Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Not a Review of AUGUSTUS by John Williams

John Williams—no, the other one—was a little-known instructor of creative writing at the University of Denver who published only a pawful of books in his life. When he died in 1994 he was barely a footnote in the annals of American letters, but thanks to New York Review Books, the publishing industry’s Criterion Collection, Williams’ stature has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. His three major novels, all reissued by NYRB, have garnered him a posthumous reputation as a storyteller of uncanny insight, a writer of stoical craftsmanship, underneath which simmers a rare literary potency. Butcher’s Crossing is a Western that draws a knife across Ralph Waldo Emerson’s throat and leaves the American frontier and the national psyche doused by a pitch-black arterial spray. Stoner is a campus novel that by some mysterious alchemical sleight-of-hand manages to be both transcendentally idealistic and heartbreakingly realistic. Then there’s Williams’ final novel, Augustus, an historical fiction that is more believable than most histories, a tale of absolute power and its ultimate impotency. And it’s in Augustus that John Williams evinces the full power of fiction.
If you know me at all, you know how nerdily I obsess over Roman history, so you may suspect that my opinion of this book will be biased in its favor. But actually my standards for historical fiction are probably too high because I’m a history buff. I despise it when fiction ignores or rewrites history to accommodate a plot that could be just as easily applied to a contemporary or imaginary setting. As many people wiser than I have said, fiction is a lie told to reveal a greater truth. Why not take the historical truth and meld it to lies of characterization, to supposed motivations that the historical record never touches upon? Why write historical fiction if not to cast a little light onto history’s shadows? If not to outline those slender threads that will always tether the way-back-when to the here-and-now? That’s exactly what Williams does in Augustus, putting the distant and elusive under a lens that makes it immediate and knowable.
Given his subject, it’s only fitting that Augustus is John Williams’ most ambitious work. Augustus is a remote and larger-than-life figure, and the motivations of Rome’s first emperor have long puzzled historians. It’s hard to fathom how the definitive enlightened despot could so completely embody those words that to a contemporary mind reside squarely in mutual exclusivity. He’s a lot like Charles Foster Kane, an inscrutable character of intimidating stature and authority, simultaneously driven by an unquenchable thirst for power and a high-minded opposition to injustice, and as Orson Welles revealed his mercurial protagonist through the perspectives of others, so does Williams reveal his. The multiple points of view, with their unique personalities and prejudices, underline the oft-contradictory facets of a great and terrible man whose gravity holds those voices in his orbit.
Williams employs an epistolary framework to erect his panoramic and microcosmic view of Rome’s first emperor, and it enriches the reading experience in multiple ways. Firstly, it enhances the verisimilitude of the entire work. Some of our best primary sources on Roman history are the extant letters of those who lived it: Cicero, Pliny the Younger, and such. The epistolary structure creates the illusion that we’re reading a genuine first-hand account of Augustus’ life. The approach also enables a breezy economy of storytelling. Strabo of Amasia’s letter fears how Brutus will react to Augustus’ proscriptions, then Brutus’ letter to Augustus is the reaction, then Agrippa’s account of Philippi closes the matter and sets up the inevitable breakdown between Augustus and Antony. But each letter is flavored with a unique energy. Each individual is animated with the pure music of the written word. Agrippa’s starched military man, Maecenus’ cynical dandy, Salvidienus’ betrayed idealist, Piso’s sinister toady, Flaccus’ pretentious gossip. The entire novel is a sumptuous potpourri of character study.
Unlike Charles Foster Kane, Augustus is granted his own voice. After 260 pages of impressions from others who, no matter how close they are to him, can never truly know the most powerful man in the world, the Revered One speaks to us directly. Through a letter to his old friend, the only friend still alive, Nicolaus of Damascus, we meet a man who has only days left to live. He is dying of a life of regret. What begins as a simple thank-you note for some dates quickly becomes an epigraph in Augustus’ own hand. He confides the story of an idealistic youth who was handed the keys to the kingdom, who recognized the weight of the burden, and committed himself to the inexorable sacrifices he would have to make.

