The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

John Brown remains a fascinating, enigmatic, and powerful figure. Celebrated as a hero, vilified as a terrorist. Many have claimed him a fanatic or madman, while others point out the inherent racism in writing off the only white man willing to violently oppose slavery as crazy. He was friends with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who was sick and could not attend the raid on Harper’s Ferry as she planned, leading to one of history’s great “What If’s?” Emerson and Thoreau sung his praises, mourned his death. Victor Hugo wrote a moving letter seeking Brown’s pardon, ending with this seriously badass line:

“Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”

John Brown is one of the few genuine symbols of white resistance. He requires no qualifications nor asides, regardless of the extent the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy attempted to smear his name or erase him from history.  A few months back, when the country was racked with a wave of right-wing Nazi rallies, I joined the counter-protest here in SF and there were dozens of old white people out with John Brown’s face plastered on their T-shirts. Some even had banners. Big banners, taking multiple people to stretch out and hold. 170 odd years dead, John Brown and his cause continues to inspire people.

This brings us to The Good Lord Bird, the last in a set of Civil War era books I’ve read recently. Fictional pre-teen Henry Shackleford is freed and recruited by John Brown, who mistakes him for a girl and nicknames him Onion. Naturally, as these kinds of tales go, Henry/Onion galivants around with Brown, whom he affectionately thinks of as “The Old Man”, receiving a first-person perspective to all his greatest exploits: The Pottawatomie Massacre, meetings with Douglass and Tubman, the doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry itself.

The greatest flaw in this book is one of tone. On one hand its farcical and comedic: John Brown prays for so long, he puts captured rebels to sleep. He can’t tell a boy from a girl and neither can Frederick Douglass, portrayed here as a gluttonous phony. Harriet Tubman alone, “The General”, escapes caricature. There’s a lot of jokey wordplay, especially around Onion’s slang or his misunderstanding of the adult world, like when he accidentally professes himself an expert on “trim”, thinking it means barbering, when actually it was Civil War era slang for prostitution. While delving in humor and hyperbole, it’s also a book about slavery and naturally can’t take it too far, reverting to more a serious or honest tone at times. 

The result renders both the humor and thematic judgement weak. It also makes it difficult to divine authorial messaging. Am I supposed to think Frederick Douglass is a creep and coward only good for puffing up his chest and talking a whole lot? What about all the slaves and freedmen who didn’t commit to the raid on Harper’s Ferry? The narrative seems to be indicting them for their inaction but the waffling tone makes it hard to grasp.

The unevenness extends to Onion as well. Sometimes his perspective is that of 12 year old, other times its that of the 100+ year old man retelling the story. Onion the boy forced to be a girl is more like a Disney movie plot than a metaphor for the personal dislocation of many black people then and now, an idea McBride flirts with but never explores all that deeply. Put all this together and you have me feeling real disconnected from the story. From Onion, from John Brown. From the writing itself, which was honestly pretty good.

(This isn’t all the fault of an uneven tone; the book is overlong and suffers from underediting, leading to some dull segments, especially when the Old Man isn’t in the picture. The raid on Harper’s Ferry itself also feels like a litany of “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”.)

McBride’s acknowledgements at the end of the book, rather the usual skippable bit thanking agents and historians and whomever else, simply thanks all the people who have kept John Brown’s memory alive. That is seriously cool. It also makes me wish for a more tonally serious novel, tossing humor for a more powerful and straightforward account of the story/history. 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Abe Lincoln’s young son, Willie, is taken by typhoid fever on the eve of a lavish party thrown by the Lincolns. He awakens in the eponymous bardo: A sort of post-death, pre-reward/punishment limbo, where the dead who absolutely cannot accept their death linger. Such as a fresh suicide who changed his mind at the last instant or a man whose years long passion was left unconsummated. Misers who can’t leave their earthly possessions behind or bachelor dandies who could never settle down, even in death.

I don’t know.

