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Depressed by a book of bad poetry…

June 26, 2014

It’s been a while since I wrote about a poem here. I’ve been reading James Wright, because he writes so beautifully about Ohio and I’ve been wanting to get down to his level of detail and appreciation. I keep thinking about my favorite poem by him, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm,” and about the irony of the last line (“I have wasted my life.”).

Last week I got an e-mail about work that felt a bit like what our housemate Miriam used to call a “letter of ruin.” It wasn’t, but it felt like that at first. It blamed me for things that worry me. So I’ve been writing a response and compiling information for my annual report, all of which is taking more of my time than it probably should. I feel like I’ve been missing June, although the weather has been so cool and rainy that it’s less inviting outside, anyway.

The Kokosing River is out of its banks near our house, although so far the sump pump is keeping the storm water out of our basement.  photo-316The farmers can’t make any hay, because even when the sun shines, the fields are still so wet they can’t take a tractor through them. Even the ones who grow what we like to call marshmallows–the big, white-plastic-wrapped bales of hay–can’t get out there to roll up any bales. Here’s a picture of a corn field near the turn-off to Gambier:  photo-315

Today I finished the final draft of my annual report. There’s lots more to do at work, but I’m taking a few days off, at least mentally. As if in tune with my mood, the sun has come out. I found this James Wright poem and it describes my mental state right now, pushing away from the desk, ready to go out and see what new kinds of water-loving bugs might have hatched out in our back gardens:

Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me

Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone.
I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants
Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Casting shadows so frail that I can see through them.
I close my eyes for a moment and listen.
The old grasshoppers
Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins
In the maple trees.

I may feel like an old grasshopper, not much inclined to trying leaping heavily, but iridescent flies and dragonflies are darting around the garden excitedly, making the most of this hour of sunshine.  photo-318

Bellman & Black

June 23, 2014

I won an autographed copy of Diane Setterfield’s novel Bellman & Black from Cathy at Kittling Books, whose review got me interested in it. Luckily, I waited until June to read it, because the first half gets bleak, before the significance of the supernatural elements becomes clear. In the first half, I wondered if the man the main character, William Bellman, sees at the grave of his various relatives would turn out to be his father, missing since a few days after his birth. I thought that perhaps the sections on rooks would turn out to be tied to the plot. In the second half, however, it becomes clear that these elements are about more than the story of a single man, no matter how extraordinary.

William Bellman is extraordinary. From the age of ten, he’s the cleverest, the strongest, the most intelligent, the friendliest, and the most industrious person anyone around him has ever met. He can hit a bird from far away with a slingshot. He can figure out the close-kept secrets of a dyer in the textile mill he is learning to manage. He is good to people, partly because he likes them, and partly because it’s his nature to be able to coax the best work out of everyone. We get lots of detail about how perceptive and hard-working Will is, and so we grow to love him and wish him well.

Despite his virtues, though, Will does not get the kinds of rewards readers want for him. When his mother dies, and a childhood friend, and the uncle who has acted as a father to him, Will’s response is the same: to bury himself in work and try to forget. When his wife and three of his four children die, however, Will reaches a breaking point. He tries bargaining, and being a man of business, he means that literally.

When the second half of the novel began, I thought William had made a deal with Death. He thought so too. The Victorian flavor of the writing adds to this impression, as it has all along, until a sentence in this section almost—but not quite—slipped by me without sounding all that remarkable: “after lunch they spent half an hour in a brougham before arriving at a courtyard, then a room fragrant with cedar and pine, and carpeted with curls cut from the heads of babies, that were crisp underfoot.” There’s a Victorian version of the song Cats in the Cradle with William Bellman and his surviving daughter—the daughter that, at this point, I thought he had made a deal for with Death himself. Using work as an excuse, as he always does, William makes a cursory apology for being busy and his daughter, Dora, replies “you have been busy ever since I was born, Father. I am perfectly used to it.” William, now the owner of a mill and a successful funeral business, thinks that “the comfort of grief was out of bounds, and it was too late for sorrow.”

William does meet Death, and there’s an interesting twist on how his life flashes before his eyes in that moment. The sections about rooks, having been gradually revealed as more about the narrative than the plot, comment on the way William’s life flashes before his eyes. For them, as for us, it is entertainment–but entertainment of a very black sort–black being, as William himself would tell you, a complicated color to create.

