Book pile

Hi! I’ve just read a few books from the pile beside my chair. Wanna hear about them?

Smile, by Roddy Doyle

This one was a doozy. All of Doyle’s novels are doozies, and I love them. I love him.  I didn’t want to love this one the way I did as I was reading it, though, because I knew it was about childhood sexual abuse, and even though it is so, so easy to be pulled in by the ease and naturalness of his storytelling, the whole brief thing (it’s only 200 pages long, and has the taut shape of a novella) is tight with the tension of something huge and bad lurking, a shipwreck under a black ocean that we know is there but can’t see.

It’s not possible to talk about many details of this story without ruining its impact for someone who hasn’t read it, but I can tell you that if you love Doyle’s writing, as I do, for its economy of language and vivid dialogue—as bright and honest as a conversation you catch going past you on the street—then you will not be unsatisfied by this book. It’s also true that most of his stories, not just this one, deal with the heartbreak of—what should I call it? Fatalism? (In his review of Smile for the Washington Post, Ron Charles called it “crumpled hope.”) It’s a characteristic of a lot of Irish fiction, actually. Have you read Doyle’s Barrytown books, The Snapper, The Van, and The Commitments? I read them years ago and later reread them, and was surprised by how sad they were, when what I’d remembered was their good humor and charm. That stuff is in there too, though. And the thing that’s really killer about Doyle’s writing is the way he has of making everything that happens to his characters feel … inevitable. That’s a better word than fatalism. In Smile he deals with those kinds of ideas—those kinds of lives—once again, but in a way that is new and frankly horrifying.

I read an interview with Doyle yesterday, about a week after I’d finished the book. (Though, apparently, it hadn’t finished with me.) He told his interviewer, the writer Catherine Dunne, that he wrote the novel the way he did to shock readers, particularly Irish readers who may have thought they’d already heard it all regarding the Catholic Church and sex abuse. Shock. The word is so overused, it’s tempting to dismiss his comment as insignificant, but a few hours after I read the interview the penny dropped for me and I felt, with embarrassment, that I understood the novel completely for the first time since I’d finished it. The truth is that the ending is open to interpretation and more than a little confusing, which is why I was left hanging for a good few days. Sorting it all out may not be the point, though—I think I see that now. It’s the attempt to sort it out that informs a true understanding of this novel, the going over of details and memories that don’t line up, the sickly sense that some information is missing and that you know what happened but don’t know at the same time. Those are effects of shock, aren’t they: that fug of confusion, the delayed reaction. It’s often the effect of abuse, too. I think it’s possible that Doyle has done something extraordinary with this novel, something I haven’t quite experienced before in my lifetime of reading. He’s given us a painful story that hurts worse later than it does in the moment of reading it, because it’s our memories of the character’s life that get wrecked upon reflection. In a real way, the loss is ours, and the story functions like real grief in our minds. We experience the horror of having to remember again and again, as if for the first time, that something terrible has happened.

Black Wave, by Michelle Tea

I recently read this article in The Guardian about a study, released by the Living Planet Index toward the end of 2016, which reports that two-thirds of all wild animals on Earth will be gone by the year 2020. It sounded dire, which chimed with my mood, I must admit. I feel cheerful enough at the moment, actually, but it just seems end-timey out there, don’t you think? We’ve been post-everything for a while now, for starters, and although I am aware that people, whenever in time they find themselves, are always standing on the edge of history, that cliff seems extra steep right now. When I finally got off my ass and read Michelle Tea’s new novel, which came out last year from Feminist Press (what took me so long?), I was primed for it to be about the end of the world, as I’d read that it was. I was READY for the end of the world. BRING IT.

