Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Daniel lives with Daddy and his sister Cathy in the woods, in a house of their own making.

This is a small story. Much of it is describing Daniel and his family’s life, current and past, with austere and beautiful descriptions of the copse in which they now live. Eventually, a plot appears. It turns out that Daddy did not own the land he built the family house on, and an age-old question is posed: who truly owns the land? The landowner or the person living on it? Why is the answer not: the community?

This is only half of the question of ownership. The other half: bodies. Who owns them? When a character who represents tenants in a nearby village being squeezed by exorbitant rents begins to wax poetic about the good old union days when workers were fairly treated, another character (a woman), points out how those good ‘ole union boys were like to drink too much and go home and beat their wives. Similarly, throughout the book, Cathy is predated on by men, boys.

The story is told in Daniel’s first person perspective; Daniel, who lives in the woods, ignorant of the world; long-haired, midriff-bared, effeminate. Despite the tight perspective, there is something distant and ethereal about him. Simply living a rural lifestyle does not explain him; Daddy and Cathy, who know far more of the world, see him as something fragile that must be protected. It’s this lens combined with the stellar writing that elevates Elmet, makes it an engrossing version of a story that has been told many times before.

Magnetic Fields by Ron Loewinsohn

This a slim book about spaces. The spaces we inhabit, the spaces we invade. It all starts with a burglar whose taste for stealing tape decks (it’s the 70s!) is replaced by by his desire to simply exist in other people’s homes, consider their lives, drink their coffee and steal their used ashtrays.

There’s a strange feeling to being in someone else’s house, especially when they’re not home. We know that each item has its place, its emotional connections and history. Home robbery is a great violation of privacy, regardless of what is actually stolen. Magnetic Fields exists inside that feeling, both the field we create by living within it, and those fields others create that we can enter or attempt to penetrate.

From Albert the burglar, the novel moves on to other characters, other lives. The last person burglarized is a composer, who moves to a summer home with his family. He considers the inhabitants of that house, and the point of view shifts to enter their lives, and how their home is now invaded by the composer and his family, much like Albert invaded theirs.

Loewinsohn is a poet. Magnetic Fields is composed of short, tight sentences. There’s nothing lyrical about it, and “lyrical” is what I associate with poetry even though I know that is incomplete and wrong. It is only over time that the poetry influence of the book becomes clear: its structure. Passages recur, inexplicably, across chapters. Images repeat. Certain sexual acts or specific sounds. There is most likely some mathematical structure behind it; it elevates both the cohesion of the narrative and the discomfort conjured by the constant invasions of privacy.

Minit — A review in 60 words

Minit is fantastic. It conjures this elusive feeling of joyful exploration that so many games seek, typically with far larger budgets, but very few achieve.

You, a little duck-like(?) creature, find a cursed sword that will kill you and send you back home every sixty seconds. Only the knowledge you gained or the items you’ve found will allow you to 

[dies]  

OK. Minit.

Turns out that by combining a retro game (NES Legend of Zelda), adding a 60 second limitation, and utilizing a minimalist yet charming aesthetic creates something surprising and wonderful. The time limit is not a thoughtless restraint — it’s used to set up puzzles that leave you scratching your head how you’ll finish in time. It’s also used to

[dies]

Where was I?

Minit’s world is peopled with cute talking animals, throwing down clever one-liners. Or playing off the time limit — one of the first buddies you encounter is an old turtle slowly recounting how to find treasure, yet initially you’ll die before he completes his tale.

The sparse black&white style can also evoke a more sinister mood like

[dies]

The game knows when to quit. Rather than bloat the length, the first run will take maybe a couple hours. Afterwards, you unlock a far more difficult 40 second mode that really pushes your sword-man efficiency. Without much planning, I reached the point where I could beat the game in about 15 minutes especially with the final unlockable mode which

[dies]

Minit is fantastic. More importantly: it is surprising.