Raising Stony Mayhall

June 19, 2014

Like my imaginary friend Jenny, who I met on our trip to Louisiana, I don’t usually read zombie books. I used to never read any book (or watch any movie or TV show) that I thought might be scary, but then I started a blog with the word “necromancy” in the title and got slightly obsessed with the TV show Supernatural. So I’ve sampled a bit at the edges of the horror genre in the last eight years, and found I like a few zombie books like World War Z and Generation Dead. Then Jenny introduced me to Daryl Gregory’s Raising Stony Mayhall, which I read straight through in a couple of hours one summer afternoon because the focus of the story keeps changing unexpectedly–I found the switching-it-up compelling.

The book has four parts. First, there’s the story of how Stony is discovered, just a few hours old, and grows up with a family in Iowa. Second, we see him on the run from the “breathers,” as live people are called by the “LD” community. They make jokes about what “LD” stands for, but the most inclusive version is “living dead.” In the third section, the shortest one, Stony has been captured and taken to a secret prison, where he is experimented on and abused. The fourth section shows what happens after Stony escapes from prison and tries to direct and protect his LD followers and his living family members.

It’s not until the fourth part of the book that we get a quick version of the zombie apocalypse story: “You could tell this story yourself. You know the ingredients” and then 16 tropes for a story about zombies are listed.

One of the interesting things about the story is the history of how Stony and those who love him try to discover the secret of his “life.” At first it seems to be some sort of empathy—as a newborn, he begins growing when he meets a young boy named Kwang: “with each visit, Stony grew. Within a few days he was walking. The next week he was talking. By the end of the summer the two boys were exactly the same height and weight, and they were hardly ever out of each other’s sight.”

While his sisters are convinced he’s human, Stony himself wonders if he has a soul. Readers are rooting for Stony, though, because why would we blame a person for being born the way he is? When Stony has run from people who would kill him just for the way he looks, he finds a deer dying at the side of a highway and he sits with it until it dies and wonders if he really is evil: “Maybe somewhere inside him there was a monstrous beast waiting to devour living flesh, but if it was there, it wasn’t coming out tonight. As a creature of evil, he was a washout. As a human being he wasn’t so hot, either. He should at least try to strangle the animal to put it out of its misery—that was the humane thing to do—but he didn’t think he could follow through on that, either.”

When he is finally forced to run, Stony meets different factions among the LDs, including the most passive, the “graveborn,” who came back to life after a 2-day fever following a 1968 outbreak and have been hiding ever since. Most of the others he classifies according to how they feel about the bite that spreads the fever: Abstainers, who think it’s a sin, Perpetualists, who believe some biting is necessary to maintain the LD population, and Big Biters, who want an orchestrated attack. There are also many Lumpists, who have a sort of fatalistic approach to non-living, and a group called the Ontological Studies Working Group. Eventually Stony meets a rich LD who owns a tropical island and talks about building rockets to send LDs out to colonize alien worlds.

There’s lots of dark humor in this section, because the LDs are being hunted and it’s hard for them to find a way to continue to exist without becoming the monsters that living humans imagine them to be. Stony sees a “green Sinclair brontosaurus” at one point, and thinks that he “liked the corporate mascot because it was one of the few that unashamedly reminded you of exactly what had died to make your life easier. Like the El Pollo Loco chicken crazy with desire to become your lunch, or Charlie the Tuna desperate to be canned, the dinosaur was a corpse with a job. One of the undead of the ad world.”

The leader of the “Big Biters” says war is the answer because “we’ve been fighting a war of attrition, getting picked off one by one” and because “those breathers want it as bad as us. They’re yearning for the end of the world. Why do you think they make so many movies about us? It’s their fucking fantasy. Every one of them wants civilization to burn, for all the rules to go up in smoke. They want the monsters to attack. You know why? Because then they’ll have the excuse to do what they’ve always wanted to do—shoot people in the head. No laws, no morality. They’ll have to do it. It’ll be fucking noble. Every one of them is picturing themselves as the last man standing, a bloodstained samurai with an AK-47.”

After a heroic escape from prison, Stony has what one of his friends calls “a mid-death crisis,” but he eventually manages to become the leader (even savior) that the many people who love him and believe in him have been hoping for. Don’t think that I’m promising a happy ending, though. This is a book that will keep surprising you.

