Monday, December 7, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Walk of Shame, filmed media, rereads, and genre literature


Walk of Shame

Only two works make the Walk of Shame this year, both, sadly, for the same--and perennial--reason.

Hamilton was the greater shocker to me after all the hype about how groundbreaking and magnificent it was. No and no, no-no-no, unless the gimmick of casting Blacks as founding fathers is "groundbreaking." (I will note I saw a play about Mozart 25 years ago in which Mozart was played by a Black, so ...maybe not so groundbreaking). In fact, Hamilton is another play about the Great Man, complete with his struggle from being the son of a "whore" (HT: Rachel) to his being surrounded by a bevy of women (or two anyway) who can think of no higher honor in life than to service and extoll  his greatness. They turn on him for a time when they find out he has been sleeping with a "whore"--depicted as the seductress who broke down the defenses of the Great Man--but, naturally, his "women" forgive him and resume their handmaiden roles. After all, where would we be without himpathy, a term coined by Kate Manne to describe all the extra sympathy our society pours out on the male? How could he not be forgiven? After all, men can't help themselves can they? 

As I said to myself while watching it: I should have known. Of course, this is why people are falling all over themselves to praise this play: it exalts the Great Man and shows him serviced by his willing women. It depicts the women in their two traditional roles: whores and handmaidens--and that is it. What more could we want? Could there be, possibly, a straight line between plays like this and electing a Donald Trump?

I will give the following a slight break as it was written in the 1940s: Robert Heinlein's "By his Bootstraps." This is a reiterative time travel story, about a young man who repeatedly goes back in time on a loop. Not only does it's publication date many decades ago give it a break, Heinlein clearly means his protagonist to be seen as a jerk, both of which put it ahead of Hamilton. However, it is yet another incredibly tiresome iteration of male fantasy: when he crosses time, the male enters a society where he is the only male and beautiful female handmaids are waiting to service his every need. I don't think we need to rehearse how persistent this fantasy is, how much it is a fantasy, and how bad it is: as long as men subconsciously feel this is the role women should be fulfilling, they are going to be angry at women for failing to meet expectations. Literature clearly keeps replicating this meme because it is so deeply embedded in the male psyche. (It is even imbedded in Genesis.) The problem is, it is not real. This is not what women want, though they have conformed to the model to survive.

How do we start getting beyond this? A first place is to stop heaping praise on "art" that expresses this theme, from Hamilton to Phantom Thread to ... the list goes on. We have to start calling this stuff out for the false narrative that it is, as false as any "happy plantation" story. I have to say I feel for Blacks who have to fight the same racist battles over and over again. 

Filmed Media:

Moving on to happier topics, while I didn't watch any memorable movies this year--I can hardly remember the new Emma or Little Women-- I did see some powerful  mini-series.

Lila and Lenu: female friendship in My Brilliant Friend, season 2.

My Brilliant Friend, season two: Based on Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet novels, the first two seasons of this mini-series have been superb. If season two failed to catch all of the nuance of the novel--and sometimes flattened it to borderline chick lit--it still hewed extraordinarily close to the novel and was filmed with intelligence, empathy, and high production values. I greatly look forward to season three, which I am told releases in the U.S. at the end of  April. 

A French Village: Everyone is complicit

A French Village: This  series about a French town occupied by the Nazis in World War II is extraordinary in the way it makes everyone complicit. A marked contrast to many earlier good and evil narratives in which pure and heroic resistance fighters take on Satanic Nazis, A French Village illustrates the painful decisions and compromises everyone--and that is everyone--makes to survive and the way a war can do permanent damage to a psyche. The series shows the impossibility in real life of placing people into black and white categories of good and evil. It is gripping, heart-breaking, and astonishing in following many of the central figures into old age, where they are faced with the myths and misconceptions of what people think the war was like. It underscores deeply Dorothy Day's repeated contention that it is vital to create societies in which it is "easier for people to be good."

The Vow: Thoughtful people get caught in a cult

The Vow: This documentary about the cult NXVIM and its founder Keith Raniere was especially timely in a year that the political con of Trumpism was beginning to show its weakness. The documentary makers had an extraordinary wealth of resources in that NXVIM seems to have videotaped just about everything they ever did. Further, it deliberately played on successful people, often actors, so the key figures are attractive and compelling personalities. This series challenges stereotypes that cult members are troubled teenaged runaways to show how slick con artists can manipulate the best intentions of highly functioning people. 

The Undoing: The fabulously rich are not just like you and me.

The Undoing: What I love best about this series, without providing a spoiler, is the feminist twist. Beyond that, this mini-series is sleek, well produced, shows some of the pathology of the very wealthy, and features excellent actors and a suspenseful story with surprises along the way. 

The Crown: This highly flawed season is nevertheless notable for some hitting some high points as it introduces the dramatic and doomed marriage of Charles and Diana. 

Hannah Gadsby's Nanette: This stand-up comedy show is extraordinary in its honesty, humanity, and boundary breaking--and is a beautiful send-up of Picasso's misogyny.  It was one of the best shows I have ever seen. I can't recommend it too strongly--and urge people to give it time to unfold. 

As an aside, two seemingly inane comedy series show a trend from cruel to humane and thoughtful humor: Schitt's Creek and The Good Place


A prize reread was the book Rockwell Kent edited in 1939 called World Famous Paintings. This is a book of 100 art plates that my brother and I spent a good deal of time poring over as children in the boring days before the internet. I was delighted to find it, buy a copy, and revisit beloved old art. Needless to say, this  book does not reflect modern multicultural inclusivity about art, but it does have Kent's humane and progressive voice to animate it. He is quick to point out that he did not choose the paintings he was tapped to write about, but he writes about even those he doesn't like with intelligence and wit. It was such a treat to reconnect with this book. As chance would have it, my friend Jane lives in Maine near Kent's former home on Monhegan island--his museum/house is closed during the pandemic, but I look forward to visiting it when it reopens and look forward next year to finding a bio of him.  

