Category Archives: Fiction

Lost in Translation

hilltopVery little foreign literature is published each year in English translation.  According to the University of Rochester’s Three Percent project, only three percent of books published each year in the United States are works in translation, and the numbers for fiction and poetry are miniscule.  That’s why, when I come across a work of literature that has passed this nearly impassable bar – translation from a foreign language to English – and it’s terrible, I want to cry and tear my hair out.  Because it’s fairly likely that there is some transcendent work of art out there, locked in its original language, that no English speaker will ever get the chance to read.

It’s particularly galling when a book translated from Hebrew is so bad, because there are only a tiny, tiny handful of books translated from Hebrew to English each year.  Even this year’s winner of Israel’s top literary award, the Sapir Prize – Ruby Namdar’s Ha-bayit asher nekhrav (The Ruined House) – has not yet been translated, and Namdar actually lives in New York.  And yet here is Assaf Gavron’s The Hilltop on the front shelf of Barnes and Noble, wasting our time.

There are actually two problems with the translation of The Hilltop: one is its unworthiness – it’s at best a mediocre novel – but the other is the translation itself, which is awkward and riddled with non-idiomatic English.  For example, this description of Passover: “Leavened foodstuffs were burned, and Seder night passed by with the hilltop residents celebrating the transfer from Egypt, the wanderings, the transient nature of Jewish dwelling places throughout the ages, and their shared consciousness of an exiled people yearning for their homeland.” (Emphasis added)  Leaving aside the thematic and ideological heavy-handedness of this passage, which is only Gavron’s fault, any translator worth his salt should know that the process of the Jewish slaves leaving Egypt is popularly referred to as an exodus, not a transfer.  I don’t have the Hebrew version so I can’t even imagine why the translator made this choice, but it makes it sound like Moses worked for Boeing and had to move from Seattle to Chicago, not like he was leading the Jewish people out of hundreds of years of slavery. I could offer numerous other examples of this kind of thing, but why waste your time?

Likewise, I don’t recommend wasting your time on the rather boring plot, which basically just follows the lives of a bunch of nutty religious settlers in an illegal hilltop outpost in the West Bank.  The characters are not particularly sympathetic and seem rather childishly drawn to demonstrate just how three-dimensional nutty religious settlers can be: the teenage girl who has an affair with the soldier guarding the base, the woman who kicks out her lazy, alcoholic husband and starts wearing her hair loose, the formerly secular kibbutznik who lost custody of his son after physically abusing him.  I felt like the book kept trying to call attention to how interesting and unusual this seemingly monolithic group of people could be, but the scope of their diversity was so narrow and their personalities so lacking that these artificial quirks did nothing to pique my interest.

hagivaI do have a few good words for this novel, though.  It does one thing excellently: expose the labyrinthine and deliberately extra-legal processes by which illegal settlements in the West Bank are legitimated by the state of Israel.  Though technically illegal, the settlement is established and grows through a combination of back-room deals with sympathetic politicians and government functionaries, deception, and legal challenges that delay any action long enough to establish “facts on the ground.” Even after the settlement is nominally dismantled and partially bulldozed by the military on government orders, the novel ends with the settlers’ return to the hilltop, where they plan to rebuild. This exposure of the process of establishing new settlements in the occupied territories is something that would do English-language readers good to know about.  Unfortunately, it’s not worth reading the book for.

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And Who Shall I Say Is Calling?

boneclocksOne of David Mitchell’s literary preoccupations is interconnectedness, the way that, as the theory goes, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might change the course of history (or at least the weather).  Or, say, the way that a trapped and depressed FAA contract worker might set a fire that cancels your surprise trip to Chicago to see your dad who’s recovering from a hip replacement (still not over it!).  Mitchell makes connections, so when I’m reading him I see connections.  As I was reading The Bone Clocks, his new novel, in which one of the peripheral characters rides a Norton motorcycle, I happened to see a guy wearing a Norton T-shirt at the diner near my house as I ate brunch with my family.  As I re-read the review of the book in the New York Times Book Review, I noticed that the review underneath it (yes, I still get a hard copy of the paper) referred to events that took place in January 1967, the year my husband was born.  And the world shrinks a little bit, everything stitched together a little tighter.

