The Good Lord Bird: A Review

16171272“The Good Lord Bird” is a book I ought to like. I liked McBride’s first autobiography, “The Color of Water,” an appreciative remembrance/meditation on being a black man with a white mother. I liked McBride personally when he visited Messiah College. He is a fantastic musician, whose passion for music I share. Like most America’s I’m intrigued by the fanatical John Brown. The novel’s theme is race in America, the fatal subject of many of the greatest American novels from Moby Dick to Huckleberry Finn to Absalom Absalom to the Invisible Man to Beloved. It’s James McBride’s fourth book, about the time in a career when one starts to see signature work produced. It was chosen for the National Book Award. Everything things about it says BIG. Good writer, big book, big subject.

But the book left me cold.

Well, really somewhat more than lukewarm, which feels like cold when you are eagerly expecting greatness. I liked many passages. It was better than watching netflix…most of the time. But I expect more than that from a National Book Award Winner, and couldn’t help but wonder what the judges were thinking, though it also crossed my mind that American fiction must have been in a bad way in 2013 if this was the best we could produce. Apparently this thought crossed McBride’s mind as well since, according to the Times story on the 2013 NBA ceremonies, McBride was stunned to have won and didn’t even prepare a speech.

The book has often been compared to Huckleberry Finn. indeed, the novel’s cover insists on it, evoking the ubiquitous straw hat that seems to accompany every edition of the novel and rendition of Huck’s story since that American classic was written. Henry, the novel’s protagonist, is a cross-dressing early adolescent struggling to find his own way and own identity in a world full of people who impose their vision of what he is or ought to be at will. There is no river–a good bit of the novel takes place in the plains of Kansas and Iowa, in its own more desiccated way as stark brutal and unforgiving a wild thing as the Huck’s Mississippi. In a different sense, John Brown himself is Henry’s river, a wild thing, a force of nature with a logic and will of his own that bends things to himself, like a Kansas tornado or a Mississippi flood, and does the bending in part through his own fanatical certainty in the will of God.

But the differences between Huckleberry Finn and The Good Lord Bird also point to the latter’s narrative problems. In Huckleberry Finn, the river is a character of its own, but it is never the character that we care about. From the opening sentence we know we care about Huck Finn and coming to know him. The river is finally an occasion for the main narrative character, and not the other way around. If the river drives Huck through coincidence, or if Huck follows it where it carries him, finally the reader follows Huck, only sticking with the river because of that human story. In The Good Lord Bird I could never muster a lot of concern from Henry, who followed John Brown for no good reason, didn’t seem to want to be there, and didn’t seem to learn all that much by his travels. In the Times story cited above, McBride says he enjoyed writing the novel because “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around.” The novel has that feel. That Henry is just falling in to the world and following John Brown around for no reason we can adequately figure out. In this sense, the novel feels all the way through a bit like Huck Finn feels in its disappointing conclusion, when Huck Finn, who has captured our imagination and matured before our interior eyes, turns freedom and maturity into a banal melodrama at the hands of his would-be mentor, Tom Sawyer.

In the acknowledgements section at the end of the book, McBride thanks the many who kept the memory of John Brown alive. I’m not sure this book will do that very well. When, for the space of several dozen pages in the middle of the novel, John Brown disappears from the scene and Henry is left to his own devices, we realize we just don’t care that much about him. And if Henry is not himself a compelling character, if Henry is not more than an empty sleeve of a boy becoming a man, then we can’t really find John Brown all that compelling either. Adolescents drifting through life are compelled by many things, some of them profound, many or most of them not. John Brown is a terrifying and complex figure in American History, one that Americans still feel uncertainly as both a brutal terrorist and a freedom fighter, and feel this contradiction all the more so in that Brown was indeed on the right moral side of the arc of history when it comes to the story of race in America, unlike so many other of our white founding fathers and mothers. But because Henry does not himself seem to struggle in any meaningful way with the desperate question of whether in pursuing freedom we are winging into flight or stumbling over a precipice, we ultimately don’t feel in this John Brown the terror that can be the birth pangs of freedom. Instead, McBride’s John Brown seems to shift uncomfortably between being a joke and being meaningfully sincere.

