Category: book

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


Sing Unburied Sing

A year and a half ago I read Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner and found within it one of my favorite passages of all time:

Quentin had grown up with that; the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts still recovering, even forty-three years afterward, from the fever which had cured the disease, waking from the fever without even knowing that it had been the fever itself which they had fought against and not the sickness, looking with stubborn recalcitrance backward beyond the fever and into the disease with actual regret, weak from the fever yet free of the disease and not even aware that the freedom was that of impotence.

The passage is about a young man growing up in the Reconstruction South where everybody was still obsessed with their “lost cause” and the lengths they went to in an effort to retain their right to own other people. The “back-looking ghosts” are an amazing image for that desire to return over and over again to a battle that was already fought and rightfully lost, and that Quentin is literally constructed as a place to hold these ghosts in the logic of the sentence is something that has stuck with me and will continue to do so. It changed the way I think about ghost stories, the Civil War, the American South, the passage of time, and race. I guess I have been looking for a story that would strike me as much as this one part of a paragraph did.


Lincoln in the Bardo in Galway


On my first day of walking around Galway I stopped into a local bookstore, as was inevitable. There I found a book I had been meaning to pick up but had no time to read as I was finishing my Masters Thesis and then moving back to CT. Now, though, I would have plenty of time to read George Saunders’ first novel. The author, known for both is short stories and his non-fiction essays (most notably this fantastic piece about Donald Trump) delved into the longer-fiction end of the pool with Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel told through a combination of dialogue (kind of) and historical accounts (a mix of real and made-up sources) about the time directly preceding and following little Willie Lincoln’s death. The boy’s spirit (or something) pops into being at the beginning of the novel and the rest of the book concerns the other spirits’ quest to help him transition onto the next place while his father, the unpopular President only 1 year into the Civil War, lingers around the cemetery and, following real events, holding the body of his young boy in his arms. That is the majority of the story that happens in this book, but Saunders accomplishes much more in the course of the novel.


The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

“What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint.”

Oh, what a lovely little book this is. For the first 100 or so pages (almost half of the novel’s thickness), it reads like a dry accounting of the happenings at an old English house in the years between the two World Wars as told in memory by an aging butler as he drives around the pleasant English countryside. If the rest of the book had kept the same stakes and low-key nature of the first part I’d be happy to have read it, given how much I enjoyed the setting and the character of Stevens. But it doesn’t, of course. Mixed in with those memories are musings about the proper way to be a butler and what kind of a man the best butlers serve. Stevens defines himself almost entirely in relation to Mr. Darlington, the man whose house he keeps. Initially, Stevens is proud to be Mr. Darlington’s butler, as Darlington works tirelessly towards keeping relations between Britain and Germany intact. It’s an admirable cause, but things don’t go quite as planned.

Stevens isn’t just riding around the country for no good reason. One of the best things about this book is that, through the conversation he has with us, the readers, we learn almost everything there is to learn about him. He rarely comments on emotional or interpersonal happenings, just as any well-trained butler would avoid doing. What he doesn’t say, however, says a lot. Outside of the actions of Mr. Darlington, there’s a co-worker that provides some push-back to Stevens’ strictly business nature, Miss Kenton. She’s a bit younger than he and is the only real mirror by which we can see how one event or another makes him feel. There may also be a romance there, though Stevens would never admit to such a sordid possibility. In fact, it’s hard to tell if he would even recognize the potential romance that may blossom between them. He is consistently dignified, to the point that the end of his journey is a call on the former Miss Kenton to see if her marriage issues would maybe result in her wanting to rejoin him at Darlington Hall.

The book adapts his quiet, thoughtful nature. It meanders as he travels down the country lanes whose hedges mask the surrounding landscape much like how Stevens masked his own feelings in the service of another. The second half of the book builds doubts and makes us question if Stevens is really being as forthcoming as he seems to be. The book pulls all of its strands together in a lovely closing 20 pages which at once conclude it definitively and lets us in on the delicate and precise motions going on behind the scenes to get everything on display working like a well-served meal at an old British house.

