A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

When I was a kid, there was this religious family in the neighborhood, real devout and sheltered, that I would visit on any pretense simply so I could play their suite of Christian Nintendo games. Specifically, the Noah’s Ark one, where you took control of Noah and scoured the 2d landscape seeking two of each 8-bit animal, stacking them one by one on your head, and heading back to the ark. Check it out.

Also when I was a kid, my parents forced me to attend catechism, which was mostly a disaster. Except this one sequence where each kid was tasked with creating a paper bag animal to perform an Ark presentation, wherein each kid was supposed to mimic the call of their assigned animal in all its cacophonous glory. I was assigned the horse. I had a mean neigh. I came down with an awful flu, barely able to crawl out of bed, mere days prior to the big event and could not participate.

Further kid tales: My aunt, religious in a way no one else in my family was and cognizant of my early love of reading, purchased a series of kids’ bible stories, wherein this little girl I’m pretty sure was named Alice could turn her bible into a magic portal that allowed her to experience various Old Testament tales in-person. Or maybe it included the New Testament too but I forgot about those dull morality lessons in favor of fire and brimstone. Given the format of this piece, you’d expect my favorite story to be Noah’s Ark. But actually it was #2, behind the Tower of Babel, which captures my imagination still.

While it’s unclear if I ever truly believed the Ark existed, it is otherwise crystal clear that the story of Noah fascinated me from a young age. Think about it for a second: God hit the reset button and basically wiped out the entire planet, tasking Noah with the incredibly dubious task of somehow getting two of every single animal into a single ship. There’s barely any mysticism to back him up. Yeah he had a much longer lifespan than regular people, so what? He lived most of it after the adventure. What is the lesson here? There is none. This is one. Don’t fuck with God or you’ll be made extinct in an arbitrary yet precise fashion.

Thus when I picked up this novel at a used bookstore in Fort Bragg and discovered the first chapter was an account of the voyage of the Ark, recounted by an illicit stowaway, I bought it immediately without bothering to consider what the other 9 ½ chapters were about. Not only was it a well-written story about the Ark, but it puts to the forefront many of my practical issues with the story: How do all the animals fit on the ark (there’s more than one), how does Noah find every single animal on earth (he doesn’t), what do they eat while on the ark (the animals), and so on. Barnes’ tone is wry, cynical. Noah is a harsh master commanded by a harsher master and the animal passengers face the consequences.

Then, following the close of chapter 1, what joy to discover that nearly all the rest of the stories have some allusion to arks, to boats, to epic and impractical journeys! Whether they be eighteenth century travelers to Mount Ararat, seeking the Ark’s wreckage, to an art history lesson on The Wreck of the Medusa and a meditation on misrepresenting reality in art to better communicate that very same reality. Other, Ark-less chapters, include Barnes’ rumination on the love, triggered by observing his wife sleeping in the middle of the night: What’s the point? Why love? Is it the answer or the question?

I was surprised to find how much this book has in common with two of my favorite writers, David Mitchell and Italo Calvino. I’ve heard of Barnes but never in relation to those two. Other than the uncommon structure itself, Barnes is clever with language and has clearly considered deeply the various injustices humans lay upon one another.  But where Calvino is playful and insightful and Mitchell is honest but optimistic, Barnes is far harsher, his wit expressed as  bemused cynicism. Humanity is far from a great steward of this planet, as the stowaway of chapter one details, and it’s been a series of self-inflicted misfortune since the flood. Especially in the late 80s, written deep in Cold War terror as this book was. Men especially are oafs. Women, like the animals to Noah, must suffer them (there’s one story as problematic at this sentence).

And in the bleak future to this history, humanity’s next extinction will be self inflicted. As the final chapter details, we won’t even be satisfied with heaven.

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Testimony by Charles Reznikoff

Okay. OK. The first thing this book will teach you is that…

…between the years of 1885 and 1915, an enormous amount of industrial accidents occurred in this country. Limbs caught in belts or spools and torn off, bodies crushed by debris or collapsing mine shafts, slick and poorly constructed scaffolding leading to great falls into chasms or machinery or boiling fat.

