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The Heart Goes Last

October 26, 2015

Because I haven’t read much about for-profit prisons, the satiric target of Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Heart Goes Last, wasn’t clear to me at first.

The novel begins with a married couple who have been living in her car after a sketchily-described American financial bubble has burst:
“Then everything went to ratshit. Overnight, it felt like. Not just in his own personal life: the whole card castle, the whole system fell to pieces, trillions of dollars wiped off the balance sheets like fog off a window. There were hordes of two-bit experts on TV pretending to explain why it had happened—demographics, loss of confidence, gigantic Ponzi schemes—but that was all guesswork bullshit. Someone had lied, someone had cheated, someone had shorted the market, someone had inflated the currency. Not enough jobs, too many people.”

The couple see a TV ad for the “Positron Project” in a town called “Consilience,” and they go to the parking-lot collection point advertised to see if they can qualify as new members. They find out that Positron is the prison. The name “technically means the antimatter counterpart of the electron, but few out there would know that, would they? As a word, it just sounded very, well, positive.” Consilience is the town, a name made by combining “cons” with “resilience.” The deal is that half of the population of the town is in prison for a month, and the other half goes into the prison for the next month. While in the town, they live in houses that are occupied by their alternates while they’re in prison. They are told that “the prison cells themselves have been upgraded, and though care has been taken to maintain the theme, considerable amenities have been added. It’s not as if they’re being asked to live in an old-fashioned sort of prison!” When offered the chance to join the Positron Project, the couple, Charmaine and Stan, leap at the chance to quit living in their car and start working at jobs that can give them “a meaningful life,” the Project slogan.

Their jobs turn out to be poultry facility supervisor for Stan, and Chief Medications Administrator for Charmaine. Stan’s work is getting better, because fewer of the real criminals, some of whom wanted to have sex with the chickens, are coming by the poultry facility. When we see what Charmaine does on the afternoon of a “Special Procedure,” we see why there are fewer of the real criminals. She has been told that the men she sees attached to the bed, and who she injects with a chemical that she believes gives them five minutes of ecstasy before it kills them, are “the worst criminals, the incorrigibles, the ones they haven’t been able to turn around.” Charmaine observes that “the heart goes last.”

About halfway through the book, we discover that Jocelyn, wife of the man Charmaine has been meeting for sex and their alternate in the shared house, is one of the founding partners of the Positron Project. She says she believed in it, and in her partner Ed, at first. “But then Ed brought in a different group of investors, and they got greedy.” She says that when prisons “started to be run as private businesses, they were about the profit margins for the prepackaged jail-meal suppliers, and the hired guards and so forth” but now they’re about “the income from body parts” and “babies’ blood.” This is where the satire gets exaggerated, so readers will see what privatizing prisons can lead to.

Jocelyn inveigles Stan and Charmaine into helping her fix the mess she believes Ed has gotten their private prison idea into. In order to smuggle Stan out of Positron, Charmaine is required to administer the special chemical to him, and at first she really thinks she has killed him, although she also believes she had no choice:
“She hadn’t meant to kill him. She hadn’t meant to kill him. But how else could she have acted? They wanted her to use her head and discard her heart; but it wasn’t so easy, because the heart goes last and hers was still clinging on inside her all the time she was readying the needle, which is why she was crying the whole time.”

Stan is smuggled out as an Elvis sexbot, mixed in with a shipment of other sexbots, from the prison. Charmaine is later smuggled out as a potential “brain intervention” candidate, because Ed has taken a fancy to her and wants her to “imprint” on him when she wakes up so she will be his sex slave forever. Jocelyn lets Charmaine believe that the “brain intervention” actually happened, but that she imprinted on Stan instead of Ed, who has finally been taken away to atone for his crimes. At the end of the novel, though, Jocelyn tells Charmaine the truth, which is that she is Jocelyn’s own version of Miranda from The Tempest. And Charmaine, typically, doesn’t quite understand what that means.

The Heart Goes Last is a rollicking satire, but not as subtle or as devastating as Atwood’s satire can be. It’s as if she woke up one morning and said to herself “here’s a thing I could amuse people with, and it’s for a good cause, too!” Plan to enjoy it, but don’t expect too much of it.