“When I was young, I would have said that loneliness and secrecy were forced upon me. I would have been in error… I chose to enclose myself in the half-formed dream of a destiny no one could share, and thus abandoned the possibility of that kind of human friendship which is so ordinary that it is never spoken of, and thus is seldom cherished.”

Now, in his twilight, with the wisdom that comes too late to us, he could not have foreseen the emotional toll taken by his loneliness and secrecy. With no companionship but from the ghosts of loved ones he had carved into pawns, he knows that the order he imposed upon a chaotic world has become his Frankenstein’s monster, and the monster has enslaved its creator. The most powerful man in the world is powerless against his responsibility.
Williams gives believable and fully fleshed voice to unknowable authority, but even more memorably he gives voice to the ultimate victim of that authority. Augustus imposed an involuntary responsibility on his daughter, Julia. She was married off repeatedly to the men who would succeed Augustus and ensure the survival of his orderly vision for Rome. When she rebelled against the princeps’ strict morality laws by cuckolding Tiberius and bedding half the men in Rome, he banished her and never set eyes on her again. Like her father, the historical Julia has become trapped in a popular image, one of wanton harlotry and irresponsibility. 
But through a novelist’s prose Julia becomes a full human being and the book’s most vivid and sympathetic character. Her story is entirely about her quest for agency, for the desire to lead her own life, to find value in herself, for herself, beyond her father’s political machinations.

“It was after the death of that good man, Marcus Agrippa, that Julia, daughter of Octavius Caesar, the August, discovered the power that had been hidden within her, and discovered the pleasure that she could take. And the pleasure she could take became her power, and it seemed to her that it was a power beyond that of her name and of her father. She became herself.”

The relationship between father and daughter is not the calculated arrangement undone by rebellion as history has cast it. It is a tragic love story between two people who want to make each other happy but can only sacrifice so much for one another.
In John Williams’ novel, Julia, alone among Roman women, gets to speak for and define herself. Augustus, a man who literally changed the course of human history, is free of his responsibility and can speak his mind. Augustus is not only a powerful story about power. It is a testament to the power of fiction. Fiction can correct the corrupted perspective of history, giving voice to the previously voiceless, revealing the humanity that impels history’s monsters, the heart and soul that is the foundation of the ignominy. And we are all stronger for it. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Not a Review of RED SORGHUM by Mo Yan