A Cute Tombstone

June 18, 2014

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Zarina Zabrisky is the author of Iron, A Cute Tombstone, and We, Monsters. I accepted a copy of A Cute Tombstone from the author for her blog tour because the description of the story (48 pages long) sounded like black humor. It is, but not necessarily in the way I expected. The story is about a woman traveling to Russia, where she grew up, to bury her mother. It begins with an old-fashioned black-and-white photo of a woman in an enormous hat, followed by a poem that begins with “maybe/her love was a hat.” The poem is followed by another old-fashioned black-and-white photo of a woman, bareheaded, and then the story begins with “My mother died last week, and on Sunday I flew back to Russia.”

When I asked the author a few questions about her story by e-mail, she answered in some ways I didn’t expect.

To what extent (if any) is the story of burying the mother autobiographical, or what kind of experience is it drawn from?
I went through a very similar experience as my main character: coming back to Russia from America to bury my mother and suddenly being confronted with political and psychological changes in my former country that made the funeral management pure hell. I had a hard time sleeping and I wrote down everything that happened, step-by-step, as I have a habit of writing in my notebooks. Later, I wrote a story using the details from those notes, as I often write stories. In the process of writing, though, the main characters have mutated into different people–and that’s, again, what usually happens. Lyn and her mother are characters but the ordeal they are dealing with is very real.
Also, in my story “mother” stands for “Motherland” and therefore the personal experience of burying a parent turns into parting with the home country.

How do you see the photos as related to the story?
This story is very personal to me. I dedicated it to my mother. The photograph for the story is of her at 16, and I have chosen it as it is beautiful, simple and her face has an alarmed, intense expression, almost mournful and accusative… and she’s wearing a small pin on her heart that we all were forced to wear, with Lenin’s head floating on a blood-red banner. To me, she’s almost asking, “What have you done to me?”
The photograph preceding the poem is a portrait of my great-great-aunt, a wondrous and adventurous super-successful and emancipated woman who, according to the family lore, owned the most fashionable hat store on Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare in St. Petersburg in 1900s. She was known for her insane hat designs, independence and often traveled to Paris to bring the new haut couture to the fashionistas of St. Petersburg. You can read this, and a lot more in her striking face: haunting eyes, so intent and alert, her sensual mouth almost invisibly curved in a hint of a smile. As if she perceives the decades of wars, revolutions, hunger, losses and destruction. After the revolution, all private property was expropriated by the state of workers and peasants and her heavenly hats with their hallucinatory feathers and silks were of no use. I don’t know what happened to her. But how proudly she wears her impossible creations on her head…

How do you see the poem as related to the story? How do you read the lines “maybe/she was a hat”?
Women in exile, women in love, in grief, in death. The hat is a metaphor of the illusory quality of life.

What do you see as the effect of tradition on rites of passage like surviving a parent’s death?
I was thinking about it during both my father’s and mother’s funerals. Perhaps, following the tradition and rituals and succumbing to the conventional ways of grieving–church services, wakes, etc–puts the inconceivable in the context of human daily life and, more than anything, provides comfort and makes death almost understandable. The advantage of resisting these pre-fabricated comforts is the possibility to face your own emotional world and find out how you really feel–on your own, without the crutches provided by tradition. Fiddler on the Roof answer, in a way.

Do you think it’s true that in Russia, as in the U.S., it’s easier to have a church service as a funeral or memorial service because so many people expect it?
Russian religious history is very different from the U.S.’s. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union banished all religions. Churches were turned into warehouses, swimming pools and administrative buildings. Most people were atheists. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, after about seventy years of the complete absence of religious culture in the country, faith became a possibility. Putin’s government promptly used the interest to religion to fill the newly created void of ideology. Instead of communist guidelines, the KGB set a mean steel propaganda machine that pushed the Russian Orthodox religion on masses. Lyn is dealing with the consequences of this campaign, and has to resist the church rituals on every step. The funeral is taking place in 2008. Looking back at the latest history, one can easily see that the Russian government has succeeded in its policy. The majority of the Russian population has become militantly religious, acquiring along the way the ideas of national supremacy, patriarchal traditions, intolerance and xenophobia. Thus, a church service for a memorial gains on far too sinister motifs in the context of modern Russia than, say, in San Francisco where it is just a matter of free choice.