Infinitely Jesting: Weird fictions, tangentially

I had planned on writing about the ease of reading Infinite Jest in this entry of the (probably infinite) series, but then something strange and wonderful happened. I started listening to a podcast and watching a tv show that both had these odd connections to one of the genres Infinite Jest dabbles in: Weird Fiction. One of the major weird fiction writers was H.P. Lovecraft, and he described weird fiction in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature“, “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” At the (still) 63rd page into Infinite Jest, this uncanny idea has certainly creeped into the edges of the story so far. See my previous post for some examples. Those 63 pages have continued to ring in my mind as I watched HBO’s True Detective and listened to the fantastically funny and weird Welcome to Night Vale. Both are drenched in that weird fiction vibe that really gets my goat. So much fun, let’s investigate!

True Detective is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It instantly became a favorite when Matthew McConaughey began his quiet drawling musings on the unnatural quality of humanity. Here’s a guy who is very clearly out there, maybe crazy, maybe just drug addled, and yet he holds a pretty important job. We’re introduced to him as he takes his first major murder case with his partner, played wonderfully by Woody Harrelson, and already it is quite obvious that they are two different kinds of men. McConaughey plays Rust Cohle (best name ever?) as close to an alien as you can get while still being technically human. He has a past in deep undercover situations with drug runners so maybe he’s just done one too many lines to function like a normal person anymore. Or maybe he’s tapped into the deep dark secret that we’re hiding from ourselves. Maybe we have, as he opines on in the car as they drive away from the ritualistic murder scene at the beginning of the pilot episode, become too self aware. We have separated ourselves from nature and we do horrible and strange things because of that. I don’t really agree with much of what Rust Cohle says, but his ideas can’t help but be mesmerizing. The show acts as a genre piece, a serial killer murder mystery steeped in the weird and exotic Louisiana bayou atmosphere tinged with the supernatural.

There have been about a billion blog posts about True Detective‘s connection to The King in Yellow, a weird fiction book by Robert W. Chambers which influenced people like H.P. Lovecraft and, pretty obviously, Nic Pizzolatto, the writer of True Detective. The first and biggest clue is that the big bad in True Detective is called The Yellow King, and a diary left by the murder victim in the first episode has several other references to the The King in Yellow. The majority of the stories in The King in Yellow take place in Carcosa, a fictitious town where a bunch of strange things happen throughout the history of weird fiction. It has popped up in Lovecraft’s stories and originated in an Ambrose Bierce short story. And it is the supposed location of The Yellow King in True Detective. These references cannot be coincidences and they point the show in a more uncanny direction than a story about police normally goes. It’s fascinating to watch a show become a huge cultural phenomenon and also immerse itself and its viewers in the deep end of this little known genre.

Speaking of fictional towns where a bunch of crazy things happen, Welcome to Night Vale! This parody of A Prairie Home Companion gets its fun from turning Garrison Keillor into a local radio host in a town where the dog park is not fit for dog or human occupancy thanks to the supernatural forces and wormholes to other dimensions that pop up in it from time to time. It’s a comedy show first and foremost, but I only listen at night to bring out the more insidious elements in the show’s production. Mixed in with reports of a Glow Cloud that slowly moves over the town raining animal carcasses (starting small and building up to a lion, for maximum absurdity) are the usual things like traffic reports, though those often have the narrator/host relaying information about traffic in their small south western town and asking why we’re even driving when cars have been specifically outlawed by the town’s not-so Secret Police. The deadpan delivery of these jokes/genre tropes works superbly well, echoing the voice of Rust Cohle’s philosophical ramblings and letting the weird fiction elements feel as real as possible.

