Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Believers by Zoe Heller

Late in this very good novel, George W. Bush pops up to give a speech on a television in the background where he gives his often stated belief that terrorists attacked America in 2001 because they hate America’s freedom, particularly its religious freedom. The appearance is problematic - we don’t know whether the author agrees with what is being said or not. That kind of neutrality is what makes “The Believers” a very engrossing and altogether challenging book - challenging not in how it tells the story, but what it asks of the reader.

The novel follows the Litvinoffs, the kind of family that seems to exist solely to provide anger for Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. The head of the family is Joel, a socialist lawyer in his 70s who has made his mark defending society’s “human debris,” as Rush Limbaugh might term it. His wife of 40 years is Audrey, a Brit who has fed his ego, adopted his politics, and raised his three children. The novel’s brief opening chapter shows how they met in the early 60s and the seeds of their relationship. They are, in a political sense, “true believers,” the kind of people who scrawl “There is no God” on Bar Miztvah invitations sent to them before mailing them back.

But fast forward to 2002, to the city still reeling from the previous September. Joel, naturally, is defending a man accused of terrorism when he collapses in court from a stroke. Before long, he is in a coma and beginning an inevitable slide toward death. The novel weaves in and out of the lives of Audrey and her children - Rosa, a former socialist experimenting with Orthodox Judaism, Lenny, a stoner who needs intervention, and Karla, a social worker ashamed of her own body and unable to bear children.

Much has been said about the unpleasantness of these characters. Most of that displeasure centers on Audrey, a woman who wakes up in her husband’s absence to find the intellectual pose of serial displeasure that she chose in her youth has transformed her into a harridan. To hear her unwanted opinions, her unjustified anger, her knee-jerk judgments (there isn’t any other way of putting it) is to be reminded of everything you might ever have said about “limousine liberals.”

But all of these people have a “gift for conviction” - the ability to find a way of understanding the world and remain faithful to that belief system. Nick Carraway, the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” observes that life is often looked at more successfully from “a single window.” But Joel’s death, the slow reality of it, forces them all to take stock of their lives. Death, the end of life, the certainty of it, reveals many of the truths they have held onto to as being insufficient to sustain them. I don’t mean to say the novel passes judgment on the social justice causes to which they’ve devoted their lives. As I said before, these people’s lives are rendered with an omniscient and benign eye. A reader can reach their own judgments, expecting the author to share them, only to have the tables turned in the next chapter.

Take Rosa, for example. She returns from several years in Cuba disillusioned with socialism and finds a home in a synagogue, to the horror of her parents. But she struggles with its rigor-what she perceives as its “Iron Age” attitudes toward women. It takes her awhile to understand that God deserves the same benefit of the doubt she was willing to give Karl Marx.

A scene involving Rosa’s introduction to purification rites for women introduces her to the idea - almost totally alien to the secular world today - that there is something “different” about God. God is apart from us. He requires holiness to be approached and understood. If this is inconvenient, then He is worthy of worship. If this causes pain, it is because of us, not Him.

Lenny is not really present in the story, though its hard to tell whether this is because he is a ne’er-do-well or because he is not as well rendered as the female characters. Karla, who struggles with self image, embarks on an affair she feels is wrong. But one remembers the impulsiveness of her mother in the opening chapter, and sees her drawn to someone who will tell her she is beautiful.

In fact, all of these people want to believe, in something or someone. They are willing to excuse realities eruptions only so long as they feel some sense of relief. Because the characters are Jewish, I found myself moved by their hitting right up against the idea of Christ but not quite reaching it, or Him. By the idea of Christ, I mean the idea of peace, relief, salvation. They struggle within the idea of belonging to a sacred community - whether it be political or religious - yet they are individuals. They want the ability to say “I’m different” due to the quality of their ideas, but the idea of a personal God is unconsciously longed for and yet somehow unbelievable. When a rabbi later tells Rosa that she must believe before she understands, one senses the gulf that all the world struggles with when the spiritual world beckons, but the offered hand seems stretched over a deep and unbridgeable chasm.

Comic relief, of a sort, is provided by Berenice, an African-American woman who appears from nowhere at Joel’s bedside to reveal her affair with him, and the child she bore him. When Rosa and Karla later meet her, she tells them that Joel wasn’t a bad person:

“He didn’t choose to fall in love with me, any more than I chose to fall in love with him. It was something that happened. The truth is, we all do some hurtful **** in our lives from time to time, but it doesn’t, you know, make us evil. It’s part of what makes us human.”

Rosa walks out on this, offended by the idea of adultery as a humanist gesture. There is no idea of sin here, just the idea of self-gratification that may lead to pain, but that can't be helped. She later walks out on her social work when she finds others ready to give self esteem to children who “haven’t done anything estimable.” When man tries to give God’s love without God‘s presence, she sees it for what it is - something hollow.