Why do the funeral people all wink? What do you think this might say about people who deal with grieving family members each day?
Their winking reminds me of Gravediggers from Hamlet. It has the wit and wisdom of the jesters, on a more philosophical level. On the more literal level, corrupt, morally degraded and ethically confused (at best), those clowns are a perfect snap-shots of the bureaucratic system in Russia. Russia holds 127 ranking on the Corruption Perceptions Index for 2013 (out of 176 countries, next to Pakistan and Bangladesh.) These numbers translate into the impossibility to go about your everyday life, from getting a passport, asking for a glass of water in a hospital, or, for the purpose of this story, getting cremated or buried, without paying bribes along the way. The value of human life and dignity, once again, is completely erased.

Can you explain your reaction to the mother’s tombstone? Is part of the issue that the father gets black granite while the mother gets something that “looked like a Winnie the Pooh pop-up book”?
Not at all. This is not a matter of gender, and, frankly, at the cemeteries in Russia everyone is equal, after all, from my observation. (Russia is a sexist country, no doubt. “It’s better not to argue with women,” said Putin a week ago, and later he characterized Clinton’s comments as a sign of weakness, which is maybe “not the worst quality for a woman,” he added. And, Russia has become even the more sexist country, following the traditions of the patriarchy that are a part of the Russian Orthodox religion. Women are not allowed to enter a certain area in the church, not allowed to enter the church at all during menstruation, etc.). The reason the grave looks like a pop-up book is the gross misunderstanding. Thinking that the first name and no dates of birth and death is a sure sign of the deceased being a baby, the grave maker comes up with the Disney-like tombstone. This is the final metaphor of the major inability of being heard, the total loss of communication between Lyn and her former country. Even the tombstone she gets is wrong.

To sum up both interview and story, when the narrator was put in charge of her mother’s tombstone, the mother says “the tombstone is very important….I will draw you a picture, but for now just remember: it must match your father’s tombstone, must have my first name only and it must be elegant.” When the narrator sees that “the tombstone looked like a Winnie the Pooh pop-up book. Like a pack of bubblegum: milky-white letters, a heart, a ribbon. And a cross” she asks “did you see my picture?” and is answered “I thought this way was cuter.”

In the end, readers understand why the narrator is as appalled by the difficulty of making funeral arrangements in her native country as she was in the beginning by funeral advertising in an American Costco: “On the advertising display—“My death, my funeral, my way!”—three older but active adults were flashing orthodontically perfect smiles from tropical-beach chaise lounges.”

A Cute Tombstone is a bit like those oversized photos of the dead person’s face commonly used at the memorial service. Since Zarina mentions one in the story, I asked about her reaction to such photos, and the answer seems to me to sum up the experience of reading this story: “Death is already such a shift in reality. Twisting or enlarging the familiar features makes it worse.”

If you have been to a funeral or a memorial service for someone you loved, was there anything that helped you get through it?

The Thanatos Syndrome

June 13, 2014

This past weekend Ron and I went to the first annual Walker Percy Weekend in St. Francisville, Louisiana, which is in the region where one of Percy’s novels is set, The Thanatos Syndrome.

We flew into New Orleans and drove across the Lake Pontchartrain causeway to Covington, where he lived, and then on up to St. Francisville, where we left our suitcases at the St. Francisville Inn and walked a few feet across the lawn to the park for the first official event, a crawfish boil. We met some local people, cracked and ate an entire tray full of crawfish each, talked to Walker Percy fans from Washington D.C., New York City, and Vancouver, B.C., watched a documentary about Percy underneath the live oaks draped with Spanish moss, and then crossed back to the Inn to sit on the porch, have a drink, talk to a few more folks, and be served with birthday cake by one of them who had brought it to share.  photo-310