As always, I reread Jane Austen this past year. I was "in" all the novels multiple times, but most particularly focused on Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion.  I reread a few old Agatha Christies too, largely because I keep circling around a connection between Austen and Christie. I bought a copy of Katherine by Anya Seton, a historical novel I read at 12, and which helped start my fascination with English history. However, I just haven't been able to bring myself to reread it, despite its reputation for historical accuracy. I also have wanted to revisit Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night, a book that reads more as a rough draft than a finished novel, but worth a second read. In addition, I'd like to delve back into Tokarczuk's Flights, but haven't yet done it. Rereads, I find, are difficult, as life sweeps along so rapidly. 

Genre Literature: 

For whatever reason, I read more genre literature--science fiction, mystery, even a horror novle--than I usually do, possibly because of the pandemic. I read two Elizabeth George mysteries for the first time, and reread several Agatha Christies, as well as E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case, beloved of both Dorothy Sayers and Virgina Woolf. I read two science fiction novels, both nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award and was very disappointed--surely there is better speculative fiction out there that isn't making it up the ladder? A young man who grew up in Barnesville, John Wood, whose father I know, published the excellent Lady Chevy, a horror novel. This pushed me out of my normal boundaries into a genre that meets the dysfunction of our times face to face.  

The most notable genre reading I did was Agatha Christie's Curtains, about the death of detective Hercule Poirot, a humane mystery based on Othello. What fascinates me about Christie is her concern with the people who do terrible things but in ways the legal system isn't designed to capture.

I was also delighted to read Pierre Bayard's Who Killed Roger Ackroyd and Sherlock Holmes was Wrong, recommended by Constance. Bayard, a French literary theorist, proposes a different killer for the Christie classic, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in the first book, and a different killer for Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles.  If the Holmes book is more convincing, both are fascinating alternative interpretations that show how writers may hide truths from themselves (though I wouldn't put it past Christie to set up an alternative ending and leave it for the reader to figure out.)

As I reread several Christies this past year, including And then there were None, I was fascinated to pick up every more hints that Jane Austen was a central influence on her, reminding me of a quote from Elizabeth Sandifer's Basilisk book: 

The defeated operate from shadows and hidden places, and the legacies they leave are cryptic and secret.

Christie hardly ended her life defeated as she was one of the most successful mystery writers of all times, but the early death of her father (along with his financial carelessness) and subsequent struggles formed her-- as they did Austen, who came from the same marginal edge of the upper middle class. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Best Non-fiction read in 2020

 While 2020 was thin on novels for me, it was a rich year for non-fiction reading, making it difficult to pick out only a few books. 

However, these were standouts:

Bob Blaisdell Creating Anna Karenina:  I found Blaisdell's granular approach to Tolstoy's creation of Anna Karenina utterly riveting: I could scarcely put this book down. If I did not agree with all of his interpretations of Anna Karenina and thought he cast Tolstoy's long-suffering wife in a slightly unflattering light, this is a gripping book and a remarkable achievement. I reread Anna Karenina several years ago, and found it extraordinary, but I had never been especially drawn to Tolstoy. Now, however, I feel I know him in a new way--and have a new understanding how the novel's depiction of sophistication appealed to early readers. Questions linger: how can the man who brutally raped his frightened bride in a train car be reconciled with the person so humanely concerned with writing a primer to expand literacy to the Russian peasants? Tolstoy comes across as a mixed bag of entitled aristocrat and emotional lover of his wife, family, and the common man--and definitely someone who didn't want to write the masterpiece that obsessed and repelled him for four years--and that he finished, he claimed, solely for the money it would bring. 

Elizabeth Sandifer, NeoReaction: A Basilisk: This take down of the alt-right is a dense read, and I struggled in an uphill climb before I began racing across its pages in gamboling leaps and bounds of enthusiasm. (Now, there's a sentence!) Scholar Sandifer, transgendered from Philip to Elizabeth, has a Phd in English literature, a background in gaming culture and a love of science fiction, making her as comfortable in Paradise Lost as Call of Duty. She is a Marxian transplant from England to the United States and has a probing, intelligent, and fearless mind. She does not write to pander to an audience. In one paragraph, she will offer  cogent insight into Stanley Fish's Surprised by Sin:

Satan argues that knowledge of Good and Evil will make doing Good easier, and that this knowledge is how God’s goodness is attained, such that defiance of God is actually a means of drawing closer to him. It’s obviously a flawed argument—that’s Milton’s point after all. But it’s got a compelling move at its heart, which is the way in which it uses the desire for holiness to create sin.


In another paragraph, she will designate certain people "fucking idiots"  or call a disingenuous argument a "dick move." She brings Paradise Lost into the modern idiom:

Satan opens by negging Eve, accusing her of looking at him “with disdain, Displeas’d that I approach thee thus, and gaze Insatiate, I thus single, nor have feard Thy awful brow,” which may be the earliest instance of telling someone they have resting bitch face.

Above all, Sandifer is done with stupidity, which she locates as the defining trait of the alt-right:

the key realization about the alt-right—one that’s been implicit through much of this book, but is worth making explicit as we come to a close: they’re stupid. I do not suggest this to diminish their horror. Far from it: the essential horror of the abyss is stupidity. That’s why it’s an abyss. The unique and exquisite danger of stupidity is that by its nature, it is beyond reason. There is nothing that can be said to it, because by definition it wouldn’t understand. It is an ur-basilisk—the one terrifying possibility that haunts every single argument that has ever been made. It is a move without response, playing by no rules other than its own, which do not generally include any obligation towards consistency. It is, in its way, the only approach that can never lose an argument. And in the alt-right and its affiliates we have one of the most staggeringly vast nexuses of raw stupidity the world has ever crafted. To be clear, my contention is not merely that the alt-right is stupid, nor even that its individual adherents are. It is and they are, but the problem is more fundamental: the alt-right is stupidity. It’s the elemental particle of which every part is comprised. To engage in alt-right thinking is to turn one’s self into a vacuous skinsuit animated by raw stupidity. There is literally not a single shred of non-stupidity in the entire thing. 

