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Lincoln in the Bardo

March 23, 2017

I’m always sad when I have to say goodbye to one of my (adult) children, and the moment we left Eleanor at the Albuquerque airport was no exception. I stepped onto the plane, found my seat, and opened up the book she’d lent me to read on the way home, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. Then I read it and wept, all the way to Chicago.

This is a sad, sad book. By now you probably know what it’s about, right? It’s about spirits who can’t go on, but linger on earth, in what Tibetans have traditionally called the “bardo.” I wondered if I would catch a whiff of necromancy, but mostly the smell is more like regret.

There’s a big cast of characters, so it took me a couple of chapters to understand what was going on, but after that it’s apparent why there are so many voices, and who they are. The scope of the commentary is one of the pleasures of the novel. I especially enjoyed (and Eleanor agreed with me when I mentioned this) the sections in which wildly conflicting contemporary accounts are given about whether the moon was full on a certain night in 1862, and what color Abraham Lincoln’s eyes might have been (hazel, green, gray, or blue, it seems).

Contemporary accounts of the death of Lincoln’s son Willie differ in the amount of blame they assign to his parents, for going ahead with the party they had planned on the night he died, but comments like this one, attributed to “Selected Civil War Letters of Edwine Willow,” are also included in the selection Saunders provides:
“The terror and consternation of the Presidential couple may be imagined by anyone who has ever loved a child, and suffered that dread intimation common to all parents, that Fate may not hold that life in as high a regard, and may dispose of it at will.”
There is an ironic tone to the chapters in which these kinds of selections appear, provided by the juxtaposition of the various quotations. For example, several selections after the quotation above appear these two:
“Wild shrieks rang out.
Sloane, op. cit.
One fellow stood in perfect happiness, orange-trousered, blue coat flung open, feasting in-place as he stood at the serving table like some magnificent Ambrussi, finally found the home of his dreams.
Wickett, op. cit.”

The story, told by the spirits of those who do not seem to realize they are departed (referring to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and longing to finish actions they were unable to complete before dying) centers on the novelty of Lincoln’s visits to his son’s tomb, where Willie’s spirit sees him with his “mouth at the worm’s ear” and thinks “how I wished him to say it to me.” The “worm,” of course, is his own body.

The two main spirits that try to help Willie are reinvigorated by their purpose, even to the extent of realizing how much time has passed since their own deaths:
“I felt arising within me a body of startling new knowledge. The gentleman? Was Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was President. How could it be? How could it not be? And yet I knew with all my heart that Mr. Taylor was President.
roger bevins iii
That Mr. Polk occupied that esteemed office.
hans vollman
….On the day of the beam, Polk had been President. But now, I knew (with a dazzling clarity) that Polk had been succeeded by Taylor, and Taylor by Fillmore, and Fillmore by Pierce—
hans vollman
After which, Pierce had been succeded by Buchanan, and Buchanan by—
roger bevins iii
Lincoln!
hans vollman”

The spirits of former slaves tell their terrible (and, by now, well-rehearsed) stories:
“One day, we were taken out of Washington, to the country, for the fireworks. Falling ill, I stumbled upon the trail, and could not get up, and the sun burning down brightly, how I writhed upon the—
Oh.
elson farwell
How you ‘writhed upon the trail, and yet no one came.’
betsy baron
How I writhed upon the trail, and yet no one came. Until finally, the youngest East child, Reginald, passed, and inquired, Elson, are you ill? And I said that I was, very much so. And he said he would send someone back for me at once.
But no one came. Mr. East did not come, Mrs. East did not come, none of the other East children came, not even Mr. Chasterly, our brutal smirking overseer, ever came.
I believe Reginald may have, in all the excitement about the fireworks, forgotten.
Forgotten about me.
Who had known him since his birth.
And lying there it—
Drat.
elson farwell
Lying there it occurred to you ‘with the force of revelation.’
eddie baron
Lying there it occurred to me with the force of revelation, that I (Elson Farwell, best boy, fondest son of my mother) had been sorely tricked, and (colorful rockets now bursting overhead, into such shapes as Old Glory, and a walking chicken, and a green-gold Comet, as if to celebrate the Joke being played upon me, each new explosion eliciting fresh cries of delight from those fat, spoiled East children) I regretted every moment of conciliation and smiling and convivial waiting, and longed with all my heart (there in the dappled tree-moonshade, that, in my final moments, became allshade) that my health might be restored to me, if just for one hour, so that I might correct my grand error, and enstrip myself of all cowering and false-talk and preening diction, and rise up even yet and stride back to those always-happy Easts and club and knife and rend and destroy them and tear down that tent and burn down that house, and thus secure for myself—
Oh.
elson farwell
‘A certain modicum of humanity, for only a beast—‘
betsy baron
A certain modicum of humanity, yes, for only a beast would endure what I had endured without objection; and not even a beast would conspire to put on the manners of its masters and hope thereby to be rewarded.
But it was too late.
It is too late.”