     RED SORGHUM is one of those novels that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It has introduced me to the Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan and has lit my spark to read every word he’s written. And that’s a spark I need to chase into whatever dark corner it leads me, because the siren’s call of this unique and uniquely talented writer is too strong a lure to ignore. I’ve read a lot of books. I’ve read many different types of books. The stylistic differences are legion, but distances between them seem to shrink a little with each new book you ingest. But RED SORGHUM occupies an isolated plot of real estate in an increasingly crowded literary community.
     The first thing that struck me about the book was Mo’s language. From the jump it soars like a falcon on the air currents over the sorghum. His choice of words is inspired, and his prose assumes a poetic tint that infects you from the first page. And before I go any further I have to give credit here to Howard Goldblatt. I’ve never before read a book written in a language other than English that made me so deeply appreciate the translator’s responsibility and the challenges he or she has to overcome in conveying a story, its intellectual heft, and its emotional resonance. However evocative and lyrical Mo Yan’s Chinese text is, I and most of you would miss out on it without Goldblatt’s exemplary English translation (okay, I have no idea what he had to sacrifice in translation, but I’d be stunned if it was much).
     More than one critic has compared Mo Yan to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it is easy to compare RED SORGHUM to ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. Both are sprawling epics about multiple generations of one family and their plethora of hardships, set against the backdrop of war and civil instability, each possessing a blinding power that takes seed in your blood. But those are superficial parallels, and the comparison obscures Mo’s intent and affect.
     Rather than magical realism, Mo Yan’s style is more of a transcendentalistic realism. He does not treat the fantastical as a naturalistic fait accompli. In fact there is nothing fantastical in the story. The episodes and passages that come closest to fantasy are cast in that light from Mo’s idiosyncratic emphasis. Plants are described as having animalistic qualities, and animals are granted the emotional and intellectual agency of human beings. Like Emerson and Thoreau Mo ascribes absolute goodness to the natural world and sees no distinction between it and its human inhabitants. Synonymy with environment is most apparent in the Narrator. RED SORGHUM is a story about the Narrator’s parents and grandparents, but the Narrator assumes a third-person omniscient point-of-view that would be physically impossible. He knows all about Grandma’s pain, Father’s anger, the soft warm mud on the floor of the Black Water River. He laments for a world he never knew, could never have known, but that’s beside the point. He feels it all like a good Transcendentalist. 
     The titular sorghum is not only the totem through which the Narrator experiences the long-past events. It is the most nuanced character in the book. It can cut someone like sharpened steel or envelope them a soft mattress. It will bend lazily in the wind or stand firm against rampaging aggression. It has to. Sorghum is the basis of Northeast Gaomi Township’s economy and the foundation on which its entire society is erected. Like ancient Egypt on the banks of the Nile, Northeast Gaomi Tonwship wakes and sleeps with the sorghum. It must remain patient and resolute when the sorghum is green and growing, but it can reap its harvest and enjoy its just rewards when the sorghum ripens to a life-sustaining “blood-red.”
     But any Transcendentalist will tell you that the individual and the natural world will become poisoned by the corrupting influence of external societal forces, and that’s exactly what happens to Northeast Gaomi Township. The Japanese invade mainland China, and as they push into Gaomi, they use the sorghum for cover, forcing our protagonists to do the same. Soon much of the sorghum is crushed beneath the hooves of the Japanese cavalry, and what isn’t is chopped up by mutual gunfire, set aflame by dueling grenades. Everything follows the course of the sorghum. Our protagonists turn frightened, more implacable, so hungry for revenge that they become what they despise. And the toxin of corruption spreads everywhere. In one of the book’s standout sequences an “army” of wild dogs, lead by Grandma and Granddad’s three runaways, lay siege to the town, exhibiting human-like tactical know-how and falling prey to internecine power struggles. Even the language we are reading is changed. The color red is no longer the color of the blood that feeds us. It’s the color of the blood that has been spilt.
     Transcendentalism has as many flaws as any other philosophy, and those become unavoidable with that reading of the book. But Mo Yan’s skill and command of craft is so apparent, I can’t believe that he is not intentionally revealing the discrepancy to us. RED SORGHUM’s scope is sprawling, but its focus rests squarely on the human heart. And it’s our hearts that can move us to realize godlike accomplishments or commit demonic crimes. From his first appearance to his last Commander Yu is a mass of scar tissue. His inability to reconcile himself to his old wounds leads him to inflict new ones on himself and others. By the time the Japanese invade, the family is already set on a circuit that can only lead to the book’s conclusion.
     RED SORGHUM’s ending is one of those perfect endings that can only work in a book. Only literature allows for the headspace necessary for emotion and intellect to clash and encircle each other until an indescribable satisfaction suffuses the reader. There is no reason the last chapter should work as well as it does, but it does. As the Narrator visits the present Northeast Gaomi Township and seethes at the hybrid sorghum that now grows there, we know how irrational he is. How ridiculously everyone has behaved for the past three generations. And yet like the Narrator we can’t help but feel that something has been lost.
     Maybe it’s simply that there is no more RED SORGHUM to read.

Monday, January 4, 2016

My 10 Favorite Books of 2015

     I read forty-nine books in the recently departed 2015. Here’s thirty-nine of them (in no particular order):

     THE MEANING OF NIGHT by Michael Cox
     OPERATION SHYLOCK by Philip Roth
     AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
     THE SANDMAN OVERTURES by Neil Gaiman & co.
     STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein
     THE HABIT OF LOVING by Doris Lessing
     VANITY FAIR by William Makepeace Thackeray
     THE END OF ETERNITY by Isaac Asimov
     SECOND FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov
     MEMOIRS OF AN ANTI-SEMITE by Gregor von Rezzori
     THE SHAWL by Cynthia Ozick
     DOWNWARD TO THE EARTH by Robert Silverberg
     THE GOON LIBRARY, VOL. 1 by Eric Powell
     THE GOON LIBRARY, VOL. 2 by Eric Powell
     PERFIDIA by James Ellroy
     MOON PALACE by Paul Auster
     THE NEW DEAL by Jonathan Case
     HARLOT’S GHOST by Norman Mailer
     GHOST STORY by Jim Butcher
     TEMPEST-TOST by Robertson Davies
     LADY KILLER by Joelle Jones & Jamie Rich
     CLAUDIUS THE GOD by Robert Graves
     LUCKY JIM by Kingsley Amis
     AMERICAN LION by Jon Meacham
     MY NAME IS RED by Orhan Pamuk
     NEONOMICON by Alan Moore & co.
     THE JAPANESE LOVER by Isabel Allende
     ABSOLUTE MONARCHS by John Julius Norwich
     THE GONE-AWAY WORLD by Nick Harkaway