Perhaps that’s why I was tempted to see so many of the themes of the season in this book, even though there’s nothing remotely Jewish about it (and organized religion generally comes in for a beating – more on that later).  Reading during Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the yamim noraim, the ten days between the New Year and Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, I felt like the novel had something to say about so many of the central themes of the holidays: memory, death, rebirth, mortality, choice and free will, and second chances.  These are Mitchell’s touchstones, the big questions he goes back to again and again in all of his novels, but The Bone Clocks brings them together both abstractly – in the form of recurring characters and names, places and events, both within the world of this novel and across his oeuvre – and concretely, as a largish subplot (more later on why it seems like the main plot but isn’t) focuses on a group of immortal souls and their fight against those who would induce immortality by artificial and predatory means.

There is a magical kind of rebirth and resurrection in this novel, but as always the actual magic is just a foil for a consideration of the kind of everyday wonder of life, in this case through the perhaps paradoxical lens of mortality and death.  There are characters in this novel who are willing to fight to the death to live forever, unchanged physically, emotionally, or morally by time and experience, but the most powerful forces in the novel are not supernatural.  Rather, they are the things we experience, and undervalue, every day: love, memory, friendship, community, family.  Even for those who are not immortal, an aging character reflects at the end of the novel, “We live on, as long as there are people to live on in.”  All of us are constantly reborn and resurrected in the memories (and DNA) of others, without recourse to magic.

Perhaps because it follows one character, more or less, from youth to old age, The Bone Clocks, more than other Mitchell novels, is able to concentrate on the way that death gives meaning to life.  The immortals in this book have to find other ways to make meaning that mortal humans have access to by default.  Leonard Cohen has a song, called “Who By Fire” after the words of a prayer central to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, that lists the many possible ways we might meet our end (or prosper) in the coming year.  In it, he intones repeatedly, “And who shall I say is calling?”  He doesn’t answer the question; we all know who’s calling: death.  On Yom Kippur we rehearse for death by abstaining from life-sustaining activities and wearing our shrouds.  Why?  Because remembering that we are going to die is the only way to make sure that we are really living now.  As the late, great rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “we are not supposed to wait for a hanging, or for the doctors to pronounce that awesome word of judgment ‘malignant,’ because by then it might be too late.  We are supposed to ask these questions all the time, and at least once a year, at least on this solemn day.  What is my life really about? What is the truth of my life?”  The down side of immortality is that there is no urgency to this question, and this question is what gives life its meaning.

The more I read him, the more I think that Mitchell’s novels are religious texts for atheists.  At the very least, they offer a suggestion of supernatural order to those who doubt the efficacy and human benefit of traditional forms of organized religion.  There’s usually some kind of higher power controlling things from behind the scenes, whether it’s a band of immortal souls or a renegade artificial intelligence.  There’s usually a plan at work that is slightly mysterious, often misunderstood, and outside of regular human control or even awareness.  Of course, in a body of work so invested in exploring the uses and boundaries of literature itself, this higher intelligence is an obvious metaphor for the writer himself, invisible but apparent in every line, omnipotent and omniscient but conscious of the need to preserve the illusion of choice and free will.  In that sense the semi-divine powers in Mitchell’s work are an ironic commentary not only on the seductions and limitations of religious belief, but also on the ways that fiction – just a thin web of beautiful untruths – can move us, change us, bring us to our knees with nothing more than words.

Ultimately, the story is the magic.  Despite the supernatural elements, they prove to be only a small, insignificant moment in the larger story of life on earth, and the life of the main character, Holly Sykes.  For a significant portion of the narrative, it seems that the plot centers on an epic battle between good and evil, and Holly and many of the people she knows and loves are caught up in this war in one way or another.  Finally, she ends up playing a big role in its resolution, and it seems that good has prevailed.  But the war that seems to be the main plot ends before the last section of the book, and that’s when we realize that this focus on one battle has been a feint, a purposeful distraction from the real evil, which is human and familiar.  It turns out that the most malevolent forces in the book, and in our universe, are not the self-proclaimed bad guys but all of us, with our petty greed and ignorant complacency, our consumerism and consumption, our disregard for the big picture in favor of distraction, our dislike of discomfort.