I enjoyed reading this. The writing is good. Charming. Often funny. Occasionally beautiful.  

Yet there’s something dissatisfying about the whole package. Like a beautiful painting that only fills a corner of a canvas. Or that same painting with the corner-portion stretched across the entire mural. Saunders is a short story writer and this feels less a complete novel than a slightly extended story.

The novel plays out in faux-excerpts of histories on the Lincolns and dialogue between the shades skulking around the bardo. The book is at its highest and most exceptional when painting its warm and generous portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Gregarious, kind, principled, exceedingly strange, thoughtful, ugly, grandfatherly, unsure, wise. A loving father who felt the loss of his favorite son so deeply, amid the nation newly at war. It is easy to become attached.

“Oh, the pathos of it!–haggard, drawn into fixed lines of unutterable sadness, with a look of loneliness, as of a soul whose depth of sorrow and bitterness no human sympathy could ever reach. The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”

 This is the second book I’ve read in a row that characterizes Honest Abe and demonstrates our shocking good fortune that America’s greatest president was in office simultaneously to its closest brush with annihilation. It’s not just political savvy but the personal attributes and integrity of the man that keeps him magnetic still. When AG Jeff Sessions threatened California recently and swore on the dead of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s grave, it made me more furious than your average misuse of history usually does, given how antithetical the current administration is to Old Abe. Felt more personal, especially while reading this book.

Anyway.

The rest of the novel largely concerns three dead characters active in the bardo, denying their own realities whilst trying to help newly dead Willie Lincoln. These three — Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend Early — are well drawn. They’re interesting and likeable guides for this strange new un-world. The rest are forgettable. All the pieces are there but their individual plights and reasons-for-being don’t form a lasting impact.  

This story has been done before. Stories about dead people talking to each other. Stories about tormented souls stuck in limbo, unable to let go of their incomplete, mysterious, or tragically shortened lives. Again, Saunders is an adroit wielder of prose, so it’s a good read, a quick one that took up two halves of a plane flight for a recent vacation. A literary beach read! If better read by a dying fire in a gloomy old New England manor than the beach.

But it’s also the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. When judged alongside some of those greats, or put on a pedestal as the best book of the year, I can’t help but compare to other novels that did a similar topic and wonder what makes this one so much better. The nagging feeling that it’s a short story stretched a little thin gains greater scrutiny. It was good but not that good.

The Rifles by William Vollmann (Seven Dreams #6)

the riflesThis is the sixth of the Seven Dreams of William the Blind, but both the third in publication order and the third I’ve read. After the Vikings crashed through Greenland into the New World, amidst saga and song, to encounter The People in The Ice-Shirt, and later the French Jesuits too meet The People in Fathers and Crows, we now journey to Canada and follow three distinct but interwoven threads.

  1. Doomed John Franklin and his quest for the Northwest Passage.

Why did Franklin go north again? We who are interested in him mainly for his gruesome death believe that he did it to die, that he possessed a morbid lemming’s heart whose ventricles were rimmed most dismally.

2. William Vollman’s obsession with the Arctic and the self-actualization it supplies for him. Captain Subzero, Vollman’s alter-ego, is the main character, the “grave-twin” of John Franklin himself. Just how much is fact and how much fiction in this portion is murky; I hope the times Subzero is being a creep to teenage girls is fiction.

3. The plight of the Inuit in the face of white colonialism. In a ploy to ‘claim the Arctic’, among less malevolent but equally destructive notions, the Canadian government force relocated dozens of Inuit living in northern Quebec into Resolute Bay, in the far north. Look at this goddamn map. They lived in tents in the first years. Up there.

They would nearly starve. They would be sexually abused. They weren’t allowed to leave. Some would kill themselves rather than relocate. It took until 2010, twenty years after this novel was written and about seventy five since the relocations began, for the Canadian government to apologize. Forget reparations.