Is the above insightful or a mere ranting reprisal of what we already know? I would  say insightful. Sandifer does not just, as many of us might, state this opinion as an a priori, as a self evident starting point. Instead, she has spent hundreds of pages illustrating and dissecting with surgical precision, with logic, and with a startlingly humane clarity the stupidity she now condemns. She, of all people, has a right to her impassioned summation.  

I could go on almost endlessly about this book. It's written with Orwellian anger and intelligence, pulls no punches, and is especially strong in its evisceration of the Austrian School of Economics. As I been thinking recently about how we understand time, I will include a quote from Basilisk about time: 

The abstraction of time, enforced on humanity by the rule of capitalist production, is of course one of Marx’s major complaints. For the Austrians [monetary school] it is the basis of the rewards reaped by promethean entrepreneurs for their virtuous deferrals. ... To quote the monster [Marx, as Sandifer ironically characterizes the Austrian School seeing him] directly: “Milton produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature.” Marx would like all labour to be like that, and sees no fundamental reason why it shouldn’t. For Marx, that would be humanity returning to nature. In nature, time would just be the playground.

I imagine much of the response to this book would be "I don't get it," along with a discomfort over her transgressive boundary breaking. I have the idea I will try to blog about the book for those reasons--we shall see. 

 Francesca Wade's Square Haunting: Five Lives in London Between the War.  This is a book I love from early this year, before Covid struck. In it Wade focuses on literary and scholarly women who lived in London's Mecklenburgh Square between  World War I and World War II: H.D., Dorothy Sayers, Eileen Power, Jane Harrison, and Virginia Woolf. I have blogged about this book three times already, so won't say much more. I have read some vitriolic pushback against it, because Wade shows these women in a progressive light, especially Power, Harrison, and Woolf, and that makes some people uncomfortable. Woolf is clearly a radical, as Wade shows her to be, not an effete elitist. Woolf's radicalism is an insight Erich Auerbach arrived at in the 1940s in his Mimesis--and Woolf, ironically, disturbed him as ushering in the rule of the mob. Though we might, on the contrary, welcome rather than fear her democratizing impulses, he understood her as many to this day don't. 

Wade, quite consciously, only focuses on a sliver of the lives she follows, catching these women as they intersect with the time they lived in the square. Wade writes out of hermeneutic of generosity, and  I deeply appreciated that, as well her placing these women within the broader social and political currents in which they worked and  interacted. 

Pam MorrisJane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Worldly Realism: I read this book, too, early in the year, before Covid hit. I found it an immensely satisfying analysis of similarities between Austen and Woolf's writing, rooting both of them in a Scottish Enlightenment outlook that values the concrete. It was a book I wanted to be longer: how often does one say that about a scholarly work? It is very expensive, a problem in and of itself, but I was able to find a low cost used copy in superb condition and assume others could. 

Heather Clark, Red Comet: As with Blaisdell's Creating Anna Karenina, I blazed through this new Plath biography in record time--at least after the  somewhat murky first part of her life. From the point  Plath arrives in New York for her Mademoiselle internship to her final days, I couldn't put the 800 page volume down (or more precisely, the laptop on which I was reading it). Clark at times gives Hughes too much of a break, but at other times skewers him, such as when as she quotes those who opine Plath's work will last while his won't. Clark shows Plath's dedication to her writing as a vocation, and  Plath's development from a sometimes cringe-inducing student poet to her Ariel days, in which her poetry breaks all bounds.  Clark also offers a convincing  theory as to why Plath committed suicide. As an aside, I read recently that Ted Hughes and Prince Charles were friends, uniting over a shared interest in environmentalism. It is not hard to imagine that these two entitled men bonded ever more strongly over both having wives who far overshadowed them.

Daniel Mendelsohn Three Rings: This is difficult-to-describe book but it delighted me in the way it brought together the OdysseyFrançois Fénelon's  seventeenth-century sequel to the Odyssey, called The Adventures of Telemachus, and Erich Auberbach, author of Mimesis, while weaving in the repeated circular walk in Proust's Recherche and Mendelsohn's family's encounter with the Holocaust. 

In a year in which politics brought con artistry to the forefront, I read several books that revolved around the theme of the con. The best was Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by Ariel Sabar, which uncovers how a man who ran a  internet porn site convinced a prominent Harvard School of Religion scholar to believe a crude forgery of a purported Biblical text was real--and exposed some of the unraveling of academe in the process. I'll also mention Marsha Gessen's highly readable Surviving Autocracy, a book that if fortunately fading from relevance, did a superb job connected the dots on Trumpism. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Best Fiction reads of 2020

 As befits a strange year, my reading patterns deviated from the usual, leaning more heavily into non-fiction and genre literature. Given that a good stand-alone novel is what I love best to sink into, I was sorry not to have read more of these. All that being said, I encountered a wide range of extraordinarily good books. 

Best novels:

Elena Ferrante's The Story of New Name: Some six months after watching the second season of the superb series My Brilliant Friend, I read The Story of a New Name, the second novel in the Neapolitan Quartet.  I had previously read two other Ferrante novels: The Year of Abandonment and My Brilliant Friend. I appreciated both, but neither pulled me wholly into a world the way The Story of a New Name did. Although I had already seen the mini-series that adhered closely to the novel, the novel provided a level of nuance that the series, excellent as it was, flattened. 