Mitchell1This brings me back again to the season of teshuvah, or repentance, whose literal meaning is “return.”  On Yom Kippur we are to return to those things that make us most uncomfortable: our misdeeds, our errors, our greed and hatred and jealousy.  In The Bone Clocks, these are the things that destroy the world, and our souls, on a far greater scale than any immortality-seeking “soul carnivore.”  This is the moment – of the year, and of history – to discomfit ourselves, to force the encounter with those unpleasant facts of our own humanity in order to make ourselves, and our world, whole again.  We must be healed in order to heal, we must look through the darkness to see the light.  As the poet Gerald Stern writes in “Lucky Life,”

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

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Of Moss and Women

ImagePoor Elizabeth Gilbert.  She wrote one sensational best-seller (good for her, by the way) and now, no matter what she writes and how meticulously researched, emotionally precise, and just plain good it is, nobody can let her forget that she once wrote a book that has been relegated to the denigrated category of popular literature.  It’s a shame that not one reviewer (at least, that I could find) of her latest novel, The Signature of All Things, was able to refrain from mentioning, often with a hint of malice, her previous success.  Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, couldn’t help but speculate that the heroine of her new novel, Alma Whittaker, “would never have read the 19th-century equivalent of Ms. Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.”  Oh, please.

It’s a shame because The Signature of All Things is terrific.  As anyone who reads this blog probably knows by now, I have a weakness for a good 19th-century novel, and Gilbert’s story seems to take its cues both from the novel of manners and the adventure novel as it follows Alma, whose life spans most of the century.  Incidentally, another critique that seems to repeat in several published reviews regards the implausibility of the adventure part of the plot, which seems to me to be a stretch.   First, people, it’s fiction – implausible things are allowed, even supposed, to happen when you make things up – and second, have you not read any other novels ever?  Because, say, Around the World in Eighty Days doesn’t seem very plausible either, but it is so good that people still read it more than a hundred years after it was published.  And no one except a very fusty scholar indeed would ever bother to read a book review that was more than a hundred years old.  So there.  Elizabeth Gilbert 1, reviewers 0.

I’m a huge sucker for exactly this kind of novel, and it doesn’t disappoint.  It’s ambitious, detailed, dramatic, even delightfully implausible.  Implausibility, after all, is why I read fiction.  My real life is depressingly plausible enough.  It follows Alma, a character whom it is impossible to root against, for all her faults, through the turns and twists of an entire life, and nearly an entire century.  And what a century it was!  This novel focuses in particular on the world-changing scientific developments that shook the 19th century, culminating with Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, through the marginal perspective of what used to be called a “polite botanist” – that is, a botanist with two X chromosomes.  Alma, confined to the boundaries of her father’s palatial estate by her mother’s dying wish and the customs of her time, becomes an expert in mosses, discovering a universe in the humblest, most overlooked plants.

ImageAlma, like her mosses, is an unassuming creature who contains worlds.  As she unlocks the secrets of moss we watch as she also unlocks human secrets: love, jealousy, regret, resentment, friendship, humility.  The parts of the novel that reviewers found implausible I found essential to this process, which is central to the momentum and meaning of the novel.  These plot twists seemed to form the crucible in which Alma’s character develops, necessary not only to the plot and forward motion of the novel but also to its slow internal flowering, the blossoming of human understanding and universal sympathy that good books offer a reader.  Perhaps part of what reviewers saw as implausibility, other than some of the wilder plot elements, was the way in which Alma became a kind of feminist hero by the end of the novel, but this seemed to me to be one of its strengths, in imagining, or reimagining, the kind of life that has always been absent from history.

One other note on the discomfort this book seemed to cause in its official readers: Gilbert’s depiction of sex, sexuality, and gender here is far more fluid, and less bounded, than our culture likes it to be.  I can’t help but wonder if “implausibility” is just code for “this does not fit into any category I have ever known and therefore I don’t like it.”  As a contrarian in these matters, I rather appreciated the novel’s attempt to normalize behavior and desires that both within and outside of the context of the story might be unclassifiable, like, perhaps, a never-before-seen species of moss.