There is a moment when Lincoln, the desperate father, wishes to perform an act of necromancy:
“Mr. Lincoln tried to get the sick-form to rise. By making his mind quiet and then opening it up to whatever might exist that he did not know about that might be able to let the (make the) sick-form rise.
Feeling foolish, not truly believing such a thing was even—
Still, it is a vast world and anything might happen.
He stared down at the sick-form, at one finger upon one hand, waiting for the slightest—
Please please please.
But no.
That is superstition.
Will not do.
And yet, of course, readers feel the impetus, his desperate wish, the wrongness of what he wishes for and the depth of sadness that impels it.

The spirits, in the course of their efforts to help Willie–which are not untinged by the interest of bystanders at a disaster—actually go into Lincoln, connecting them briefly to life again and connecting him to their longings to have their lives back again:
“He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened up somewhat wider. By sorrow. And—by us. By all of us, black and white, who had so recently mass-inhabited him. He had not, it seemed, gone unaffected by that event. Not at all. It had made him sad. Sadder. We had. All of us, white and black, had made him sadder, with our sadness.”

At the end of the story, most of the spirits are finally departing this world, although not without leaving readers with their fondness for the everyday details they will miss, and that we should notice:
“Loon-call in the dark; calf-cramp in the spring; neck-rub in the parlor; milk-sip at end of day.”

Beautiful in its sadness, this is a novel that will make you feel what it might be like to be someone else—lots of someones, over and over–until the only regret that you can feel is not making the most of your own time on earth, even when your next moment consists of limping tiredly off of an airplane to greet the gray light of morning in the place you’ve chosen to live.

The Edge of Ruin

March 22, 2017

IMG_4529Well, I’m back, from a spring break tour of the southwest. You know how when you visit a place there are more things to see than you have time for? That’s what happened when Eleanor and I drove to Tucson, and what happened again when we went back to see some of the New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona sights we couldn’t visit on that first trip (three of the Arizona sights we now want to go back for are Horseshoe Bend, Bearizona, and Meteor Crater).

We took Ron with us this time, along with our friends Ben and Carol and Eleanor’s friend Andie. Andie taught us to play a great new card game called “hand and foot” in the evenings, in various hotel rooms. We also played a game in the car, one that she and Eleanor had made up while in college; they call it “Please don’t eat that” after the phrase they first said to the dog they were walking and then turned into the title of a story. We told a series of stories in which one of the characters was always named “Gary” (sometimes pronounced as if he were French, lengthened to Gariel when he appeared as an angel, and designated as G4RY when he was a robot).

IMG_4485We journeyed to Albuquerque, where we went up Sandia Peak on the tram, and then on to Chaco Canyon, Durango, CO, Mesa Verde, Antelope Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, back to Albuquerque for the Breaking Bad tour, and then to Santa Fe to see Meow Wolf (an art installation), the Loretto Chapel with its winding staircase, and our friend Leeman’s performance as H.P. Lovecraft in his live Ask Lovecraft show, where we met Melinda Snodgrass and George R.R. Martin.

