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Backtalk (on George Saunders)

The Frankenstein monster spoke French. Despite what we may have read in Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature did not begin his famous diatribe by saying “All men hate the wretched,” and asking the doctor “have I not suffered enough?”* Instead, he would have said something to the effect of “Tous les hommes haïssent les misérables” and “n’ai-je pas assez souffert?” Likewise, the creature never declared that “mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery,” but more likely said “Mon sort ne sera pas celui de asservissement misérable.” As for the threats he made against the doctor and his loved ones (“I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear”), he probably said something like: “Je me vengerai du tort qu’on m’a fait; si je ne puis inspirer l’amour, je provoquerai l’effroi.” And the creature’s most ominous warning must have been: “Je serai avec vous votre nuit de noces.”

This linguistic premise is of course built into the novel’s basic plot; the doctor hails from a French-speaking Swiss family, and in his choice of tongue the monster takes after his creator. But Shelley’s narrative gambit requires that the reader imagine everything the creature says as voiced otherwise than we see on the page. Moreover, we can suppose that the creature’s verbal mannerisms must have been quite different, too, as his speech is reported second hand by Frankenstein, his nemesis, and relayed third-hand by the doctor’s friend, captain Walton. Like his anatomy, then, the creature’s words in Frankenstein are fundamentally and irretrievably deformed.

Even putting aside the doctor’s unarguable malice toward his creature, the text’s infidelity to the monster’s words leads to an ethical conundrum. A sympathetic reader may claim to understand the monster’s motives, but we cannot claim to ever “hear” him. And a sympathetic ear is precisely what the monster requests of us. “I intreat you to hear me” (145), he says. “Listen to my tale; when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me” (146). The creature insists on this listening no less than six times. “Listen to me, Frankenstein,” he implores the doctor. And as if turning aside to the reader, he drops the surname to repeat, “listen to me.”

Ecoutez-moi, Frankenstein. Ecoutez-moi.

We have to suspend our disbelief to accept Shelley’s fictional premise that a creature only one year old could speak such eloquent lines. The author goes to some lengths to render this idea plausible and makes the monster’s awakening to conscience an allegory of enlightenment reason and the romantic imagination. A blank slate of confused sensory impressions, the newly-created monster stumbles upon a humble cottage in the German countryside and takes refuge in its adjoining “kennel,” as he calls it (mon chenil(?)). From his hiding-place he is able to observe the cottagers through a chink in a boarded-up window, eventually learning to speak good French, for, as it happens, the residents are exiled Parisians of high breeding who have fallen on dark times. He listens and watches closely as the young man in the family reads historical tomes aloud to his lover and in this way he learns to read books himself, including, not so shabby, Paradise Lost and The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Fox 8 cover (detail). Illustration by Chelsea Cardinal

This educational premise of Shelley’s is taken up by George Saunders in his short story “Fox 8,” which was recently republished as a hardbound volume with illustrations. The fox who narrates the story is an inquisitive dreamer who one day hears “the most amazing sound” coming through a window, and he is inspired to learn human speech by returning to the house every night and listening in on the bedtime stories a mother reads to her children.** Soon enough our protagonist is disconcerted to learn that foxes are maligned in human stories — a bitter discovery that presages many disappointments to come. Like Frankenstein, Saunders’ tale is the righteous vindication of a hunted, misunderstood outcast and an indictment of humanity’s reckless domination of nature. Appearing as it did at the end of 2018, Fox 8 is a fitting addition to the year’s bicentennial celebrations of Shelley’s novel; Frankenstein was released on January 1, 1818. Why, then, has no-one noticed the parallels?

The oversight is striking given that Fox 8 deftly targets the ethical conundrum of Frankenstein‘s linguistic infidelity, its implicit silencing of the monster’s own speech. Saunders, in contrast to Shelley, turns the distinctive inarticulateness of his narrator into a major premise of the tale. Whereas in Frankenstein we can only imagine and fatally misrepresent the words of the creature, Saunders foregrounds his creature’s own words and in so doing makes the experience of reading into a strangely pleasurable challenge. Like Fox 8 himself, the reader must learn to speak a new language.

One day, walking neer one of your Yuman houses, smelling all the interest with snout, I herd, from inside, the most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds. They sounded grate! They sounded like prety music! I listened to those music werds until the sun went down, when all of a suden I woslike: Fox 8, crazy nut, when sun goes down, werld goes dark, skedaddle home, or else there can be danjer!

Fox 8 at his “Story window.” Illustration by C. Cardinal

This apparent demotion of English is deceptively simple. Fox 8’s misfirings hit surprising targets (“I herd”; “They sounded grate!”) and his solecisms (“woslike”) seem perfectly warranted by the idiomatic speech they adopt as their own. Even the limping grammar, closely based as well on current vernacular, is highly suggestive (“what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice”): doesn’t the phrase is, was condense the essential gambit of narrative art, the storyteller’s near-magical wielding of narrative presents and present pasts? It seems not so farfetched to make this claim, as Saunders’ tale plumbs the primordial source of “storys” and enchants us like the children Fox 8 eavesdrops on from outside the window (4).

This is very much a story about storytelling; Fox 8’s innocent sincerity allows Saunders to foreground narration and metafiction, as when the protagonist charmingly but clumsily refers to conventions of suspense, to a venerable quote from Dickens, or chides other “buks” for being “fawlse” in various ways. Most importantly, Fox 8 learns that narrative is a way of teaching empathy: he finds out early on that Storys and luv always go together (4). For this reason, too, “a gud riter will make the reeder feel as bad as the Yuman does in there Story” (12), a bid for righteous sympathy that takes on Byronic dimensions, as when Fox 8 says, “I woslike: Why did the Curator do it so rong, making the groop with the gratest skils the meenest?” (37-8). Surely not a rhetorical question?

Saunders is hardly the first to raise lofty existential questions in childlike narrative. But the writer’s unique gifts can be seen in Fox 8‘s sudden shifts of affect and the subtle turns and shadings of empathetic feeling. This is a signature of Saunders’ work — its specific “curativity,” as Fox 8 might say. But the distinct aesthetic challenge and unlikely triumph of this little book lies in the jarring and disorienting way that Saunders can make silliness convey heartbreak and tragedy. Against all odds Fox 8’s goofy malapropisms and zany daydreams rise to the level of the Frankenstein monster’s stentorian flak. But that impressive monologue was badly deformed, we’re guessing, by Shelley’s romantic English. Saunders, in contrast, shows us that we can hear and empathize with people and other beings who do not speak like us, who we perhaps can’t understand at all. But we fail to do so, why? Fox 8 would like to know.