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A Question of History

ImageThere are a few books I can think of that I wish I could read again for the first time: Cloud Atlas, Midnight’s Children, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a handful of others (incidentally, the older I get the more this wish enters the realm of possibility, as I forget everything about everything I’ve ever read and it all becomes new again).  I am adding Laurent Binet’s HHhH to this list.  Binet has pulled off something unique and really, really difficult: an experimental, funny historical novel about a Nazi.  Really, it’s about the death of a Nazi, which makes the topic palatable, if not appealing, and enables us, knowing the outcome from the beginning, to laugh.  As much as it is about the Holocaust, however, this novel is also about itself: at every turn, it self-consciously interrogates the form and function of the historical novel, as well as history and historiography, through the author/narrator’s asides to the reader.  I hesitate to call them asides, since they are so central to the narration, and so abundant, but that is precisely what this novel (if it is a novel) calls on us to do: question the relationship of center to periphery, the value of what is left in and what is left out, and whether such a thing as an authoritative narrative of an event, or of history itself, can exist.  (In this, I should note, it is a sister text to a novel I have studied extensively, Sholem Asch’s 1939 Yiddish historical novel about Jesus, The Nazarene, about which I am happy to regale you some other time.  Back to HHhH.)

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Reinhard Heydrich

Ostensibly, or on one level, HHhH describes the events leading up to and succeeding the assassination of Reinhard(t) Heydrich, known as the Hangman, head of the Reich Main Security Office, organizer of Kristallnacht, chair of the Wannsee Conference, architect of the Einsatzgruppen, and, according to Hitler himself, “the man with the iron heart.”  Heydrich, the acting Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (i.e., the Nazis’ puppet ruler of what is now the Czech Republic), was assassinated in Prague in 1942 by Jan Kubiš and Josef Gabčík, Czech nationalists and refugees, trained by the British government and the Czech government-in-exile.  This is the end of the story.  This we know from the beginning.  And that, of course, is the problem common to all works of historical fiction: the reader always already knows what happened.  HHhH tackles this problem by pursuing the story obliquely, always at its margins, following every seemingly digressive path, to suggest that we don’t always already know what we think we know, or what really happened, or whether any one authoritative account is ever possible.

Rather than a grand, sweeping, linear narrative, HHhH proceeds through a series of short vignettes, some about Heydrich, some about the history of the Holocaust and World War II, some about Kubiš and Gabčík, and some about the author/narrator’s own biography or his process in researching and writing the novel.  Some of these are a few pages long, some only one line.  This pastiche form extends, too, to the novel’s prose, made up of narrative passages, complete with invented dialogue (its invention is pointed out explicitly by the narrator); speeches; recorded conversation; memoir; poetry; newspaper articles; various historical documents and reports; and metaliterary commentary like this: “In the first draft, I’d written: ‘squeezed into a blue uniform.’  I don’t know why, I just imagined it being blue.  It’s true that in photos Göring often sports a pale blue uniform, but I don’t know what he was wearing on that particular day.  He might just as easily have been in white, for example.  I’m not sure if this kind of scruple still makes much sense at this stage.”

Sometimes this commentary is laugh-out-loud funny, usually at the expense of the ridiculous egos of some of the big Nazi players and their constant competitive political machinations in the service of gaining Hitler’s favor and thus control of a slice of the empire pie that the Nazis were making of Europe.  Very few writers or filmmakers have succeeded in laughing appropriately and well at the Holocaust or any part of it; some have tried, but failed (right now, I can only think of two films that make this attempt and fall short for very different reasons that I can’t go into here: Life is Beautiful and Inglorious BasterdsThe Producers, in its way, is more successful but also makes its Holocaust humor into a kind of footnote).  Binet’s success at writing something meaningfully humorous about Nazis cannot be overstated, precisely because it is so rare, and because it underscores the project of the novel so beautifully, its insistence on a non-monolithic, non-authoritative account of the events it describes, one that refuses to conform to expectations – indeed, an account that defies expectations purposely to expose the danger of those very expectations to a thick, rich understanding of history.