Joel’s funeral inevitably takes place in a church, because of the size of the crowd. The mourners sing “The Internationale,” and one is struck by the juxtaposition of ideas, the brotherhood of mankind and how little mankind has actually done to bring itself together for a common good. God’s monumental gesture - the coming of Christ - remains ready to be claimed, as we hold tightly to our lullabies, whispering ourselves to sleep.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Secret Art of Resurrection

One of the lessons of our new century is that tragedies of all stripes can pass almost unnoticed in a sea of instant information. It was announced this week that Nicholas Hughes, the 47-year-old son of the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, killed himself, apparently by hanging. He worked as a biologist in Alaska, studying aquatic life, and seemed determined to put a world between him and the story of his famous (and infamous) parents. As with everything else in the Plath-Hughes story, even the microscopic details are capable of tearing one's heart out.

Sylvia Plath, best known as the author of "The Bell Jar," married the British poet Ted Hughes and had two children with him, Nicholas being the eldest. She killed herself in 1963, sticking her head in a gas oven as the children slept in the next room. Her poetry, prose, journals, virtually all of her adult life seemed in some ways as aiming toward that moment, as least in the imagination of both her admirers and critics.

The story might have closed here except that six years later, Hughes' second wife Assia Wevill (with whom he had an affair while married to Plath) killed herself in the exact manner as Plath. Only she took their four-year-old daughter with her.

Hughes went on later to become the British poet laureate and was publicly silent about the more tragic circumstances of his life. But in the intervening years, Plath became a feminist icon, the subject of endless speculation and adulation. She easily has outpaced her contemporaries in generating comment, criticism and imitation. Speculation about what drove Plath, in life and to her death, focused attention and vitriol at Hughes. Did he drive her to a decision she had reached long before, or would she have sought out her own destruction no matter whom she might be married to?

I am more familiar with Plath's work than Hughes' and, despite the sometimes crushing morbidity of her words, I think she easily encapsulates the experience of the 20th century woman in her art - dark and dangerous, alluring and condescending, simple in its architecture yet dense in its knowing power. In "Lady Lazarus," Plath appropriates the Biblical resurrection image and turns it inside out. One has to die before one can be reborn, and death is a horrible experience of decay and desolation. She mixes the Christian image with that of the concentration camp, using and reusing German words and Nazi tableaux before burning out with the image of the reborn Phoenix, bent on what sounds like revenge.

Plath reminds us subliminally that the feminine experience is inextricably linked to that of reproduction. Men shed blood in wars, but women bleed in the monthly ritual that is aimed at creation. This draining of life, and emotion, is messy, upsetting, horrifying. Yet it gives the female a power that makes men uncomfortable with their own vain, self-important visions. When we read Plath, both men and women come away with the impression that men may, in fact, be superfluous. But the life and death imagery in "Lady Lazarus" also reminds us that one can plumb these depths for only so long without losing something irrecoverable. Solitude hardly seems like existence at all.

But one is inevitably tempted to ask, what does it all mean? Nicholas Hughes picked not the anniversary of his mother's death but the 40th anniversary of Assia Wevill's. His death seems more the outcome of a life struggling with depression, the same as his mother. Finding a meaning there, one runs into the same difficulties whenever one reads poetry. Suicide, like a hastily scribbled poem, may in fact be an impulsive act, only without the possibility of withdrawal. It is a measure of human existence that our ambition, frustrated, ultimately turns toward self-destruction.

In "Mishima's Sword," Christopher Ross notes that while everyone knows the day they were born, only someone planning their own death knows what God knows, the day it will happen. Apart from the biographer's narrow ambitions, our only hope is to let God provide the meaning and the worth of life. For the clinically depressed or the silent doubter, this takes daily acts of almost punishing faith. The will of God is also unwilling to reveal itself, under even the most careful scrutiny.

In "...Or Not To Be," Marc Entkind collects suicide notes of the famous and obscure, finding anger, resignation and messages that can only be understood by the person no longer there to explain them. Probably with the Plath-Hughes story, there is much we will never know, no matter how many explanations we attempt.

Some people don't need suicide notes. Their lives, discarded like paper, blow about in the years as their absence grows. We snatch them out of the air expecting words, and find nothing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

The Times of London last week put together a package about literary one-hit wonders, with “Gone With the Wind” occupying a place on the list. The novel routinely sells half-a-million copies a year in paperback alone, has spawned two “authorized” sequels and countless of the other variety. When Time Magazine picked “GWTW” as one of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923, it said that the novel’s success owes to it’s “definitive telling of one of the basic American mythologies: the passing away, in blood and ashes, of the grand old South.” But the novel in some ways has been overshadowed by its wildly successful movie adaptation, and not everyone feels affection for the Old South. How one views Margaret Mitchell’s vision tends to determine their enjoyment of the novel.

The novelist Stephen L. Carter, an African American, when reviewing one of the novel’s authorized sequels, “Rhett Butler’s People” in The New York Times, felt compelled to hail Mitchell for her “literary genius” and her novel for it’s power, beauty and depth.

Nevertheless, he also called it an apologia for the Old South of “gallant white plantation owners and darkies too foolish for anything but slavery, a civilization ruined by a vengeful North that subsequently flooded that idyllic world with rapacious Union soldiers, greedy carpetbaggers and the despotic … Freedman’s Bureau.”