To Be Alive

October 21, 2015

IMG_3474Early fall has been excruciatingly lovely here in central Ohio. Almost every day is sunny and 72. The trees have turned their early reds and oranges and are now proceeding to yellows and deeper reds, and I have been driving around with the windows of my car down, singing along to the sound track to the new musical Hamilton, which Walker introduced me to last weekend when he came home to see us at the start of his October break.

Pippin is relishing his new freedom in and out the cat door during these last warm days that he thinks will never cease. He and Tristan sit on the steps together, listening for small rodents in the underbrush, fur shining white and russet in the sun. Eleanor sends pictures of herself on hikes in the staggeringly beautiful Arizona mountains, looking splendidly sun-kissed and happy.

The song I was listening to just now was “Nonstop,” the wonderfully woven reprise of most of the songs from the first act of Hamilton at the end of that act. I am still relishing the genius of the way Alexander uses his wife’s own words against her, “look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now…” these are the words that keep winding themselves through these bright days.IMG_3477

Gregory Orr describes this feeling in his poem “To Be Alive”:

To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That’s crudely put, but…
If we’re not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?

IMG_3478Walker always brings music into the house and into my days. It’s especially satisfying to have something powerful and exciting in the CD player when I get into my car on Monday nights, after symphony rehearsal, and can blast the remnants of the sticky moments in the second violin part of the New World Symphony away into the night with “isn’t this enough…what would be enough?”


October 19, 2015

Grub, by Elise Blackwell, is an updated (2007) version of the novel New Grub Street, by George Gissing, the 19th-century satire of the publishing industry in London. It centers on the lives of five young writers. Eddie has written a literary first novel. Amanda, a writer herself, married Eddie and has been supporting him while he is supposed to be working on a second novel. Jackson is still trying to publish a first novel, as is his friend Henry, who writes experimental novels. They move in literary circles in NYC with writers who have “made it” enough to eat at Grub, a restaurant associated with writers and publishers, and with would-be writers like Whelpdale, who ends up spending his time publishing how-to-write books.

One of the delights of this book is the kind of snobby snap judgments the characters make. Early on, at a writing workshop, Jackson meets a woman who “flashed all the accessories of a neglected resort-town wife: crystal pendant, wide silver rings and bangles, and a fringed summer sweater dyed the precise blue of her eyes.” In order to impress the editor of a literary journal, Jackson says to this woman: “Let me guess. This is your first writers’ conference. You use journal as a verb. You call what you write creative nonfiction, but it’s really more a case of uncreative non-writing.” She, of course, turns out to be the editor’s wife.

One of the questions the writers ask is why they need to live in New York City, when they could, theoretically, write anywhere. The answer is, simply, that they’re snobs. When Jackson takes a train a little ways outside of the city, this is his description of the scene:
“The train braked for and jerked away from one absurd stop after another, depositing doughy men to stomp across filthy snow to drive their generic cars home to overweight, practically-shod wives in soul-deadening subdivisions and characterless towns. Jackson Miller promised himself that he would never live anywhere but New York, except, perhaps, Paris.”
As one of the “overweight, practically-shod wives” in a town that would be “characterless” to Jackson and his ilk, I am invited to laugh at the kind of writer who thinks that tales of urban life represent a kind of “realism” that the rest of the population of Earth cannot understand or appreciate.

Eddie’s early literary success has left him snobby about what he thinks of as literary taste but unable to write another novel that adheres to his own standards. When his wife asks him if he can’t try writing a book with some plot, he replies that “plot has always been the hardest but also the least important thing to me.”

His friend Henry is a literal starving artist, writing a novel that he thinks will be truly realistic, as it recounts only overheard conversation. Henry “believed what his friend Eddie Renfros wanted to believe but doubted: the fact that his talent was incongruous with the circumstances into which he had been born made that talent no less valuable. Had he been born rich, his literary labors might have seemed noble to others. Because he was poor, he was more likely to be scorned. And his beautifully honed book would most likely go unpublished or, at best, be published in a small way, its few reviews deriding it as too quiet, perhaps even tedious.” It sounds tedious in the extreme. Even the other writers don’t want to read it, until one of them feels obliged to say something about it.

Amanda, Eddie’s wife, thinks that he doesn’t know anything about being poor, or he’d work harder on the next novel. “He didn’t understand what she knew: poverty is a learned meagerness of spirit as much as it is a number on a ledger.” Finally Amanda decides that if Eddie can’t write a second novel, she’ll write a first one that will sell. “She’d heard interviews with novelists who spend a year or two ‘with their characters’ before a four-year period of drafting and exploring, ever hoping to enter the ‘dream space’ or be visited by some creative power from above or without. It was ridiculous, really, and it certainly explained why so many otherwise good books were thrown to the floor by readers hoping for a story.” Amanda’s book is a success; it’s a “story of lust, longing, libido, and ambition among the eighteenth-century French aristocracy.”