Above all these story threads, the Arctic looms. Dangerous and beautiful and cold. Very, very cold. The Seven Dreams are a tale of North American landscapes and none are as well realized as the impossibly vast North. My favorite part of the novel is Vollmann’s account of the twelve days he spent alone in an abandoned weather station on Isachsen island, some sort of necessary test of masculinity and self-endurance, wherein the weather plunged to -40C and he seemed to almost die each night. It’s almost astounding how many times the point of “It’s really fucking cold there” can be made and shock me all the same.

The arctic is merely Vollmann’s obsession; surely it had to have some kind of special appeal to John Franklin — he came to his death on his fourth arctic voyage afterall. The novel fills in the blanks of what happened to him and his men, though I’d say I found this the least compelling plot thread. Of major interest to me was that it was not poor planning or the cold itself that doomed them, but the new tinned provisions they brought with them, which spoiled well before they should have and also gave the entire crew severe lead poisoning. Franklin himself fell long before the crew attempted their last ditch effort of land-based escape. 

Not simply the title, The Rifles is the chief metaphor of the novel as well. The introduction of rifles by Europeans pretty much annihilated the traditional Inuit way of life. Plus they became dependent on the whites for ammo. The old ways of hunting, which required actual skill and patience, fell to the wayside in favor of quick and effortless rifle kills. Worse, it meant that they could kill many more musk-oxen and carribou and Canada became just about devoid of them in a dramatically short time. Many starved. Franklin’s expedition among them. Vollman lists a dozen quotes by whites on the subject, wherein people seem to be somewhat aware of what’s happening. It’s all very ominous, he notes, but also we can only say this in retrospect. The whites delivered plenty abuses unto the Inuit (and still do), but like any situation where modern mechanization disturbs peoples not privy to their development, what should they have done? Jealously kept the rifles to themselves?

I’m avoiding the last topic I’ll address here because it makes me somewhat uncomfortable and I’m not really sure how to address it: Reepah

Far better realized than either Franklin or Subzero is Reepah, listed in the glossary as “a woman with a beautiful heart”. The mistress of Subzero or maybe Franklin or maybe the Fulmar of Inuit myth, she spins through the narrative as various characters, typically being both loved and exploited by the former characters. Possibly impregnated by them. Maybe William Vollmann/Subzero brought her to visit him in New York. Maybe she killed herself. It’s here the fact/fiction divide is most maddening. Is Reepah real? If so, how bad was she exploited by Vollmann? Is she a metaphor for Inuit exploitation? If so, that kind of sucks too. Whatever or whoever she is, she’s magnetic and I’m sad she’s dead, real or not.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

crimson petalVictorian England. Plucky orphans getting by on the strength of their wits. Wealthy old men who just need to be taught a good lesson. Top hats and crinoline. Grinning chimney sweeps and slapdash policemen.

Right??

No. More like a brutal clash between the have and have-nots, wealthy hypocrites celebrating poverty and paying lip service to charity on holidays. Brutal oppression of women. Poor children forced into backbreaking labor. Cheap life, rich industry.

We follow Sugar, a nineteen year old woman and professional whore, forced into the sex industry at thirteen by her nihilistic mother. Sugar is determined to increase her lot in life and not spend it all on the streets, where she’s as like to succumb to disease as be strangled by a customer.

On comes William Rackham to the scene, heir to a booming perfume business. He’s Sugar’s salvation, and also one of those most hateable characters in all literature. William isn’t terrible because he drowns puppies or murders innocents. He’s not Jack the Ripper. Instead, he’s a spineless, self pitying coward, who abuses his wealth and privilege to the great detriment of everyone around him, while constantly self-justifying and also whining about everything. Watch him make excuses for himself while his whims deliver terrible consequences to those that depend on him. After traipsing around town trying to find the exact prostitute to sate his depravity, William comes upon Sugar. So entranced is he that he decides he must have her entirely for himself. That’s the plot of this enormous, dense novel.

