WHAT DO YOUR PRIVILEGES GET YOU?

Here’s another Pulitzer finalist, a well-wrought work, full of interesting characters and situations, that is just not my kind of book. My fault, I know, not Jonathan Dee’s, not the committee’s, but there it is. The Privileges follows the fortunes of an wealthy Manhattan family from parents’ wedding day to a time (purposely vague) that coincides with the late-adolescence/early adulthood of their son and daughter.

This is not as bad as Tinkers (See March 13, 2011) for me, a book which leads from nowhere to nowhere else in languid boredom. Of course,that one won, while Privileges was just short-listed, so maybe that explains something. However, the spoiling thing about Dee’s saga is that we are led over the decades from incipient crisis to semi-catastrophe without anyone’s suffering much of anything. Maybe that’s the point of the book–that it’s an amoral universe, and money buys the capacity to insulate yourself from serious pain–or even bumps or bruises. Dee says in a post-script interview that he’s not interested in judging his characters and that his novel is not a fable whereby just desserts are meted out in the end. Fine, no problem. I don’t care that Adam makes millions off insider trading, then makes millions more when he’s forced to move from one station in the financial market to the other. I don’t require that his wife force him to fess up when she finds out about his misdeeds. I don’t even necessarily want the kids to face up to the character deficits that lead them into life-threatening situations.

I do care, as a reader, that I’m never treated to any serious internal conflict on the part of anyone, no matter how dire or self-inflicted their predicaments. I feel no pain, no sorrow, no regret, no moral choices of any magnitude whatsoever. This, in a work that is ineluctably voice- and character-driven and in which the author has the opportunity to let us in on every dark musings. Maybe the interesting thing about the characters is that they have no dark musings. That their lives are just a series of semi-related things that happen. If so–what’s interesting about that? The closest we come to true pain is the wife’s last days with her father, which reads to me more like the beginning of something than the end. The next closest thing is the escape of the son from a semi-philanthropic misadventure in which in seems to choose to retreat into the haven of wealth. Other than that, it’s all gain, no pain in a world in which husband and wife love each other so much (at least according to others’ testimony) that they are charmed and untouchable. Charming, but not moving.

Anyone want to argue? I’d love a discussion.

Sitting up

GET SHOCKED AT THE ELECTRIC CHURCH

My second post-apocalyptic novel of the year (See WW The Earthseed Parable, July 23 ’11). Can’t remember the last one before that. Maybe The Road (WW April 23, 2007) by old Cormack? The Road’s apocalypse is unspecified. Earthseed’s is a general collapse of political and economic systems to the extent that society has retribalized. The Electric Church could be the world post Earthseed. There’s a “reunified” world government, implying that there was a disunified anarchy of some sort no too long previous. Our central character is a “gunner,” a hit man for hire. He’s 27, an old age in this society. To see a man of fifty is odd. We’re in NYC lower east side, where the currency is the yen. It’s a squalid place of ruins ruled by oppressive police in flying-saucer-like contraptions that can see through walls and light up the world and ID you by scanning your brain. You can’t hide anywhere, and the gap between rich and poor is enormous.

Into the mix throw robotic monks, created from human brains and bodies that have been rewired and programmed to go around proselytizing, then murdering to get more brains and bodies to add to the ranks. Just when they’re about to make their final move to rule everyone, the political honchos hire our protagonist to kill the head priest of the church. A power struggle with our guy, Avery Cates (Rather a snooty name for a down and dirty killer, I thought),  in the middle.

It’s sort of noir science fiction with the earth to the winner. Can’t say author Somers hasn’t set the stakes high enough. Our gunner learns some stuff and changes directions by the end in a most interesting manner and in a way that sets up nicely for a sequel. I won’t be reading that one, though. Partly, though not wholly, because I found myself skipping huge chunks of description because I wasn’t interested in every minute physical and emotional reaction of the hero to every single situation. A lot of people probably will, though. Urban western gone hi-tech.

Sitting up

WENDELL’S HIDDEN WOUND

 

 

No one, but no one exemplifies the phrase “Less is more” than Wendell

Berry. In The Hidden Wound, an extended essay (100 pages and change) written in 1968-69, with an afterword in 1988, he takes on the subject of black-white race relations in America. He begins with KY boyhood memories of a couple of workers on his grandfather’s farm, then attempts to extrapolate from his experience with them to the inner lives of American blacks and whites in history and the future. He’s on risky ground, and his tentative tone shows it:

 

I suppose it is the aim of every writer to produce a definitive statement, one that will prove him to be the final authority on what he has said. but though my aim here is to tell the truth as nearly as I am able, I am aware that the truth I am telling may be a very personal one, the truth, that is, as distorted and qualified by my own heritage and personality. I am, after all, writing about people of another and a radically different heritage, whom I knew only as a child and whose lives parted from mine nearly a quarter of a century ago. As I write I can hardly help but thinking of the possibility that if NicK and Aunt Georgie were alive to read this, they might not recognize themselves.