None of these writers have to work at the kind of job that makes you so tired you have no energy left over for writing. Jackson says airily to a writer he’s just met: “You could probably still get a teaching job. The Metropolis Workshop thing is always hiring. There’s lots of online stuff now too, the low-residency writing programs and all that. I don’t mean become a teacher—I think so much more highly of you than that—just something to do for awhile. Of course, if you liked teaching, you could pick up an MFA.”
Perhaps she could just “pick up” an MFA if she were independently wealthy, but if she needs funding, the kind of programs Jackson is talking about currently admit less than 1% of their applicants.

The writer who does end up going into teaching gives her pretentious father a satisfying put-down when he is urging her to fund a new literary journal that will publish only “the highest quality fiction” (with himself as the judge of quality). She says “It’s just so clear to me that there are more journals than there are good stories. Most of them fold. And it seems as though soon more than half of them will be online only.”

Having written a successful gossip column for several years, Jackson’s career is, in the end, slightly curtailed by his rising fame and expanding acquaintance:
“He briefly considered a column about the table habits and general levels of politeness of well-known authors—who’s a gentleman at dinner and who’s a real boor, that sort of thing—but dismissed it because it would likely get him in trouble with the Jonathans, one of whom had never encountered an entrée he didn’t consider finger food, and another who guarded his plate with his forearm as though he’d spent long years in maximum-security lockup.”

At the end, those who sought fame have found it, in one way or another, and Eddie, whose writing was “too pure” for plot, has become the one thing more obscure than a literary novelist, a poet.

If you like reading about how the literarily pretentious get what they deserve, this is an amusing novel for a weekend afternoon. That is, if you can put off your plans to wear your most practical shoes and gardening hat out to add to the character of wherever you’re living.

Also, in a final comment on the state of contemporary publishing, I ordered this book from a used seller, online, and received an old “Advanced Reader’s Copy” (not advance, but advanced) that clearly states on the cover that it is “not for sale.”

The Best American Poetry 2015

October 12, 2015

image (3)When The Best American Poetry 2015 came out, Sherman Alexie, guest editor, wrote an interesting piece about how he selected the poems and why he included one by a poet who was born in Indiana and submitted his poem with the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. It was a big scandal in the poetry world, for a while.

Of course Alexie, a native American himself, also selected plenty of poems written by poets of color and multilingual writers of English, including one by a poet born in Xiamen, China named Chen Chen.

In honor of “A more diverse universe,” I thought I’d talk about Chen Chen’s poem today. It’s entitled “for I will do/undo what was done/undone to me.” I picked this poem out of all the others in the volume because of the way it speaks to the way I always get to feeling about winter, trapped by the uncertainty. In his contributor’s notes to the volume, Chen Chen says that he spent three years in Syracuse, New York and “this is the Syracuse snow poem I could not help writing.”

i pledge allegiance to the already fallen snow
& to the snow now falling. to the old snow & the new.
to foot & paw & tire marks in the snow both young & aging,
the deep & shallow marks left on cold streets, our long

misbegotten manuscripts. i pledge allegiance to the weather
report that promises more snow, plus freezing rain.
though i would minus the pluvial & plus the multitude

of messages pressed muddy into the perfectly
mutable snow, i have faith in the report that goes on to read:
by the end of the week, there will be an increased storm-related
illegibility of the asphalt & concrete & brick. for i pledge

betrayal to the fantasy of ever reading anything
completely. for i will do/undo what was done/undone to me:
to be brought into a patterned world of weathers

& reports. & thus i pledge allegiance to the always
partial, the always translated, the always never
of knowing who’s walking around, what’s being left behind,
the signs, the cries, the breadcrumbs & the blood. the toe-

nails & armpit hair of our trying & failing to speak.
our specks of here to the everywhere. dirty snow of my weary
city, i ask you to tell me a story about your life

& you tell me you’ve left for another country,
but forgot your suitcase. At the airport they told you
not to worry, all your things have already been sent
to your new place by your ninth grade French teacher,

the only nice one. & the weather where your true love is
is governed by principles or persons you can’t name,

imagine. it is that good, or bad.