It’s a good old fashioned epic. London is wonderfully realized, enchanting in its own grimy, bustling way. The witty, omniscient narrator is entertaining and delivers fashion lessons on the changing dress of the era, progressively more revealing and sexy to counter the more conservative societal outlook on language and politesse, and keeps it interesting. The cast is engaging and their philosophical quandaries compel. William’s brother Henry is another main character and a religious man tormented by the contrast between his faith and the London clergy versus the poverty in the streets. Faber is clearly interested in preachers in conflict, as it’s a major theme in his excellent The Book of Strange New Things too. I sometimes characterize books as “I can read them forever” or “I have to stop after a few chapters, because it’s too dense/harrowing/difficult/meandering.” Crimson Petal is clearly the former and I had long, multi-hour sittings where I did nothing but read.

Did it have to be 900 pages? Eh, not really. It’s quite good, but also extremely slow and repetitive at times. The story will seem to muck around for 50-80 pages and then suddenly accelerate and major turning points are covered in a few pages. I don’t begrudge it much, though. My bigger gripe is that the novel begins with an omniscient narrator speaking to the reader, establishing a metaphor that the book is a whore for you to use, and desirous to make you feel dirty for purchasing it and expecting a thrilling romp through Victorian London and not the filth the novel opens to. It’s great. The narrator pops in and out at times and the conceit is that the reader is following around the main characters at a safe distance. He makes jokes. But, bafflingly, the voice of the narrator almost entirely disappears in the final 35% of the book. And, partially due to that, the first three acts are superior to the last two. I was tapping my foot towards the end, ready for it to be over, but was still sad when I finally did finish and knew I was leaving these characters behind.

The majority of the characters, and almost all of the sympathetic ones are women. This book buries the axe in male privilege and the subtext implies that much of what William Rachman is capable of is not constrained to one hundred and fifty years ago, but persists today. He’s infuriating. Sugar is writing a novel about a literary facsimile of herself that lurks around London, torturing the hapless men who casually purchase women’s bodies for pocket change. The first line is “All men are the same.” The tone of the novel is often humorous but it delves seriously into the lives of its prostitute characters and examines what their life may have been, instead of using them as a set piece or for titulation, like media generally does.

Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen

twains endI usually don’t copy and paste book blurbs here, or suggest reading them in general, but the description of Twain’s End is crucial to know why it is intriguing in the first place —

In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both. He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy?

What becomes immediately clear is that Mark Twain / Samuel Clemens is an asshole. An emotional vampire with a cruel temper who absolutely loves himself (slash hates himself). A man who takes perverse delight in controlling those around him — withholding affection from his family, playing friends off against eachother, lording his literary reputation over people to coerce them into his desires, and when emotional manipulation doesn’t work, he resorts to brute force: locking his daughter in a room for 3 weeks because a man dared to make a call on her.  

The main character of Twain’s End is his secretary Isabel Lyon. She is a smart woman who is totally cognizant of the contents of the paragraph above, yet she still falls in love with him. This is why the the book fails for me, why I gave up on finishing it. The dynamic of ‘servant/X in love with married master’ feels done to death in general, but for it to work, especially when the recipient of the ill-gotten devotion is so obviously a jerk, the writer really needs to sell me on why the hell he is so magnetic. Clemens isn’t charming or witty enough to be the guy who sleeps with the only woman in the room. Lynn Cullen set herself the unenviable task of trying to pull off the mordant voice of Mark Twain and doesn’t really succeed. The ‘salacious slut’ line from Twain’s actual letter makes me go ‘Wow! Such vitriol!’. You could maybe see a man with that kind of command of language getting away with Clemen’s abuses, but the novel as-is mostly just elicits an indifferent shrug.

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

asmeatlovessaltThe back of this book claims it to be a psychological thriller about a 17th century englishman, enlisted in Oliver Cromwell’s army, who falls in love with a fellow soldier.