Saturday we split up so that I went to “Cinematic Catechism: Moviegoing and the Meaning of Life” at the West Feliciana Court House and Ron went to “Lost in the Cosmos: Is Science Enough Without Religion?” at Temple Sinai. We met for lunch at the Magnolia grill and compared notes, whereupon it seemed that my session had been slightly better. After lunch, I told the LSU oral historians how we had bonded over our love of Walker Percy at Hendrix College and named our son “Walker,” and then in the afternoon, I went to “Place and Non-place: Walker Percy and the Search for Home” and Ron went to “Will Percy’s World: Stoicism and the Southern Aristocracy,” after which it seemed to us that Ron’s session had been slightly better. We dashed off for a tour of the Nuclear Energy Plant at River Bend, which figures peripherally in The Thanatos Syndrome, and then we came back to St. Francisville for the “front porch bourbon tasting tour,” where we drank a sazerac, “LiberTea,” shoo-fly punch, and mint julep, riding back to the park on a trolley for the “Louisiana flavors” dinner, where we sat at a table with Walker Percy’s daughter Mary Pratt and her friends Alice and Robert and ate cochon de lait, fried catfish, and grilled oysters. Robert and I figured out that he knew the imaginary friends we were going to spend the evening with the next day. After the dinner there was music and finally we walked back to the Inn, where we sat on the porch with the people from British Columbia, some local St. Francisville residents, and Rick from New Orleans, who told me about some good places to see the next day.

We slept a little bit too late to see as much of New Orleans as we had planned, parking at Audubon Park at noon. We rode the streetcar down St. Charles Avenue (and then a bus and then another streetcar) to Canal Street, where we got off and walked around the French Quarter. We poked our heads into a few of the shops and bought a few souvenirs (finger narwhals and a t-shirt from a store named Jazz Funeral). We didn’t make time for a sit-down lunch, but bought a slice of pizza and a frozen daiquiri served in a Styrofoam cup with a lid and straw. Walking out of Jackson Square on the French Market side, we came upon a jazz combo playing. Finally, we hopped in a cab to get back to our rental car at Audubon Park.

We drove to Baton Rouge and knocked on the door of a house where my imaginary friends Nancy and Jenny, along with Joe and Randon and Jazz, their dog, were waiting to meet me and Ron in person. For me, at least, it was one of those meetings of imaginary friends where nothing was surprising. They were exactly as I’d thought they would be, and we picked up conversation pretty much where we’d left off the last time we’d talked. At dinner, they served gin and tonics and crawfish etouffee, which was fabulous, and then they let me sit in a rolling chair on a hardwood floor and gave me rhythm instruments, all things my own family usually won’t do. It’s the first time I’ve ever met someone in person for the first time and spent that night at their house, and it turned out so well I didn’t even have a chance to look at the book Nancy had picked out for my bedside table (although it’s on my library list now) and we got up early to go out for beignets together before Ron and I had to be on our way to the airport.  photo-309

On the flights back, I re-read Walker Percy’s novel The Thanatos Syndrome, re-discovering an envelope I’d used as a bookmark, hand-addressed to Lewis Lawson (who gave it to me) from Walker Percy.

The Thanatos Syndrome is about what happens to Dr. Tom Moore after Love In the Ruins. Frank, a black janitor in the hospital who has known Tom for forty years, greets his return from prison (where he ended up after the events of Love In the Ruins) by saying “I knowed they couldn’t keep you! People talking about trouble. I say no way. No way Doc going to be in trouble. Ain’t no police going to hold Doc for long. People got too much respect for Doc! I mean.”  In a passage reminiscent of the one about the British use of subtext in Tigerman, Dr. Moore says
“One would have to be a Southerner, white or black, to understand the complexities of this little exchange. Seemingly pleasant, it was not quite. Seemingly a friend in the old style, Frank was not quite. The glint of eye, seemingly a smile of greeting, was not. It was actually malignant. Frank was having a bit of fun with me, I knew, and he knew that I knew, using the old forms of civility to say what he pleased. What he was pleased to say was: So you got caught, didn’t you, and you got out sooner than I would have, didn’t you? Even his pronounciation of police as po-lice was overdone and farcical, a parody of black speech, but a parody he calculated I would recognize.”

Dr. More, on probation, is not interested in regaining his license to dispense drugs to cure patients’ psychological problems, but wants to work with some of them on what he calls “the old-fashioned talking cure.” With one patient, he says
“We talked about failure. What is failure? Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time. Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print. But in the movies they don’t show the failures. What you see are the takes that work. So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded-off way. It looks as if real failure is unspeakable. TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories. Because that is not the way life is. Life is fits and starts, mostly fits. Life doesn’t have to stop with failure.”