If the televised version hovered towards chick lit at times--Lila's romantic frolicking in the waves with the handsome Nino, Lenu's triumphant ending as the successful novelist and scholar who has overcome her impoverished roots--this banality is missing from the pain-saturated novel.  The novel's characters are drawn with nuance--Ferrante never falls into caricature or stereotype. We even feel sympathy at times for the clueless, limited Stefano, despite being appalled at his rapes and beatings of his wife. And while Lila may end up working in a meat packing plant,  unlike in the series, she is never defeated--she, not Lenu, is the true center of the novel.

Ferrante successfully builds and fleshes out the world she began in the first Neapolitan novel. I felt I knew the characters and had a better grasp of the complex community dynamics. I found myself comparing it to some of the more episodic, experimental novels I read this year, such as Overstory and especially, Flights. Ferrante writes, unlike these others, in an old-fashioned, nineteenth century mode of sustained narrative intensity that moves more or less chronologically through time and keeps the focus on one distinct set of characters.  It is not episodic or aphoristic, it does not include trees for characters, it does not move back and forth across  time and space from a mythic Middle East to modern Poland. 

Ferrante pours new matter into an old form, reviving it. This is not a novel that could have been written in the nineteenth century, or more accurately, not a novel that was written. Ferrante takes the kind of nuanced character study writers like Tolstoy and James used on the rich and applies it to the poor. Nobody I can think of, perhaps with the exception of Chekhov in his long short story the "The Peasants,"could write then about the poor the way Ferrante does now. She is not hovering above, not sentimentalizing, not denigrating. These people are fully human and she meets them as equals. These is not Dickens' Cratchits, unrealistically good and deserving, or Oliver Twist--who, after Dickens rightfully excoriating anger, we find out was, after all of oops, sorry,  not really of the poor. Ferrante's are the poor as the poor and with the real (lack of) options poor people--especially woman--had in that time and place.

This is a primarily novel about poor women--it is a woman's novel that no nineteenth century woman could write, because these writers were above the class Ferrante describes, looking down, no matter how sympathetic a Mary Gaskell or a George Eliot might be. What particularly impressed me in Ferrante, because it so closely mirrored the plight of my own mother, and I suspect many women of that time period, is the intense anger Lila experienced at being thwarted in her desire for education. She is, instead, married off at an early age. Ferrante offers no happy ending, no miracle escape or triumphant ascension out of this state. Having to leave school after the fourth grade because her father won't fund her further education, no matter how brilliant she is, relentlessly marks her for life.  Nino shakes her off as too declasse: her class effaces her brilliance.  The power of the book is not, as in Dickens' writing about the "poor," the redemptive thrust, but the fabric of coping with what blows life has dealt you. Ferrante is relentless and unrelenting, fierce, and angry.  I have book three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, on the table beside me, and I can hardly wait to read it. 

Vigdis Hjorth's Will and Testament. I finished this book very recently. It's a gripping, apparently semi-autobiographical first-person account of a Norwegian woman in her late 50s as she struggles with her family's inability to acknowledge the childhood incest she suffered. This is not a book so much about incest as about how families deny shaming secrets. It is also, concretely, a book about inheritance. Like Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, it deals with the impact of the material world, the way some members of a family are rewarded and others punished through the apportionment of goods. 

Hjorth is like Austen too in her acerbic wit. As Austen does in her dead-pan rehearsal of how John and Fanny Dashwood talk themselves out of a deathbed promise to help John's mother and half sisters, so Hjorth mocks the platitudes of the sister who endlessly professes she "cares," while siding with power and her own self interest. She mocks the cliches:

Being an outsider makes you resourceful. Loss makes you resourceful. Poverty makes you resourceful, as does fighting with the tax office, being oppressed makes you resourceful. If you’re lucky enough to be successful, you mustn’t forget that, the skills you acquired when you were utterly miserable.

Hjorth, like Austen, is angry, and that anger drives the narrative.

As I connected this book to Austen, I thought about how books are typically, wrongly I often think, labelled Austenian. This year I watched and read, for instance, Sally Rooney's Normal People, because it was likened to Austen. It is a romance, but the chief point of connection people pointed to was Connell, the male protagonist, speaking eloquently about Emma in a seminar class, which for me is not enough of a connection. I found the novel thin; I did not find it particularly Austenian. 

Other novels of interest among those I read this year include Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent, Olga Tokaczuk FlightsStefan's Zweig's The Royal GameChina Achewbe Things Fall Apart, and William Morris's News from Nowhere. I read News for Nowhere in an on-line literature group: we agreed that Morris' socialist utopia, which feels more than a little like  Disney World with better food and without the carnival rides, is marred by Morris' sexism. Once again, it's important to reiterate that women don't, on the whole, have utopian dreams of becoming man's handmaidens. However, there is something deeply compelling in his vision of a garden world, ecologically sustainable and without money, in which people are healthy and content. 

Conrad's Secret Agent is also marred by sexism and by its mean-hearted caricature of revolutionaries. An appalling, destructive patriarchy alienated me, too, from the sympathy I felt I was supposed to feel for Achewbe's tormented protagonist in Things Fall Apart or the sorrow I was expected to feel for the loss of his social order. However, I appreciated the simplicity of its language, and the way the novel highlighted the destructive effects of a patriarchy where brutality towards women and children is normalized and saving face is all important--more important than life itself. And as I have been thinking much about the experience of time this year, I thought I would end with a quote from Flights, from a book ironically about the centrality of travel and movement  at a time we are all grounded:

". . . and perhaps it is possible,” she heard him say, “to look into the past, cast our glances backward, imagine it as a panopticon of sorts, or, dear friends, to treat the past as though it still existed, it’s just that it’s been shifted over into another dimension. Maybe all we need to do is change our way of looking, look askance at it all somehow. Because if the future and the past are infinite, then in reality there can be no ‘once upon,’ no ‘back when.’ Different moments in time hang in space like sheets, like screens lit up by one moment; the world is made up of these frozen moments..."


