Friday, July 17, 2015

Books Read: June

Tim O'Connor, In the Lake of the Woods

If you read last month's books read you might notice a theme, another war story by O'Connor. Here's the thing, these books were recommended to me, not as war stories, but as stories of failure, and honestly I'm not sure how to deal with failure—in literature or life—which, as it turns out, is exactly what I'm interested in. Failure is dear to my heart. It's something I'm good at, experienced at, and so it's what I want to explore philosophically and through creative works. I expect to fail.

O'Connor makes it clear early on: there will be no definite conclusion to his story. We'll never find out what happens. And this isn't so far removed from the idea of failure; uncertainty, skepticism, and doubt figure in as well. There are times, probably most times, when the situation is just too complicated and cloudy to allow us a the satisfaction that we crave. It is no coincidence that I am skeptical of simple answers and distrustful of certain people. I am not sure we ever know the truth. I'm not even sure it's something we should be worried about. Rather, in the face of uncertainty what should we do?

But there's something else about failure in this story: the failure to control one's life and destiny. Perhaps this is the more profound failure, the one that makes this story interesting. The protagonist, Wade, like many of us has a script for how he wants his life to go. One thing will follow another—war hero, perfect wife, political career—but all these turn out to rest on a rotten foundation. All turn out to be illusions that he creates to get others to love him. His failure to deal with reality leads to...what? His downfall, death, escape, love, tragedy, freedom, or more illusion?

Neil Nakadate, Looking After Minidoka

I know Neil as the nice guy who stops by my workplace from time to time. I knew he was an English professor, but really I didn't, still don't, know much about him. What I do know (a little) more about is the Japanese-American experience. Nakadate describes the struggles and paradoxes of a generation both interred in camps and serving on the front lines in World War II, the ways in which they both fought for their rights and lived with injustice. More to the point, he is bringing to the surface those things that have been hidden—for many reasons, by families and governments—and ought to be seen.

The book is part US history, part family history, and poetry. Maybe it's best understood as a new genre (or new to me anyway): the situated poem. Interspersed through the text are poems that bring us around to a more personal wondering about the experiences of that generation. But these poems would be meaningless to us, most of us, without some knowledge of who Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Yasui were, the differences among issei, nisei and sansei, and what Minidoka was.

Lewis Hyde, The Gift

I've had a passing interest in gift economies for the past decade or so, but the relationship has been troubled. To begin with I'm really bad at giving gifts, even at the expected times. I question what and whether the gift is appropriate and what it will make the recipient think about me. Simply put I'm bad at thinking of other people; it is hard for me to get out of my habitual self-consciousness. And gift giving is, above all, an act of—not other-centeredness—but group-centeredness; it brings the focus of the economy to the whole of the group and the group's needs, not the needs of the individual.

The first thing I read on gift economy, a long decade ago, was The Personalist Manifesto by Emmanuel Mounier. True to self-centered form, I pretended to understand it. Actually, to say that I didn't understand it would be charitable. I read the words, but comprehended nothing. Still, from the little I understand about personalism, it fails to be a group-oriented account, or if it is group-oriented it is a group that includes the entirety of humanity. A group that Hyde dismisses as too diffuse and too heterogeneous for a healthy gift economy.

What is needed for a working gift economy is a small group of people who share some goal. In Hyde's case: artists. Artists become part of a gift economy when they accept the influence of others in their tradition and seek to incorporate, increase, and give back to the community of artists. It's an argument that suggests our current understanding of intellectual property and creativity is misguided. Now, before you get all high and mighty on how artists need to make money note that Hyde does recognize this fact. But he also suggests that simply viewing art as a commodity, part of a market economy, is inadequate to the discussion. The book is an attempt to navigate these waters.