In Frankenstein, the monster’s first words to the scornful doctor are sulky and resentful: “I expected this reception” (“Je m’attendais à cet accueil”). Fox 8, only somewhat more hopeful, concludes his letter to us “Yumans” with a challenging offer: “I awate your answer.”


*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 1985), 145.

**George Saunders, Fox 8 (New York: Random House, 2018), 3.

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American Carnage

I’m so ambitious / I’m looking back

— David Byrne, “The Book I Read”

Right-wing minds betray a constant paradox: their passion for the market is matched only by their nostalgia for the very world that capital destroys. In Donald Trump this contradiction is pushed to an extreme. Economic damage calls for more destruction; suffering warrants further punishment. The dark vision of “American carnage” on Trump’s inauguration day was quickly followed by a rollback of regulations that are bound to hit Main Street with especially nasty force.

The contradiction between backward-looking conservatism and headlong development has now arguably reached its terminal impasse. By favoring tax cuts and big business over climate protection the Trump administration has put the lie to right-wing calls to return to an earlier time, to rebuild the economy, to make America a great white ethno-state againThis is because the denial of climate change winds a clock that can’t be turned back. History, known for its fits, starts and reversals, now runs on fast-forward only. For climate scientists, the watchword of this awful predicament is irreversibility.

Life will get worse and there’s no going back: if this stark message has failed so far to rule our days, it’s because we’re used to coping with the rising costs of progress. The tax cuts passed by the Senate today will surely increase those familiar hardships. The difference now is that our collective delusions of profit and security are troubled by our fast-widening distance from the homeostatic past. In this way, we’re like the characters in George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo: looking back with regret at the world we’ve left behind, unwilling to face the future — and unaware that we’re already dead.

*

Lincoln in the Bardo is a treatise on irreversibility. The novel is anchored in a painful, lovestruck sense of irremediable loss. Like all great works of art, the book feels not only important but necessary. One might say timely, but it’s not clear what the word means to the untimely present. In Bardo’s Lincoln, Saunders gives us a head of state whose soulful anxiousness at the start of the Civil War is strangely suited to the man’s crushing historical responsibility. This topic can’t fail to move today’s readers with renewed wonder and horror at what we’ve suddenly lost over the past year. We face crises much greater than Lincoln’s, but we do so at a time when willful malice occupies the White House, language and truth are martyrized daily, and a government of vandals lays us open to disasters without end.

Obviously these problems have been a long time coming, but a cynical view of the past may underestimate the moral value of stubborn, agonized and desperate nostalgia, the reigning condition of Saunders’ main characters. Bevins, a young gay man thwarted in love, is in thrall to vivid yet chaotic images of earthly beauty — a stammering, captive Whitman. His regular companion, Vollman, knew a single night of perfect bliss before losing his wife and home. As they understand it (poorly), Bevins and Vollman succumbed to the same ailment and were confined to “sick boxes,” they say. At night, though, they can climb out of the “boxes” to share their grief and perplexity with the other captive residents of Oak Hill cemetery in Washington, DC.

Like these characters, Lincoln is unable to give up what he has recently lost. The night after the funeral of his young son, the president can’t help returning to the cemetery, where his desperate love drives him to remove Willie from the crypt to hold his body again. To the watchful ghosts Bevins, Vollman and others, this remarkable act of devotion — a “miracle” in their eyes — suggests that they, too, are perhaps not unloved, that they may not be unwelcome after all in “that previous place,” as they confusedly call the world of the living. Amazing also to the ghosts, Lincoln stays late into the night at the cemetery, and during a second visit to his son’s crypt, the distinguished revenant’s mind Version 2is host to many curious phantoms, young and old, rich and poor, black and white. Lincoln becomes legion, and on his way home, one of the ghosts, a black man, rides with the head of state into the dark and uncertain future.

The theme of metempsychosis allows Saunders to display his marvelous gifts of empathetic character portrayal, familiar to readers of his short stories. In this novel, Saunders’ first, the writer’s empathy takes literal form in the ghosts’ visitations of Lincoln’s mind and each others’ troubled spirits. The ghosts know each other’s life stories verbatim and often complete each other’s sentences, having heard everyone’s litanies of desire and regret thousands of times. This makes their condition tiresome, but the ghosts are fiercely proud of their persistence; they’re determined not to abandon the world they remember, and they even deny they are dead.  When a newly-buried civil war soldier emerges from the grave and opts for the afterlife, the ghosts furiously desecrate the “sick-mound” he has left behind. Vollman, observing the scene, explains with scrupulous care that they do this “not out of meanness, for there is no meanness in them; but rather from excess of feeling.”*

The episode suggests an allegory of historical remembrance, albeit one almost saintly in its forgiving empathy. We see an equally suggestive “excess of feeling” in the gruesome image of a soldier on the battlefield who has quite literally spilled his guts. Saunders yields the pen to historical testimony, and cites directly:

I had never seen a dead person before. Now I saw my fill. One poor lad had frozen solid in the posture of looking down aghast at his wound, eyes open. Some of his insides had spilled out and made, there on his side, under a thin coat of ice, a blur of purple and red. At home on my dressing table was a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and this fellow looked like that, only his bulge of red and purple was lower and larger and off to one side and him gazing at it in horror (153).

The “thin coat of ice” covering the ghastly wound of the soldier echoes the “placental sheen” that begins to cover Willie’s ghost, threatening to trap the boy’s spirit forever in the cemetery. Bevins and Vollman make it possible for Willie to finally pass on to the afterlife, and Willie, in turn, disabuses them of their delusion of returning to the world of the living, having learned from his father that they are all, in fact, dead. Saunders’ vision of American carnage ultimately leads to redemption and renewal.