This isn’t entirely inaccurate, but it’s such a small piece of a dense 600 page brick. Thus I endeavor to better describe the pieces that comprise As Meat Loves Salt.

 

The Servant

We are introduced to our brutish (both physically and morally) first-person hero, Jacob Cullen, while he is dragging a pond in search of a drowned corpse. It is immediately apparent by Jacob’s apprehension that he had something to do with that corpse attaining its present state, lying in the muck at the bottom of a pond. Chronicling the day to day of the servants to a minor lordship, this part of the book is heavy with foreboding. Not least of all because it takes place amidst the calm of indentured servitude, spent polishing silverware and beating rugs, while our protagonist pines after his betrothed (a woman); this, when the reader is certain things must go south, having read the back of the book and its tales of war and romantic soldierly love. On top of this, Jacob Cullen is a guilty, anxious man. A peevish ogre, quick to anger and jealously paranoid. And when everything comes to a head, when his true colors show, the events are even worse than I had imaged. McCann has a knack for describing the violently terrible, in all its wet detail.

But I was afflicted with an ugliness of the soul that no physick could correct

 

The Soldier

Following Jacob’s expansive display of ugliness, he is thrust into the English Civil War. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition — Jacob Cullen, murderer, rapist, all-around shitbag, ends up looking damn near angelic by comparison to the horrific atrocities committed by the army upon those they conquer and pillage. Partly because we can say at least Jacob feels bad after, when he does something outstandingly terrible.

And feel bad he does. Jacob spends much of his time pondering his own damnation, begging forgiveness, making grand plans for restitution. Devout Jacob’s imagination portrays a vivid depiction of Hell, all aflame and in torment. He’s also a wonderful moper. This goes on until his anger gets the better of him once more and he starts bashing a man’s head into a table at the slightest provocation. Then he starts anew. Did I mention he has a Voice in his head, speaking in biblical liturgy, alternating between being his dead father or the devil, commanding him to do ill to his fellows?

 

London

In the army, Jacob meets Christopher Ferris, his eventual lover, and deserts to the latter’s house in London. This section is long; interminable. It drags.

Up until the London episode, reading this novel was akin to being locked in a room with rabid dogs, only to escape and find yourself in a room of rabid wolves. It was incredibly upsetting, unsettling, arresting. I turned pages in fear of what Jacob would do next. There was periods of anxious quiet punctuated by clamorous strings of violent, appalling action. This all committed by a first person narrator, making all manner of excuses for his actions.

Now the pace slows, the love story picks up. Jacob doesn’t so much as love as possess; the gender of his object of ownership is irrelevant. He yearns, he isolates, he loves, his wrath destroys. The fact that this part of the novel goes on so long is the great weakness of As Meat Loves Salt. We know this man is capable of the very worst — hundreds of pages of tranquil setup is much too much.

 

Swords into ploughshares

Drunk on the self determination ideology of the time, Ferris assembles a group of bright-eyed malcontents and sets off to a common green space to establish a farm community. Though loath to leave London, Jacob begrudgingly follows his lover. The ominous tone of the early chapters returns, and a grain-based doomsday clock builds to Armageddon.

And I craved it. I wanted Jacob’s Bad Angel to return because I was bored of the meandering pace of the London chapters. As the narrative scythe prepared its reaping, I realized this book is at its best, it’s most gripping, only when The Worst Possible Things are happening. It’s when a militiaman is violently throwing a newborn to the ground, that I can say this, this is when As Meat Loves Salt is at its best, my stomach rolling all the while.

This book is superbly written. The period dialogue is so effective, I could hear the characters speak, and at times I felt I could fain converse in kind. Even though I ultimately found the entire package only a few notches above okay, I will miss McCann’s handle on prose. It’s alternately beautiful and diabolic.