Art, as it turns out, is not simply a sack of grain. Art and other intellectual property gains value by being appreciated, commented on, quoted, and stolen. One reason that Shakespeare is still relevant today is that we are still using his works, still building on them. Similar things happen in all arts, visual, music, literature, film and so on. Some level of fluidity in the art community is necessary to creativity. Now art can certainly become a commodity, but this reduces its value as art either through dilution or, more likely, through excessive restriction. How can we recognize the necessity of homage, quotation, and outright theft, without denying the artist a living? It turns out, to almost no one's surprise, to be a difficult question. What isn't particularly difficult is that to be creative we need to turn to the tradition we inhabit and enter into a reciprocal gift relationship with it.1

Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

Bellow has been hovering around the edge of my reading list for a while now. It only took the suggestion that he is an author of failure to kick it to the top. And talk about failure he does. In fact he does it so well that I'm starting to wonder if he meant it, if the whole thing wasn't a failure in itself.2 One might think that Bellow, having explored mistakes so intimately in his writing, would be aware of his own potential for making them and thereby gain some humility. But then it wouldn't be a failure would it?

Regardless, it is fascinating to watch Henderson make wrong decision after wrong decision based on his own simple understanding and certainty of the world. He believes himself smarter and wiser than he is. He believes he can help, can give the benefit of himself to the world. He wants to be a doctor, but can't seem to get the “first do no harm” part of the Hippocratic Oath. A man who wants to be a doctor to the world? Who desperately wants something to fix? Where have we seen this hubris before?

Alongside this is Bellow's use of metaphor. I found myself walking down the street, looking up and wondering: how would Bellow describe this? Would he turn the usual metaphor about the freedom and possibility of floating clouds into, “the clouds reached down to claw the earth?” I don't know. That's just what struck me now. It gets me thinking.

Thomas Harris, Red Dragon

I could criticize this book on the basis of genre—I don't like psychological thrillers, they violate my insistence on underdeterminacy in literature—but that isn't the point or why I read it. I read this because of Lewis Hyde and David Foster Wallace. Harris is a master of pacing, readability, and dialogue. Wallace respected that, saw what he was doing, and emulated it (and occasionally stole it. DFW was a fan of Hyde as well).

Most of all, I noticed that Harris' dialogue was always immaculately readable. He never suffers from the problem of confusion over who is speaking, however difficult the exchange. I could simply read a line and know, without any other textual help, who was speaking it. I would know that Jack Crawford was speaking rather than Will Graham just by the tone and attitude of the quote. And this is done without feeling stilted or unnatural. It's an incredible skill.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

I like literature. One of the reasons I like it is that it offers up multiple interpretations and spurs conversations about, well, anything and everything. The reason I point this out is that it would be really easy to make this novel into a morality tale; most readers do and most criticisms of the novel assume that it is so. But I think there's more going on. There are two things I'd like to keep in mind here. First the story is from the point of view of a young girl, a young girl who adores her father and thinks that he can do no wrong. I think most of us are like that in our childhoods, assuming that our parents are smarter, stronger, and more moral than anyone else. In my opinion this novel is the story of how Scout finds out that her father isn't the divine being she thinks he is. This leads to my second point: this is a story about how Atticus fails.

There are three values that seem to drive Atticus: the rule of law, the innate goodness of people, and non-interference in others' business. But these three values3 are bound to come into conflict and he is bound to fail. Atticus fails in the courtroom (note that Scout does not understand what is going on, in spite of her protests to the contrary). Atticus fails to be the head of his household; he lets his sister dictate what is right for Scout. And perhaps most tellingly, Atticus' values fail in the last scene of the novel; his faith in the rule of law and the goodness of other people is challenged by the events of the night. Ultimately he ends up compromising his values in order to keep the peace.

While I have not read, or read much about, Go Set a Watchman, I don't think we should be surprised by what an adult Jean Louise reveals about Atticus. Remember, the trial and verdict, while important to the story, are not its conclusion, rather it is the reminder that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. Think about how robust—or more to the point, how weak—Atticus' values are, especially given their time and place. What do they entail? What do they allow?

1 For the most amazing example of this I recommend Jonathan Lethem's “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which I first read on the toilet.

2 I know that one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, completely misunderstands himself. Many claim his worst work as his best (Farenheit 451 is awful. Sorry). Bradbury doesn't write about the oppression of totalitarian governments, he writes about the soft oppression of culture, even if he can't see it.

3 You could probably generate an I Robot like series of stores based on these three values, or really any list of values.