The original Legend of Zelda is the perfect entry point. We played it as kids and there’s something child-like in the joy Minit evokes. Something from a world where you didn’t already know what was going to happen next, in gaming, or film, or novels. Something wide-eyed and fresh, full of adventure.

Metal Gear Survive

This is the most intense game I’ve ever played.

If you were a fly on the wall, or a Russian spy eluding detection, intent on studying just how animated I am playing video games, typically you’d be disappointed. I don’t move or emote much. But for Metal Gear Survive? You’d find me hunched forward, alert and engaged, occasionally muttering or cursing. Then moments later, with a sharp cry,  throwing a fist up in victory or lurching backward in defeat. 

I was in it.

During the prologue of Metal Gear Solid V, Mother Base is attacked and Big Boss is knocked into a coma for ten years, leading to the plot of that game. In this game, it turns out that during that very same prologue, after Boss left, a wormhole opened. Yes, that’s right. A wormhole opened. A bunch of Boss’ former soldier-followers were sucked into the wormhole, where they arrived in another world, a barren wasteland called Dite (dee-TAY). Dite is home to hordes of zombies (wanderers) and much of it is covered with a miasmic cloud called Dust.

I knew of this premise before starting the game and it sounded spectacularly dumb. My first surprise: the story is presented well. The intro is intriguing, creepy. The ‘spooky other world reached through a veil’ premise reminded me of the novel and movie Annihilation and the living dust itself evoked Stephen King’s The Mist, especially at a point partway through when you realize there is something very, very big in there. The overall plot is surprising throughout, though the individual characters are weak.

Metal Gear Survive is built on the Fox Engine from Metal Gear Solid V, which I wrote about here. Similarly, it’s a game of narrative moments generated by the engine itself. During my first foray into the Dust, my character put an oxygen mask over her face and the game informed me that I would die if I ran out of oxygen. It also warned me not to lose my bearings and get lost because the map does not function in the Dust — you need to use landmarks visible in the murk to find your way.

So I set off on my mission to retrieve a lost data cache. Carefully, I took out wanderers with my primitive arsenal, in small groups of ones and twos. I found the building, retrieved the data. On my way out, I noticed another shack. Inside was a container full of loot. Locked. I tried to pick the lock, but since it was my first encounter with the mechanism, I failed, leading to the loud screech of metal on metal. Naturally, every creature nearby was alerted and now I had zombies shambling through the door, tumbling through the windows, moaning, reaching for me, crouched still next to to the container.

I sprinted out of the there, creeped around the building, wandered off into the dust, underestimated a few wanderers, almost died, panicked for a moment before I could reorient to my surroundings, returned to the shack.

The wanderers were still there, milling around the last place they saw me. The game preserved its continuity. Low on oxygen, as well as supplies of food and water, I gave up. I turned around and left the Dust.

OK, this may not seem remarkable. I went and fought some zombies and left.

Yet the organic nature of this situation exceeds what generally occurs in games. I am a completionist. I get all the treasure chests, kill all the dudes. This game forced me to accept my defeat, scavenge what I could, and survive. It makes the entire world / setting / gameplay more immersive, more believable. I’ve killed untold numbers of zombies in games, but it has never felt this authentic. Later on, I’d be frantically shooting wanderers with my makeshift bow while at my back, several more clamored at my makeshift fence, started to climb it, their combined weight bowing the fence until it buckled, tumbling the zombies face-first to the ground, where they proceeded to drag themselves across the ground by their fingernails.

This game was panned by the critics. Gaming journalism has a serious problem with a follow-the-leader type mentality where first impressions (or pre-impressions) are of utmost importance. Opinions tend to skew one way or another and not represent a spectrum. They complained the early game was too harsh, since food and water are quite scarce and you’re forced to listen to your character gag after drinking dirty water, while crossing your fingers she doesn’t get sick. The fact that this greatly heightens the danger and urgency of your first steps in a dangerous world goes unsaid and unappreciated. They complained about microtransactions that have no bearing on the game at all. They complained this game is “not Metal Gear”, whatever the hell that means.