**

We might fault Saunders’s novel for offering a moral that, despite its Buddhist echoes, reinforces familiar Christian motifs of purgatory and salvation (“Bardo” is a Tibetan term for the liminal state between death and rebirth). More generously, we could say the book is conflicted on this score. When Vollman complains that “the architect of this place” has judged that a child’s wish to to stay in the cemetery is “a terrible sin, worthy of the most severe punishment,” it is as much the author as the “architect” who can be faulted for the injustice. For it remains unclear why, in this fictional moral universe, it is wrong for the adults “to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here,” as Vollman, Bevins and others do. Saunders puts a thumb on the scales by making many of the ghosts’ characters flawed in some way, but this only exacerbates the moral conundrum. The case of Elson Farwell, a former slave, is instructive. Buried among the poor and criminal class in a common “sick-pit,” Farwell holds fast to the desire to go back and massacre every member of the family that owned and abused him, wife, children and baby included — a wish that should hardly be the cause of a reader’s reproof. It might instead serve as a model of moral justice.

Elson’s apparent “sin” is as fictional and deluded as the idea of his “sickness.” Likewise, by holding to what remains irreparable in history, Black justice may not turn back the hours, but it often faces counterclockwise. So too do socialism and ecological justice, which look back today at our lost best chances; for ten years now it has been “too late” to stop a warming world. At a time when the current president sows discord and makes good on his vision of “American carnage,” we can glean a different lesson from the ghosts’ insistence on returning to the past. To stop time in order to “reverse it,” as Bevins says, may not be to indulge in conservative bad faith or deluded nostalgia. Instead, it would be to commit ourselves to the impossible and to acknowledge what is truly hopeless in our present state.

Version 2

***

Postscript: On December 20, the U.S. Congress passed the Trump tax reform bill. It was disturbingly warm in D.C.; people were lunching outdoors in Georgetown. The mild weather highlighted the bill’s lurking threats: under cover of a gift to all, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was poised to supercharge economic inequality, and, by burdening the state with a huge deficit, virtually guaranteed draconian cuts to future social services. The tax bill’s biggest losers, the poor, the elderly and the infirm, were thus assured further suffering in the coming years. But a government downsized by revenue cuts also guaranteed worsening life prospects for all social classes: the state, crippled in its regulatory functions, would be unable to rein in end-game capitalism and accelerating climate change. It was easy to imagine these social, economic and climatic conditions prompting the civil conflicts presaged by Omar El Akkad’s novel American War.**

I chose to mark December 20 with a visit to Oak Hill Cemetery. It felt like a spring day — a spring without birds, flowers, or the slightest hint of color. On North Hill, a child lay under a stone slab, featureless. Nothing moved. The place was empty. In the tepid hush it seemed like time was set on pause.


* George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (New York: Random House, 2017), 140.

** Omar El Akkad, American War (New York: Knopf, 2017).

 

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Counterfeats, by Sam Smart

Literature is anamnesis. Genres as varied as haiku, biography and epic share in a common effort to defeat loss and defy oblivion. If the ultimate figure of amnesia is death, literature’s bid for lasting form is an attempt to cheat mortality itself. Sometimes, though, a writer doesn’t try to escape mortality but instead claims its power in his own name. When an ageing Shakespeare incarnated himself in the figure of Prospero, he cast his character’s near-infinite powers as beholden to the Dark Arts.

WP_20151107_13_10_52_Pro (1)

There’s something of this secret craft in the work of Sam Smart, whose Counterfeats marshals oblivion in the service of his self-portrait. In so doing, the author makes his writing not a foil to death but an art committed in advance to forgetfulness.

Death is often portrayed as an endless sleep. But each day of death’s reprieve we wake with the power of oblivion. What’s more oblivious than someone who, having flown in the clouds, turned back the clock, or played again as a kid, wakes from his dreams and promptly forgets them? Consciousness obliterates. It wipes a rag across existence (19).

An amnesiac’s autobiography, Counterfeats aspires to such an obliterating state of mind, the writer’s consciousness present only in the act of writing and voided of memory. Words likewise become intransitive, indexing things rendered null by amnesia. Only in this way, Smart says, can the writer’s work be true to the fallibility of conscious recollection. Many people have had the sobering experience of poring over keepsakes and photos in which they hardly recognize themselves. In Smart’s case, such souvenirs of forgotten times might be as recent as last week. They may even belong to events others would call unforgettable.

Counterfeats’ first chapter tells of how Smart fulfilled a lifelong wish to visit Uluru, the sacred mountain in the heart of the Australian outback. The dream of seeing Uluru dates to Smart’s boyhood, when he read an adventure tale in which a young explorer gets lost in a dust storm on his way from Darwin to Alice Springs. An aboriginal girl saves the man and opens his eyes to the stark beauty of native lifeways and the sacred “dreamtime.” A romance ensues before the girl and her tribe strike camp and retreat deeper into the outback, away from the invading whites. Or perhaps, the story suggests, the girl and her people were only a dream in the young man’s feverish mind? Smart dwells at length on this haunting childhood story as well as on other adolescent inspirations, including the stock images and bland copy of a well-thumbed National Geographic. For pages on end we watch over Smart’s shoulder as he consults the yellowed texts. As for his own journey, however, Smart has nothing to tell; the author had all memories erased through hypnosis on his return to the US. As a result, it’s as if the journey never happened, or it were a dream forever lost to memory. Apparently, though, Smart may have had a romance of his own in the outback; letters sent to him by a young woman in the Kimberleys suggest that Smart had promised her he’d return to start a new life. He may even have proposed to the girl. The author quotes from these private letters as if they were mere fables to be shelved alongside his childhood reading.

In one of Smart’s most elaborate “counterfeats” the author devoted six years to mastering an obscure language only to unlearn it afterward. Smart specifically chose to study Breton, a Celtic tongue and linguistic anomaly in France, due to its threatened and declining status. A common thread links these two “counterfeats,” for in Brittany as in Australia Smart pursues the far-flung scraps of his Anglo-Irish heritage. In each case, though, the journey of discovery is only a prelude to its abolition. Three years after he lodged with a Breton-speaking family in the town of Néant – the name, improbable as it may seem, means “nothingness” – Smart returns to stay with them, utterly incapable now of verbal communication. Reduced to a state of “bestial immanence” (94), surrounded by meaningless human sounds and stupefied by self-imposed restrictions on his activity, Smart comes closest to his desired condition of placid ignorance. In this way, Smart outlives his Breton self, anticipating both his own future end and that of the language itself, possibly doomed to disappearance or at best a folkloric limbo.