IMG_4595I remembered reading The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass but had forgotten that I’d meant to look for the sequel, and now there are two! I bought a signed copy of the second one and read it as one of the three books I finished on the long journey home (our flight was delayed for almost five hours).

The second book, The Edge of Ruin, continues the adventures of Richard Oort without the help of Kenntnis, except that Richard has inherited his company, which has interests in “biotech, high tech, private space ventures, open source code, alternate energy sources. Education….And alleviating poverty, which Kenntnis considered to be the source of many of the world’s ills—war, terrorism, overpopulation, pollution.”

IMG_4506Richard is still using the sword of rationality to help people who have been misled by the magic of the Old Ones. These “Old Ones” from a different world are still trying to take over the earth, using as tools those people who attack science, believe in “alternate facts,” or appear on Christian cable networks. At one point, Richard comes up with a way “to describe what happened when I used the sword. Being inoculated. It beat every other phrase people had come up with. When Cross called it ‘the touch’ it sounded sleazy. When Pamela called it ‘submitting to the sword’ it sounded like an S&M sex act. Dagmar had suggested ‘the dubbing,’ but that was even worse. ‘Inoculated’ worked.”

IMG_4614There are exciting moments, like when “a strong, hot, harsh wind was blowing against them. Pamela assumed it was flowing through the gate. I’m breathing the air of an alien universe, she thought.”

The writing is fun, too. Friendly aliens use interesting metaphors–at one point, one of them comes rushing in and says “party’s over. I’ve shot my wad, and they’ve still got many wads in reserve.” There’s a reference to “FBI Scoobies” which seems to me to reveal that the author has watched so many episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that she believes this should be used as a general reference to any group of agents faced with a supernatural force.

IMG_4469It was fun to read The Edge of Ruin, full of references to Albuquerque and vicinity, at the end of our trip. Do you know what’s the best thing about traveling from Ohio to the southwest in March? Seeing blue sky! It’s so blue, it almost looks photoshopped in some photos, like in the background of this wall at Pueblo Bonita (Chaco canyon).

Here is a photo of our entire party, taken at the entrance to Antelope Canyon. Many of the rocks outside this canyon looked like Jabba the Hutt, from Star Wars, so we kept referencing the Diego Luna interviews where he reveals his love for “Yabba” and touching the stones to enjoy their texture.17352114_10211034749377746_8046104678820129690_n

Precious and Grace

March 13, 2017

When I read one of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, I find that I have to slow down in order to enjoy it. The latest in the series, Precious and Grace, is no exception. Reading it at the beginning of spring break was one of my ideas for varying the usual pace of my days.

In all the books, Precious is happy to be a “traditionally built” large woman. In this latest one, she congratulates her friend, Mma Potokwane, who runs the “orphan farm,” for hiring a woman because she was “the most traditionally built lady of the five” who applied to be a housemother. She also tries to perch on a chair at a café which “was not a comfortable chair; too small, as so many chairs were. The trouble with café furniture was that it was not made for traditionally built people.” I would add that it’s especially hard to perch on such small chairs when you have bad knees which don’t easily bend under far enough to get your legs out of the way of other peoples’ feet.

In this book, Grace is trying to modernize the way Precious runs her business, even though Precious has always had an idealized view of the past, “the old Botswana ways…there had been the attitude that you should find time for other people and not always be in a desperate rush; there had been the belief that you should listen to other people, should talk to them, rather than spend all your time fiddling with your electronic gadgets.”

Grace’s words make Precious think about what progress has meant in her lifetime: “People were less concerned about other people, less prepared to help them, not so ready to listen to them. Did that mean that things were getting worse? Well, in her view it did—at least as far as those matters were concerned; in other respects, things were undoubtedly getting better. People had more of a chance in life no matter where they came from; those who worked for other people had more rights, were protected against the cruelty that employers could show in the past. That was an improvement. And the hospitals were better, and school bullies found it a bit harder to bully people; and there were fewer cruel nicknames; and fewer power cuts just when you wanted to cook the evening meal.”