To my deep pleasure, the book is for-real about the apocalypse, and this end starts out ordinarily enough, with a ruined Earth—stinking oceans, dry patches of dirt where trees and plants once grew, undrinkable water—that people have gotten used to ignoring. (!) Then the whole thing ramps up and starts cycling faster, and it becomes clear that the human race only has about another year to go. Our scrappy protagonist, Michelle—drinking and drugging too hard, even after she wants to stop—ignores even this for as long as she can until finally she faces the truth and decides to wait out the end of everything in a used bookstore in L.A. Tea makes this part feel deliciously cozy, like a dreamy dust-mote-filled opium den, even as the streets outside get more violent and chaotic by the day. This book is about the end of the world, yes, and it is also about the way you have to kind of die in order to change.

I have loved Michelle Tea’s writing for a long time now. Her evocation of a certain “scene”—her own punky, dirty, resilient young queer community of 90s San Francisco—is one of the things to love the most about it (but if you thought it was the thing, you’d be forgetting how just plain good she is, how bright and surprising her use of language and metaphor). This loving wallowing around in that familiar world shapes the first part of the book, but about halfway through, after she’s told us a short novel’s worth of a very engaging story about a young woman’s life in decline, the book itself starts to disintegrate and “get meta,” in the words of a funny bookseller I talked to about the novel after I’d finished it. “I didn’t need it to get meta,” is what she said, and I took some offense at her glibness—this is MICHELLE TEA we’re talking about, lady—but it forced me to admit that I too had worried as I read it that the rest of the novel would keep referring to itself and shifting from one reality to another, and I didn’t want to lose my footing. I was glad when it righted itself and went back to being a good old-fashioned story. A science fiction story about the end of the world, no less, which made me appreciate why Tea had to tear the whole thing down and start again.

This is the most developed piece of Tea’s writing that I’ve read; like Roddy Doyle did with Smile, she did some things with form that I’ve never seen in her writing before. Black Wave is—in a really interesting way—a story about the way cities change over time, leaving us feeling like the lives we’ve lived in them are disappearing, too. More than that, it’s about addiction and survival, and beginnings as much as endings. It’s entertaining, incisive, and wonderfully hopeful. I think you should read it.

Learning to Drive, by Katha Pollitt

Everyone (every woman?) in the English-speaking world with half the interest has already read this book, it seems like, except for me. It came out ten years ago, and a well-thought-of film was made from the title essay starring Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson. (I haven’t seen that either.) And to look at the many reviews quoted inside the book, everyone seems to love it and its author, from Barbara Ehrenreich to Bust. After reading this collection of her essays, I can understand why.

Pollitt is a feminist who admits to having human weaknesses where romantic love is concerned, which is only an unpopular stance with people who refuse to tell their inner teenager to get a grip, and she’s great company, astute and funny and also surprising in the way that very smart people will continue to surprise you with their opinions even once you feel you’ve gotten the hang of the way they think. Mostly, she says exactly what she’s thinking, and nine times out of ten it’s what you’re thinking too. Pollitt, who has written for The Nation since the 90s, is probably best known for her cultural criticism, but these are personal essays of the best kind—they’re about her life and ideas, but they encompass bigger ideas too, and are likely to spark an interest in you on any number of topics—the Rubaiyat, council Communism, Danish painting. Her use of metaphor is poetic; well, she’s a poet too. Here’s how she describes the Internet: “It was like something a medieval rabbi might conjure up out of the Kabbalah: a magical set of propositions that acted as a mirror of reality and perhaps even allowed you to control it and change it.”

“Learning to Drive” is the most famous piece in the book and is about the lifelong New Yorker’s attempt to learn to drive a car after her cruddy little philandering “boyfriend” dumps her for one of his other ladies. (It always sounds so weird to me when grown adults use the words boyfriend and girlfriend.) Her disdain for men, on display throughout the book, might make you smile with pleasure or it might make you cringe a little, and I don’t think those two reactions break down all that neatly between the sexes. I winced a few times myself and found I didn’t even want to finish the essay “After the Men Are Dead,” but there were plenty of other times that I really enjoyed her cogent put-downs of men of the stupid, bullying variety, as well as her ability to pin-point precisely the ways that women’s lives are diminished by their behavior. She describes these things so confidently, she’s like Zorro: zip zip zip!