Binet slyly writes, “History is the only true casualty: you can reread it as much as you like, but you can never rewrite it.”  Of course he knows that this is exactly what he is doing, even if he senses his own powerlessness in the face of events as he does it.  We all rewrite our own histories, and the histories of others, all the time without admitting it to anyone (even, maybe, ourselves).  HHhH foregrounds this rewriting in the service of better history, and better fiction, and it’s a masterpiece of both.

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Small Worlds

ImageThis summer, looking for something to read and with a few minutes to spare before an appointment, I popped into the Powell’s Books on Lincoln in Chicago to pick something up.  I had no clear idea of what I wanted, so I browsed the fiction shelves for something interesting.  About midway through I came across a clutch of Alice Munro books, and I immediately plucked one off the shelf.  I’ve never read an Alice Munro story I didn’t like, a streak kept intact through my reading of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  When, a few months after I bought the book, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was delighted, particularly because the type of fiction she writes is so infrequently rewarded appropriately: Munro writes only short stories deeply focused on the interior lives of her characters, most of the them women, without literary pyrotechnics or dramatic plotlines.  Yet her stories are some of the most moving and satisfying works of fiction I’ve ever read.

This collection was made famous (or what passes for famous among the cultural elite) by the filmmaker Sarah Polley, who adapted the story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” into the award-winning 2006 film “Away from Her.”  The story is in many ways representative of Munro’s work (although, interestingly, the protagonist and main consciousness in “The Bear” is a man): it has few characters, minimal dialogue, is focused on the interior lives of its characters and in particular on the secrets and mysteries inherent in human relationships.  The story focuses on an aging, childless couple who have moved to a rural area to escape a scandal related to the husband’s affair with a young student of his at the university where he once taught.  Though relatively young, Fiona, the wife, begins to exhibit symptoms of dementia, and her husband places her in an assisted-living facility nearby.  There, losing her memory, she develops a relationship with another resident, a mute and brain-damaged man who dotes on her in a way her husband did not.  Her unfaithful husband finds himself in the unfamiliar position of the jealous spouse, experiencing a kind of karmic payback for his years of infidelity.  At the same time, the story gently and tenderly dissects their decades-long relationship, exposing to light the kinds of feelings and desires that often remain hidden, even to the most devoted of spouses.

There is rarely, if ever, an uncomplicated or unmessy relationship in a Munro story.  She tends to explore the underside of love: the forbidden desires, repressed resentments, concealed infidelities (large and small), and petty jealousies that are inescapable for human couples.  My favorite Munro stories tend to be her classic type, in which we follow the consciousness of a young woman in rural Canada, usually in the 1950s or 60s, as she navigates her way toward becoming her own person in a world that demands far less of her than that.  Perhaps that’s because these seem closest to Munro’s heart as well, and follow the details of her own life in some of their particulars: the dissatisfaction with young wife- and motherhood, the longing for meaningful experiences, the battle against low expectations for women.  The lives and experiences of these characters couldn’t be further from my own, yet I nearly always identify with them personally; even when I don’t, I am always, invariably, rooting for them to succeed, or persevere, or simply be who they want to be.

Not long before she won the Nobel Prize, Alice Munro announced that she was going to stop writing, because she has been writing and publishing since she was 20 years old (she’s now 82) and she was ready to retire.  Although she intimated that after winning the prize she might reconsider her decision, I’m glad that I haven’t even come close to making it through her entire oeuvre, so there are still many new Alice Munro stories for me to stumble across and savor.

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New World Magic

I’m going to cheat a little bit here: in general, I have refrained from writing on this blog about books I read for work because I intended for the blog to force me to read more for pleasure.  But here’s one of the little route modifications I discussed in my last post: I’m running out of time and I need to increase my count to make my attempt seem respectable.  So, although I read the two books I want to write about in order to give a lecture about contemporary American Jewish literature’s engagement with Jewish magic and mysticism, I’ll write about them here, ignoring the old adage about mixing work with pleasure.