A worthy subject for a netflix melodrama, but I was hoping for more.

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The Blog Apology: A Genre

Having been away from this blog for awhile, I am struck by my vaguely perceived need to offer explanations, as if I needed excuses for beginning again or for stopping in the first place.  And it was also evident to me that I found this impulse, unresisted, littering blogs across the web.  The blog of my friend and former student, Carmen McCain, is rife with repeated apologies for her inconsistent blogging.  Another friend and former student, Liz Laribee, also seems to apologize for not blogging about as often as she does blog.  I know that in the past when I’ve gone on unexplained hiatus, I’ve begun again with an apology.  Just for grins I did a quick Google search for “apologize for not blogging more” and got 16,600 hits for that exact combination.  Apparently we are legion and we are a sorry lot.

There seem to be several versions of this particular literary genre.  In one variety the blogger abjectly denounces herself for moral turpitude, admitting to various venal weaknesses like preferring Facebook or watching television rather than keeping to the rough moral discipline of the keyboard.  Others beg busyness, or grovel repentantly in admitting they were only sick and surely could have opened up the lap top.  Some seek remission of their sins by requesting the reader’s empathy, including long and engrossing lists of ills and misfortunes that make the travails of the biblical Job look like a trip to the gym with a particularly rigorous drill instructor.  My particular favorite is the blogger who apologizes but lets the reader know that he was really up to much more important or much more interesting things and that we are lucky he is back at all.  In some instances it seems that people spend a good deal of their blogging time ruminating about how they should be blogging more, much as I talk about how little time I have for exercise while I am sitting on my couch in the evening.

Many such blog posts recognize that they are enacting an internet cliche by apologizing, but do so anyway.  I’m intrigued.  What does this apology signify about blogging as a form of writing, about the kind of audience the author imagines, about the relationship with that audience.  Novelists do not apologize for the years or decades between novels, nor for that matter do essayists, short story writers, or poets.  It seems more important to have something worth saying than to say something with great regularity. While such writers may flog themselves for not writing, they do so privately or to their editors and fellow writers–readers be damned. Newspaper columnists will announce their absence for a sabbatical, without apology I might add, but mostly they go on vacation without comment other than the dry, italicized editorial note that “[Insert opinionated name here] will return in September after his vacation to the Bahamas where he is working on a book and enjoying his family.”

Only bloggers bother to apologize for not writing.

As if their readers really cared.

I suspect this has something to do with the illusion of intimacy that is made possible by interactivity.  I have come to “know” a number of people through my blog or through twitter and Facebook, and since this electronic transmission is the sum total of our human experience together it is a little bit akin to having kept up a loose friendship by phone and then having not phoned for a good long time.  On the other hand, I suspect too that it has something to do with the fact that bloggers suffer from the anxiety of silence.  The writer who publishes in the New York Times knows that her work will have readers.  The writer for the Podunk Times knows they had at least one reader who thought their work was worthwhile since an editor decided to publish it.

The blogger, on the other hand, flings words into space like dust.

The apology has the appearance of a statement intended to right a wrong I the blogger have done to you the reader by not blessing you with my words and wisdom these last two some odd months and days.

In fact, the apology is a bloggers plea. Hear me now.  Confirm my existence as a writer of some sort or another by clicking on my blog anew.  While I may truly have ignored you if I know you or, more likely, while I may truly have no idea on earth who you are, I need you nonetheless.  To drive up my blog stats.  To share me on Facebook.  To “like” my post and so like me.  To “follow” my blog to the ends of the earth even when there is nothing there to follow. Though I am bloggus absconditus, wait for me like the ancients waited for the gods.  Make me matter.

And so I am back.  For today, with no promise for tomorrow.  Without apology.

Hermeneutics of the stack and the list: unreading journals in print or online

The New York Times reported yesterday that The Wilson Quarterly will put out its final print issue in July ( Wilson Quarterly to End Print Publication – NYTimes.com). The editorial staff seemed sanguine.