Because she takes the time for reflection, Precious eventually begins to realize that Grace “could sometimes simplify things, but she was often very good at seeing the world from another perspective. Tall people could forget that the world might look quite different if you were short; and of course well-off people had a marked tendency to forget how things might look if you were poor. We have to remind ourselves, she thought. We have to remind ourselves how the world looked when viewed from elsewhere.”

Precious admires the way Grace doesn’t mince words, but calls things as she sees them. When she uses the word “skellums,” Precious thinks that it is “a fine word, that so effectively described a rogue or a rascal” and reflects that “now, perhaps, the skellums could get away with it because people were afraid to stand up to them, or were no longer sure what was right or wrong, or were afraid to identify wickedness or sleaze when they saw it.”

Precious can right wrongs because she feels compassion, and expresses it freely. When a friend has gotten other friends involved in what she realizes is a pyramid scheme, Precious says “Who among us has not done something stupid….I have done some very foolish things in my life. Everybody has” and she helps him repair the damage.

She is also good at verbalizing compliments. This is something that Walker has told me I should try to get better at, because I’m one of the many people in the world who think more nice things about others than they manage to say. Precious, on the other hand, tells one of her friends that “’there is nobody kinder than you.’ She meant it, and as she spoke, she thought how strange it was that we so very rarely said complimentary things to our friends, and how easy it was to do so, and how it made the world seem a less harsh place.”

Most of the realizations that come to Precious in this book may strike a modern reader as simplistic, and yet that’s part of the point—that if you look at the world as if it’s a very small place, a place where neighbors are responsible for taking care of each other—all sorts of moral and ethical quandaries become simpler. It’s easier to act on them, rather than remain paralyzed with indecision.

The actions Precious takes in this latest novel are based on her ideas about forgiveness. With the help of Grace, she finds ways to avoid “increasing the amount of suffering there is in the world.”

There is one thread in the novel that seems out of place, however. Even though Precious argues against Grace’s view about dogs–that they have no souls and are just “meat”–her treatment of a stray dog Fanwell has found seems curious. She tries to help out, thinking that “Fanwell was a kind young man, and it was much to his credit that he had bothered to do something about the dog, but he was in no position to see that gesture through and had to be protected from the unsustainable consequences of kindness, as did others who allowed their hearts to prompt them.” Sp she takes the dog home, where her adopted children Puso and Motholeli name it “Zebra” and she concludes that means that he “is no longer temporary—he is permanent.” But then after the dog has run away from where she had it tied up and then shows up again at her office, she does not take it home to her children, but gives it away to some orphans. The dog and the orphans have a happy ending, but nothing is said about how Puso and Motholeli feel about losing their dog.

Maybe the dog running away is meant to be an indication that he wasn’t happy with her children, or his journey shows that kindness is sometimes more complicated than we think it will be. The resolution of the dog’s story seems uncharacteristically ambiguous for this latest book in a series which always shows strength in simplicity.

Green

March 8, 2017

Ever since I discovered the poem “Good Bones,” I’ve been reading more poems by Maggie Smith. I found a copy of her volume Disasterology last November, but couldn’t read any farther for a while after I’d read the epigraph, by Michael O’Donoghue: “I guess you’d currently call it a disaster movie…End of the world was an earlier genre.”

When I could stand to go back to reading the poems in Disasterology, I discovered that the first section consists of a poem about each of these movies: When Worlds Collide, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, On the Beach, The Day After, Night of the Comet, The Quiet Earth, Armageddon, Time of the Wolf, and The Road. The second section, with an epigraph from Eudora Welty, “Never think you’ve seen the last of anything,” is about endings. The poem “Green” is in this section.

Green
Fact: The threat level has never been lowered nationwide to Blue or Green.