 Some of the notable short stories I read this year include the following:

I most enjoyed Sylvia's Plath's "Sunday at the Mintons," a pastiche of Virginia Woolf, written under the influence of To the Lighthouse. It won one of the Mademoiselle's two $500 first prize awards in 1952. To my mind, it may well have been influenced by Truman Capote's 1945 Mademoiselle story "Miriam," another interesting read. 

Nadine Gordimer's "The Moment Before the Gun Went Off" is an eviscerating critique of South Africa's apartheid written in a mode reminiscent especially of Woolf, but that I imagine Austen would have appreciated.

Margaret Atwood's "Death by Landscape" stuck with me powerfully, a tale of loss in an ekphrastic mode in which a woman, decades later, is still seeking a lost friend in Canadian landscape paintings. 

I read Alice Walker's iconic 1970s  "Everyday Use" for the first time,  still a powerful indictment of cultural appropriation. 

Sally Rooney's "At the Clinic" launched Marianne and Connell, the main characters in Normal People. It is notable for its coldness. The lack of security  Marianne feels with Connell mirrors the bleak isolation and desolation that lead Anna Karenina to commit suicide: today, apparently, they are normal for a relationship. The story is reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill's "Mirrorball" and Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Woman" and may have something to do with why aggrieved Incels can't get dates. 

As this has taken enough time, I will turn in the near to future blogs to the best non-fiction I read in 2020, the best filmed media I watched, genre fiction, and rereads 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: A second lockdown

In the past few weeks, Covid numbers have skyrocketed. I am staying home, giving up the yoga classes, the eating out (primarily in outdoor settings) that had gradually seeped back into life during the warm fall, the bits of non-essential shopping, the small physical gatherings. 

World War II has become a touchstone as I hunker down for another few months of isolation. If there was novelty in the first round of social isolation, now comes a grimmer feeling of holding on, especially as the enemy feels closer to the gate: the numbers are skyrocketing not just in some distance place, but where I live. 

Virgina Woolf observed the changes that descended on London during World War II, remembering when: 

houses were open and crowded with friends ... everyone brimming with radical ideas and possibilities.

Now, however, London had become:

merely a congerie of houses lived in by people who work. There is no society, no luxury, no splendor, no gadding and flitting. All is serious and concentrated. It is as if the song had stopped ...

Tavistock Square: One of the Woolf's London homes

 Woolf's description does not describe exactly how my life has changed, as I never was flitting from party to party, but it is close enough to catch the gist. Physical social interactions have all but ceased: what  little "gadding" I'd resumed has once again stopped. 

Yet, I tell myself, there is no threat of bombs dropping, no blackouts, no rationing. We have the comfort of space, rural emptiness, a view of a lake, books, music, film, Zooms, the life of the mind. I have found a literature discussion group, and a Zoom community. 

There has, too, been the heartening election that means the reign of terror brought on by an unhinged leader will soon be over. I read--fittingly enough-- that last time people danced and celebrated in the streets the way they did over Biden's election was at the end of World War II. We did not dance in the streets, but we popped open a bottle of champagne--the first time I can remember doing that for a presidential election. I have been sleeping peacefully through the night since that time. 

Then the virus hit again. We had planned to rent an airBnB so we could meet Will and Olivia halfway between our homes for Thanksgiving. Instead, we zoomed on Thanksgiving with them and Sophie and Ben. Roger and Nick and I made our own meal. 

For about a decade, I had abhorred cooking. But since the pandemic--actually this started slightly ahead of that-- I have been enjoying it again. I liked making the Thanksgiving dinner with Roger, each of us working on our own dishes. 

We hope Will can join us for Christmas, but even so, it will be another quiet celebration. Last Christmas when he visited, we had a fine time doing last minute shopping and going out to dinner--a time that seems a hundred years ago now. It is one of the last moments I can remember that I didn't have a nagging worry about Covid--by late January, when I flew to visit Jane in Maine, I had bought a mask, which I didn't use, but later was very glad to have.


Time in the age of Covid is a subject of an article in Venkatesh Rao in a publication called Noema, put out by the Berggruen Institute, which describes itself as hoping to transform  capitalism and free markets so that they can better respond to climate change and other challenges. While I am highly dubious of any project trying to save so called "free markets,"  the article is nevertheless interesting, if only for providing one of the more creative metaphors for Covid I have ever read:

In lieu of being beamed back up by Scotty, we put ourselves through elaborate decontamination rituals upon our return to base, to rid ourselves of invisible tribbles.
Tribbles from the original Star Trek. Maybe a little too cute for Covid?

 Rao also evokes The Terminator, a movie that couldn't be more relevant as frame for both Trump and a deadly virus, writing: 

The virus could not be bullied, argued with, negotiated with or stopped. (The Terminator quote: "That Terminator is out there! It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!")
He has to strike before his threat can be felt

Rao's point is that Covid has us suspended in a liminal time or time out of time. We are a water drop, waiting to fall. Or as Rao puts it:

Aion rules ... outside of time .... The weeks and months spent in pandemic time will be weeks and months spent outside of time itself, in Aion’s doorway.

Rao evokes Virginia Woolf to talk about time. He gets her wrong: Mrs. Dalloway was hardly her first novel, and Chronos or the factory time of the clock hardly began with the modernist era, but his evocations at least point to the increasing importance of Woolf as a cultural icon. 

He might have better pointed to the sense of stasis she experienced during World War II, which was a similar period of waiting.  For example, characters in Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy, set in the early 1940s, wonder when the war will ever end. Will it go on for a decade? Will they ever have the chance for a normal life?

After the war, life went back to "normal" surprisingly quickly, and for a few years,  looked much like life before the war, although, at least in Europe and Japan, with many ruined buildings. But life did change fundamentally because people irrevocably began to understand the world differently.  It will be interesting to see if the same holds true now. 

