The God of War by Marisa Silver

I bought this novel because it is set very near to places I grew up in Southern California. Specifically, the novel is set in Bombay Beach, next to the Salton Sea in Imperial County, California. The book catches the desolation of the place and of the people who live there in language of Sopheclean directness. My grandfather lived in the Imperial Valley from around 1900 until his death at 94 about thirty years ago & I spent many school vacations baking in the 100 degree heat. No landscape moves me as much as that of western Imperial County, with its bare mountains of tumbled rock descending to the sandy floor of the valley. It is surely among the poorest counties in the state, same as the one I live in now, in Northern New York — both are far from the center, affording people greater freedom (of a certain kind) as well as greater risks than wealthier, more settled places nearer the capitals. The greatest risk, perhaps, is loneliness.

Silver’s novel demonstrates what can be accomplished with the basic materials of realist narrative and style. The story is recounted by Ares, now an adult but recalling events that occurred when he was twelve. The plot is rigorously chronological and the prose limpid and without a hint of authorial narcissism. Ares and his younger half-brother Malcolm, who is severely autistic, live with their single mother in a trailer in Bombay Beach, on the Salton Sea. Laurel, the boys’ mother, has fled the pieties and restraints of a Midwestern childhood and come to rest in the desolation of Imperial County. The novel’s plot is too delicate a machine to summarize, but from the opening pages it is apparent that some terrible event will divide the characters’ lives into a stark before and an after. If the heroes of the Greek theater were doomed by the capricious but implacable decrees of the Gods, the ordinary people in this story are propelled toward their fates by the implacability of mere chance. But Ares, the god of war, discovers comes to rest in the strength bestowed by integrity — his mother’s, his brother’s, and his own.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood last night. This novel is a sequel to Oryx & Crake, which came out in 2003. Oryx & Crake establishes and develops a near-future North American dystopia that is frighteningly plausible because it is so firmly rooted in the present. In a lecture at MIT shortly after the novel was published, Atwood describes the big scrapbooks of cuttings she compioled in order to ground the novel’s scientific and technological details in present knowledge and practice. She mostly concerns herself with genetics and economics in the first book, the technology of gene splicing and cloning leading to an economy based on the production of new organisms, which are given names like “rakunk,” a pet-like hybrid of raccoons and skunks, in Wikipedia’s phrase, and “pigoon,” a huge, balloon-like pig used to grow extra copies of human organs for transplantation. The names sound as if they come direct from the marketing departments of the industrial-scientific complex — cute and sinister simultaneously. Scientists and their families live in corporate “compounds,” gated and heavily guarded communities with their own stores, medical services, and social activities; the rest of humanity lives in the “pleeblands,” definitely ungated communities of varying degrees of squalor. Continue reading

Stone Age Flutes

Human beings seem to be inveterate makers of pattern, whether musical, visual, or verbal. The people who hollowed out the bird bones and cut holes at regular intervals were also making stunning pictures on the walls of caves and, I have no doubt, singing songs to their children and telling each other stories. All of these activities have pattern making at the heart. Other animals can recognize patterns in the world around them; human animals seem to be the only ones compelled to consciously create patterns — in the air, on the walls, with their voices.

I’ve just been reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s delightful little book, The Art of Syntax — another in Graywolf’s really excellent The Art of series* — in which she makes explicit the patterns and variations in several poems serving as exempla.After all these years of writing poetry, Voigt’s little book excites me about what originally excited me — making shapes with words. With James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, Voigt’s book would serve the intermediate student of poetry as a fine introduction to the art.

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*Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, another entry in this series, is a rich source of insight about the textures of literary fiction.

Weather Report

Gardening: We’ve been having alternating days of sun and rain, which has been good for the stuff growing in the yard — both the stuff we want growing there and the stuff we don’t — but I’ve been finding the cool rainy weather a little depressing as I begin to recover from the Upper Respiratory Infection, i.e., cold, From Hell. But today it’s sun and I’m feelin alright, as the old Joe Cocker song has it. Yesterday during a break in the rain I hauled all the bonsai and indoor plants outside and put them in their summer quarters. Today I ought to pull weeds and put a few herbs I bought last week into pots.

Reading: I read The Idiot in Hanoi and I’m trying to write an essay about it that works with the idea of being beside one’s self. When I got home and had the bad cold, I plunged into the last three novels in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubury-Maturin series, which I’ve now completed over the last three summers, though I think maybe I missed one volume somewhere in the middle. I’ll probably read through the series again at some point, but not for a while. I read O’Brian’s books the way Carole watches certain kinds of HBO shows, because they are respectable, intelligent entertainment that still don’t demand complete concentration. Then — and this is weird — last night — without even realizing that today would be Bloomsday — I picked up Ulysses and began to read it for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. I’ve never gotten more than 100 pages into it, but I think this time I’ve caught the music. Stephen’s symbol for Irish art, “the cracked looking glass of a servent,” strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for modernist art in general, including Dostoevsky’s novel. The image in the glass is doubled and displaced; that it belongs to a servent might at first seem to devalue it, but we know that servents are often more free of illusion that their masters.

Update: There was a good short essay by Colum McCann about Ulysses in yesterday’s NY Times.

Realism (VN Diary No. 35)

I’m not much of a Roger Cohen fan — he strikes me as an ideological opportunist, a flag blowing first one way then the other — but the dateline of this column attracted my attention, of course. The Quiet American is the best single piece of fiction about Vietnam you are likely to read (Tim O’Brien’s stories in The Things they Carried come a close second only because they focus so closely on the war rather than the situation of the war), an exacting portrait of a murderous idealism. Cohen’s column uses Graham Greene’s novel to make a pair of important points:

  1. Idealism is a terrible basis for foreign policy (and probably for life in general);
  2. It is possible to engage with countries and cultures with whom we have fundamental disagreements.

Neither of these is particularly profound seperately, but taken together in the context of Vietnam’s relationship to our current wars, they constitute an effective analytical blade. If the US could use this pair of ideas to rationalize complete withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is entirely possible that in twenty or thirty years we could have relationships with those countries similar to the one we have with now with Vietnam. But that would require leaving off the conventional and deeply ingrained belief in American exceptionalism — a form of idealism — and taking up a kind of realism that lacks immediate emotional punch but that would pay off in the long run. And if we’re going to exit in two years or six or ten, why not now? Like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are going to have to set their own political, social, and cultural parameters: the hard truth is that there is little or nothing the US can do to influence those choices.