Such willful forgetting may seem pointlessly cruel, part selfish and part self-defeating. In all of Smart’s exploits, however, the author commits himself to a rigorous discipline in the service of a higher muse, Fate or Necessity. This muse is elusive, but the reader finds clues to her occult presence throughout Counterfeats. In Australia, for instance, Uluru is invoked as a “Fata Morgana” in the desert, a mirage mountain floating in the air, while Néant, located on the edge of the ancient forest of Brocéliande, is famous for Merlin’s exploits. Closer to home, Catalina island off the coast of Smart’s native Long Beach is invoked as “Avalon” – the name of the island’s lone town, which carries legendary overtones inherited from the Arthurian cycle. The sorceress Morgan le Fay is connected to each, whether as Version 2traveler’s bane, conjurer of fateful illusions, or as faithful guide to the dead king Arthur, who she ferries to his island grave.

There’s a touch of the romantic in these evocations of mystical sites and fantastic illusions, highlighting the contrast between Smart’s determinedly unsentimental tone and the grand futility of his project. There will be no resurrection, no voyage or consecrated burial for Smart; in his devil’s pact with death, he manages to outlive his own existence, but only by becoming an empty cipher. His past life may be definitively lost, but in a feat that accords him a kind of perpetual afterlife, he wills each forgotten day to a kind of immaterial permanence.

From the coast you can see thirteen miles out to sea before the rim of the ocean curves away. Avalon is twenty-two miles distant, so when the hazy peaks are visible from the mainland, the island itself is standing below the horizon. Planted in another day, appearing now at the whim of the weather: an image in silhouette, pale as a faded postcard. Maybe I’ve been there after all. I forget (103).

Flaubert once dreamed of writing “a book about nothing”: a book, as he said, with “almost no subject,” and which would be “suspended in the void” like the earth itself by the sole power of the writer’s art. Smart’s mirages seem to inherit this role of the artist as demiurge. More radically even than Flaubert, however, Smart makes himself into a non-subject seemingly authored – and erased – by another: Smart’s muse, whose power of oblivion he folds into his writing. This muse is the countersignatory of Smart’s book, a Dark Artist conjured by the author to outsmart his own death.


Sam Smart, Counterfeats: A Life in Words (Los Angeles: Purgatory, 2015).

 

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Cliffs Notes to Frankenstein

challenger-cliffs-notes

There is no creature or thing, no monster or monument, no happening or sight in nature, history, fable, or dream whose image the predisposed eye cannot read in the markings, patterns, and outlines found in stones.

–Roger Caillois*

Frankenstein at a glance:

Title: Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus

Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Published: 1818

Summary: Frankenstein concerns the doings of fictional human agents in terrestrial settings (ocean; pack ice; mountainous landforms of the northern hemisphere). The novel opens with a frame-tale situated in the Arctic, while the main story unfolds in Switzerland and the Alps, with brief episodes occurringWP_20150902_15_23_43_Pro elsewhere on the Eurasian continent (e.g., the Orkneys; Ireland; Tartary; the Black Sea).

Themes and symbols: As a work of narrative prose fiction, Frankenstein dramatizes the contrasting states of animation and stasis, love and loss, life and death. The novel’s chief interest lies in the premise of reanimating dead matter, of giving life to inanimate nature, whose unforeseen consequences drive the plot (e.g., Victor creates a “monster”).

Dominant motifs: The author’s vivid descriptions of nature — often cast as violent and inhospitable — lend the story a gothic atmosphere of uncanniness and gloom. In spite of this close attention to landscape and topography, the novel employs the word cliff only once, in the phrase “the white cliffs of Britain.”** It is worth noting, moreover, that “cliffs” in this case serves not as a separate noun but merely as a constituant of a noun phrase — a phrase that is itself only a stock expression without real topographic specificity (the chalk cliffs of Britain’s southeastern coastline extend for 10 miles north and south of Dover from 51°06′N 1°14′E to 51°12′N 1°24′E). Frankenstein’s paltry reference contrasts with the high incidence of other landscape terminology in the novel:

__________

27_27_04-prajna-paramita_v2

Guy Laramée, Prajna Paramita (2011)

Mountain  44

Ice  31

Lake  24

Shore  17

River  16

Stream  12

Hill  11

Rock  11

Summit  10

Valley  9

Field  7

Cave  6

Glacier  6

Stone  6

Peak  3

Ravine  2 __________

While the word cliff is practically absent from Frankenstein, vertical rocks and other geological formations are found throughout the text, though distorted by inaccuracies, equivocations and circumlocutions. The reader will note, for instance, such evasive expressions as a “tall rock” (p.106), a “rock” with “high sides” (p.123) and a “bare perpendicular rock” (p.202), all of which could be replaced with the word cliff.

Textual analysis: In chapter 6, as Victor Frankenstein revisits the spot where his young brother William was killed, a flash of lightning lets him catch sight of his spurned creation hiding in the dark. Descriptions of the cliff-face up which the monster makes his escape betray peculiar inaccuracies:

He was the murderer! I could not doubt it. The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact. I thought of pursuing the devil; but it would have been in vain, for another flash discovered him to me hanging among the rocks of the nearly perpendicular ascent of Mont Salêve, a hill that bounds Plainpalais on the south. He soon reached the summit, and disappeared (p.148).

Curiously, Victor refers to the Salève as a “hill,” whereas it is a mountain 1,379 meters high, and he calls its face “nearly perpendicular” rather than a “cliff.” These inaccuracies are compounded by the improbable notion that Victor could see his creature climbing the mountain from a viewpoint in Plainpalais. After all, were Victor located near the city walls of Geneva, the face of the Salève would be some seven kilometers away, and even assuming that he were standing at the extreme southern point of the former commune of Plainpalais, the Salève would still be at least three kilometers distant (but at this spot, enclosed within a sharp bend in the river Arve, the present site of Champel, his view of the Salève would have been blocked by the riparian cliffs (high eroded embankments of clay, sandstone, gravel and glacial till).

Guy Laramee

Guy Laramée, Meyers Lexicon (Geislerspitzen), 2014.

Moreover, close analysis of the passage shows that the protagonist’s judgments are rash and prejudiced. In a phrase that runs fully counter to scientific method, the doctor asserts that “the mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof” (148), and he goes so far as to say that “no sooner did that idea cross my imagination than I became convinced of its truth” (147). This suggests that all of Victor’s judgments, whether concerning his spurned creature or the topographical features of the natural environment, can be considered dubious, partial and inherently flawed.

