ended up in Turkey in flight from Hitler, but they couldn’t replace the organic Jews that were part of the Ottoman society, and we suddenly had an independent, sovereign country that was 90% illiterate and bereft of skills, facilities, and infrastructure (e.g., railroads)  But talk about lemons and lemonade.

Would that all Muslim countries could have one of these guys who would find a way to keep government more or less secular and the church more or less private. But the man is not replicable, nor, probably, is the situation.  Like most of us, he was a collection of contradictions. He died in 1938 at 54, a victim of self-inflicted hard living–cirrhosis of the liver. He never practiced the equality of the sexes which was one of his gifts to Turkish generations. For all his devotion to science and rationality, he promulgated some almost comical theories, such as the idea that all languages derived from Turkish. His theater of operations was a part of history we in the western world don’t know well. Heard the name “Mosul?” Did you know that Turkey and Britain fought like hell over possession of the province and that it’s handover to Iraq (a country invented in the treaty of Versailles) was a compromise? Well, I didn’t. Neither did I know how much the Ottoman fights with the Brits and the Franks over Syria, Lebanon, Iran, etc. fed into the shape and character of the eventual Turkish State. And, it’s turning out, into our own.

Attaturk is no easy read. It’s taken me three weeks of slogging to get through the 540 pages, dense with names of unfamiliar people, places, and events. Andrew Mango is no David McCulloch when it comes to breezy narrative. Nevertheless, I’m glad I toughed it out. This volume combined with his The Turks Today (See my May 26 09 blog) should give me as much foundation as I can absorb for approaching Istanbul, et al next month. It’s a vibrant, colorful, exotic place with more history than even Ataturk gave it credit for. I’m ready. Well, I could use a few more phrases. But if you know “beer” and “toilet,” what else should you need?