Also, a whole lot of people, a whole lot of children, were killed by trains.

All of this illustrated in sparse, evocative verse:

“In the good old summertime,”
Ellen, all of fourteen, worked in a steam laundry
as a “feeder”:
put collars through the machine that pressed them.

The feeder sat on a platform,
collars on the small table in front of her;
the lower roller hot enough to iron collars as they were passed through,
while the upper roller pressed down upon them
with a pressure of two hundred pounds;
the heated roller was hollow and revolved around gas jets–
so hot that if a collar stopped on it for a minute
It would be scorched.

Ellen saw a collar with a lap on it–
the buttonhole part lapped back on the collar–
put her hand out to pull it away
and her finger was caught in a buttonhole
and she could not get it out
before her hand was drawn between the rollers–
burnt and crushed as she screamed.

(Typing this extends my appreciation of Reznikoff’s precision. The punctuation is so carefully chosen and communicative of the story’s pace.)

Poetry is not my forte. I’ve read very little of it, voluntarily, in my adult life. Certainly not cover to cover. Testimony may be cheating a bit since it’s almost as much short story as verse, but still: now I read poems. I read several vignettes, which ranged from a few lines to two pages, before bed every night and hoped not to dream of getting my arm caught in a belt (I worked on a belt for a long time…) or my torso rent in half by a runaway mine cart. It became somehow soothing.

Racism is another key factor explored here, some verses illustrating the plight of post-reconstruction blacks, written in a time of segregation without the foreknowledge of the civil right’s movement, still thirty years in the future.

Several white men went at night to the Negro’s house,
shot into it,
and set fire to his cotton on the gallery;
his wife and children ran under the bed
and, as the firing from the guns and pistols went on
and the cotton blazed up,
ran through a side door into the woods.
The Negro himself, badly wounded, fled to the house of a neighbor–
a white man–
and got inside.
He was followed,
and one of those who ran after him
put a shotgun against the white man’s door
and shot a hole through it.
Justice, however, was not to be thwarted,
for five of the men who did this to the Negro
were tried:
for “unlawfully and maliciously
injuring and disfiguring”–
the white man’s property.

Only a portion of the “Negro” sections follow this kind of tract. Many, perhaps most involving black people, are about the violence they’re enacting, which is nominally no different than the ones about whites, had not every single passage referred to each man or woman as “the Negro” or “the colored woman”, like they’re another species.

The back of the book references the poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote Paterson, which influenced a movie of the same name I enjoyed a great deal. Williams will be the next point I continue delving into poetry.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, captivated by mescal and his lust for self destruction, and quite assured that his own fall is synonymous with the rest of the planet’s, meanders throughout Southern Mexico for four hundred pages of drunken fog and misfortune.

This book is frustrating because large swathes of it are boring or borderline unintelligible. Especially those following Yvonne, Geoff’s ex-wife, who continuously returns to her alcoholic ex-husband, who treats her poorly, hoping it will be different this time. Other portions are vivid in their harrowing portrayal of the Consul’s personal madness. There’s rambling streams of consciousness where Geoff argues with himself or perhaps someone else or relives an old memory, only to reveal he was entirely silent or the recollection never happened. An instant or an hour may have passed.

My favorite part of the novel: A lengthy chapter following the Consul’s half brother, Hugh, as he enlists as a sailor simply to prove his privileged family wrong and that he is both a person of merit and grit. Of course, pretending to be a working man doesn’t help, other than in contracting dysentery, and Hugh treats us to a succession of brilliant ideas he’s sure will lead to enlightenment/purpose/a feeling of being learned and famed, but also good. In all cases, he discovers his idea to be faulty, empty. Embarrassment precedes the next attempt at guilt-free purpose. It is a remarkably timeless account.

Reading that Hugh chapter, I thought the novel had turned a corner into greatness. Then my eyes glazed over a few pages into the next chapter.

Taken all together, I can’t say I enjoyed it, yet I am also certain it will remain with me. The feel of it. The jungle, the Consul. Lowry. Imagined in such clarity. Sometimes.