Ironically, Dr. More finds himself in the middle of the same kind of plot that was not rounded-off in the 14 episodes of the canceled TV show Firefly, but finally given closure in the movie Serenity. His habits of observation and curiosity lead him to discover a secret, an act that a fellow psychiatrist defends by asking “What would you say if I gave you a magic wand you could wave…and overnight you could reduce crime in the streets by eighty-five percent?….Child abuse by eight-seven percent….Teenage suicide by ninety-five percent….Wife battering by seventy-three percent….Teenage pregnancy by eight-five percent….Hospital admissions for depression, chemical dependence, anxiety reduced by seventy-nine percent….AIDS by seventy-six percent.” Anyone who has seen the movie Serenity knows how this kind of thing turns out.

The satire from Love In the Ruins continues along the same lines it followed in that novel, although now some of it has been institutionalized by law:
“What you’re talking about is pedeuthanasia and gereuthanasia. What we’re doing, as you well know, is following the laws of the Supreme Court, respecting the rights of the family, the consensus of child psychologists, the rights of the unwanted child not to have to suffer a life of suffering and abuse, the right of the unwanted aged to a life with dignity and a death with dignity. Toward this end we—to use your word—dispose of those neonates and euthanates who are entitled to the Right to Death provision in the recent court decisions.”

As one of his patients says to Dr. More (about witnessing one part of the Final Solution for Jewish children in Germany during the 1930’s) “Soldiers are interested, not horrified. Only later was I horrified. We’ve got it wrong about horror. It doesn’t come naturally but takes some effort.”

It doesn’t take too much effort to see the cumulative image of the novel as satiric: “hundreds of black men and women, the men bare-chested, the women kerchiefed, bend over the rows” of cotton at Angola prison, singing a spiritual as they work. One of the characters says to Dr. More: “It beats Attica and Sing Sing, doesn’t it?” If the answer wasn’t obvious before, this picture of slavery makes it obvious.

As part of Walker Percy weekend, we were offered a tour of Angola. We declined, but not before the invitation, in my e-mail, caused Facebook to ask me to “like” a page for “Friends of Angola Prison.” That’s an irony almost worthy of Percy himself.

Have you ever heard of Walker Percy? If you haven’t read any of his novels, my suggestion would be to start with Lancelot or The Moviegoer. We suggested that our kids, during their first year of college, start with The Last Gentleman, mostly because of the part where the characters go to college. If you’ve read him, which novel or essay is your favorite?


June 5, 2014

I didn’t expect to be in tears at the end of the new Nick Harkaway novel, Tigerman. Harkaway’s laugh-a-minute skill with references to both high and popular culture kept me so entertained that the foreshadowing barely registered.

Tigerman is about a nearly-retired British sergeant serving out the remainder of his time on the fictional island of Mancreu, a former British colony so badly polluted that allied forces have decreed that it will be destroyed. The sergeant, Lester Ferris, acts against the Graham Greene-reminiscent setting in order to fight for truth, justice, and the Mancreu way on behalf of his friend, a local boy young enough to still believe in such things.

Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that Lester is less like the “whisky priest” in The Power and the Glory and more like a British version of Thomas More in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins.  Both Tigerman and Love in the Ruins follow the actions of a traumatized main character at the edge of a self-immolating civilization–there’s a poisonous “discharge cloud” in Tigerman, whereas it’s mid-altering “heavy sodium vapor” in the swamp in Love in the Ruins. But the main difference between Lester and Thomas More is that Lester has a child to protect.

As the novel begins, the British have given up their claim on Mancreu “to the NATO and Allied Protection Force on Mancreu, NatProMan,” an abbreviation which gives any reference to the governing body a comic resonance. Industrial chemicals pumped into caverns below the island have combined in new and explosive ways, until the world’s governments have decided that the island must be destroyed. The natives are leaving with only a few months to go before the island’s destruction, although some, like the boy, have reasons why they don’t want to leave.

When Lester and the boy (who remains unnamed throughout the novel, although he refers to himself as”Robin”) witness the death of a mutual friend, an idea is born: “’we should fight crime,’ the boy said. ‘That is what we should do.’” Lester’s crime-fighting identity is inspired when Lester, sitting at the friend’s grave contemplating necromancy, has an encounter with an island tiger: “he turned around into a completely alien intelligence, a huge soup-plate face with wide, reflective eyes.” The boy sums up the idea for Lester: “unassuming sergeant for fallen empire by day! Foolhardy boy companion! And it will be hard work. Gather evidence, data, follow leads. Good men fighting to protect and serve in a town where there is no law….But then later…when the moon is in the sky and the evildoer thinks he is safe…Tigerman strikes!” Lester justifies the silliness of becoming Tigerman by saying he wants to show the boy “a win. A world where sometimes someone does fix it. Doesn’t just walk away.”