By the time it was named, Green had gone the way
of dinosaurs and New Coke. Now the New York
afternoons are Orange. Evenings too.
Not creamsicle, but car flare. Everywhere else
is Yellow, which could be cheerful if it weren’t
so constantly elevated. If it weren’t piped like
Musak into every crevice. Today is a new day.
I’ve never seen it before, so it must qualify
as out of the ordinary. Maybe I should report it
to the authorities. In these perilous times,
I am vigilant. I take notice of my surroundings.
I am aware of each morning’s insurgence
of sunlight. At the real end of the unreal
world, if you see something, say something.
Green, had I known, I would have memorized
every last detail. I would have alerted everyone.

Every day is a new day, and now that means some of us wake up, often before the alarm, wondering what fresh hell might have been unleashed while we were sleeping.

IMG_4406But right now my jonquils and crocus are blooming at the same time, and the back garden is carpeted with little purple flowers.

Soon I’ll be taking a few days off from my puny efforts at trying to pull my country back from what feels like the brink of disaster, and I’m hoping that our trips through airports won’t be any more awful than long security lines and painful walking already guarantee.

Undead and Done

March 6, 2017

I often peruse the shelves of audiobooks at the public library, and about a year ago I happened upon an entire row of supernatural/comedy books about a woman named Betsy who loves shoes and becomes a vampire. Starting with Undead and Unwed, I listened to four or five of them, in order but out of sequence, because for some reason the library doesn’t own them all. They were kind of fun but got irritating if I listened to one too often—too many of the same jokes and references—Betsy’s last name is Taylor, so don’t call her Elizabeth, she loves smoothies (vampires can’t eat solid food in this world), and fashionable shoes (I’d never heard of some of the designers she’s fond of, but I looked them up and they’re real).

When I found Undead and Done on the shelf of new books and read that the author claims this is the last one, I decided to speed-read it and find out how everything ends.

And things do end. There’s a wacky time travel/alternate universe plot in some of the middle books, and it’s resolved. The group of friends who live with Betsy and her (undead) husband Sinclair all get happy endings. Marc–who always stands up for her and says, in this last book “I’m for Team Betsy. Always have been”–finally finds a man worthy of his love. There’s even a David Bowie reference (newsflash: he is not in hell).

The ongoing confrontation between Betsy and her half-sister the Antichrist comes to a head, and I enjoyed Betsy’s familiar style of interior monologue in response to her sister’s accusation that “you cheated me of my birthright” which goes like this:
“So not in the mood for the ‘Satan and I tricked you into running Hell but now I want to bitch about the consequences’ chat. I’d warned her at the time that getting your own way was often as much a curse as it was a blessing. See: Sinclair’s life, death, and afterlife, also mine, the Ant finally landing my father, and anyone who voted for Hitler back in the day.”

I think that much of the delight of these novels comes from the irreverent tone and the frequent asides, like this one:
“’We’ve got an Assembly of vampires about to descend on us in all their fang-gnashing rage.’
‘Are you pronouncing assembly like it’s capitalized on purpose?’
‘Yes. Murder of crows. Pack of wolves. Flock of geese. Assembly of vampires.’
‘Asshat of vampires,’ Marc suggested, and I giggled like a kid—couldn’t help it.
‘Nice to see you lighten up, Betsy. You’ve been pretty grim lately. Well, grim for you.’
‘Well, weird shit is happening. More so than usual, even. Perfect example: we’re hanging out on a dock waiting for a mermaid to swim up and say howdy.’
Sinclair glanced at me. ‘Undersea Folk, my queen.’
‘Sometimes she’s got legs; sometimes she’s half fish.’ At all times, she’s a grump. ‘Mermaid.’
‘You can’t use that word!’ Marc faux snapped. ‘That’s their word!’”

The comic footnotes are also fun. For example the briefest one, to a train of thought from a woman Betsy has “paroled” from hell to make amends on earth for what she did in the 1970s:
“’Great to see you again, sorry I ruined your life and let you rot in prison for a crime I committed, and wow, I did not see the heart attack coming! My sad.’ That’s what the kids say, right? My sad?*
*Yeah, no.”