Fortunes of France: The Brethren by Robert Merle

brethrenWritten in 1977 and supposedly an unheralded french classic, this is the first of a 13 volume saga finally being translated into english. It’s about two soldiers, both named Jean, sworn brothers-maybe-lovers, who return from war to establish lands, build wealth, be fruitful and multiply. One of the Jean’s sons, Pierre, narrates his family’s life from some time in the future. It’s a tumultuous life indeed as the Jeans are newly reformed protestants amidst the French Wars of Religion. A war and period I knew nothing about prior to this book. But I learned plenty.

Because, you see, the narrator, the characters themselves often speak like textbooks:

(character recounting a battle that happened offscreen)

He reinforced the gates of the citadel with four cannon brought from the streets of the city, and launched numerous attacks on our position but couldn’t manage to dislodge us. When dawn brought low tide, Wentworth, realizing he’d lost half his troops, decided to surrender. At his request, Guise granted all of the inhabitants of the city safe conduct, just as Edward III had done for the French two centuries earlier, when he had taken the city.

Or try this (narration)

On 2nd August, a month after the Bayonne meetings, the principal Protestant lords of the Sarlat region, still greatly alarmed, met at Mespech. Armand de Gontaut Saint-Genies, Foucad de Saint-Astier, Geoffroy de Baynac, Jean de Foucauld and Geoffroy de Caumont arrived separately, under the cover of darkness and in the greatest secrecy.

The worst part is that the history lessons are actually the most interesting part of this book. The characters are two dimensional; they are only known by a handful of unchanging traits. The dumb superstitious servant woman. The lugubrious* man who never speaks except to impart dismal wisdom. The haughty, cowardly older brother. The blessed idiot. The guy with a moustache. The Jeans actually pick up so many random passerby (reminding me of recruiting random people in role playing games) that it becomes difficult to tell them apart, even with their singular attributes.

There’s not much plot, per se. The characters are largely swept along by history, generally profiting from the ills affecting their countryman. As I mentioned, the history itself is interesting. France was brutally at its own throat as the protestants and catholics tortured, murdered, and dispossessed each other. The actual reasoning that people converted to the ‘reformed religion’ — corruption of the church, nobles buying their way into heaven, excessive pomp that missed the point — and why the catholics tried to hold on, not least of all due to the celebratory nature of feast days and the way the worship of saints endured as a stand-in for pagan tradition is fascinating. They seem mostly indistinguishable to outsiders nowadays.

But if I wanted to read a history book, I would have done so. And surely received a better account.

Also, an aspect of this book important to note: the author is obsessed with breasts. They are described in detail in virtually any scene that involves a woman. They might be barely concealed by rags or about to fall out at any moment. There are tense action scenes with bizarre interludes where Merle deems a status-check on a woman’s breasts absolutely necessary. Moreover, there’s an excessive and honestly hilarious focus on breast feeding.

And this said, she drew out from her blouse with a firm hand and an easy gesture first her right and then her left breast, both so round and large and white that a great silence fell over the room so that all you could hear was the tiniest crackle of the fire and the gluttonous suckling of the two hungries.

I cannot stop cracking up at this passage. Just this whole room descending into silence, mouths agape. When I was mentioning the character types above, I failed to name the wetnurse, as her only function in the narrative is breastfeeding. There’s actually another paragraph or two of description that follows that quote. And this is not the only time this happens. Over and over, with multiple characters. Someone’s got a fetish.

*I have never seen this word used so much in one book in my life. It’s in every sentence that involves this guy.

Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

terranostraThis book is physically daunting. It’s big. Dense. Heavy. Flipping to a random page reveals a tightly woven blanket of text, tightly packed and in small type. The prose is occasionally impenetrable. It took me a month to finish. Its themes are no less than Time and History and Religion.

Terra Nostra follows an alternate history of Spain’s past, with King Philip II (El Senor, Don Felipe!) married to Queen Elizabeth. Sick of war and government, El Senor has dedicated his life to raising a necropolis to the dead where he plans to shut himself away from the world while slowly awaiting death and unity with God. His plan is stymied by a trio of identical youths, born with crosses imprinted on their backs and six toes on each foot. In this version of history, it is one of these youths who discovers the New World and the entire middle section of the book (separated into The Old World, The New World, and The Next World) is his journey and immersion in the myths and religion of the Aztecs.

