Category Archives: American Literature

Lincoln in the Bardo

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 5.29.24 PM Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders (2017)
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017

Whatever the former fellow (willie) had, must now be given back (is given back gladly) as it never was mine (never his) and therefore is not being taken away, not at all!
As I (who was of willie but is no longer (merely) of willie) return
To such beauty.
(p.301)

George Saunders is a master of the short story and of philosophical criticism. I will never be able to quite get over the poetry of his evaluation of Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” Read Here. The finesse with which he reads and interprets this classic story speaks of a writer with a nuanced understanding of life and the equivocal pursuit of happiness. These two themes are also common to his first published novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. In this book, Saunders plunges us into a reality of multifarious dimensions. Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln’s son is dead, and yet he is also not dead, nor is he undead. He is trapped in the Bardo.

Just as these multiple states of being appear to be inconsistent with one another, so does the evolution of our understanding of identity and existence which moves through the pages of this strange and evocative book. There is a moment when the residents of the Bardo merge into the essence of President Lincoln. He is at once fundamentally altered, and yet simultaneously comprised of a conglomeration of alternate beings and identities. The ontological consequences of this scene are mind-bending.

There also other moments which elucidate the tenuous nature of our understanding of identity. For example, the need for the characters to append themselves to the thoughts or statements which they decry in order to retain their individuality, is compromised by the fact that each of their statements are moulded strategically by Saunders to add to the plot and progress of the story on a literary level. Thus breaking what appear to be characters into mere pieces of thoughts and memories, devoid of the independent essence of what would have once made them human. In the end, Saunders illustrates that our life is never our own because what we are is not reducible to one life. We all live numerous existences and identities in the space of an instant, and as in the words of Shakespeare;

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.   

It is a rare book which chooses not to capture the impossible complexity contained in an instant, and instead works to convey the weighty significance behind the consequences of such a truth.   

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Tar Baby

Screen Shot 2017-12-03 at 8.41.28 PMTar Baby
Toni Morrison (1981)
Picador, Pan Books Ltd (1991)

I would like to write about the role which nature plays in Tar Baby. Initially, the book seems to be focused on the particular inter-relations between individuals, but as the opening suggests, this is a story about the various universes which coexist outside the levels of our perception. Many of which never touch, nor know about one another’s existence. This operates clearly on the human level, Valerian is orbiting in another existence entirely to his wife and that of the historical past of their son. Similarly, Jadine and Son begin and end their shared history on different wavelengths. These separate revolutions eclipse one another for a short moment (not even a year), only to be thrust back into their respective orbits and realities.

More interesting for myself perhaps, is the kingdom positioned at the natural level. From an anthropomorphic perspective, we could suggest that phrases like “water-lady” (p.3) or “teenage avocado” (p.135) suggest an agency to nature which is operating on a human level, almost as an imitation of human forms and definitions. However, as the book progresses, a different image of the natural world emerges, one which is epistemologically incredibly difficult to fathom given the locked-in nature of human perception. Even so, I would like to suggest that Morrison does at times touch at an understanding of one layer of nature which is external to the human experience. One way to access this layer of symbolism is through the image of the house. In the description of Son’s nocturnal wanderings we see the possibility of parallel universes which co-exist, but never meet:

“He spent some part of every night with her and grew to know the house well, for he sneaked out just before dawn when the kitchen came alive. And he had to admit now, standing in the sunlight, that he had liked living in the house that way. It became his, sort of. A nighttime possession complete with a beautiful sleeping woman. (p.138-139)

Interestingly, Son’s adventures are only nocturnal to the protagonists which command the story, individuals like Valerian and even Jade. They are not nocturnal for Son, for his cycle of rest is at direct odds with the other inhabitants of the house. So once we grasp this symbol of the house, we can see that nature also exists within the story on the level of an alternate universe. If we look back to Son’s initial vision of the house, we see him there, one hand on the tree, eyes looking at the “cool and civilised” (p.134) house, and more than ever the world of nature emerges in sharp contrast to the the world of humans and practical industry. I think this is the only moment in the book when the gulf between one very specific layer of nature, the nature experienced through the sensations of a man on the run who exists on the fringes of human worlds, and the layer of civilised existence, merge. Civilised in the colonial sense, where a mother can abuse her own child due to the perversity of the socialised environment to which she has been brought. It is at this instance, before Son begins to float among the fringes of the world of the house, that nature and human species are rejoined.