Such flaws are exemplified by the term “perpendicular” by which Frankenstein often describes high vertical landforms. Presumably, a “perpendicular rock” (p.202) is judged to be so from a human perspective located on a plane A – B at 90° from Earth’s line of gravity (line M – N): the rock, in other words, is “perpendicular” to the ground on which the character or presumed human subject stands. If this is so, however, then the rock in question is perpendicular in exactly the same way and to precisely the same degree (90) as is a live standing body subject to the planet’s center of gravity. In this light, it would be more appropriate, no doubt, to speak of a cliff being “parallel” to the observing body, a body that is itself generally “perpendicular” unless dead, sleeping, or otherwise unconscious. Interestingly, perpendicular-line-definitionat times the text seems to imply such a parallelism between the human observer and the cliffs he observes, as when Victor says “the opposite mountain is a bare perpendicular rock” and that “from the side where I now stood Montanvert was exactly opposite” (202). The spatial kinship subtly extended to the cliffs here is ambiguous at best, however, as the word “opposite” denotes not only symmetry but contrast too, and so inevitably reinforces the novel’s Manichean themes of rivalry between Victor and his so-called monster, and more broadly, mankind and the ontology of the natural world. It is significant, particularly in the light of our conclusions below, that the bare cliffs directly facing Victor provide the setting for a key encounter with his creature, as if the monster’s approaching form were the solid incarnation of Victor’s own words echoing from the rock walls.***

Further, perpendicularity in Frankenstein often conveys not strict verticality but an upward extension somewhat in excess of 90 degrees. A cliff thereby overhangs the human subject. We (Cliffs) note the following examples: “immense mountains and precipices overhanging us on every side” (193); and “we passed the bridge … and we began to ascend the mountain San_Marino_cliff_c1855_2that overhangs it” (194). In the scene describing the Salève, cliffs that are called “nearly perpendicular” are subsequently said to have “overhanging sides” (p.151), as if the textual portrait were submitting to the verbal equivalent of geological upthrust. Such renditions of protruding cliffs can result in the alarming image of human structures jutting out over precipices that are themselves presumably overhanging the valley floor below, as in the precarious descriptions of “castles hanging on the precipices” (193), including one “which overhangs yon precipice” (p.105) — symbols, we assume, of the vanity of human works, but also, no doubt inadvertently, of the book Frankenstein itself.

Cliffs in Frankenstein thus foster the pervasive sense of a tall looming threat. Similarly, Frankenstein’s monster is insistently described as gigantic and overhanging. In the scene of the Salève, the monster is described as “hanging among the rocks” (148), an image that underscores the creature’s affinity with Frankenstein (stein is German for rock) but also, and more significantly, with the “overhanging” cliff. Indeed, descriptions of the monster’s “gigantic stature” (pp. 22, 88, 147, 267) repeatedly suggest something akin to a mountain face. These images of overhanging enormity finally culminate in the scene where the monster visits Frankenstein’s body lying in his coffin:

“Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe; gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions. As he hung over the coffin, his face was concealed by long locks of ragged hair; but one vast hand was extended…” (267) (our emphasis).

Conclusions: Two dominant aspects of Frankenstein persistently elude nomination. Victor’s unfortunate creature has no proper name, but is variously branded a “daemon,” a “devil,” an “insect,” and a “monster.” Likewise, vertical features of the landscape are identified only by circumlocution or misattribution, as if burdened by a similar human curse. Cliffs and the attentive reader can restore these subjects to their proper place in Frankenstein, a key work, errors notwithstanding, in the annals of human geography.

challenger-cliffs-notes


* Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985), 11.

* Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (London: G. and W.B. Whittaker, 1823), 108.

*** See John Culbert, “Echos [sic]” in The Manchester Review, vol.8 (2012).

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My Life in the Ghosts of Bush

The most exciting literary release of the season is the new novel by Iraqi-born writer Hassan Blasim, My Life in the Ghosts of Bush. Its publication seems well timed, coinciding as it does with the release of the ghoulish CIA “Torture Report” that returns us to the darkest days of the so-called war on terror. Known for graphically violent and fantastical short stories about his war-torn homeland, Blasim won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year for his latest collection of tales, The Iraqi Christ. A first novel from a writer of note is usually a major event, but this one’s release has been entirely overlooked. Why? The author and the publisher have made no comments. Only the book itself can help us solve the puzzle.

GHOSTSOFBUSH_2The author scored a coup with his playful title, which evokes a classic work of postcolonial literature. The reference is apt, as the novel’s themes of war, cultural dislocation, dreams and nightmares are similar in many respects to Amos Tutuola’s weird, hypnotic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. But the title may be proving a liability; some bookstore customers have likely mistaken the new book for Tutuola’s, since it sports that book’s cover design as well as its distinctive typography. Others hurriedly skimming volumes on display may have missed the transposition of two words in the title, or, fearing an onset of dyslexia, moved on to browse elsewhere. Moreover, the cover bears the name of an unknown author. This has led some critics to believe the novel is in fact the work of a secretive “Hasim Bassan.” But that moniker is surely a thinly-veiled pseudonym; “Hasim Bassan,” after all, is a near anagram of Blasim’s own name.

The novel’s plot follows the fortunes of eleven Iraqis who all happen to be killed on the same day, so many “ghosts of Bush” resulting from the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Readers of Blasim’s short stories will recognize some familiar motifs here: torture and terror; the telling of stories and the unreliability of narrative; rumor, mystification and media manipulation; the tragedy of occupation and the horrors of internecine war. But My Life in the Ghosts of Bush is unlike anything by Hassan Blasim. Paradoxically enough, the book’s greatest originality lies in its practice of borrowing, citing and sampling from other works of art.

The opening chapter tells of how the character Ali became separated from his shadow during the US invasion in 2003; later the two meet up again on the street like old friends in the midst of Baghdad’s sectarian killings. The pair fall to speaking nostalgically of their fishing days, and on the spur of the moment decide to brave the dangers of the battle-zones to go back to their former haunts on the banks of the Tigris. Ali’s shadow says he knows one of the sentries at the border between two warring neighborhoods, and so the two are able to pass and get to their favorite fishing spot by the river. Soon they are happily catching fish like in the good old days, unaware they are watched by a gang of killers, who, suspecting them of being spies, sneak up and deliver them to their militia leader. Ali is made to face the firing squad, and in his final moments he confusedly sees his companion for the last time.