There’s more going on here than just three things that work in the weird fiction genre. The King in Yellow is, in the book, the name of a play which, when read, will cause the reader to go insane. I haven’t gotten to that part of Infinite Jest yet, but I’m pretty sure there’s an obvious parallel there to the film cartridge that lends its own name to the book’s title and is “so entertaining to its viewers that they lose all interest in anything other than viewing it and thus eventually die”(Wikipedia). Maybe Rust Cohle has read The King in Yellow and has tapped into the sub- or un-conscious of the universe itself. He has these visions that might just be drug flashbacks or might be nature telling him that he’s on the right path, or, alternately, on very much the wrong one. This is the excitement of a show that hasn’t ended yet. Maybe Night Vale is the sister city to Carcosa, too, and perhaps they share cultural exports like the shrouded figures that inhabit Night Vale’s seedier locations. The King in Yellow is, perhaps, the prequel to Infinite Jest, both exposing the sub-human nature of humanity to their readers or viewers. It’s something to think about, at least.

Infinitely Jesting: The First 63 Pages

As I said in the introduction to this series, I’m currently up to the 63rd page of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I got for Christmas this year. It has been a wild ride so far, filled with humor and terror in equal doses, plus not a few things that don’t make sense yet. Who’s this Saudi guy and what the heck does he matter? And though the interlude with the guy waiting for his drug connection to arrive was well written, it means very little to me so far. I’m not too bothered, though, because sometimes Wallace will write something so great that it invigorates and empowers me to plow through, say, the ridiculously affected “Wardine be cry” segments. Let’s look at a few of them.

1. Hal’s Interview

Hal is probably the protagonist of the story and Infinite Jest begins, as most books do, in his head. He’s at a college interview that’s about to get really weird. Since we’re privy to his thoughts, nothing seems out of place. Sure, he’s a little smarter than a college prospect might be and he’s a tennis whiz, which will throw anybody a little off the normal track, but he’s well adjusted. But his uncle and coach have told him to keep quiet and let them do the talking. There are a few questions about his academic ability, but if his inner thoughts are anything to go by he’s got nothing to worry about there. Accusations of cheating fly, and the book suddenly switches to an event from Hal’s past where he eats a piece of mold he finds in the basement of his house. We flash back to the present (whenever that is) and he begins his loquacious defense of himself, his uncle and coach having been kicked out so that the bevy of deans could hear Hal’s own version of the tale. Boy, can this kid talk. He’s smarter than anybody I’ve ever met and I began to wonder just what the problem was.

Ah, and then DFW pulls the rug right out from under our feet.

I look out. Directed my way is horror. I rise from the chair. I see jowls sagging, eyebrows high on trembling foreheads, cheeks bright-white. There chair recedes below me.

‘Sweet mother of Christ,’ the Director says.

What we’ve heard is not what the Deans have heard. “Subanimalistic noises and sounds” apparently emanated from Hal’s mouth, complete with wild gesturing and gesticulating. It’s horrifying and even more so, given our supposed insight into Hal’s perspective. This is the start of the novel and from here on out we must be vigilant to DFW’s tricks and deceptions. Never again will something be what it seems to be. That’s the beauty of the opening scene.

2. Hal’s conversation with Himself

No, that title doesn’t mean that Hal’s schizophrenic, though maybe the grunting and all that would have something else to say on the subject. Himself is actually Hal’s father. As in the man himself. A few pages later in the book Hal is sent to a psychologist, a professional talker, to try to figure out his problems. This happens, I think, before the interview from above. The timelines here are super screwy and I haven’t quite gotten a hold of them yet. Anyways, this professional talker is there to diagnose Hal’s no-talking-sickness, though the brief conversation told entirely through the dialogue and pauses indicated by a quoted ellipse indicates quite quickly that Hal has no problem with talking, he has a problem with his mostly-absent father. It’s another great scene, this one punctuated by hilarious lines as Hal pokes holes in his father’s flimsy disguise and the reader realizes along with him that the professional talker is, in fact, Himself, Hal’s Dad desperately trying to talk to a son who has long since given up on him. This is a relationship that’s sure to develop even after Himself’s death which happens at some point. The father/son connection (or lack thereof) is, I think, a major theme of the book and one which links it to a lot of the big important literature of our time.