Importantly, this coming together of worlds is only possible through the perspective of what one would call an ‘uncivilised man’ in the social lexicon of prison based society. From this lense, Son is a man who has lived on the borders of society, an escaped convict, a criminal and a deserter of his way of existence. And it is through his eyes that the house is incredibly ugly, and of course Son knows this too:

“They are drinking clear water in there, he thought, with ice cubes in it. He should have stayed on the boat for the night.” (p.134)

When viewed through this perspective, the ending is simply Son’s return to a state of being,  which is not to be classified as ‘nature’ for how can we understand that which he has become from without? Again, this would be an endeavour in anthropomorphism. Instead all we can do is watch from afar, in the same way as Son initially viewed the house, and only touch at the universe within.

“By and by he walked steadier, now steadier. The mist lifted and the trees stepped back a bit as if to make the way easier for a certain kind of man.” (p.309)

The Refugees

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 7.47.09 PM

The Refugees
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Corsair
209pp
$32.99 AU
Published February 2017
ISBN 9781472152558

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s latest publication, The Refugees published this year by Corsair, is a collection of stories, all of which contain a tale of mistaken identity. This insightful and illuminating work strikes candidly into the heart of life for many refugees and is intrinsically linked to the idea of personhood and self-actualisation. I experienced a number of certain misjudgements or misappropriations during my reading of each story. I made false assumptions as a reader, and each of these errors are representative of wider, more social misapprehensions of the immigrant experience.

Below is a brief summary of a few key moments contained in the stories which frame my reading:

    • Black-Eyed Women: at the opening of the story we mistake the narrator for a man. However in discussing a brother, now dead, we learn that the narrator is in fact a woman. In this way the classical trope of the double, common to many ghost or gothic stories, is subverted. Although the siblings appear as mirror images of one another, the fractured nature of their story is revealed not only through the outcome of their lives, but in the revelation of their gender.
    • The Other Man: I was unsure of not only Liem’s sexual preference, but also of his opinion of the homosexual relationship between the two men he lives with (p. 28-29). False assumptions such as Liem’s and also of our understanding of Liem’s sexuality, are common to the refugee and immigrant experience.
    • The Transplant: this is a story of fraud and opportunism. In many ways the refugee is often stripped of their own identity and free to pursue another. Whilst this can be an opportunity for growth, it can also deeply complicate a person’s relationship to their homeland. I know that as a second generation immigrant I have often been conflicted as to the depth of my feeling or sense of responsibility to the country of my heritage, from which I am absent.
    • I’d Love You to Want Me: this case of mistaken identity is particularly brutal because it not only affects how Mrs. Khanh is seen through the eyes of another, in this case her husband, but also how she looks at her own life and the identity she has built around being The Professor’s wife. In this story we come to understand that the fragility of personhood is universal, to the extent that there is even a moment where we doubt Mrs. Khanh’s grip of reality.
    • Fatherland: the final story in this collection delves deeply into the motif of the double. The relationship between Phuong and Vivien operates as a binary, reflecting the missed opportunities of Phuong’s life to herself. However, it is not Phuong, the one who never left Vietnam, who has missed out. Instead we appreciate, alongside of Phuong, that it is Vivien who has never fully realised her own chances.  

As a reader experiencing these subversions and twists, I can see the difficulty of reading the stories from my own background. Additionally, I find that the confusion felt rather adds to my experience of each story and heightens an awareness of the importance of perspective. Viet Thanh Nguyen has said he writes for a Vietnamese audience, one which necessarily understands his writing on some level; “Therefore, I would not have to translate, and anybody who didn’t know what I was talking about would have to read more carefully and be more attentive”. Therefore, if these mistakes in identity and perspective are common to my reading of his stories, perhaps the key is not to look at them so much as errors, but rather as keys into an understanding of each tale which would be otherwise inaccessible.

Reading in this way, I found it possible to move through my ignorance not only of the historical events but also of the many various layers of life and identity inherent within each individual refugee experience. Like so many of the mirrors in the written worlds of Jorge Luis Borges, the stories of The Refugees open like windows into an array of parallel universes. Where each one exists in connection to another, in urban settings all throughout America and all over the world.  