Don’t get me wrong here — the game isn’t flawless. It’s using purely recycled environments and assets from its parent game and despite it’s stellar start, it never lives up to its full promise. But it is far more inventive and immersive than the over-hyped, big-budget crap that so often reviews well.

The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

Alright back to books! I’ve spent the past several weeks immersed in the Civil War, most of it within this comprehensive tome. I chose it because it topped a list written by Ta-Nehisi Coates on what to read to become ‘less stupid’ about the Civil War. Battle Cry is best read in full and I urge all Americans to do so. Here’s some of my favorite quotes and attendant commentary. Clearly the social causes and effects interested me more than battles and the moving of armies. 

* * *

Southern newspapers reprinted an editorial from the San Francisco Star which stated that 99 of 100 settlers considered slavery “an unnecessary moral, social, and political curse upon themselves and posterity.

The Battle Cry of Freedom opens with an extensive slate of evidence demonstrating the cause of the Civil War. Slavery. This is of immense importance as the Lost Cause version of history, a fantastic revision of doomed-but-just Southern righteousness, is pernicious. To this day, the teaching of 1860-1865 is warped in American schools, mired in rhetoric on ‘States Rights’. The recent uproar over tearing down Confederate statues reveals both that many people still celebrate that Lost Cause and are only continuing the trend over many years that put those statues up in the first place.

(‘States rights’ is pure bullshit anyway as for the 10-15 years previous the war, the South controlled Congress and had absolutely zero problem enacting federal slave protections in the Free States. When States Rights is held up as a freedom denied the south and thus requiring their reluctant secession, it is merely hypocrisy and lies peddled by wealthy slave owners and lapped up by the regular whites of the South.)

 

* * *

Lincoln’s wit on display:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ’all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” — Abraham Lincoln

 

* * *

Long before the rest of the western world learned that the glory of old-time war was slain by technology — trench warfare, rampant disease, high death tolls with little strategic gain — Americans experienced it firsthand. Famously bloodier than all other American wars combined, the human cost of the Civil War is difficult to grasp. It was not unheard of for entire regiments to be reduced to a dozen men.

“I never realized the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of the thing called glorious war until I saw this,” wrote a Tennessee private after the battle. “Men . . . lying in every conceivable position; the dead . . . with their eyes wide open, the wounded begging piteously for help. . . . I seemed . . . in a sort of daze.” Sherman described “piles of dead soldiers’ mangled bodies . . . without heads and legs. . . . The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.”

 

* * *

“Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”

“I will if I live.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

When controlled for population, Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains the greatest bestseller in American history. It hasn’t aged well, but it can’t be understated how electric it was to the reading public at the time. By alluding to a black man as Jesus, Harriet Beecher Stowe aimed an arrow at shamefaced Northerners reluctant to commit to what their morals and religion supposedly demanded.  It functioned  as statecraft motivating people to abolition while accomplishing what any good fiction does: put people in the shoes of its characters, forcing thoughtful readers to consider what life under the lash would truly be like. 

Everyone read it in the South too. Check out this angry reviewer:

“I would have the review as hot as hellfire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats who could write such a volume.”

 

* * *

American capitalism had not yet settled in the early-mid 18th century and plenty of people had converging ideas on what it ought to be. This prescient account makes me laugh:

“Banks have been the known enemies of our republican government from the beginning,” they proclaimed, “the engine of a new form of oppression . . . a legacy that the aristocratic tendencies of a bygone age has left, as a means to fill the place of baronial usurpation and feudal exactions.” Banks caused “the artificial inequality of wealth, much pauperism and crime, the low state of public morals, and many of the other evils of society. . . . In justice to equal rights let us have no banks.”