“We’re not going on the Web per se,” Steven Lagerfeld, the magazine’s editor, said in an interview. “We already have a Web site. The magazine will simply be published in a somewhat different form as an app,” first in the iTunes store and later on the Android platform.

And, to be honest, I’m sanguine too.  Although, I noted a the demise of the University of Missouri Press with a half shudder last week, I have to admit that I don’t greet the demise of print journals with the same anxiety.  I’ve recognized lately that I mostly buy paper journals so I can have access to their online manifestations or because I feel guilty knowing that online long form journalism and feature writing has yet to find a way to monetize itself effectively. I try to do my part by littering my office and bedroom with stack and stacks of largely unopened New York Reviews, New Yorkers, Chronicles of Higher Ed, and a few other lesser known magazines and specialist journals. But most of my non-book reading, long form or not, is done on my iPad.

I will leave the question of what we will do if good journals like the Wilson Quarterly really can’t survive on iTunes distribution (WQ only survived in paper because of the indulgence of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars). I’m more interested at the moment in the fact of the stack and what it signifies in the intellectual life.  Every intellectual I know of is guilty of stockpiling books and journals that  she never reads, and can never reasonably expect to, at least not if she has a day job.  The stack is not simply a repository of knowledge and intellectual stimulation beckoning to the reader, drawing him away from other mundane tasks like reading or preparing for class with an ennobling idea of staying informed. (Side note:  academia is the one place in life where every activity of daily life can be construed as tax deductible; just make a note about it and write “possible idea for future article” at the top of the page.)

No, The stack is also a signifier.  It exists not so much to read, since most academics give up hopelessly on the idea of reading every word of the journals that they receive.  The stack exists to be observed.  Observed on the one hand by the academic him or herself, a reassuring sign of one’s own seriousness, that one reads such thing and is conversant with the big ideas, or at least the nifty hot ideas, about culture high and low.  The stack also exists to be observed by others:  the rare student who comes by during office hours, the dean who happens to drop by to say hello, the colleagues coming in to ask you out for coffee–“Oh, you already got the latest issue of PMLA!” The stack suggests you are uptodate, or intend to be.  The stack communicates your values.  Which journal do you put strategically out at the edge of the desk to be observed by others, which do you stack heedlessly on top of the file cabinet.  Even the hopelessly disheveled office can signify, as did Derrida’s constantly disheveled hair; I am too busy and thinking too many big thoughts to be concerned with neatness.

The stack, like the Wilson Quarterly, is on its way out, at least for academics.  I realized four or five years ago that e-books would signify the end of a certain form of identification since people would no longer self-consciously display their reading matter in coffee houses or on subways, every text hidden in the anonymous and private cover of the Kindle or now the iPad.  While I could connect now with other readers in Tibet or Siberia, I could not say off-handedly to the college student sitting next to me–“Oh, you’re reading Jonathan Safran Foer, I loved that book!”

The stack too is going and will soon be gone.  Replaced now by the endless and endlessly growing list of articles on Instapaper that I pretend I will get back to.  This has not yet had the effect of neatening my office, but it will remove one more chance at self-display.  I will soon be accountable only for what I know and what I can actually talk about, not what I can intimate by the stacks of unread paper sitting on my desk.

Enjoy your summer reading. Faster! Faster!: Technology, Recreation, and Being Human

A nice essay from novelist Graham Swift in the New York Times on the issues of reading, writing, speed and leisure.  A lot of what’s here is well travelled ground, though travelled well again by Swift.  I especially noted his sense in which time-saving has become the means by which we are enslaved to time.

A good novel is like a welcome pause in the flow of our existence; a great novel is forever revisitable. Novels can linger with us long after we’ve read them — even, and perhaps particularly, novels that compel us to read them, all other concerns forgotten, in a single intense sitting. We may sometimes count pages as we read, but I don’t think we look at our watches to see how time is slipping away.

That, in fact, is the position of the skeptical nonreader who says, “I have no time to read,” and who deems the pace of life no longer able to accommodate the apparently laggard process of reading books. We have developed a wealth of technologies that are supposed to save us time for leisurely pursuits, but for some this has only made such pursuits seem ponderous and archaic. ­“Saving time” has made us slaves to speed.

via The Narrative Physics of Novels – NYTimes.com.