Pollitt’s opinions are only very occasionally strident, in my view, though your take on that may vary depending on how much you agree with what she’s saying. I almost always agree, but talk about wincing: When I read that “even the thought of rap makes [her] heart surge with sorrow and fury” because it makes her think about “the end of melody, the end of tender and delicate feelings, the end of any sort of verbal cleverness that requires a vocabulary of more than 300 words,” let me tell you, my heart surged with sorrow and fury. Because … what? How can someone so sensitive to nuance, and so knowledgable about art, hold such a doofy opinion? Verbal cleverness and vocabulary: Ever heard of Del the Funky Homosapien, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Aesop Rock, Outkast? How about Biggie Smalls? (I’m trying to be fair here and only mention people who were around back in 2007, when this book was published.) As for tender feelings, come ON. Killer Mike is so full of tender feeling and righteous rage he’s about to spark a revolution with his music. I don’t want to say that no older white person should write about hip-hop because that’s silly too, but maybe people should think twice before doing it. Or maybe I just need to think twice before I bother to read it.

Still, I only had to go a few pages further, in the same essay (“End Of”), and bam, Pollitt is making me cry on the train, talking about how the old things, and sometimes the really good things, slip away with the passage of time and there’s nothing you can do about it. “The truth is, by the time you find out what’s happening, it’s usually too late. … It’s like the turquoise frogs—by the time scientists figured out what was wrong with them, they were gone.” And all of her jabs at men aside, “Good-bye, Lenin” is an interesting and warm portrait of her father written shortly after he died. A lover of poetry, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party (his FBI file makes the Bureau look almost lovably inept), and a lawyer who remained devoted to not “selling out” for his entire life, he comes across as a sincerely lovely human being.

 

Irish literature, Irish rebellion, and the lost art of letter writing

Last week I had the great pleasure of listening to a conversation about Irish society between two of the most important living Irish writers, the poet Eavan Boland and the fiction writer Colm Toíbín, at the Free Library in Philadelphia. The talk was moderated by a filmmaker and journalist named Sadhbh Walshe, and its purpose was to discuss the legacy of the Easter Rising of 1916 on the 100th anniversary of Ireland’s fight for independence.

Linen hall Barracks after the Easter Rising in Dublin.
Linenhall Barracks after the Easter Rising in Dublin.

I’ve been to about a million talks and readings at the Free Library, which puts on an excellent authors series every year, and quite honestly I’m often one of about 30 or 40 people there. I didn’t bother buying a ticket for this talk in advance because I didn’t expect a program on this rather narrow topic to come close to selling out, but I had a surprise in store. When I got to the library the auditorium was nearly full, and I was lucky to be able to buy a ticket at the door. Even luckier to find an open seat, which happened to be next to an old friend of mine from college. All around us, and in the ladies’ room too, I could hear conversations taking place in Irish accents, from both the south and the north. It really drove home the points that Toíbín and Boland made about the Irish in America. One of the first remarks that Toíbín made was to quote Irish ambassador Barbara Jones, who said that there wouldn’t be peace in Ireland if it weren’t for the U.S. And the connection between the two countries wouldn’t exist, of course, if it weren’t for the many millions of Irish immigrants who have arrived on these shores over the last few hundred years.

Boland and Toíbín both had many wonderful, insightful things to say during the hour or so that they were interviewed. One of my favorite ideas is one they came back to several times, and which both of them have addressed in their writing over the years: What Boland described as the gap between history and “the past.” History, she said, is populated by famous names and important leaders, nearly all of them men. The past is filled with people, many of them women, whose names we never knew but without whom no “history” would have been made.