     That’s an accomplished list, but as wonderful as some of those books are they couldn’t make my top ten for the year. Those ten books will stay with me forever, each one deserving of far more attention and analysis than I’ve given them in this post. But I need to write about them, however briefly, and attempt to convey some fraction of my respect and love for them. Hopefully I inspire some of you to check them out.

10) THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE (Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, 1974)
     It’s too recently published to count as Golden Age science fiction, but THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE does what Golden Age sci-fi does at it’s best: masturbate your imagination while turning your head to the world that exists around you and making you cough. Read my original not-a-review here.

9) TRACKS (Louise Erdrich, 1988)
     There’s a tragedy that seems tethered to even the most accomplished novel by a writer who writes about their minority: too many white people assume that the book is not for them. They tragically limit the writer’s audience, and they tragically deprive themselves of a marvelous reading experience. In TRACKS, Louise Erdrich does what any good writer should do. She uses specificity to speak to the entire world about all of us. The Anishinaabe at the heart of this multi-family, multi-generational saga could be anyone in America torn between the traditions of the past and a modernity of anonymity, their resentment of a hegemony that has destroyed their identity and the urge to accept it as their only way out of financial and spiritual destitution. Louise Erdrich writes with poetic empathy and gallows humor about a specific group of people with particular circumstances. But she recognizes the universality of their fears and desires. She brings out the dispossessed in every reader, broadening the fraternity of humankind. She doesn’t tell us to empathize with The Other. She shows us that we are The Other, that there is no other. There’s only Us.

8) NONSENSE NOVELS (Stephen Leacock, 1911)
     Today’s culturally astute prize irony more than they even know. Beating the drums to postmodern originality, they are ignorant of how none of the culture they hold aloft is particularly original. Stephen Leacock was doing everything they value a century ago. In NONSENSE NOVELS the Canadian satirist skewers Sherlock Holmes, Gothic romance, the various pulp genres of Lovecraftian horror, Howardian fantasy, the nascent hardboiled fiction, and more. He emulates them with the stylistic perfection and thematic acuity of a keen-eared impressionist. He pulls the dangling threads that betray those stories’ disconnection from reality, and he fills the gaps with an inspired silliness that today’s absurdists wish they could conjure. Nothing is wholly original. Everything is built on a foundation. Modern satirists and comic writers would benefit from reading Stephen Leacock and learning how far they are from originality.

7) INVISIBLE MAN (Ralph Ellison, 1952)
     You can say a lot about Ralph Ellison’s indelible novel about the black American experience. You can talk about its unflinching honesty in regards to black-white relations, class distinctions within black communities, self-image as informed by these relations, and so much more. The book is a deep vein of literary gold seemingly without end. But what I keep returning to is Eliison’s command of language, his note-perfect selection of words, the rhythmic punch of his sentences, how there seems to be no fat in a story of such deeply felt anguish that it dares the writer to run away with himself. In a story that is all about what we see and don’t see, INVISIBLE MAN’s writing is clear and sharp as honed crystal and simultaneously dreamlike and hallucinatory. It conjures an unreal world that is painfully, poisonously real. Ralph Ellison succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do. He takes the ephemeral symbolism of speech and crafts from it an edifice of tangible thought and emotion that only a blind man could miss.

6) WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? (Budd Schulberg, 1941)
     Budd Schulberg knew Hollywood. A career screenwriter who wrote, among other movies, ON THE WATERFRONT, he made the industry the focus of his first novel. WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? tears at the town’s scabs with as much force and fury as Nathanael West mustered in DAY OF THE LOCUST. Sammy Glick, the novel’s enfant terrible social climber, is as despicable a character as you’re likely to find in fiction. But Schulberg assumes the voice of Al Manheim, the journalist who Sammy passes, then seduces into following him to Hollywood. The dignity of truth can’t compete with the riches of fantasy. But the novel is not just about Hollywood. It’s about American avarice, about why the United States fell into its Great Depression. It’s about the men who destroy everyone in their path to make themselves Midas. But unlike the mythological king who turned his loved ones into gold at his touch, the modern Midas is only interested in touching himself.

5) THE HIGH WINDOW (Raymond Chandler, 1942)
     THE HIGH WINDOW is dynamite. No, I’m not angling for a blurb on the cover. It’s entirely appropriate to call a story “dynamite” when it carries the force of an explosion. Raymond Chandler’s third Philip Marlowe novel always feels combustible. His prose is as strong as his protagonist and as volatile as the motley assortment of scumbags and ne’er-do-wells that surrounds our hero. Every new paragraph, every exchange of dialogue is weighted with the wages of fear and the spark of sin. You’re on a rollercoaster, never at ease but too excited to feel the tension. Chandler’s style was two-fisted fluidity, a ballet of pugilism witnessed through a blood-red third eye. You can feel the unstable elements jostling between the lines. You know that the whole thing could blow up any second, and you know you’ll get burned. But who cares? This is what great reading is all about.

4) EXIT GHOST (Philip Roth, 2007)
     I love Philip Roth, but historically I’ve had a hard time tolerating Nathan Zuckerman. Roth’s surrogate has always struck me as being enamored with his own voice to the detriment of the story. Even in AMERICAN PASTORAL and THE HUMAN STAIN Zuckerman fills multiple pages with some of the richest, most provocative sentences you’ve ever read, none of which say anything that the first sentence doesn’t. But Zuckerman’s curtain call, EXIT GHOST, proved to be an exhilarating anomaly about an old man desperately fleeing his imminent mortality. Roth doesn’t allow his aging surrogate the satisfaction of lyrical bloviation. His sentences are as melodically rousing as ever, but they’re fewer and leaner, each laid like a single brick to form an awesome cathedral. As a result Zuckerman conveys a power and urgency he’s never previously managed. Death is on Zuckerman’s (and Roth’s) heels, and every struggle, whether preserving the legacy of the hero of his youth or clutching at an unattainable erotic fantasy, is charged with crucial immediacy. Philip Roth is the bravest writer America has ever produced. How brave of him to address the twilight without smoke and mirrors, without any obfuscation, and force himself to stand against a stark landscape as no one but himself?

3) THE MOTHER TONGUE (Bill Bryson, 1990)
     Bryson can and does write about anything and everything, but he’s rarely brought out the thrill of discovery with as much palpable electricity as he does in his examination of the English language. He not only traces the history of the tongue from its Indo-European root to the present day (well, to the book’s publication in 1990). He analyzes its popularity and finds that its versatility, its evolution as a bastardized and bastardizing sponge, has made it uniquely qualified to assume the role of Common Tongue. The book is a high: intellectually dizzying and often laughter-inducing. Whether explaining the disparate pronunciations of everyday words by next-door neighbors or tracing the origins of obscenities, Bryson’s breezy but exhaustive scholarship regularly reduces you to giggles. The man has made a career of practicing an everyman’s intellectualism, precise and rigorous but infectiously fun. Bryson’s work breaks his subject free of the shackles of humorless pedantry and returns it to us as the language of the people, a language without rules, of boundless possibilities and endless opportunities.

2) BLEEDING EDGE (Thomas Pynchon, 2013)
     Some people have relegated Pynchon to solitary confinement over the hill. You. Are. So. Off. The elder statesman has summoned forth a spell that reveals the lacunae at the heart of today’s national character as no younger writer could. A younger writer would lack the wisdom, the sight, and the sense of humor to show us what Pynchon sees. Read my not-a-review here

1) AS I LAY DYING (William Faulkner, 1930)

     AS I LAY DYING may be The Great American Novel. Read my not-a-review here.