From the title to the last line, I like the way this poem evokes the uncertainty of living in a place where the weather interferes with your plans and where you long to be somewhere else, maybe “where your true love is.”

I especially like the stanza about how the awful and dirty “specks” in the snow could tell a story, but even the snow has grown tired of “what’s being left behind” and has gone before anyone can match up the “blood” with the “toe/-nails and armpit hair.”

I like the way that always, “by the end of the week, there will be an increasing storm-related/ illegibility of the asphalt & concrete & brick.” That a person must pledge allegiance to never knowing, knowing that the search for signs, marks, messages is a way to keep going on until the “perfectly mutable” snow has disappeared again, for a while.

Perhaps the “I pledge allegiance” in the poem is a way of showing how new the speaker of the poem feels to this place, with its “patterned world of weathers/& reports.” There’s a suggestion that this is no new land, it’s just a place created by the covering on top, almost an illusion of a land that will never be seen.

Often, it seems, it does take someone unfamiliar with a place to describe it completely, to see it as it is and reflect it back at the people so used to seeing it that they hardly ever look anymore. Think of your house as you left it this morning. Would you see it differently if you found out that your mother or your boss was coming home with you this afternoon after work?


October 5, 2015

Someone recently mentioned to me that I had to read Stephen King’s 2014 novel Revival, because it is, of course, ultimately about necromancy, and in good, old-fashioned horror style, necromancy most definitely does not pay.

It begins innocuously enough, with a young, small-town preacher befriending a young boy. The preacher has an affinity for tinkering with electrical gadgets and so when the boy, Jamie, comes to him with a problem, which is that one of his brothers has been injured and can no longer talk, the preacher makes what he calls an “Electrical Nerve Stimulator” and tells Jamie and his brother and sister that “the idea of using electricity to limit pain and stimulate muscles is very, very old. Sixty years before the birth of Christ, a Roman doctor named Scribonius Largus discovered that foot and leg pain could be alleviated if the sufferer stepped firmly on an electric eel.”
His device is successful.

Jamie sometimes calls the young preacher his “fifth business,” a term for a change agent in a movie. He meets up with him at turning points in his life, and as this continues to happen, readers, like Jamie himself, start to believe that his first meeting with the boy, when he cast a shadow over him, was symbolic of his effect in his life.

Almost everything we learn about the preacher at first makes him seem more saintly. He lost his young wife and son in a terrible car accident, lost his faith, and began working in a carnival, where he found Jamie in the audience one night, fainting from the effects of the flu and heroin dependency. He nurses him back to health and breaks his drug habit with the help of a new electrical device. After the cure, Jamie sometimes come to in the act of poking his arm with a fork or a stick, thinking “something happened” but not knowing what.

Over the years, Jamie sees and hears about others who have been healed by the preacher, who has established himself on the faith healing circuit. There is often some unanticipated side effect of the preacher’s healings, and occasionally they drive one of the healed completely crazy. Jamie begins to believe that the preacher is seeking forbidden knowledge, available only in the six forbidden books known as “grimoires.” He is told that “the couplet most people remember from Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon was stolen from a copy of De Vermis….’That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons, even death may die.”
Jamie begins to fear that De Vermis Mysteriis is “the most dangerous book ever written.”

Finally the preacher admits his evil plan: “Using lightning as a road to the secret electricity, and the secret electricity as a thoroughfare to potestas magnum universum, I intend to bring Mary Fay back to some form of life. I intend to learn the truth of what’s on the other side of the door that leads into the Kingdom of Death. I’ll learn it from the lips of someone who’s been there.”

Of course, what Jamie sees and hears when the preacher’s electrical device is successful at raising the dead is horrifying, It kills the preacher and brings Jamie himself to the edge of sanity, where he totters, off-balance for the rest of his days, afraid to die and find out that the horrifying glimpse he had of life beyond death is all that there is.

Spooky, huh? It’s a traditional tale of necromancy, even mentioning “The Monkey’s Paw” at one point. There are lots of in jokes, even at the end, when we find out that Mary has a son named Victor. If you like an old-fashioned horror tale, this one will bring you a few chills but no real surprises on an October night.