Betsy’s sarcasm is always a delight, too:
“Sinclair walked into the kitchen, BabyJon slung over one shoulder….’This child is getting tired,’ he said by way of greeting, gaze glued to his phone. Just like a man, or a monarch: make an announcement and wait for everyone around you to scramble to fix it.
‘Thanks for the update,’ I said sweetly.”

Undead and Done is good escapism, which is all I was looking for. Take my advice, though–if you’re going to read it, start with the first one, pick one from the middle, and then read this last one. It’ll be quite enough.

The Whole Town’s Talking

March 3, 2017

On my last trip to the library, I checked out a more-than-usually-enormous stack of books hoping to find some good escapism. I tried Fannie Flagg’s new novel The Whole Town’s Talking, thinking maybe it might have a little of the flavor of Fried Green Tomatoes or an interesting view on Missouri, where I grew up. It had neither.

In the first hundred pages, I got interested in the story of Lordor Nordstrom, a Swedish farmer, and his Swedish mail-order bride, Katrina, who came to Missouri from Chicago. But when they die, the novel begins a strange story line about them talking to each other in the graveyard, where they alternately “sleep,” talk to each other, and learn about what’s happening in the town from relatives who come to visit their graves.

After that I was amused by the preposterous story of Elner Knott, who was so kind that Bonnie and Clyde didn’t rob her town’s bank and President and Mrs. Roosevelt spoke to her when they came through town. Elner’s story becomes the one that links all the others, and obviously she is the author’s favorite character: “Elner believed that sometimes, something living to take care of was the best medicine for a broken heart.”

The novel bogs down in attempts to sum up each decade of the twentieth century. The chapter entitled “The Thirties” begins:
“By 1930, the Great Depression had hit the country hard. Elmwood Springs, still being somewhat of a rural town, survived it better than most….As usual, in Elmwood Springs, there were more weddings and more babies born; thankfully, in that order.”

Some of the characters start to be types, rather than people:
“Norvaleen Whittle had always been a little chubby….Then one day, while she was shopping at Walmart, she suddenly noticed that when she walked, she was swaying from side to side like a great big ocean liner. It was the first time Norvaleen realized that she was a big, fat person.”

By the 1950’s, Elner’s sister Ida begins to write a column in the local newspaper entitled “The Whole Town’s Talking,” which tells, rather than shows, the events of the day.

And when Ida’s niece, Hanna Marie, comes along, the characters become even more one dimensional, with the rich child Hanna becoming a saint and her husband–born at the same time to a poor family in Chicago–growing into a dastardly villain.

By the last third, the novel reflects the fact that the author is thinking about getting old and facing the prospect of death. One of her characters says
“The funny thing was I didn’t feel old inside. I remember how I used to feel about old people. I could never imagine them as young…but it’s a different story when you’re on the other end.”

The last straw is the epilogue, when all the town’s inhabitants, who have been happily chattering away at each other in the graveyard (minus one or two who mysteriously disappeared) get reincarnated and have this conversation:
“’I just wonder where we will go after we have been every living thing on earth.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it too much,’ said the four-leaf clover (who used to be a science teacher in Akron, Ohio). ‘That process will take trillions of years, and…there are over eight million species of fish alone, not to mention all the insects.’
‘I was a flea once,’ offered a small grub passing by.’”

This novel does offer escapism of a sort, but it’s the kind that elderly authors can enjoy, not their readers.

Hag-Seed

February 27, 2017

Margaret Atwood’s novel Hag-Seed, her version of The Tempest, is the latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which so far includes Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew).

I loved this one as much as Vinegar Girl, and it’s a re-telling of a play I already like, so even more fun. Atwood’s novel is about a production of The Tempest directed by Felix, the novel’s Prospero. He is a father who lost his daughter tragically, at the age of three, and also artistic director at a Canadian theatre festival that sounds a lot like the one at Stratford. He plans a production that will be “like the Taj Mahal, an ornate mausoleum raised in honor of a beloved shade, or a priceless jeweled casket containing ashes.”