To some degree Swift is picking up on a perpetual conundrum in the advancements of technology, a dialectic by which we pursue technological ends to make our lives easier, more convenient, less consumed by work and more open to enrichment. Making onerous tasks more efficient has been the dream of technology from indoor plumbing to the washing machine to email. In short we pursue technological means to make our lives more human.

And in some ways and places, we are able to achieve that end.  Who would want, really, to live in the Middle Ages anywhere except in Second Life.  Your expected life span at birth would have been about 30 years, compared to a global average today in the mid to upper 60s, and it would have been a 30 years far more grinding and difficult than what most of the world experiences today (with, of course, important and grievous exceptions).  You would likely have been hopelessly illiterate, cut off from even the possibility of entering a library (much less purchasing a handmade codex in a bookstore), and you would have had no means of being informed of what happened in the next valley last week, much less what happened in Beijing 10 minutes ago.  It is little wonder that  becoming a monk or a priest ranked high on the list of desirable medieval occupations.  Where else were you guaranteed a reward in heaven, as well as at least some access to those things we consider basic features of our contemporary humanity–literacy, education, art, music, a life not under the dominion of physical labor.  What we usually mean when we romanticize the ancient world (or for that matter the 1950s) is that we want all the fruits of our modern era with out the new enslavements that accompany them

At the same time, of course, our technological advances have often been promoted as a gift to humankind in general, but they have as readily been employed to advance a narrow version of human productivity in the marketplace.  Our technologies facilitate fast communication;  This mostly means that we are now expected to communicate more than ever, and they also raise expectations about just exactly what can get done.  Technology vastly expands the range or information we can thoughtfully engage, but increases the sense that we are responsible for knowing something about everything, instead of knowing everything about the few dozen books my great grandparents might have had in their possession.  One reason the vaunted yeoman farmer knew something about Shakespeare, could memorize vast expanses of the bible, and could endure sermons and speeches that lasted for hours is because he didn’t have a twitter feed. Nor did he have an Outlook Calendar that becomes an endless to do list generated by others.

I do think the novel, even in its e-book form, resists this need for speed.  On the other hand, it is worth saying that reading like this must be practiced like other things.  I find that when I take a couple of vacation days for a long weekend (like this weekend), it takes me about 2/3 of a day to slow down and relax and allow myself to pause.  Luckily, I can do this more readily with novels, even at the end of a hectic and too full day or week.  But that might be possible because I learned how to do it in another world, one without the bells and whistles that call for my attention through my multiple devices with their glowing LCDs.

Novel reading is a learned skill, and I wonder whether our students learn it well enough. Re-creation is a learned skill, one we need to be fully ourselves, and I do wonder whether we lose that capacity for pause in our speedy lives.

Dreaming of Sleep: Madison Smartt Bell’s Doctor Sleep

It’s a pleasure to pick up a novel and know from the first lines that it will be worth the read. We usually have to give more of ourselves over to novels than to other forms of writing–a problem in our frantic clickable age. With stuff that I remand to my Instapaper account, I can glance through the first paragraph and decide if I want to keep reading, and if I read three or four paragraphs and am not convinced it’s worth the time, there’s no point in agonizing about whether to keep on going. Same with a book of poetry: If I read the first three or four poems and there’s nothing there other than the authors reputation, I mostly put it aside–though I might admit that it is my failing and not the poets.

But novels are a different horse. A lot of novels require 50 pages and sometime more before we can get fully immersed in the writer’s imaginative world, feeling our way in to the nuances and recesses of possibility, caring enough about the characters or events or language or ideas (and preferably all four) to let the writer land us like netted fish. I think I’ve written before about the experience of reading yet one more chapter, still hoping and believing in the premise or the scenario or the author’s reputation. I’ve finished books that disappointed me, though my persistence was more like a teenaged boy fixed up on a date with with the best girl in school, pretending until the evening clicks to a close that he isn’t really bored to tears, things just haven’t gotten started yet.

