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