Just then Ali’s eye fell on the bucket of carp sitting on the ground nearby. The pile of fish, which were still wriggling, glistened in a ray of sunshine. Was that his own shadow on their shimmering scales? He felt a momentary weakness. Try as he might, Ali couldn’t hold back his stinging tears (23).

Some readers will recognize “Ali and his Shadow” as an adaptation of Maupassant’s “Two Friends,” a story itself situated in a time of foreign occupation (Paris during the Franco-Prussian war). So, curiously enough, the Iraqi short story writer borrowed a short story to write his first novel. Indeed, sticklers might argue that Blasim hasn’t written a novel at all; My Life in the Ghosts of Bush consists entirely of this single borrowed narrative, told chapter by chapter from the posthumous viewpoint of each character mentioned: Ali, the sentry, the death squad men and their leader. By the end of each chapter that character is killed. But what of Ali’s shadow, Blasim’s ingenious addition to Maupassant’s tale? We leave it to the reader to find out. The shadow weaves its way through each story, with results by turns haunting and hilarious.

Like Ali’s shadow, other narrative details are woven like continuous threads the length of the book. Identical phrases reappear in various contexts, spoken by different characters; snatches of the same radio broadcast are heard over and over. “America is waiting for a message of some sort,” blares the radio from a sinister Blackwater Humvee parked by the Green Zone, words overheard first by Ali and later by characters in each subsequent chapter. Few novels have used techniques of repetition to such remarkable effect. The reason for this unusual narrative structure is that Blasim has apparently organized the chapters of his book according to the eleven music tracks of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

On the face of it, this organizational choice may seem random and capricious, but Blasim’s use of the musical material proves otherwise. Eno and Byrne’s experimental record of 1981 opens with the groundbreaking electronic track “America is Waiting” — the words are sampled from a radio talk show — and includes four other tracks featuring Arab singers from whom Blasim amply quotes. The author makes particularly good use of “Qu’ran,” which features Algerian voices chanting over Eno and Byrne’s rhythmic electronica, a track that was notably cut from later editions of the record following accusations of blasphemy. Lyrics from the Lebanese singers Dunya Yusin and Samira Tewfik appear in each chapter; sung by Ali and his shadow as they sit fishing, they are overheard by their future captors, who repeat them afterward in different scenes and to different effect. Likewise, Blasim echoes the West African percussion featured in several tracks on Eno and Byrne’s record in order to weave elements of Tutuola’s dreamscapes into his own multilayered plots. Blasim’s use of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts provides a subversive counterpoint to the infamous “torture playlist” used by “depraved” jailers and their US superiors in Iraq. But it may take a team of musicologists to unravel the deeper and more intricate ties between the music and the novel’s formal elements of syntax, punctuation, diction and prosody.

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Eno and Byrne, “The Jezebel Spirit” EP (1981)

In one amazing scene from chapter 5, a member of Ali’s firing squad is sent on a mission and is unexpectedly stopped at the checkpoint of a rival sect. Asked for the password by an armed sentry, the man balks, believes himself to be at death’s door, and sings under his breath a line from Samira Tewfik’s song in consolation. That line in fact proves to be the password; the killer is allowed to pass and dizzily exults in his reprieve from death; music fills his ears as he enters the neighborhood, mixes with the lively throngs of people, and seeks out the thickest crowd where he detonates his belt of explosives. The episode provides an occasion for Blasim’s signature black humor.

Consider the horror of bodily dismemberment from the point of view of the victim’s shadow. Never in its dutiful service has it needed to choose between head and heart or between the bulk of the torso and a fragment of pinkie on some passerby’s keffiya. But such is the shadow’s lot once it is blown apart, smashed like an achromatic kaleidoscope, its grays and blacks orphaned now, homeless and scattered across this land of pitiless sun (108).

Ghosts cast no shadow, and the voice that speaks these lines is as disembodied and unlocatable as a sampled sound clip from Eno and Byrne. Can a writer perform a similar disappearing act? Maybe the author of My Life in the Ghosts of Bush has attempted the impossible in playing ghost-writer to his own novel.


“Hasim Bassan,” My Life in the Ghosts of Bush (2014).

 

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Afterwardsness (Lila, by Marilynne Robinson)

Marilynne Robinson Lila_4When Lila visits the Reverend for the first time in Marilynne Robinson’s marvelous new novel, she has been wondering “why things happen the way they do” and decides to put the question to the old man by knocking on his door (29). The Reverend tells Lila he finds the question very interesting, but then of course he’s interested in Lila herself, a young woman who has appeared in his life like a bird swept into the house by a storm, bearing a “blessing” along with its alien “wildness” (19). In other words the Reverend is preoccupied with the same question as Lila, who, for all her confusion and lack of schooling, is attuned to the evasiveness underlying the Reverend’s cautious humility as he plays host to her. The question of “why things happen the way they do” is bound up with what is happening to the two characters there and then — they are falling in love — but neither can quite sort out the relationship between the question and their inarticulate desires.

“Tell me how it came to be on your mind. In a few words.”

She said, “I got time to myself. I think about things.”

“Yes. Clearly you do. Interesting things.”

“I spose everybody thinks about ’em.

He laughed. “Right. But that’s interesting too.”

“On Sundays you talk about the Good Lord, how he does one thing and another.”

He blushed. It was as if he expected that question, too, and was surprised again that the thing he expected for no reason was actually happening. He said, “I know that I am not — adequate to the subject. You have to forgive me.”

She nodded (31).

This is a delicate moment, a scene in which the unknown and the unspoken shape the characters’ actions, as happens so often in this story. It’s also a moment when we’re invited to consider the shape of the narrative, “why things happen the way they do” in the construction of the novel. The Reverend says that Lila’s question is “theological,” or at least “philosophical” (112), but we might add that it’s narratological too, because her query is metaleptic, as narratologists say, operating both at the level of the tale and the telling. Why, the reader might ask, does Lila’s first visit to the Reverend follow a scene where we already learned they get married? Why are Lila’s years in Gilead constantly intercut with episodes from her early life? These questions point Marilynne Robinson Lilainsistently at problems of time, or more specifically anteriority: the mystery of beginnings, origins, and first occasions. Often something is mentioned in Lila that has not yet been narrated; this means that the mention is proleptically indicating something to come in the book. But that thing to come likely has to do with events that occurred before, and so requiring flashback, or “analepsis.”