He needn’t have been so cautious, for so many of his observations are both original and true:

In a racist society, the candor of a child is … extremely threatening. … The racist fears that a child’s honesty empowered by sex might turn into real and open affection toward members of the oppressed race and so destroy the myth of that race’s inferiority.

In the afterword, looking back twenty years later on what he had written, in the year Jesse Jackson nearly won the democratic nomination for president, Berry lifts the situation beyond race. What good does it ultimately do to dress black people in corporate clothes and hand them the same salaries as their white counterparts if they are practicing the same corrupt, impersonal, detachment from productive work and inner fulfillment as their white counterparts? To Berry, America began to lose it all when we lost touch with the source of our work, our creation. When the money we earned to put bread on the table came from abstract entities like stocks and bonds and oil futures instead of crops and crafts produced in some way by our own direct efforts. When whole communities became anonymous one from the other and we were no longer a nation of intertwined humans, but isolated entities each trying to strive and exist as an organism unto itself.

All these wonderful insights beg the question, so what do we do about it? The Hidden Wound  has no real answers to that one, and twenty years later, even though we have elected a black president, no real answers have appeared. So why read this? Because it’s a sensitive, wonderfully written piece by one of the foremost authors of our time. And the only farmer-author left among us. At least as far as I know. From Kentucky.

1.0

THE MERMAID CHAIR

The Mermaid Chair will probably get the prize for the most disappointing book of the year. I was entranced by Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and so had high hopes for this one. My hopes rose even higher after I reached the end of the prologue’s first paragraph: I fell in love with a Dominican month. The joy was short-lived.

Someone might argue that it’s just too much of a woman’s book for me, but Bees was every bit that, so, not guilty. The overall impression I had was of Kidd stuck in the shallow end of the pool, thrashing to get to deeper waters, never making it. So many times her protagonist says words like “I just don’t know how to explain this,” meaning to me that Kidd doesn’t know. Probably the nadir of all this comes after the protagonist returns to her husband after months of absence and infidelity, falls on her knees, and says those deathless words which have been repeated on big and small screens multi-thousands of times over the decades: “I’m so sorry. Sorry I hurt you.” Which about sums it up for me.

Sleeping

NIGHT WORK—LAURIE R KING’S WW DEBUT

I was steered to Night Work–or actually its author–by a remark I read in Jon Carroll’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle. He spoke as if Laurie R. King were a household word in the mystery world, yet I’d never heard of her. Judging by the number of awards she’s won, the fault is mine. I’m glad to make her acquaintance. I speculate that one of the elements of her and her work that first got Mr. Carroll interested is that the major players in the life of Kate Martinelli, Night Work’s chief detective, are gay and lesbian. There’s a certain amount of that kind of thing going on in my family, I’m proud to say, and I know of kindred circumstances in Mr. Carroll’s family. All of w hich may seem like an aside, except that I believe it is germane to the novel’s flaws and virtues. First the flaws. King engages in a great deal of polemic and is guilty of showing off her scholarship to the detriment of the book’s pace. There’s a lot of exploration of the relationship between Yaweh and earlier goddesses, principally the Indian Kali and the Mesopotamian Ishtar. There’s an exhaustive description of a dance drama drawn from the Song Of Solomon. All well and good, since the plot concerns (believably) women in vigilante action against abusive men. But the point gets made. And made. And made again. She would have been better off to let the research sit and stick more closely to the story’s through line. And the virtues. Kate Martinelli is a savvy San Francisco police detective totally absorbed in her work, totally in love with her partner, totally true to the law even when it endangers her friends and lovers. King gives her an admirable partner, a family man who both endures and supports her unorthodox methods. It’s worth noting that each of the central characters is or has been wounded in some way. Martinelli’s partner, Lee, by a bullet (in an earlier work, I gather); her close friend, Roz’s, partner by an abusive man; her partner’s stepdaughter by a kidnapping; Kate herself by a lead pipe, an injury that still gives her headaches. Even Roz, the powerful media manipulator priest, ends this book deeply burned. Each of these characters fights her injury in her own way, ways not always admirable or just. And this aspect of the book deepens the reader’s experience and carries it beyond the realm of pure crime fiction. The relevance to my family and Mr. Carroll’s? We don’t spend a lot of time talking about gayness. We talk about love and the difficulties of life, and sometimes we get involved in matters like prop. 8. But mostly we get talk about children and jobs and the economy and all the rest. We don’t run around sermonizing. It just doesn’t enhance relationships much. And Ms. King’s preaching doesn’t enhance her relationship with me much. Although I’d wish for less preaching about man’s inhumanity to women, I credit King with balancing things out where it matters–in the action. The most horrible crime in the series of killings in Night Work is committed by a man against a woman. A girl, really. However, the vigilante killings almost allow him to get away with it. And righteous and justified as the murders sometimes seem at the moment, they are in the end self-defeating and even lead to crimes against other women. As I write, the whole work seems more complex than it did when I began, and my admiration for Ms. King has grown over the last half hour. I admit to skipping big hunks of the narrative for reasons I’ve already outlined. However, the 90% of the book I read closely paid big dividends. And I have a new author to admire now.

sitting up clapping