Wild Geese

September 30, 2015

Pippin follows me from room to room some mornings when I open windows to let the cool fall air blow in. He is a little puzzled about where Eleanor has taken most of her shoes, and why Walker has left behind a perfectly good bed. He’s a little scared of the crunchy leaves blowing around on the deck, and sticks close to me, even though he is now master of the secret of the cat door (the secret is you have to push with your head). I have so far failed to teach him, as I taught his four predecessors, that cats should not climb onto the dining room table. He is sprawled there now, behind the laptop, watching me type.  IMG_3465

The last weekend in September is “family weekend” at Grinnell, and it was always a lovely time of year to drive west, sunny with yellow and gold fields and the harvest just beginning. We went to the Ohio Renaissance Festival this weekend instead, driving a couple of hours south towards Cincinnati in the morning and coming back the same night, which was cloudy with the rumor of a lunar eclipse.

I’m preparing to cover things up and bring them in. On the deck, the outside furniture makes me sing “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” from Les Miserables every time I go out there. Geese fly over the house, wheeling their V in all directions. The late summer wasps are distracted from the red berries in the yard when I step outside with anything to drink in my hand. The light is every day lower, less bright, less warm.

I am trying to think of this place, this spot of ground I have watched so closely for decades, as the place I’ve staked a claim, like the pioneer-sounding narrator of Wendell Berry’s poem Wild Geese:

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here,
names that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

IMG_3448I like the idea that effort is required to be able to believe that “what we need is here.” That even though the sapling we planted on “Earth Day” when the kids were small has grown old and brittle, parts of it broken off by storms, it still roots us to this place. That although some of the people who were here to greet us when we arrived have grown old and some of them are gone, that we will always be arrested by our memories of them when, for instance, passing the croquet court built by John Crowe Ransom, where we once played croquet with his daughter and granddaughter–one gone now, one running for mayor next month.

If what we need is here we have to make it stretch far enough, not for some diminished, autumnal life but for the promise of more trees, more harvests, and the chance of more perspective from high above where the wild geese fly each fall. They are up there now, silhouetted against the clouds, making their ridiculous honking sounds.

And here I am, making mine. Pippin looks up

Everything I Never Told You

September 28, 2015

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, is a well-written and fast-paced read that will disappoint anyone who has already heard that it’s a bad idea for parents to try to live through their children.

At the beginning of the novel, from the first line of it, in fact, “Lydia is dead.” It’s a little like the British TV series Broadchurch, which begins with the death of a young boy and then reconstructs what happened. In this case, however, the dead young woman is sixteen years old and what happened to her, while not murder, came from entirely inside her own family.

Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, is a caricature of a 1970’s woman who wants to be liberated. She marries and gets pregnant before finishing college, and so she doesn’t pursue her dream of being a medical doctor. When her own mother dies, it’s the impetus for Marilyn to take steps to make her own life different from her mother’s. Instead of discussing it with her husband and telling her two small children, however, Marilyn takes off without explanation and lives for two months on her own, until the discovery of another pregnancy derails her plan to finish her college degree. Why she can’t go back to school after the baby is born is not apparent, except that she has given up on herself and transferred her ambition to her daughter Lydia, who will say yes to anything her mother suggests in the superstitious belief that this will prevent her from leaving again.

Lydia’s father, James, who grew up as the only Chinese boy in his small Iowa town, wants his half Chinese children to fit into the small Ohio community he has settled the family into. Disappointed in his older son, who reminds him disconcertingly of himself, James settles the weight of his expectations on Lydia, who is supposed to have the friends and the popularity that eluded James.

Lydia’s older brother Nath and younger sister Hannah are also caricatures, rivals for the attention of her parents and sometimes allies against their unrealistic expectations.

The saddest part of Lydia’s death is that when you get to the end of the novel, you see that she’d finally realized that it was up to her to assert her own ambitions for her life, but since she hadn’t been taught how to do such a thing in stages, her final demonstration that things could be different also fails. She tosses herself in the water, but she has never learned how to swim and can’t learn it all at once without any help.

Everything I Never Told You has a moral implicit in its title, so you can take the moral and skip the illustrative parable that goes with it. Here’s how I would phrase the moral of this story: don’t expect your children to do the things you always wished you could do; it will turn out badly.

And here’s another moral, less explicit in the novel because it’s harder to caricature: tell your children what they do well every chance you get, because what you want them to do well and what they want to do well are not often the same thing, and the weight of your expectations can keep them from launching at the right time to reach their most ambitious goals, the ones you didn’t even know you’d like to see them eyeing.


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