But Madison Smartt Bell’s Doctor Sleep didn’t make me wait. I bought the book on reputation and topic. I loved Bell’s All Souls Rising, but got derailed by the follow-ups in his Haitian trilogy, never quite losing myself in the Caribbean madness that made the first book the deserved winner of an array of awards. Thus disappointed, I hadn’t really picked up Bell’s work since, though I vaguely felt I ought to. From the first sentences of the novel, his first, I was under the spell. The choice of words is purposeful since the book is about a hypnotherapist who, while helping others solve all manner of problems and difficulties through his particular gift at putting them under, cannot neither solve his own problems or put himself to sleep: He suffers from a crippling case of insomnia.

Like any good novel, the meanings are thickly layered. In some respects I found myself thinking of the Apostle Paul’s dictum that wretched man that he was, he knew what he should do, and he wanted to do it, but he could not do the very thing he knew to do, and, indeed, the very thing he did not want to do this was the very thing he did. The tale of all things human, the disjunction between knowledge and will, between thought and desire and act. The main character’s skills as a hypnotist are deeply related to his metaphysical wanderings amidst the mystics and heretics of the past, most particularly Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake because he claimed the church sought to promote good through force rather than through love. Ironically, the main character knows all this, knows in his head that love is the great mystic unity of which the mystics speak, and yet turns away from love in to abstraction, failing to love women because he cannot see them as human beings to whom he might be joined, seeing them instead as mystic abstractions through which he wants to escape the world.

In the end, accepting love means accepting death, which means accepting sleep–something that seems so natural to so many, but if you have suffered from insomnia as I do, you realize that surrendering to sleep is a strange act of grace, one that cannot be willed, but can only be received.

I think in some ways to there’s a lot of reflection in this book on the power of words and stories, their ability to put us under. So, perhaps inevitably, it is a book about writing and reading on some very deep level. Adrian, Doctor Sleep, takes people on a journey in to their unconscious through words, and his patients surrender to him willingly. Indeed, Adrian believes, with most hypnotists, that only those who want to be hypnotized actually can be. This is not so far from the notion of T.S. Eliot’s regarding the willing suspension of disbelief. I do not believe Adrian’s metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but for the space of the novel I believe it utterly. We readers want to be caught. We want to lose ourselves at least for that space and that time, so that reading becomes a little like the gift of sleep, a waking dream.

Under the spell of writing we allow Bell to take us in to another world that is, surprisingly, like our own, one in which we see our own abstractedness, our own anxieties, our own petty crimes and misdemeanors, our own failures to love.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: The U of Missouri Press is closing, Jennifer Egan is Tweeting

A bad week for publishing, but sometimes it seems like they all are.  First I was greeted with the news that the New Orleans Times-Picayune has cut back circulation to three days a week.  Apparently later in the same day, three papers in Alabama announced a similar move to downsize and reduce circulation.  Apparently being an award winning newspaper that does heroic community service in the midst of the disaster of a century is no longer enough.

Then today’s twitter feed brought me news of another University Press closing.

University of Missouri Press is closing after more than five decades of operation, UM System President Tim Wolfe announced this morning.

The press, which publishes about 30 books a year, will begin to be phased out in July, although a more specific timeline has not been determined.

Ten employees will be affected. Clair Willcox, editor in chief, declined to comment but did note that neither he nor any of the staff knew about the change before a midmorning meeting.

In a statement, Wolfe said even though the state kept funding to the university flat this year, administrators “take seriously our role to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities and re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission.”

via University of Missouri Press is closing | The Columbia Daily Tribune – Columbia, Missouri.

Plenty has been said about the worrisome demise of daily papers and what the transformation of journalism into an online blogosphere really means for the body politic.  Will the Huffington Post, after all, actually cover anything in New Orleans if the paper goes under entirely.  Reposting is still not reporting, and having opinions at a distance is great fun but not exactly a form of knowledge.