Slaughterhouse-Five

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-8-01-55-pmKurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Vintage, London 2000

I thought Slaughterhouse-Five was a completely different book. I imagined that it would be a coming of age tale in a time of war, centered around five young lives and their discovery of a run-down slaughterhouse somewhere in Middle America. I imagined a scene where a dominant child takes to the emotional and even physical torture of another, whilst the others standby as onlookers. I imagined an allegory of war and of the wild and inhumane acts that people perform upon one another.

In many ways this picture is not wrong, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is not so different from my own. It is the story of horror and dread and inexplicable madness. It is also ominous for the greater part of the novel, a quality I saw inherent to my own fantasised version. However, it also tells of the circularity of life and the ever existing movement of life and death. I did not imagine my children of the slaughterhouse to engage so profoundly with the nonexistence of life in a universe where no one really dies: and so on… ad infinitum.

Billy’s idiot-savant approach to life recalls that of Dostoyevski’s Myshkin, and causes the story to unfurl in a manner similar to his unending stream of flashbacks and episodes of time and space travel. There is really no beginning to this story which starts by letting us know exactly how it will end, so that the ending never actually happens. It is as though with each step forward we take two steps back, further into the depths of Billy’s plundered mind.

I don’t know where I got the notion of another entirely different Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps it was from a cover I had once seen, on which five small children could be seen dancing infront of a red barn. Often with a book of such renown and popularity, the contents are often obscured and influenced prior to any reading. This was certainly the case for myself, I couldn’t help but think of Billy as any one of my invented slaughterhouse children, at once tormentor and tormented. In such a way, it is certainly a book to add to The Brief History of Books that do not Exist

Junky

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-9-01-11-pmJunky
William S. Burroughs
Penguin Books, 2009 (1953)

Junky as a title is misleading, for this is not the story of a man, a junky; but rather the story of Junk.

It is no surprise that I approached this book with the idea of an autobiography in the style of Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo journalism. Junky‘s reputation certainly precedes it and having the advantage of over 60 years of fascinated readers, along with its place as a Penguin favourite, meant that I had heard more than a few opinions on its content.

However, Burroughs himself has no intention of fooling us, and makes sure to teach us right from the outset that:

Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life. (xxviii)

What is to come is no raucous trip through the ungrowth of a deep and mesmerizing world of addiction and inhibition, rather it’s the simple but solid fact that junk takes no prisoners. There is no one behind the junky and there is no story about the life behind the junk. All that we see is the stark image of the opiate: how it consumes, empties and retains the user.

None of what Bill does throughout the book has any meaning, nor does it give us any clues as to what motivates his story. The void is filled only by the Junk and its overwhelming power of effacement. Supposedly Bill has a wife and numerous sexual exploits occur, but these are all peripheral, they only exist by virtue of their coming into contact with Junk.

There is one point, towards the end, at which another spectre is given the chance to emerge. Given no name and defined as ‘neither a user nor a seller’, this is something worse than the junky and calls for one of the most descriptive and graphic portrayals in the book:

So this man walks around in the place where he once exercised his obsolete and unthinkable trade. But he is unperturbed. His eyes are black with an insect’s unseeing calm. He looks as if he nourished himself on honey and Levantine syrups that he sucks up through a sort of proboscis. 

What is his lost trade? Definitely of a servant class and something to do with the dead, though he is not an embalmer. Perhaps he stores something in his body – a substance to prolong life – of which he is periodically milked by his masters. He is as specialised as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function. (112)

What we see here is the description of a being no longer useful as seen through the lens Junk. The Junk has now assumed the role of narrator and tells of a horrible creature now devoid of any value through an absence of usefulness. It doesn’t crave the drug nor even try to control it in the way the Law might, it is a parasite of the ultimate order and now abhorred.

In comparison the junky is painted as a pleasing and degenerative soul for whom a passion for Junk is justifiable and even encouraged. In many ways the junky is simply another form of organic matter waiting to be consumed:

We are turning into plants. (147)

At first difficult to understand and even frustrating, Junky soon shows itself as but another rhythm of life, ebbing onwards at a slow and dull beat.