Along the way we meet Don Quixote, Don Juan, view a literal transcript of the first page of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis written and stuffed into a bottle by this universe’s Cervantes analogue. We also hang out in ancient Rome with Tiberius in a scene reminiscent of the Pilate scenes of The Master and Margarita, and no doubt countless literary references I am forgetting or missed. The power of books and the written word — the past conversing with the future — comes up frequently. El Senor only believes what is written, not spoken.

The cast is a cadre of terrible, awful people. Murderers intent on genocide, rapists, oppressors of chaotic nature. The way Fuentes handles women is questionable even in this supra-cruel world peopled by the worst of scoundrels. And the way he handles the sole little person is downright deplorable. There is a lot of sex. The sex is weird. Sex with animals, sex with skeletons, sex with god-beings, sex without jaws, sex with the supernaturally elderly, sex with a Frankenstein-like conglomeration of corpse pieces… or did she not actually have sex with that last one but just fantasize about it? The very last scene refuses to disappoint this trend and the reader concludes the book amid bizarre, transformative, cosmic lovemaking.

As I mentioned, Time is the central theme of the novel. In Fuentes vision, time is not linear. Everything happening — El Senor building his necropolis, the pillaging of the New World, the apocalypse of 1999 (haha), Emperor Tiberius being a sadistic prick, The Crucifixion, the creation of the world in Aztec mythology — is happening at the same time. Will happened, but has happened, is happening. Multiple universes of slightly different results occurring in tandem. One scholarly character hypothesizes it’s impossible to become a full and integrated personality until you’ve lived several lives in several times and possible worlds.

There’s a question that runs through the book: if someone could live life over again, would they change the actions they took, the decisions they made? The negative outlook of the novel announces a resounding No. The New World is still raped and pillaged, destroyed and oppressed even though Don Felipe had a chance to alter it. The Spanish Inquisition is just as terrible. In the Year 2000, things have become even worse. In an effort to reduce overpopulation, countries have turned to depopulating measures that match a ‘national character’ — Mexico brings back the blood sacrifices of the Aztecs, France very rationally kills someone for every someone born. It’s a little silly and very dated. Overpopulation may have been a giant, apocalyptic concern in 1975 when the book was written, but I feel like we’ve moved beyond it as a serious fear in 2014. I hope in 2055, global warming based dystopia is a similarly laughable and outdated sci-fi future trope.

Finishing this book I feel like I am climbing, bleary eyed, out of a cave. No, not a cave, a pit. A dank and endless cylinder with stairs spiraling to its interminable depths. I’m crawling out of the mind of Carlos Fuentes and the depravity of Don Felipe and friends. The tone of the book, its self absorbed characters, its physical weight — these are the things that will stay with me, more than any triumph of theme or historic analysis. I liked it, but I’m not even sure I’d recommend it. It’s incredibly overwritten and longer than it should be. I am quite certain several sentences honestly do not mean anything and are complete word-salad nonsense. Yet I am also certain that it will stay with me, long, long after I’ve placed it back on the shelf.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs_of_Hadrian

“One foot in scholarship, the other in magic arts, or, more accurately and without metaphor, absorption in that sympathetic magic which operates when one transports onself, in thought, into another’s body and soul.”

– Marguerite Yourcenar on writing Memoirs of Hadrian

Most authors have a style. They have tells and techniques and tics and quirks and words they overuse. Endless sentences interspersed with commas or short and terse with reverence for economy of language. Often this is a conscious choice. They want you to know. Others choose to present a character free of all authorial voice and rarely succeed. Seldom can a writer so totally subsume herself into the identity of a character or person as Marguerite Yourcenar does to the emperor Hadrian. Surely, this is not a novel written by a contemporary writer, but the actual memoirs of a 2nd century Roman emperor, composed as he succumbed to illness?