On the surface, there isn’t a lot that is similar about Ari Goelman’s 2013 young adult novel The Path of Names and Steve Stern’s 2011 adult adult novel The Frozen Rabbi other than an engagement with Jewish mystical themes and ideas.  Broadly speaking, they fall into what I think is a growing category of contemporary Jewish American fiction that turns to Jewish magic to explore something fundamental about being Jewish in America, hybridized identities, and the idea of America itself.  (The Golem and the Jinni is another book I’ve written about here which also belongs to this group.)  But in their specifics they seem to confirm the old Jewish joke about two Jews and three opinions, in that the America and the American Jewishness represented in this work is ambivalent and sometimes paradoxical.  I won’t get any further into general conclusions here, since I’m still in the midst of working on this material.

ImageI don’t read many YA novels, and I don’t know whether this is generally the case, but the biggest flaw, for me, in The Path of Names was its somewhat simplistic narrative arc, in which the protagonist has a problem, confronts a challenge, and resolves her problem in exactly the neat way your second-grade teacher told you stories were supposed to work.  Having read the Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander books, I know that not all novels for young readers work like this, so I suppose it is a legitimate complaint against Goelman.  However, the reason I mention it is because in other ways The Path of Names is extremely rich – especially in its treatment of Jewish history and mysticism – and it seems a shame that its story doesn’t match the ambition of its ideas.

One of these ideas is about the value of knowledge itself, and the epistemic necessity of community.  Embroiled against her will in a 72-year -old quest to discover the ineffable name of God, the awkward, pre-teen loner Dahlia Sherman has to navigate a litany of Jewish magical creatures– dybbuks, iburs, golems – mystical concepts –gematria, the seventy-second name of God, an imaginary group of shadowy secret-collectors called the Illuminated Ones – and everyday confusions – mazes, boys, summer camp social life.  Goelman cleverly makes the nerdy Dahlia a devotee of math and magic (the quotidian, sleight-of-hand type) and then shows her that these passions are deeply connected with Jewish history and culture, or at least the mystical flip side of them.  In the slightly preachy end, Dahlia learns, through her encounter with the Jewish mystical world, that the knowledge she prizes and her community are linked: as she tells the villain of the novel before their showdown, “If you don’t tell anyone, then knowledge isn’t anything.”

ImageIn this rejection of the supremacy of the individual, The Path of Names also seems to offer a counternarrative to American individualism, a topic with which The Frozen Rabbi is also engaged.  Delightfully and with a certain eye-winking humor, The Frozen Rabbi offers a picaresque history of modern Jewish life, in Europe and America, as well as a complicated satire of American Jewry and America more generally.  Again the plot centers around a teenager who enters into the world of Jewish mysticism and magic, although here the narrative arc is more complicated, and culminates not in a simple personal transformation occasioned by the events of the story.  Rather, the transformation comes early in the book, and the conflicts and crises to which it gives rise form the crux of the novel and the basis for its satire and somewhat jaundiced view of American culture and capitalism.  On yet another level, it may suggest that Jewish history/culture/magic is in itself a kind of rebuke to or critique of contemporary American culture.  On the other hand, it may not be doing this at all, as the whole book is so tongue-in-cheek that at times I wondered if there was anything serious in it at all.  The Frozen Rabbi is immensely enjoyable, however, and although it may decline to reveal its satirical ambitions, it raises all the questions without offering facile answers.

Just as the highly assimilated, American Jewish protagonists are drawn to the world of Jewish mysticism in these books, American Jewish writers seem drawn to Jewish magic at the moment, perhaps as a  particularly Jewish expression of the apocalypticism present more generally in American literary fiction these days (all zombies all the time, right?).  I’m sure there’s more to be said about this; hopefully I’ll say it better in an article soon.

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In Which Contemporary Literature Exposes the Fallacy of the Theory-Practice Dichotomy

I feel like I’ve been writing a lot lately about the theory-practice dichotomy.  The thing is, I’m not a big fan of false dichotomies or generic absolutism, but when ideas about language and writing are poorly wedded to the writing itself, the divide rears its ugly head.  This is what makes this kind of poor writing so awful: it calls into existence a problem that isn’t really there.  Theory and practice are one, or are each other, or don’t really exist as pure categories as such, unless you work really hard to pull them apart and isolate them in an effort to be showoffy.