They talked about the Irish rebellion and how it had its roots in the Great Famine, and the silence and “erasure” of that tragedy. Toíbín said that he believes the earliest feeling that the English must leave Ireland came from this time. He reminded us that 1 million people died in the Famine, but 2 million emigrated away from it, most of them to America: To Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Haunted by their memories of the Famine, this “angry diaspora” began making “revolutionary noise” to fill that silence.

The two writers also talked about James Joyce, and Toíbín—always so finely attuned to the female experience—made the excellent observation that Joyce was “engaged in the politics of Ireland by letting a woman speak uninterrupted” at the end of Ulysses. Hearing this made me glow with pleasure. (And reminded me to be exited about going to hear Drucie McDaniel do the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the Rosenbach’s Bloomsday readings, as she does every year.)

And to my delight, they talked about handwriting. Toíbín, who grew up in Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland, told a story about the 400-year-old castle there. In the 1950s, his father raised the money to buy the castle, which was no longer inhabited and which he planned to restore and operate as a museum. The people of the town were invited to donate any antiques they had in their homes for display in the castle, and Toíbín recalled that everyone wanted to bring something, not because they would benefit financially from doing so, but because there was a woman named Marion Stokes with beautiful copperplate handwriting who wrote the name of every contribution on a placard. At home later I read about Marion Stokes, and how some 30 years before this, she had participated in the Easter Rising, helping to hoist the tricolor flag as they declared Ireland a Republic. It was clear that Toíbín was still moved by the idea of this handwriting and what it meant to people, to see their things made into pieces of history in this beautiful way by a woman who had been a part of history herself. (He tells a longer version this story in a recent article in the Irish Times.)

Moderator Walshe led this story, quite gracefully, into a conversation about letter writing. Boland talked about how important writing letters home was to the Irish immigrants who knew they may never again see their hometowns again, and who sat down to write them on “the long evenings of their leave-takings.” She read her poem “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” and it was one of a few tearjerkers that evening.

“…And if we say
An art is lost when it no longer knows
How to teach a sorrow to speak, come, see
The way we lost it: stacking letters in the attic,
Going downstairs so as not to listen to
The fields stirring at night as they became
Memory and in the morning as they became
Ink; what we did so as not to hear them
Whispering the only question they knew
By heart, the only one they learned from all
Those epistles of air and unreachable distance,
How to ask: is it still there?”

***

The talk has brought up a lot of feelings and ideas for me, though I can’t see the full shape of them yet. I grew up in a very Irish-Catholic world, attending Catholic church and school in an overwhelmingly Irish-American parish, and my own ethnic background is largely Irish as well, though my name is German, which was enough to mark me as a kind of outsider in my little community. (That and the fact that my German-named father, who was at least half Irish anyway, was not Catholic: unthinkable!) My mother, who was the one who handed down Catholicism to us and who had grown up with the Irish name and background, always showed disdain for the ethnic pride the large Irish families in our parish seemed to have, and I see now that her distaste came from a kind of shame. It was another facet to my feeling like an outsider to the community I grew up in, which ironically (or inevitably, I guess) has at times made me feel desperate to understand it and get closer to it. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out how Irish I really am.

I’ve read an awful lot of Irish writing on this journey, though, let me tell you. In Toíbín’s remarkable characters (so many of them women), I hear my grandmother’s outrageous, flippant turn of phrase; I see my mother’s thin-lipped rebellion. I understand the nature of the silence and stoicism he describes—and the unruliness beneath it. The lyricism and homegrown feminism of Boland’s poetry resonates with me too, on a deep, personal level. Her country’s troubled history won’t let go of her, but in her writing she grapples with it, and appears to have gotten the upper hand.

As I sat listening to the writers talk about Ireland I got those incredible lines from Yeats caught in my head, the ones about the fanatic heart that I sometimes like to say to myself over and over again. “Out of Ireland have we come. / Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start. / I carry from my mother’s womb / A fanatic heart.” It always gets my own heart racing, which has a weird way of soothing me, like a mantra for the restless.