 

* * *

The Confederacy tried desperately to receive diplomatic recognition from Europe, and plenty of the old aristocracy, seeing much in common with wealthy plantation owners, was willing to give it to them. This never occurred, though the rebels still received plenty of help via loopholes in English and French law. Most interesting to me: The South embargoed cotton exports to Britain, presuming that the textile industry reliant on it would clamor to pressure the government to accept their terms. Instead, they received a lukewarm or defiant response from the English working class.

And in any case, a good deal of truth still clings to the old notion of democratic principle transcending economic self-interest in Lancashire. As a veteran Chartist leader put it in February 1863: “The people had said there was something higher than work, more precious than cotton . . . it was right, and liberty, and doing justice, and bidding defiance to all wrong.”

“Economic self-interest” is commonly held up as the prime motivator of regular people. “How could the working class vote for Trump when it’s against their economic self-interest?”, wonders the knee-jerk Liberal. It’s a load of crap. Ideology runs politics. When economics are the prime directive, it’s when clever power holders manage to manipulate their economic message into an ideological one. The Civil War encapsulates this perfectly. It was clashing ideals on bondage and freedom and Union and democracy that led to over six hundred thousand dead

Indeed, and I am unforgivably missing a quote for this one, Democracy itself was under attack. Lincoln mused gloomily that if the Union could not be maintained, then the great experiment was a failure. It would prove The People unfit to rule themselves. Northern newspapers echoed this sentiment.

Democracy survived that century and the next, at least. 

The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai

The sensation of discovering a favorite author is not gradual. It is a thunderbolt, a swift jab to the heart. I do not read two, three books and have a lightbulb go off. I read a single chapter, even a single paragraph and know. Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Raymond Carver. It did not take long. Literary love at first read.

You can see where this is going. László Krasznahorkai. Add ‘em to the list.

He’s the type of writer who makes waiting in line at the post office gripping, even dreadful. Literally. There is a story about waiting in line at the post office and it is fantastic. Or in my second favorite story, which takes place largely in the back of a car while our timid protagonist is stuck listening to the driver’s vain and voluble friend blather on about his banking career, even the inane babble about middle-management corporate drama is engrossing, and you feel let down when the bored protagonist finally tunes him out.

Krasznahorkai has been a sensation for a while now — his first big success was published the same year as my birth. He won the international Man Booker in 2015. Yet, being a writer allergic to both paragraph breaks and commas, I’m not certain if he is all that widely read. I’ll avoid literary posturing entirely and tell you how I found him: I really liked the cover. And the title.

Thematically, these short stories can broken down to: Mundane life is terrifying. Humanity is a tiny piece of the universe and we may not exist, surely we do not truly understand causality in any meaningful way. Nor history. Most of the main characters are dissociating, locked up in asylums or wasting away their late middle-age in self-inflicted limbo.

“You shrink back slightly from the TV screen. You are incapable of reconciling all that you feel with all that you know.”

What elevates this beyond a (well-written) gallivant through misanthropy is that clearly Krasznahorkai, via his heroes, is desperately seeking some beauty in all this. Whether this be an early story about a guy trying to run faster than the earth, or my favorite piece: Gagarin. As in, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human in space. Like many pieces, the story is filtered through another character. In this case, a once-renowned lecturer, now living in an asylum, obsessively details his theories on the life of Gagarin: How could the first man in space die year later in a routine training incident? He invents clever solutions, backed up mostly by his own imagination.

I finished this book two weeks ago and I’m thinking about it still. Along with what Krasznahorkai novel I will read next. 

The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota #3)

I love this series.

Regardless of what I’ll write next about the good or the bad and what worked or what didn’t, I’ll start by stating how pleasing it is to open these books and be surprised. This is part of why I read in the first place. Not for comfort or for safety, but to experience new ideas, to be taken to new places, to encounter characters whose journey I find dear while also illuminating human experience out in the real world. I’ll read a few books a year that deliver this pleasure. They’re rarely sci-fi or fantasy, which is too bad, because if I’m honest with myself, then I know that’s where my heart lies.