But Felix gets dismissed from his job due to the machinations of a more politically savvy rival before he can stage his big production. He disappears from his former life, even using a fake name (Mr. Duke), and waits a dozen years for the right situation in which to get his revenge on the rival. In the process, he becomes a little less of a jerk. He takes a job as a reading and literacy teacher in a prison and begins directing them in filmed productions of Shakespeare plays. When the other teachers and officials who work in the prison voice their objections to his enterprise, “he keeps his mouth shut while being bombarded with sanctimonious twaddle” like this:
“Is it really that helpful, Mr. Duke, to expose these damaged men…is it helpful to expose these vulnerable men to traumatic situations that can trigger anxiety and panic and flashbacks, or worse, dangerous aggressive behavior? Situations such as political assassinations, civil wars, witchcraft, severed heads, and little boys being smothered by their evil uncle in a dungeon? Much of this is far too close to the lives they have already been leading. Really, Mr. Duke, do you want to run those risks and take those responsibilities upon you?”

In his head, Felix protests, “Of course it deals in traumatic situations! It conjures up demons in order to exorcise them!” He is, of course, as much in need of this as any of the prisoners. With himself as Prospero and the actress he meant for his original production as Miranda, he casts prisoners in the other roles, which is appropriate, as one of his assignments is to identify nine different prisons in the play. Felix has the prisoners work in teams to discover and convey their own ideas about each character. Ariel’s team, for example, is responsible for special effects.

Much of the pleasure of the novel is reading about the way Felix and the cast members come up with their ideas for getting their interpretation of the play across. Eventually, their ideas about the nature of Ariel and the spirits on Prospero’s island come together in a way that shows Felix how he can get his revenge. At their performance of the filmed play, they trick his formal rival–now one of the public officials invited to see this filmed version of the prison production–into confessing his villainy. The performance includes “magic” with disguised actors, hallucinations, and loud music in the rooms where the officials are watching. At one point the actor playing Ariel tells him he’s selected “Metallica. ‘Ride the Lightning.’ It’s really loud” and Felix replies “That’s my tricksy spirit!”

After the successful production, we get to sit in on the reports by each team of prisoner-actors, and each one is full of insight. Team Hag-Seed’s report is the highlight, especially because Felix had the most difficulty choosing a Caliban, as so many of the prisoners seemed right for the part. They give three different possible endings and give reasons for why the first two aren’t right, eventually presenting a third ending as their version of what they think happens to Caliban after the action of the play:
“By the end, Prospero’s learning that maybe not everything is somebody else’s fault. Plus, he sees that the bad in Caliban is pretty much the same as the bad in him, Prospero. They’re both angry, both name-callers, both full of revenge: they’re joined at the hip. Caliban is like his bad other self. Like father, like son. So he owns up: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’ That’s what he says, and that’s what he means.
So after the play, Prospero tries to make up for what he did wrong. He takes Caliban onto the ship, runs him under the shower, scrubs off that fishy smell, orders him some fancy new clothes, makes him, like, a pageboy or something, so he can learn to eat from a plate. Says he’s sorry and they need to start fresh. Appeals to the artistic side of Caliban, what with the beautiful dreams and all. Once Caliban is cleaned up and well dressed and has manners, people don’t think he’s ugly any more. They think he’s, like, rugged.
So Prospero sets him up as a musician, back in Milan. Once he gets a break, the kid does really well. He can bring out, like the darkness emotions in people, but in a musical way. He has to keep away from the booze, though, it’s poison to him, turns him crazy. So he makes the effort, and he stays clean.
Next thing you know he’s a star. Prospero’s really proud of him. The kid is top billing at all the duke-type concerts. He’s got a stage name, he’s got a band: HAG-SEED AND THE THINGS OF DARKNESS. He’s, like, world-famous.”

There are three happy endings to this tale, one after another, and my delight was amplified by each one. It’s fun, and fabulous, and it will make you think—about human potential, different kinds of prisons, ambition, love, and even what we might call magic.

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