Harkaway seamlessly intersperses action sequences with ideas about living in a place where civilization is coming to an end, including a long and entertaining explanation of the use of subtext in British speech and how that relates to The Waste Land:
“You had to listen to what a Brit was saying—which was invariably that he thought XYZ was a terrific idea and he hoped it went very well for you—while at the same time paying heed to the greasy, nauseous suspicion you had that, although every word and phrase indicated approval, somehow the sum of the whole was that you’d have to be a mental pygmy to come up with this plan and a complete fucking idiot to pursue it….The thing was, Brits actually thought that subtext was plain text. To a Brit, the modern English language was vested with hundreds of years of unbroken history and cultural nuance, so that every single word had a host of implications depending on who said it to whom, when, and how….The Waste Land was a fucking terrifying document of gasping psychological trauma, and it was plenty relevant to the island, but the important point about it was that Eliot was trying to make use of something called an ‘objective correlative,’ which was an external reference point everyone would understand in the same way without fear of misapprehension….it was very British. Only a British poet…would imagine that the gap between people living in the same street was so fucking enormous that you had to read the entire body of English-language poetry from 1500 to the present day in order to have a background which would allow you to communicate something as simple as ‘your dog is pissing on my lawn’ and be reliably understood….All the same, there was something glorious in that complexity, in the fact that Brit communication took place in the gaps between words and in the various different ways of agreeing which meant ‘no’.”

Harkaway’s triumph in this novel is the way he combines subtext in the dialogue with references to great works of English literature, comic books, movies, and even internet memes in order to infuse the action of the novel with comedy and the meaning of that action with tragedy. Like the chemical reactions going on underneath the island of Mancreu, shades of meaning and allusion combine to create a point of view from which readers can see sadness behind the comic situations. The boy’s internet-based English, for example, (“full of win”) is especially poignant once you discover how he has learned the language. Lester’s largely-unvoiced thoughts, like that “it was an irritation to the Sergeant that men who one moment before had been braying for the sexual favours of a fiend could appeal to the Virgin in the next. It smacked of sloppy thinking” show how much he cares behind his habitual appearance of keeping a stiff upper lip.

Because he cares about not getting caught, Lester thinks about how to differentiate how he acts as himself from how he acts as Tigerman, and this leads him to remember what brought him from his former post in Afghanistan to his present one on Mancreu:
“He went on patrol in a Mickey Mouse hat he’d gotten somewhere, and he carried his gun like a swagger stick. He’d never seen M*A*S*H, so he didn’t realize he was travelling a well-worn path. And after each patrol he’d push it a bit further until they had to take notice. They’d put him in a secure hospital cell indefinitely, and he’d carried on the game for weeks and months and faked a suicide attempt and bitten an orderly and finally he’d broken down and explained that he was faking it, he just wanted so very much to go home. And the doctors told him: ‘It’s okay. You’re going home, and no one’s going to punish you.’ But he deserved to be punished, he said. He’d faked it. ‘Yeah,’ the doctors said. ‘We always knew you thought you were faking it. But that’s the thing: you never were. It was real, and now you’re better.’ Which was about the most disturbing fucking idea the Sergeant had ever heard, until he came here and it was just life, and then he had the really disturbing idea that everyone in the world was carrying on this way all the time.”
Like Thomas More in Love In the Ruins, who has discharged himself from a mental ward with his ontological lapsometer as a diagnostic tool, Lester Ferris has been set loose with the knowledge that he was once crazy, and he uses that knowledge as a way to understand his peripheral role as agent of a former government, a government that no longer cares about Mancreu except for the possibility of being embarrassed by publicity about the island.

After one of Tigerman’s most astounding displays, the attention of the world does focus on Mancreu: “when you cut it together the way they had it was like a movie: Tigerman bursting from a burning building, smashing through a wall. He raised an army and faced down a gang. He chased a car on foot and near as dammit caught his prey. And then he vanished with the aid of his mysterious minions into the night, leaving his deeds unexplained and self-explanatory. Meat enough for a dozen stories and substories, for analyses and commentaries, and all of it allowed them to play that footage again, to show what one man—one hero—could do on a dark night in a town on the edge. And—despite all editorial efforts—the question was beginning to form in the unspoken and the tacit: how much did all this have to do with that cluster of dark ships glimpsed in the corner of the frame?”