3. Orin’s fear of insects

Orin, Hal’s older brother, is a professional football player living, at whatever time this particular scene happens, in Arizona. I’ve been to Arizona and it’s very nice in the winter, a pleasant change from the frozen North Eastern climes at 75 degrees and dry. But the summers are brutal. Made even more brutal, apparently, by the hideous and terrifying giant cockroaches that crawl up from the shower drain or the toilet bowl and infest innocent people’s houses. DFW describes a time Orin stepped on one of these walking nightmares only to have it burst into gooey bits under his feet and through his toes and on to the walls of his bathroom into which it has seeped and moldered. Ugh, the grossest thing. Very few books have inspired that kind of creeping dread and icky, skin-crawling nausea in me and to have Infinite Jest do it on page 45 is special in its own unpleasantly pleasing way. And in case you were wondering, the way he deals with the cockroaches from hell now is to put tumblers over them and wait a few days until they use up all the oxygen and expire in their own exhalations.

4. Unnamed E.T.A student’s nightmare

This is the last thing I’ve read and I’m just itching to get back to the book thanks to its clever horror. We get a first person narration of a dream an anonymous student has at the Enfield Tennis Academy (where Hal goes and which his father established) on their first night. It is, as is almost always the case, the middle of the night and the student has woken up scared and out of breath, the grab their flashlight and scan all the innocuous objects in the room, including the prone bodies of his classmates sleeping soundly. DFW lulls us with a long, boring list nearly every item in the room…

the cracks in the Venetian blinds that ooze the violet nonlight of a night with snow and just a hook of moon; the flashlight with your name in maternal cursive plays over every cm. of the walls, the rheostats, CD, Inter-Lace poster of Tawni Kondo, phone console, desks’ TPs, the face in the floor, posters of pros, the onionskin yellow of the desklamps’ shades, the ceiling-panels’ patterns of pinholes, the grid of upper bunk’s springs, recession of closet and door, boys wrapped in blankets, slight crack like a creek’s course in the eastward ceiling discernible now, maple reglet border at seam of ceiling and walls north and south no floor has a face your flashlight showed but didn’t no never did see its eyes’ pupils set sideways and tapered like a cat’s its eyebrows’ \ / and horrid toothy smile leering right at your light all the time you’ve been scanning oh mother a face in the floor mother oh and your flashlight’s beam stabs jaggedly back for the overlooked face misses it overcorrects then centers on what you’d felt but had seen without seeing, just now, as you’d so carefully panned the light and looked, a face in the floor there all the time but unfelt by all others and unseen by you until you knew just as you felt it didn’t belong and was evil: Evil.

And then its mouth opens at your light.

On first read I totally glanced over the face in the floor. Did you? I omitted probably half again as many objects the flashlight glides over which might lull you even more into a false sense of semi-security as it did me. DFW plays on all of our childhood fears, especially those of being in a new place and the night’s ever present danger. It also creates a dark side to Enfield Tennis Academy, a place at which we’re sure to spend a lot of our time throughout the book. If their dorms have faces in the floors, even in nightmares, what other horrors might they hide.

The first 63 pages of Infinite Jest may not be the best pages, but they certainly contain some of the best writing I’ve read in about a year (since If on a winter’s night a traveler…). I’m very excited to continue reading and I hope you’ll follow along. Up next will be a post about the difficulty of reading a book like this one, I think, unless something in the coming pages inspire me. Please drop me a line if something in this whopper of a post struck your fancy. And keep on Jesting! Too cheesy? Probably. Will that stop me? You’ll have to return next time to find out.