Following the events of the first two books, the global conspiracy enacted by the Humanists to prevent world war by systemically assassinatinating persons that will increase global unrest has become public knowledge. Most of the planet is in an uproar over what to do with the perpetrators and their trial is a significant plot point, finally revealing the meaning of ‘Terra Ignota’, the series title. Ironically, this serves as yet another trigger point for that very same theoretical, now actual, War. War that puts all of humanity at risk since technology has so rapidly increased in the two hundred years since the last big one, wherein we barely scraped by.

While the previous books were already heavy on conversation (& The Conversation), The Will to Battle is nearly entirely dialogue or summary of dialogue, at times going so far as to abandon narrative conventions (“he said”) entirely and become transcript:

I: “Lied to you? How?”
Kosala: “They said they’d help me work for peace, while all that time the two of you were training your private army.”
I: “That was no lie, Chair Kosala. Achilles wants peace, more than anything.”
Kosala: “You both believe the peace movement is doomed.”
I: “All mortal things are doomed: you, me, this peace, the Empire, this planet. Achilles doesn’t choose sides based on how likely things are to succeed, only whether they’re worth dying for.”

The straightforwardness of this is warped by our narrator’s madness, wherein characters who couldn’t be present in the scene are included. This includes recently dead fictional characters, metafictional characters (The Reader), and long-dead real world characters (Hello again, Thomas Hobbes). There’s a brilliant sequence early on where Mycroft takes the newly resurrected Achilles to meet all the world leaders and the setting shifts from one capital to the next and one Emperor or President to the next mid-conversation and without warning. This allows us to be many places at once without transition and cement clear contrasts between the great leader’s opinions and motivations in this almost-war period.

The structure of these novels requires our slate of main characters be an incestuous bunch of world leaders, who at times leave me praying for the series to end with a Hamlet-esque purge of the entire cast (especially Cornel fuckin’ MASON). This means it’s difficult to see regular people, with their riots, looting, or food hoarding as real actors. Given that a major plot point involves running census numbers to determine how likely unrest and outright war are, this is far from a world of individuals. It is a world of data and Great Thinkers instead. This is necessary to focus on the big questions Palmer wants to ask, or at least necessary for the means she wishes to ask them: People arguing about grand questions of philosophy, what lengths are worth going to for peace, and what means are justified, and being able to act on the conclusions they reach. Would you destroy this word to save a better one? How much is one life worth versus the future of humanity? And who gets to choose?

Quoth Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me:  imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, [one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?. . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?

This passage is also imagined as an SF story written by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, which is also quite good. It’s a topic always sure to cause great debate at the bar.  The Will to Battle isn’t quite the same, since the decision is calculated killing of innocents vs. bowing under the yoke of an alien god, but it raises many similar questions.

The series is not without flaws. Since the cast is so large and the scope so wide, Palmer must resort to quick characterization schemes. I think we have several people now whose shorthand characterization is a metaphorical familial relationship (i.e. the Mother of the World, the Grandpa/ma of the Senate, etc). Perhaps because of the immense labor of introducing all these characters, Palmer is loathe to let them go and introduce too many new ones, but there is no good reason for Merion Kraye to potentially be around nor for Head Sensayer Julia to not be imprisoned (or for another jail-bound character to escape). Conversely, I wondered what the point of spending so much time with Carlyle Foster in the earlier books was if they were barely going to be featured here at all.

A blurb on the back of the book from Jo Walton gushes:

This is the kind of science fiction that makes me excited all over again about what science fiction can do. Lots of books can knock you over and leave you reeling and dazzled when you’re fifteen, but it takes something special to do the same thing to you at fifty.

I’m not fifty but the same still applies. I wish it happened more but I treasure it when it occurs at all.