Surrounding the increasingly lawless island is a cluster of ships that islanders call “the fleet.” They are a side effect of NatProMan control of the island, attracted to the lawless zone surrounding the island, where illegal and immoral actions can be hidden in a flotilla of ships anchored under no national flags: “in this maritime twilight it was often hard to tell where nations ended and other entities began; where corporate activity shaded into organized crime, spying into a trade in unlawful commodities. Clustered… lay a mass of unaffiliated shipping: prisons for deniable detainees and hospitals for unethical procedures; data havens, grey banks, untaxed subsidiaries; floating harems and forced-labour factories, auction houses for contraband goods; torture facilities for hire. So long as it never touched the shore, the business of the Fleet was invisible.”

The heroics of Tigerman ensure that the world finally notices the illegal acts that have been going on aboard the ships. The boy says “if Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of 50 Shades of Grey starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel, they might just have approached this level of frenzy.”

But for the destroy order on Mancreu to be lifted and for the ships to depart, even more publicity will be necessary. The boy’s  determination to make the world see what is going on is expressed, characteristically, with a reference to the movie Serenity. Lester does not recognize the reference, but the cognizant reader does, and knows what the boy is going to do.

All that Lester can see is that “the boy was doing a great thing. It was terrible and it was all kinds of wrong-headed and dangerous, but he was making it work. He was near as dammit leading the world around by the nose, and he was a genius and an action hero and everything he wanted to be.” At first Tigerman had been a game, but now the boy has become a hero and Lester has discovered that he needs to act as Tigerman in order to protect the boy: “If it wasn’t going to cost him his life the Sergeant would be inclined to let him get on with it, but you had to draw a line in bringing up a young person, and this was definitely on the far side of it.”

The ending makes me cry every time I reread it, hoping to get a different result. It’s different from the ending of Love In the Ruins where there is a new life built in the ruins of the old. Here there is a sacrifice to save the island and end the tide of  lawlessness. There is hope, but it is in the bottom of the box that Tigerman’s actions have opened. There is a garden, as in the ending of Candide, but it is a vast and variably poisoned one, not the kind of garden on which we can mark off plots and call just one of them our own.

The ending resonates like the phrase “no man is an island” (John Donne). It reminds me that “after the first death, there is no other” (Dylan Thomas). By entertaining us with the comic effect of the way groups of people can act–a government, for example–and making us care about the tragic consequences for individuals, Harkaway creates new meaning for bravery and heroism in the connected world of the twenty-first century.


June 2, 2014

For the past three weekends, Eleanor and Ron or I have been driving the same stretch of road from Chicago to central Ohio. She and Ron drove with all of her stuff from Grinnell on May 17. She and I drove to and from Madison, Wisconsin on May 23-26. Then all three of us drove to Aurora, into downtown Chicago, and back from Crystal Lake on May 30-June 1. That’s a lot of the same roads and the same tolls.

It reminds me of C.J. Cherryh’s novel Hammerfall, set on a fictional desert planet and following two spectacular journeys to the same destination. The first one, led by characters who are considered to be “mad” because they hear voices directing them to travel east, is exciting. The leaders of the “mad,” Marak and Hati, discover that “the mad all moved together” because they had common visions of “the high place….the light, the sun, the star, multiple moons aloft and in a row….the cave, the hall, the hollow place” which turn out to be a starship landing place for visitors from another world.

What Marak and Hati discover when they get to the starship is that the leader of their world is from a different starship, and that the people waiting at the landing place want them to bring the leader and the rest of the native people back there because the desert world is scheduled to be destroyed.

Their second journey through the desert is to get everyone to the starship before that happens. The voice in Marak’s head tells him “we would deeply regret it, Marak Trin, if the hammer comes down before you get to safety.” So they walk the same weary road, facing some of the same dangers, and some new ones.

We didn’t have voices in our heads, but we are definitely weary of driving the same stretch of road, and glad to have made it past all the trucks, through the lane changes, and onto the rural highways before dusk, when the deer come out.

Have you ever repeated a dangerous journey within a short span of time? Did you make it back unscathed?


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