Hadrian, one of the “good” emperors, settled several of Rome’s economic and territorial woes whilst being certain of the empire’s eventual dissolution, regardless of his stabilizing acts. Casting aside the ascetic virtues of his time, he was more of a hedonist. And a searcher. Gods, good works, his next lover (non-discriminating w/r/t gender, but not to age…). The occasional self-aggrandizing tone of the book reveals that he sort of loved himself. He was a forward thinker in some areas — he detested slavery and created some laws to obviate its worst abuses — but not all; He was of the Greco-Roman pederast tradition and his “great love” was a 15 year old he met when he was like 40*. When the boy kills himself just shy of 20, ostensibly for the benefit of Hadrian, the great emperor has to perform some mental gymnastics to believe that it is not his fault. He continues to mourn the boy for the rest of his lift, as he solidified his reign, reluctantly crushes Judea, and chooses his successor — the book is addressed to Marcus Aurelius.

My feeling reading this book was that it was very impressive. Well written and incredibly well researched. But not exactly something I was dying to return to or filled me with wonder I still think this, though the author’s notes on writing it at the end of the book greatly enhanced the preceding text. Hadrian’s philosophical cogitations on the passing nature of civilization, man’s penchant for destruction (though not totally without hope) has a greater urgency and context when you know the words were written by a woman who lived through two world wars as an adult.

Also while reading her notes, I kept thinking “She writes like Hadrian!” which is yet another testament to her skill in transmitting, through the centuries, the Emperor’s Voice.

*It’s a common thought to look into the past and think of people partaking in acts we now deem immoral and excuse them as a “man/woman of their times”. This is true of course. But it generally ignores the fact that even in their times (and before), there was critics and dissenters to these societally approved acts. Not all Greeks and Romans (including Plato!) were so comfortable with man-boy sexual relationships.

Likewise, we already partially excuse moderate racism/homophobia/sexism in early-mid 20th century people — especially writers we like. This does a disservice to the many men and women of their times who did not think as they did, and already knew many widely accepted notions were wrong.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando(Yes, my copy has this hideous cover)

The Great Modernists. I can appreciate them. I can comprehend and marvel at their skill. But like a peerless painting hung in a museum, I do not want to spend hours gazing (reading) upon them. I picked Orlando specifically because it contains many of my favorite hooks to a great novel — a sweeping historical narrative, a skilled writer of prose, humor, and a touch of the fantastic (Orlando is near four hundred years old by the end of the novel and inexplicably swaps genders halfway through).

Yet I went from moderately interested — the beginning chapters detailing a royal carnival upon the frozen-over Thames, before the ice catastrophically splits — to sort of ambivalent with the direction the book was taking, to utterly bored, to actually skimming the final few pages which I never do. The eponymous god-prince/cess wanders throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and barely learns anything. Nothing is ever explained and there’s no tension or plot, which I don’t necessarily need in a novel, but I do need something. The fantastical elements are never contextualized nor explained. The humor is excellent but rare, and while Virginia Woolf is a great writer, she’s not the type that resonates with me so acutely that I can read anything she writes and simply be enraptured by the sentence-by-sentence level prose itself.

The politics are dated. Orlando suddenly changing from man to woman changes very little (and that’s the point!). In fact, her clothes change her more. In an era when women are not prohibited from wearing pants, this is not particularly radical. This is not some sort of sexism is over! tirade — but the book was written in 1928, there’s not much new or profound on the political front. It is actually sort of infuriating how little Orlando actually acknowledges any sort of change. This is most pronounced when she mysteriously has a son towards the end of the novel. She’s never pregnant, and at least in the visible narrative, hasn’t been anywhere near any suitable men the entire time.

The whimsy just did not hold it together for me, I guess.