Persona 5

Post election day 2016, San Francisco assumed a state of mourning. People seemed lost, heads lowered. Collective defeat was palpable, almost physical. Like a noxious, marshmallowy fog you could part with your hands. Outrage would be a ways coming. For adults, anyway.

First signs of resistance came the following morning: hundreds of angry high school students marched down Market St, wielding the now familiar mantra: NOT MY PRESIDENT. As I listened to the loudest words from those who couldn’t even vote I thought of all the bullshit young people are peddled about respecting their elders, about adult responsibility. I thought of how it might feel to watch this proved wrong over and over. Then in the most drastic fashion and final verification of this: Trump.

Persona 5 wants to engage with our broken society, which has reached this sordid state, as your best-bud Ruyiji oft repeats, “because of those shitty adults”. School systems with corrupt administrations that care little for their students. A broken political system. A reactionary public eager to be abused. I don’t know much of Japan’s political and social situation, but it’s easy to guess they’re facing many of the same issues most of the rest of the world is in recent years.

You, a high school student on probation for “assault” after shoving a man trying to force a woman into his car, are transferred to Tokyo under the supervision of a family friend. Various supernatural events occur, as these things do, and soon you’re the leader of The Phantom Thieves, righteously toppling corrupt leaders in society while living your normal high school life and assisting others to embrace the “wings of rebellion” and break “the yoke of thy heart”. In other words, hanging out with outsiders and helping them overcome their personal demons. From a doctor ostracized for innovative practices to a young woman winning in a male-dominated sport, they’re people shunned for being different.

So far, so good. Persona 5 even avoids the fallacy of many sci-fi/fantasy stories of laying blame on one big, bad villain. It knows there’s bad people in positions of power, but it also knows they only reached that position due to the complicity of the public. Corrupt politicians don’t simply materialize from the ether. Sure, it fails to reach an answer and lays the blame of society’s ills on the malevolent influence of an evil god that had sabotaged the better nature of humanity from the start, but I appreciate it choosing complete nonsense over an easy answer.

The strong and relatable moral impetus behind the plot only makes the places where it fails so acute. Indeed, the premise of “rebellion” is poisoned from the start. For starters, the social aspect of the game allows the protagonist to date every single woman in the game, including several adults, but refuses to allow even the idea that the main character might be gay. Instead, it treats us to stereotypes. Upon entering Tokyo’s red light district for the first time, there is a gag where the protagonist and his buddy are immediately preyed upon by flamboyant men on the hunt for pretty young boys. It’s terrible. 

Worse is how the game consistently treats one of your party members, Ann. She’s introduced by the conflict with the game’s first major antagonist, Kamoshida, the school gym teacher. Kamoshida is physically abusing the boys on his sports teams as well as sexually abusing the girls. Ann’s friend is a victim of the latter, in part due to her (Ann’s) refusal to give in to Kamoshida’s advances. This leads to Ann’s persona awakening. It’s heavy stuff. I wouldn’t say it’s handled perfectly but it works and Kamoshida is the game’s most hateable villain by a long shot.

Immediately following the defeat of Kamoshida, the gang takes on a corrupt celebrity painter. Their cringeworthy plan involves using Ann as bait with the painter’s apprentice, who is obsessed with painting her nude. It’s played for laughs and said apprentice eventually joins your party. It’s creepy as hell and majorly dissonant following the sequence we just played through. From sexual abuse to an endless laugh-track of teenage girl as nude bait.  Will she do it??? Will the team infiltrate the palace before she’s fully undressed??

Ann will continue to be objectified throughout the game, especially in the anime cut-scenes which seem to exist at least in part so the male cast can ogle her. Occasionally the other female characters too, one of whom apparently exists simply to say “I’m sorry” every other sentence.

In the end, it’s not about rebellion, it’s about maintaining the status quo, treating recent political and social decay as a cancer to be excised so we can return to the norm.

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.

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.