The demise of or cutbacks to university presses is less bemoaned in the national press or blogosphere, but it is still worrisome.  Although I am now a believer in the possibilities of serious intellectual work occurring online, I am not yet convinced the demise of the serious scholarly book with a small audience would be a very good thing.  Indeed, I believe the best online work remains in a kind of symbiotic relationship with the traditional scholarly monograph or journal.  I keep my fingers crossed that this is merely an instance merely an instance of creative destruction, and not an instance of destruction plan and simple.

On a more hopeful note, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the New Yorker tweeting Jennifer Egan’s latest story Black box and am looking forward to the next installments.  I’d encourage everyone to “listen in”, if that’s what you do on twitter, but if you can’t you can read it in a more traditional but still twitterish form at the New Yorker Page turner site.  To get the twitter feed, go to @NYerFiction.  The reviews have been mixed, but I liked it a great deal.  Egan is a great writer, less full of herself than some others, she has a great deal to say, and she’s willing to experiment with new ways to say it.  Her last novel, Waiting for the Goon Squad, experimented with Powerpoint like slides within the text.  And, there’s a nice article over at Wired about the piece, suggesting it may be signaling a revival of serialized fiction.

Let’s hope so, it will make up for the loss of the U of MIssouri Press, at least today.

Blogging as textual meditation: Joyce Carol Oates and The Paris Review

One of the surprise pleasures afforded by Twitter has been following The Paris Review (@parisreview) and getting tweets linking me to their archives of author interviews.  I know I could just go to the website, but it feels like a daily act of grace to run across the latest in my twitter feed, as if these writers are finding me in the ether rather than me searching for them dutifully.

(In my heart of hearts I am probably still a Calvinist;  the serendipity of these lesser gods finding me is so much better than the tedious duty of seeking them out).

This evening over dinner I read the latest, a 1978 interview with Joyce Carol Oates, a real gem.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find emotional stability is necessary in order to write? Or can you get to work whatever your state of mind? Is your mood reflected in what you write? How do you describe that perfect state in which you can write from early morning into the afternoon?

OATES

One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so. Joyce said of the underlying structure of Ulysses—the Odyssean parallel and parody—that he really didn’t care whether it was plausible so long as it served as a bridge to get his “soldiers” across. Once they were across, what does it matter if the bridge collapses? One might say the same thing about the use of one’s self as a means for the writing to get written. Once the soldiers are across the stream . . .

via Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 72, Joyce Carol Oates.

Oates doesn’t blog, I think, and I wouldn’t dare to hold my daily textural gurgitations up next to Oates’s stupendous artistic outpouring.  On the other hand, I resonated with this, thinking about what writing does for me at the end of the day.  I’ve had colleagues ask me how I have the time to write every day, my sometimes longish diatribes about this or that subject that has caught my attention.  Secretly my answer is “How could I not?”

Ok, I know that for a long time this blog lay fallow, but I have repented of that and returned to my better self. Mostly (tonight is an exception), I do my blog late, after 10:00–late for someone over 50–like a devotion.  I just pick up something I’ve read that day, like Joyce Carol Oates, and do what English majors are trained to do:  find a connection.  Often I’m exhausted and cranky from the day–being an administrator is no piece of cake,( but then, neither is being alive so what do I have to complain about).  Mostly I write as if I were talking to someone about the connections that I saw, the problems that it raised (or, more rarely, solved).

It doesn’t take that long–a half hour to an hour, and mostly I’ve given up television entirely.  I tell people I seem to think in paragraphs–sometimes very bad paragraphs, but paragraphs nevertheless–and years of piano lessons have left me a quick typist.  Sometimes I write to figure out what I think, sometimes to figure out whether what I think matters, sometimes to resolve a conundrum I have yet to figure out at work or at home, sometimes to make an impression (I am not above vanity).

But always I write because the day and my self disappears.  As Oates says above,  the activity of writing changes everything, or at least appears to  do so. Among the everything that it changes is me.  I am most myself when I lose the day and myself in words.

Yesterday on Facebook I cited Paul Fussell saying  “If I didn’t have writing, I’d be running down the street hurling grenades in people’s faces.”

Well, though I work at a pacifist school and it is incorrect to say so, that seems about right.