The most hopeful note of change I see, and one that started before the pandemic, pushes back against the socially destructive  "me me" individualism that has been rampant since the late 1970s.  I came across this in the New York Times, in which a student writes to Jil, an advice columnist, about  his wish Biden would forgive student loans. For me, the piece's relevance is in its inconsequence. This is no grand philosophical  statement but someone trying to advise the other on the mundane nitty gritty of life in a practical:

My uncle [when the writer wished his loans forgiven] angry and took it very personally: “No one forgave my student loans!” I didn’t know how to respond or if I should have. But it’s awkward now. Any advice?


Your uncle’s apparent grievance at the prospect of social progress seems odd. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, for instance, I don’t recall older members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community expressing bitterness that they hadn’t enjoyed the right to marry in their youth. No, we all celebrated the decision as a big step on the road to greater equality.

Same with student debt. The ever-rising cost of higher education has long worked as barrier to students of lesser means and saddled others with crippling debt loads. Black and Latino students have been disproportionately affected. And I would expect people who had experienced this hardship personally to applaud student debt reform.

Jil's support of social unity that applauds the good of others as a good for all and exposes the  attitude of the uncle as mean-spirited, selfish, and petty, is a welcome change. If the virus and the recent appalling spectacle in government and the looming climate change disaster bring us to realize once again what other generations have known--that we are in this together--that would be fairly remarkable. 

Getting back to time, I wonder--will the time before the pandemic seem utterly different? Will this be the great dividing line or simply a blip before we slip back into our old lives?

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Lady Chevy: An Interview with John Woods

John Woods's first book, Lady Chevy, a horror novel, is set in Barnesville, Ohio, the town where he grew up and I live. In the novel, 18-year-old Amy Wirkner, nicknamed Chevy because of her weight, shares a trailer with her parents and infant brother Stonewall. Her parents--and most of her adult relatives--have been psychologically deformed in various ways by relentlessly harsh lives. The latest issue they are contending--and colluding--with is the widespread fracking in their area. In this mythic, inferno-like Barnesville, water bursts into flame as it comes out of faucets, and infant Stonewall suffers seizures and froths at the mouth. The family breaks out in rashes, their eyes burn, they cough. Amy is both laconic and angry over the situation, laying the blame on her parents for signing a contract:
The fracking rig is an industrial spire at the back of our property line, about a quarter mile from our trailer. At night, its twenty-foot flame enchants the orange horizon, a fire’s dance, a hellish light that is no light. We get a check for $900 every month. Mom cashes it quickly, ashamed to have it in her home. The land is ours. It’s still ours. We sold the mineral rights, but that wasn’t all they took.


Amy studies to earn a scholarship to Ohio State so that she can become a vet. At a party, she runs into her close friend Paul. He persuades her to drive the truck he is taking into a fracking station to help sabotage a fracking plant. Plans go awry, and Amy ends up killing a guard--though nobody beyond Paul initially knows she is involved. From there, her nightmare widens. 

Perhaps the best social and political context for Lady Chevy  is China Mieville's 2015 essay “On Social Sadism:" ( Woods makes art out of the sadism Mieville describes as endemic to neo-liberalism: in Woods's telling, Barnesville is one of the locus points on which a neo-capitalist culture of power has unleashed its fury. Mieville's concepts of "a normalised sadism" emerges concretely in this novel. Woods's description of poisonous fracking, is the language of rape:

The earth trembles beneath us, hydraulic blasting, deep groans in the subterranean dark. Chemicals strip away shale, seep into the aquifers, contaminate the soil, and extract natural gas to feed our nation.

and becomes an embodiment of Ann Coulter "gloss" of Genesis 1:28:
God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet — it’s yours.’ (Mieville)
The larger society's cruelty is inscribed on Amy's body (an added "value" of her 270 pounds is more opportunity for shaming) and those of her family and neighbors, who alternatively are filled with abject self loathing and an equal and opposite will to suppress compassion to present themselves as ruthlessly  "strong." When not abject, they become the mirrors of the dominant sadism.

The characters often lash themselves as harshly as the billionaire class berates them, and many internalize the ethic of the sociopath. To escape and to make something of herself is Amy's driving passion--but as the novel illustrates, for the poor, the cost of such a will for success becomes a never-ending horror story. Amy's deep temptation is to adopt a fascist morality, as articulated to her by Officer Hastings:
“God does not exist. Neither do human rights ...The strong know this, deep down. But we must return to a time long before Christian crosses and Jewish prophets, when the ideas of equality and good and evil were recognized as the idiocies they are”

-- which replicates the ethics of the master, as described by Mieville:
‘The ability psychopaths [in the financial sector] have to turn down their empathy and block out other concerns make them the best operators in high- pressure environments,’ McNab tells the Telegraph. ...
Woods shows the colonized as living in the midwest United States. The bleakness of the novel is the deep shade of the dark enlightenment turned against its own.  Mieville states:
The Enlightenment was always a dark enlightenment. Viciousness and brutality in their most unmediated forms were still – and are – deemed appropriate for the colonies.
Woods uses relentlessly hard hitting sentences and a consistently dark tone to amplify a story animated by a compelling central character and surprising plot twists. Beyond the strong writing and story, it is worthwhile to read the book to explore the consequences of internalizing the sadism of the colonizer. 

All of the above is  prelude to an interview: I had an opportunity for a conversation with John via e-mail about his book and writing life:

1. Me: As we discussed briefly, I have lived for the last 12 years in Barnesville, where the story is set. To a resident like me, the Barnesville you describe, though it keeps some of the street names and mentions some familiar places, is a dark, Gothic version of the town as I know it. Could you talk a little bit about why you used the name Barnesville, and what drove the darker vision of the town? 

