Tag Archives: Relationships

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 Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 5.37.36 PM

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Milan Kundera
Kniha Smichu a Zapomneni (1978)
Le Livre du Rire at de L’oubli (1979)
Translated from Czech by Michael Henry Heim (1982)
Faber and Faber (1992)

 

So much of Milan Kundera’s writing in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” is exceptionally self-aware of his role as a writer. More so than perhaps the content of his book, I was struck with the layers of perception which filter through its structure. Interspersed with the poetic and incredibly fragile vignettes which expound on the themes of memory and laughter, is a consistent stream of conscious elaboration of the nature and form of literature. I can’t say that I know much about re-explaining or reconceptualising something said with undeniable poetry and feeling, but I do know how to see the layers between the phrases and to uncover some of what builds to their meaning. In the case of Kundera, even they layering of his structure is poetic. So if we take what Kundera himself says, that the book is a form of variations all leading to one intangible yet synthetic whole, then each of the characters are but constellations of separate universes. Tamina revolves in and around a certain memory of herself and her home, filtering through shared wavelengths but never touching the worlds of Mirek and Marketa. Often in this book, it appears more like the stories are woven apart rather than together.

Americanah

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 9.23.55 PMAmericanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2013)
4th Estate, Great Britain (2017)

“She felt his words like a melody and she felt herself breathing unevenly, gulping at the air. She would not cry, it was ridiculous to cry after so long, but her eyes were filling with tears and there was a boulder in her chest and a stinging in her throat. The tears felt itchy. She made no sound. He took her hand in his, both clasped on the table, and between them silence grew, an ancient silence that they both knew. She was inside this silence and she was safe.” (439)

It felt like the whole book was leading to this moment, in Chapter 52, when Obnize and Ifemelu are to be together once again. They have both travelled so far, both in distance and in spirit, only to be reunited for this chapter. In what Adiche dexterously describes in the matter of a few moments, they are able to travel together through all of the layers of one another’s lives which they have missed. Within seconds of their second conversation, held now in Ifemelu’s lounge room, Obnize brings their relationship out of shared or separate memories into the present, into the very nowness of their bond, “I spent the morning reading The Small Redemptions of Lagos. Scouring it, actually,” he said.” (435) Next they tumble through the painful loss of his mother and the disatisfaction of his marriage, all amongst the backdrop of a discussion of architecture, obligations tied to identity, and the courting rituals of the peacocks upon the roof of a neighbouring building. Finally, the painful truth of Ifem’s sexual assault is unwoven and laid bare through the power of speech, only to be taken up gently into a new fold of intimacy on which their bond is founded. Each of the parts of “Americanah” structurally echo the distance between Obnize and Ifemelu, from from the moment they part, till Part 7, in which Chapter 52 is situated, they never figure in the same section. Almost as an alignment of the fabric of their existence, their parts are able to come together once again. Fittingly then, does the chapter commence with an image suitable to this collision of worlds, “There was a moment, a caving of the blue sky”. (427) Although not the technical conclusion to the book, Chapter 52 makes up the end of Ifemelu and Obnize’s long voyage back home.

The Story of a New Name

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 8.58.43 PMElena Ferrante
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Book Two: The Neopolitan Novels
Text Publishing Melbourne Australia (2012), 2015

All through the reading of this book I was struck with an unrelenting and repetitious questioning of the identity of the possible Lila in my own life. Is she the great friend I had who never let me down but for whom I had such high hopes? Each of which were never actualised but rather exposed as superfluous in contrast to the deep reality of her daily life? Or rather is she found in anyone for whom we have respect? Then, is it Lenù herself which is the real Lila? Never fully realising her own strengths and living in the imperturbable shadow of a creation of her own imagination. But as a I read on, I became more and more convinced that neither Lila nor Lenù can represent one single person, they are only real in the reflection which they project on one another. Lila would be nothing without the weight placed on her by the fatal expectations of her friend Lenù. Just the same as Lenu is nothing but that which she has built from her own enforced comparison with Lila. It is not a question of them needing one another, rather that they simply do not exist as separate entities.