The author’s deft handling of narrative temporality can be seen in the following passage, where Lila visits the Reverend’s church for the first time. Lila feels embarrassed and out of place, a stranger in the town of Gilead, entirely ignorant of church customs, indeed of Christianity itself. The Reverend rises to his feet when Lila appears in the door, which makes her take fright and flee. She is determined to do better when she tries again some days later.

So she decided she would go back to the church and walk in the door the way she meant to do in the first place. But when she did walk in, he stood up, so she left, and those ladies followed her out into the street (36).

The passage is disorienting because the second sentence initially leads us to think that it follows the first one in a temporal sequence resulting from Lila’s decision to “go back to the church.” Instead it analeptically returns us to the previous visit when she walked in but quickly left. One could restore the proper chronology by inverting the order of the two sentences, but that would destroy the internal temporality of Lila’s psychic experience, which follows the fits and starts of obsessional reflection and traumatic recall. In this mental realm, Lila’s “decisions” shape time in their own way, and this is reflected in the weird syntax of our two sentences. Her (proleptic) intention to “go back to the church” is realized not in the act of doing so but rather in the (analeptic) memory that goes back to the time “she did walk in” before. Why do things happen this way?

The psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche gave the name “afterwardsness” to the distinctive backward and forward movement of thought and memory as a person struggles with the primary influences on their sexual and emotional make-up. Laplanche argues that primal sexual drives are formed in the innocent physical exchanges between a caregiver and their infant child. The simplest acts of feeding and handling an infant are laden with the adult caregiver’s unconscious thoughts and desires, Laplanche argues; the result is that the child is invaded by unspoken and coded messages that haunt it as unsolved enigmas. Such enigmatic signifiers can crop up at any time in an adult’s life, reawakening confusion and desire whenever a mysterious other crosses one’s path. As such, the primary human sexual relationship is deeply anachronistic, and it is fitting in this light that Lila’s love story pairs a very old man with a very young woman. A child grows up to master its enigmas as best it can; this provokes a perpetual shuttling back to primal scenes, forward to the present, and further forward into plans for the future. Robinson at times gives these elemental coordinates of reflection a Beckettian tone, as here, where Lila wonders “who it was that kept her alive when she was newborn and helpless”:

What could matter any less than where she came from? Well, she thought, where I’m going might matter less. Or maybe why I’m here by myself in the dark wondering about it (37).

At other times her meditations are shaped by absence and retroaction, the belated awareness of catastrophes she has survived all unaware.

Lila heard about the Crash years after it happened, and she had no idea what it was even after she knew what to call it. But it did seem like they gave it the right name. It was like one of those storms you might even sleep through, and then when you wake up in the morning everything’s ruined, or gone (15).

As a young child Lila was rescued from a harmful environment by Doll, a poor drifter who stole Lila away one night and devoted herself entirely to the girl’s care and upbringing. Lila says she was borne away by Doll “as if she were carried along in the wind” (5), a catastrophe like the Crash or a nighttime storm her mind keeps returning to. Lila survives the uprooting from her natural family, but the past has a strong hold, not only because Doll is pursued for years by Lila’s vengeful family, but because in spite of herself Lila cannot keep from inquiring into her primitive beginnings. The last thing she heard from her family — though she may have imagined it — is a voice calling out in the dark, “Where are you going with that child?” (5). Years later, in a compulsive fantasy of repetition, she imagines stealing her own child away from its father, the Reverend. The voice that calls after them carries something of Lila’s primal enigmatic signifier.

Two or three times she had even had the thought of stealing him, carrying him away to the woods or off down the road so she could have him to herself…. But she imagined the old man, the Reverend, calling out after them, “Where are you going with that child?” The sadness in his voice would be terrible. He would be surprised to hear it. You wouldn’t even know your body had a sound like that in it. And it would be familiar to her. She didn’t imagine it, she remembered that sadness from somewhere, and it was as if she would understand something if she could hear it again. That was almost what she wanted (17).

One of Lila’s insistent refrains is the biblical line “There is no speech nor language; their voice is not heard” (117, etc.). This silence passes between Doll and Lila just as it does later between a pregnant Lila and her unborn child, who she imagines hears and feels all her worries, and so will likely become a conduit of Lila’s unspoken fears and enigmas.

She’d never thought before how strange a cornfield can look so late in the year, all the stalks dead where they stand. … Now she saw the dim shine of sunlight on the leaves, and how the stalks were all bent one way, the tops of them. The wind had bent them and left them rigid, with their old  tattered leaves hanging off them. But it was as if they had all heard one sound and they all knew what it meant, or were afraid they did, and every one of them waited to hear it again, to be sure, every one of them still with waiting. She said, “It don’t mean nothing,” speaking to the child. “It’s the wind” (144).

The “wind” in this passage evokes Lila’s rapture by Doll, and the cornfield the place she fears Doll met her end one freezing night; Lila’s entire life is resumed here, along with the all-important theme of an enigmatic sound. Lila is on a par with Morrison’s Beloved in its reflections on haunted motherhood and non-verbal communication across generations. Robinson of course intends to give these themes a religious meaning. This does not prevent them from conveying something of Laplanche’s afterwardsness as well. And one feature of this afterwardsness is the pleasure of revisiting through Lila’s innocent eyes the same places and characters we met in Robinson’s earlier novels, those grand achievements of contemporary American literature, Gilead and Home.

Lila is a wonder.

Marilynne Robinson Lila_3


Marilynne Robinson, Lila: a Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 2014).

 

 

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The Odyssey Lost and Found

Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is something of a miracle. With effortless grace, it seems, the author plunges back into the source of the Homeric tales, adopting a style mannered enough to evoke the classic English translations, but with touches of contemporary diction that allow the stories to speak to us directly. The first sentences cast an irresistible charm:

DSCN6553Odysseus comes back to Ithaca in a small boat on a clear day. The familiarity of the east face of the island seems absurd — bemused, he runs a tricky rip current he has not thought about in fifteen years and lands by the mouth of a creek where he swam as a boy. All his impatience leaves him and he sits under an oak he remembers whose branches overhang the water, good for diving. Twenty years have gone by, he reflects, what are a few more minutes. An hour passes in silence and it occurs to him that he is tired and might as well go home….