John:  I grew up in Barnesville, Ohio. It is my hometown. My childhood was filled with memorable and formative experiences. My family lived just off Main Street next to The First Presbyterian Church, where my dad was pastor. As a child, I had great freedom. I left my front door, rode my bicycle, and explored the town: the Victorian houses, the abandoned factories, the shaded hills, and the dark woods surrounding everything. I got in all kinds of adventures with friends. But in a small, Appalachian community, life is hard. Children are not sheltered from reality, or poverty. You see a lot. You grow up fast. You become haunted. .... at first, I wrote about a no-name town in an undefined state. Then I wrote about a place suspiciously called Belmont. ...  all my writing fell flat. None of it worked. And it didn’t work because it was not grounded in a place I knew and understood intimately. I was withholding. 

... So, I chose the place that influenced and shaped me most. All of my writing is set in the Ohio Valley, with Barnesville at the center. ... [but] ... My depiction of Barnesville is fictitious. The Barnesville I explore in my writing is not the Barnesville that exists. It is a shadowed stage, a nightmare version of a specific place that reflects the world we all inhabit. 

 2. Me: Amy’s a great character, and a reader tends to be on her side, especially at the beginning, yet her character also leans deeply into a “kill or be killed," “survival of the fittest mentality.” Can you talk a little about that, and why you choose that path for her?

John:  I fear such thinking lurks at the core of Amy’s family, our country, and the world. I feel Amy chose her own path. One can’t be surrounded by such darkness without being influenced by it. 

 3. Me: A good writer can—and no doubt should!!-- get inside the head of all sorts of characters that aren’t “them,’ but I am interested in why you chose a female protagonist. 

John:  My fiction involves many different characters and narrators, men and women and children. First person is a special thing. Before writing in first person, a voice must come to me, and then I must inhabit the mental space and language of that distinct voice. That may sound odd, but it’s true. I listen to the voices. And so, the choosing of a female protagonist was not deliberate. Amy’s voice sounded clearer than the others, a kind of severe sorrow and strong resolve tinged with gallows humor and rage, and then I imagined a baby crying on the floor in the shadow of a kitchen where fire came from the faucet instead of water. I imagined a girl wandering that home’s dark halls. That voice, and those images, is what I followed, and then everything developed from that. These voices, of course, are influenced by people I know. And the women in my life have always been strong. And they have always been strong on their own terms, without adhering to any societal conventions of this or that. They are their own authentic selves and make no apologies. They are survivors. 

 4. Me: The novel seems to lack a redemptive moment where good wins over evil in favor of a relentlessly “good guys finish last” ethos. Could you comment on that? 

John: I consider Lady Chevy to be an antithesis to Crime and Punishment. That is the comparison that lingered with me as I wrote Amy’s story. Except here, those redemptive forces are not victorious. I value moral ambiguity, and the existential dread that arises from it. I feel it is dangerous to assume our world is stable, and that a civilization’s moral compass is dependable. 

 5. Me: Amy’s ironically named Uncle Tom, a survivalist Nazi, turns out to be a hollow man—talk rather than action-- or so I took him to be. Why is that? Does that motivate Amy to act? 

John:  Thomas Schmidt is a traumatized character, primarily from his war experiences in Iraq, but also from a “violent childhood.” I understand him as a man possessed by an ideology that does not align with his true self. I would not mistake him as hollow, because I think he truly believes such racist hatred and would act upon it under the right circumstances. But he avoids those circumstances by isolating from the world. I wanted to explore what is beneath such racism, diminishing human beings into nothing more than their biology. And I believe it is the allure of Fascism. Fascism is the amoral application of power, a worldview where “Might makes Right,” and violence ultimately achieves all ends. This pathology then characterizes the state, and its defined people, at the expense of all others. In a toxic environment, these horrific ideas seem attractive and empowering. This is the dynamic between Tom and Amy. Their relationship is an unusual form of influence, because I am not certain either knows transmission is happening. Amy is not a racist, but she is negatively affected by Tom’s worldview. Tom eventually comes to understand this. But it is too late. 

 6. Me: Amy says: 'Barton Shoemaker was never evil to me, just a loving grandpa who told me all life is struggle, an evolutionary war of survival, winners and losers, those who eat and those who get eaten. He told me all this like a bedtime story. I never liked it. I didn’t like how it tore away at everything good. He said it makes a person sad, makes them sick, alone, even when it’s necessary, even after you’ve chosen what side you’re on and carved your name in stone. It all seems wrong and makes you feel wrong. But that doesn’t make any of it incorrect, does it." AND "We’re the apex predator now, nothing to fear but ourselves. I’d eat someone to survive. No doubt in my mind. In a cold, dead world of infinite winter, without sunlight or crops or plants, where nothing grows, a fallen world, I’d chain people up in my basement, harvest them as resource, choose the finest cuts. I’d remove their tongues first, a kind of delicacy. It would stop their talking." Amy, especially in the second quote, seems to have internalized some of the masculinized memes of our culture, at least the far right culture, in large part, I assume, because of her male role models. It seems to me she has developed a gap between her feelings—what feels “wrong” --and her intellect. Are we meant to take away that her intellect has blind spots? Or are we supposed to feel that in her situation she has no choice but to divorce herself from her feelings if she wants to survive? She doesn’t seem to be a sociopath—for example, she has real feelings for her little brother—but she does seem to make a choice to aggressively tamp down her humanity. Can you comment on that? 

John: This is all connected with the previous question concerning Tom’s influence. His intellect has hardened his spirit, his humanity. Amy navigates her experiences similarly, so that she can escape punishment. This also speaks to that Darwinian “survival of the fittest mentality,” which echoes throughout the novel. In my writing, I feel it is important to question some of our most sacred assumptions. One of those assumptions is our association of intelligence with goodness, our belief that logic and reason somehow equate to moral authority. I do not trust human intelligence. The creeping presence of Fascism is the undertow of Lady Chevy. The most dangerous thing about Fascism is that under certain conditions its worldview appears convincing, and its violent methods become, in fact, logically persuasive.  

7. Me: Ultimately, the book left me with the take-away that there is no way out of a dog-eat-dog mentality if one is to survive: Hastings and others seem to survive by that ethos. Is there a way out of that loop for the reader? Is that what you meant as the take-away? 