ImageFortunately, I think there are a lot more contemporary writers working to use ideas about writing in order to make writing do the aesthetic and emotional work it can do than whatever the opposite of that is.  Two recent books of short stories by American writers, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove and George Saunders’ Tenth of December are fabulous examples of this.  Each of them, in different yet related ways, touches the heart of something human and real while still foregrounding the literariness and unreality of representation itself.

What both collections have in common is the whiff of the fantastical.  Strange, even supernatural occurrences abound, the impossible is.  It might seem strange to claim that stories that trade so heavily in the unreal make up some of the most real and honest writing I’ve read, but there is something about their experimentation with genre and language that gives access to a depth of feeling and beauty that is both unsentimental and unironic.  Why does this work here and not in, say, Embassytown?  Partly this is probably attributable to the skill of the writers, but partly I think it’s an attitude toward the unfamiliar and the unusual that doesn’t mark all difference as Other.

For example, the title story of Russell’s collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” re-envisions vampires simply as immortal versions of ourselves, captive to monstrous myths not about the terrifying Other, but about themselves.  These vampires don’t need blood to survive, but the legends they’ve heard about this need influence their desires.  They do suffer from a perpetual, unquenchable thirst, from which they find respite in various things, including, for a time, fresh lemons from the grove in the title.  Mostly, however, they are lonely; an immortal in a world of ephemeral beings, the narrator has only ever met one other vampire, his wife and partner of centuries.  But like all couples, their relationship suffers from misunderstanding, miscommunication, changing needs and desires.  The characters may be vampires, but their lives are recognizable, even quotidian, and their terrible thirst is our own.

Not all of the stories in Russell’s collection are as serious or supernatural, but they cover a wide array of locations and time periods as well as genres and themes: from the 19th century American West to Imperial Japan, from horror to science fiction to humor.  In a sense, Russell seems to play with all of these places and attitudes in order to underscore what is common between them: the human characters at their hearts, who share similar fears, joys, disappointments and triumphs no matter where or who they are.

10th of DecemberA similar premise underlies George Saunders’ work, although his literary world is more uniform from story to story, typically set in a present that looks much like our own but often with some of its most troubling features exaggerated in some small way that calls our attention to their injustice without being heavy handed.  George Saunders has become the poet of the vanishing American middle class, a prophet for those of us who wonder what we did wrong.  Recently, a commencement address Saunders delivered at Syracuse University’s 2013 graduation ceremony was widely circulated on the internet; in it, he argues in favor of kindness as the highest human goal, the thing that gives us access to our best selves, a true way of achieving success.  I think what makes his fiction so good, so important, is that even the silliest (and there is lots of silliness), most brutal (also some brutality), sad (of course: sadness) stories are also infused with this deep, profound awareness of everyone’s humanity and our shared burdens that can only be described as kindness.  It is a rare writer who could, say, make us sympathize with an incarcerated murderer subject to psycho-pharmalogical experimentation that has the hint of a science-fiction future but seems like it also might be happening right now.

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite among these stories, but “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” which I first read in The New Yorker, is one of the best.  It contains all of Saunders’ stylistic hallmarks: a conversational, colloquial syntax premised on the notion that the story is made up of diary entries; the hint of the fantastical, in the form of yard decorations made of young girls from third-world countries who volunteer to be strung together on a wire that passes through their brains; a protagonist struggling with the burdens of family, finances, and his own and others’ expectations.  Somehow, the intimate, almost jokey yet self-deprecating first-person voice combined with the strange device of the Semplica Girls evokes a tender, devastating portrait of suburban family life: the competition with the neighbors, the teetering upper-middle-class lifestyle, the balance between openness with and protection of one’s children and spouse.  And surrounding this, the chilling, not-quite-fictional atmosphere of international capitalism and its victims, both foreign and domestic.  These stories are short, precise, and clever, but there are deep pools of meaning swirling beneath the surface.

Both Russell’s and Saunders’ work represents some of the best of contemporary American fiction and its tremendous possibility.  It also does a service to literature more generally in its almost tender treatment of grand literary ideas and theories through unadorned, beautiful prose.  These are the kinds of stories that renew my faith in humanity, and in literature.

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