This moment of arrival is of course only the beginning, though the notion of any clear start or finish is quickly dispatched as these 44 “lost books” proceed to weave in and out of the Iliad and the Odyssey, boldly interpolating the classics with strikingly imaginative episodes plotted on familiar timelines but scattered at random like playing cards. The topic here is the Trojan war and its aftermath, but in good metafictional style it is also storytelling itself: tall tales, often contradictory but equally compelling, dreams and prophecies, legends retreaded, and lies, lies, lies. The shortest of the book’s chapters, two sentences long, pulls off a metafictional stunt almost worthy of Borges:

Odysseus, finding that his reputation for trickery preceded him, started inventing histories for himself and disseminating them wherever he went. This had the intended effect of clouding perception and distorting expectation, making it easier for him to work as he was wont, and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variations, the Odyssey of Homer (71).

Mason’s Odysseus is not only cunning and crafty, but also by his own admission — or one of them — a “coward” (86) with a “a mind full of rapine” (21). As in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, the hero is somewhat deflated and, shall we say, demystified?

There are, as far as I have seen, and I have seen much, no gods, no spirits and no such thing as witches, but I seem to be the only one who knows it — the best I can say for the powers of the night is that they make good stories (102).

This arrogant admission may seem if not out of character at least somewhat anachronistic. And yet Mason’s protagonist confirms the analysis of the Odyssey in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, where, in his encounter with the Sirens, crafty and ruthless Odysseus is seen as the harbinger of instrumental reason, the control of nature and the passage “from mythology to logistics” (29). Indeed, Mason’s own Odysseus, plotting safe passage by the Sirens, pointedly says “It seemed that my curiosity could be safely indulged through simple logistics” (81). Mason’s Odyssey would seem to confirm the Marxists’ interpretation of the encounter with the Sirens: safely lashed to the mast, his underlings’ ears stopped up with wax, the hero not only trumps the monsters but leaves them behind, and in so doing banishes the past itself; “the primeval world is left behind,” and in its place stands the prosaic, demystified hero, Odysseus, “the prototype of the bourgeois individual” (35). As Horkheimer and Adorno say,

In the eyes of the man who has thus come of age, the plain untruth of the myths, the fact that the sea and earth are not actually populated by demons but are a magic delusion … becomes something merely “aberrant” in contrast to his unambiguous purpose of self-preservation, of returning to his homeland and fixed property (38).

But this is a lesson learned not once and for all but over and over. Mason’s Odysseus manages to outwit the Sirens, and yet he is compelled to go back and brave them all over again. They don’t give up their secrets so easily. Mason’s description of the scene is marvelously fresh and the Sirens as real and bewitching as ever they were:

Abruptly, the song ended and I sagged forward, the ropes digging into my chest as the men took the ship out. I cried out for the sirens to continue, that I was close to an answer, but they watched me depart with their chins propped on their hands (84).

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Burning books

This past weekend Jamaica Kincaid was in Seattle promoting her latest novel, See Now Then. She spoke at a fundraiser in Seattle as guest of the Freedom to Read Foundation, an organization that advocates for First Amendment rights, particularly among libraries (FTRF is affiliated with The American Library Association).
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There was something wonderfully ironic in Kincaid’s admission to her audience of mostly librarians that her first exposure to books was often associated with punishments in school (copying out passages from Paradise Lost, forced to read Jane Eyre), which, once the reading bug took hold, would be followed by frequent thefts from her local library. The young girl secretly stashed her prized books under her family’s house. Kincaid claimed with false modesty that “cleverest thing” she ever did was learn to hide books between her legs and smuggle them out under the librarian’s nose.

Kincaid then addressed the topic of book burning — in her words “the most lethal” form of censorship — by means of an episode that has taken on near-mythic proportions in her autobiography. The episode was framed by a long passage from the closing pages of her 1997 novel My Brother. No one hearing or reading the passage can doubt that Kincaid’s style rises to a rare level of speculative prose.

For many years I wrote for a man named William Shawn. Whenever I thought of something to write, I immediately thought of him reading it, and the thought of this man, William Shawn, reading something I had written only made me want to write it more; I could see him sitting (not in any particular place) and reading what I had written and telling me if he liked it, or never mentioning it again if he didn’t, and the point wasn’t to hear him say he that he liked it (though that was better than anything in the whole world) but only to know that he had read it, and why that should have been so is beyond words to me right now, or just to put it into words now (and it was only through words that I knew him) would make it either not true, or incomplete, like love, I suppose: why do I love you, why do you love me? Almost all my life as a writer, everything I wrote I expected Mr. Shawn to read, and so when I first heard  DSCN6492of my brother dying and immediately knew I would write about him, I thought of Mr. Shawn, but Mr. Shawn had just died, too, and I had seen Mr. Shawn when he was dead, and even then I wanted to tell him what it was like when he had died, and he would not have liked to hear that in any way, but I was used to telling him things I knew he didn’t like, I couldn’t help telling him everything whether he liked it or not. And so I wrote about the dead for the dead, and all along as I was writing I thought, When I am done with this I shall never write for Mr. Shawn again, this will be the end of anything I shall write for Mr. Shawn; but now I don’t suppose it will be so. It was because I had neglected my brother when he was two years old and instead read a book that my mother gathered up all the books I owned and put them on a pile on her stone heap, sprinkling them with kerosene and then setting them alight; I cannot remember what they were about (they would have been novels, at fifteen I read only novels), but it would not be so strange if I spent the rest of my life trying to bring those books back to my life by writing them again and again until they were perfect, unscathed by fire of any kind (My Brother, 197-8).

William Shawn is of course the longtime editor of The New Yorker who died in 1992. Kincaid’s younger brother died of AIDS in 1996. “And so I wrote about the dead for the dead,” Kincaid says, a fearsome phrase effortlessly carried off by the author’s powerful yet unassuming style. The past tense adds to the phrase a perhaps unintended trace of its posthumous future. Unless the temporality here as elsewhere in Kincaid is that of a permanent moment of trauma; the historical trauma wrought by colonialism, by the ‘Mother Country,’ as well as that wrought by the outsized and domineering character of Kincaid’s own mother. Speaking in Seattle of the scene in which her mother burned her books, the author stated that “I became a writer — perhaps — in that very moment.” And she added, insisting on the mystery of that fleeting temporal instant, a long moment spanning a life from beginning to closure, “There was something in that moment that sealed it.”

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