John:  Amy’s story is not prescriptive. And all the characters in Lady Chevy reflect a similar and shared tragedy. I believe tragedy—personal, familial, intergenerational, historical—often becomes cyclical. It is a closed loop, a kind of Mobius strip, forever repeating and alternating. When I critically consider history and the state of our world right now, I am not sure there is a way out. I hope so. But I also feel that if humanity were capable of creating a world without conflict and violence, we would have done it by now. I would like readers to leave Lady Chevy with a sense of empathy, and a greater awareness of our shared tragedy. 

8. Me: Could you comment on some of the writers and genres that have influenced you? 

John:  I am a literary child of Horror. Without an early attraction to Horror stories, I doubt I would be an avid reader, or writer. Only later did I enjoy the genres of Noir and Literary Fiction. Stephen King, Anne Rice, Shirley Jackson, and Edgar Allan Poe were my earliest influences. Then I discovered the Southern Gothic Tradition: William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, then William Gay, Larry Brown, Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, and Tom Franklin, followed by Ohio authors Toni Morrison and Donald Ray Pollock. And then William Golding, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, James Carlos Blake, John Steinbeck, and Raymond Carver. All of them influenced me. But Cormac McCarthy and Sylvia Plath are the writers who unlocked the power of language in me and allowed me to discover my own voice, which is the most important thing. 

 9. Me: And finally, what is your next book about? 

John:  It is a collection of short stories, Something Tender. The stories are all set in Barnesville. They are linked narratives, featuring many of the characters in Lady Chevy. In my writing, I want each work to be autonomous, but to also enhance all the others. It is a shared universe. This collection has been acquired by a publisher in France, but it does not yet have a home with an American publisher. I am currently finishing another novel, a murder mystery set in Barnesville during the 1990s. It explores many of the unanswered mysteries within Lady Chevy.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Journal of a Plagued Year: an election day...good leadership...Macbeth

 Four years ago, on the day before the election, I wrote with optimism that soon the Trump candidacy would be over. I imagined we would be celebrating the election of our first female president, a very highly qualified candidate.  I woke up election day morning to The NewYork Times polls telling the public she had a 95 percent chance of winning. By that evening, her poll numbers had slid to five percent.

Malcolm in Macbeth puts Scotland ahead of personal loyalty to him.

Four years later, older and more sobered, I face tomorrow's election with dread--as I am sure most do on both sides of the aisle. Yes, the polls tell those of us center and left that Biden is ahead, but we've been down that road before. We're told this time the polls are "different." My sense, living amid a sea of Trump flag and banners, is that hardcore Trump supporters don't talk to pollsters, so perhaps the situation is not different. 

I fear, too, that a close election will be quickly contested and end up in a Supreme Court that now contains three justices handpicked by a man who puts personal loyalty to him ahead of all else. I wonder whose side they will be on? One is an entitled imbecile who joined the right Clinton-hating boys' club at the right time, while another is a cold-hearted cult member who recently ruled that a supervisor calling a Black the N-word is not evidence of a hostile work environment. The mind reels.

Still, one hopes. Hope is this and that: I won't rehearse the cliches. To look at the bright side, the current situation has galvanized many people out of political apathy. . 

But what I really wish to talk about is good governance. From the time of Sophocles, who lived in the 400 BC era, thoughtful and ethically grounded people have understood that responsible leaders have a responsibility to put the good of the people ahead of their own self-interest. Oedipus, for example, though an arrogant man, voluntarily exiled himself from Thebes so that his people would no longer suffer a plague. He gave up his power for the benefit of the governed.

In Macbeth, written some 2,000 years later, the same ethic applies. Macbeth, who cares only about his own power, has increasingly thrown his country into chaos, to the point of civil war. He is indifferent to the fact that he has proven himself divisive and unfit to rule. He simply wants to win, no matter how. He makes personal loyalty to him all important: he assassinates those he perceives as a threat.

In contrast, Malcolm, the rightful heir to the kingdom, places loyalty to country ahead of loyalty to self. He tests Macduff in Act IV, scene iii,  pretending to be an evil, greedy, rapacious, and self-interested would-be king. He sums up this false self to Macduff, saying he is:

But I have none: the king-becoming graces,

As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,

Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,

Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,

I have no relish of them, but abound

In the division of each several crime,

Acting it many ways. Nay, had I power, I should

Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,

Uproar the universal peace, confound

All unity on earth.

In other words, Malcolm paints a picture of a poor leader as a man almost exactly like Donald Trump. Malcolm claims not to care about justice, truth, moderation, stability, mercy, humility, devotion, or patience. He says he will do what he can to create disunity and chaos in his country and on earth.

Macduff, as Malcolm hopes he would, recoils in horror. He refuses to have anything to do with such a person, stating that Malcolm is not:

Fit to govern!

No, not to live. 

One of Blake's illustrations of Dante's hell

 Malcolm is well pleased with this answer. As a good king, he wants followers who put loyalty to Scotland ahead of loyalty to him. A person like Macduff  who tells him the truth  is a person he wants behind him.

We might contrast this to what those close to Trump have repeatedly said about him, as reported by Ron Suskind  in The New York Times (

  It all came back to loyalty. He needed to get rid of any advisers or senior officials who vowed loyalty to the Constitution over personal loyalty to him. Which is pretty much what he proceeded to do.

That we might vote in such a man shows we are a country, like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno, that has lost its way. Part of this arises from being propagandized in dramas such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Westworld. Here we see ruthlessness and sociopathology valorized as central to success, not as the unfortunate and evil shadow that sometimes dogs and destroys assertive leaders. We need to go back to a world in which these traits are understood as evil. 

Like Dante, we are now on the brink of the last circles of hell, having spent four years in some of the outer circles. I hope we have learned enough to avoid the rest of the tour, but the future seems very much in the balance.