Indeed, modern readers are easily offended by the novel’s black characters -slaves who speak in a thick, comic dialect worthy of Joel Chandler Harris. The book’s iconic status inspired Alice Randall’s parody, “The Wind Done Gone,” which in turn inspired a lawsuit from Mitchell’s estate.

In many ways, the novel is a story of possession, of wanting things that cannot be had, or trying to tame the untamable. The first time Scarlett sees Ashley Wilkes, upon his return from a European tour, Mitchell tells us that she “wanted him,” though she wasn’t quite sure why. Indeed, she never figures out why, even in the end when she no longer wants him. Rhett, bewitched by Scarlett, spends the entire novel trying to win her, to make her forget Ashley, only to abandon her at the end when he might finally have her.

Slavery would be the most obvious possession metaphor in the book, but Mitchell gives it an interesting twist - slaves feel possessive toward their owners, which is one reason the novel is so offensive to many now. One of the Tarleton twins early on tells a slave that the slaves know everything that goes on among the whites, giving them a spooky sense of wisdom. Mammy, for instance, is described as bullying the O’Hara girls, feeling she “owned them body and soul.”

Though Scarlett spends most of the novel, consciously and unconsciously obsessed with the soil of Tara, there is a feeling at times she is owned by it, rather than the other way around. Even in the background, Sherman’s March and the Reconstruction can be seen as the long, painful process of the North dragging the South back into the Union, owning it, trying to tame it.
There is also, from very early on, a steady drumbeat within the book about the nature of fate.

This is the motif that gives the book its very Southern flavor, because the fate is usually one of doom. When Mitchell spends several pages explaining how Scarlett’s parents came together, fate is the word commonly used, as when Gerald O’Hara wins Tara in a poker game, or when Scarlett’s mother Ellen leaves Charleston because her true love is gone and she decides to settle on Gerald in order to escape. When Scarlett plans, on the eve of the war, how she will somehow convince Ashley to propose to her, she muses that “a pretty dress and a clear complexion are weapons to vanquish fate.” Melanie Wilkes, from the first moment, is pitifully doomed, as is the Old South, because she is not a prissy fool hiding behind manners. No, as Scarlett comes to find out, she really is the perfect hostess, wife, mother, friend, and it is her perfection that is in some ways her undoing. She is as doomed as her husband Ashley, who one character says is like all the Wilkes’ - they’ve had the stamina bred out of them. This is fate in the Calvinist sense - as though one is a spectator in his own undoing.

It should be clear to any reader what the book is not - and for that, you have to refer to the movie. In the first minute following the credits, the audience views these words -

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South... Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow.. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave... Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…”

This is the South, at least the way the South would like to be remembered. But the reader who comes to the book expecting this picture, of a moonlight and magnolia paradise of gallant men and swooning ladies, need only read these words describing Scarlett’s mother:

“Ellen’s life was not easy, nor was it happy, but she did not expect life to be easy, and , if it was not happy, that was woman’s lot. It was a man’s world, and she accepted it as such. The man owned the property, and the woman managed it. The man took the credit for the management, and the woman praised his cleverness. The man roared like a bull when a splinter was in his finger, but the woman muffled the moans of childbirth, lest she disturb him. Men were rough of speech and often drunk. Women ignored the lapses of speech and put the drunkards to bed without bitter words. Men were rude and outspoken, women were always kind, gracious and forgiving.”

The words belong to the book’s narrator, but could just as easily belong to Scarlett. There are no gentlemen here, but weak, vain men barely sober. The ladies who inhabit the parlors live behind their fans and hoop skirts and keep the world functioning, while, Scarlett fumes, they are expected to be tender fools. What draws Rhett to Scarlett is precisely the fact that she is not an empty-headed belle, a fact she is secretly proud of. And she remains fascinated by him because he is no gentleman, but a scoundrel.

The distance between the two quotations is monumental. The movie, anxious for a Southern as well as national audience, adopted the unwritten rule of Civil War discourse in the first 100 years after the conflict - that the South must be portrayed in a way that acknowledges the courage of its fighting men and pays homage to the Lost Cause. If the truth is slanted, then box office receipts may compensate.

But the novel was written by a Southerner, and a woman, under no real obligation to buy into that myth, which is why one of its characters refers to the South’s self-image as imitation gentry, shoddy manners and cheap emotions. The one obvious fate of everyone in the novel - from beginning to end - is that they were caught in the defeat of the South, first in war, then in peace. It is a defeat that will upend all of their lives, and they are blind to it at the beginning and powerless to reverse its losses in the end, living the rest of their lives in a state of denial that anything has essentially changed. The defeat is symbolized in Ashley, the war hero, who loses his beloved wife and is left, as Rhett declares, “a gentlemen caught in a world he doesn’t belong in, trying to make the poor best of it by the rules of a world that’s gone.” Because Mitchell is a Southerner, she can get away with saying these things. More than a century later, when Drew Gilpin Faust wrote "Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War," she drew ire from Lost Causers for saying that women in the South were culturally unprepared for the war and one of the reasons for its defeat.

This vision of the South - as a place of disappearing illusions dying by inches- distinguishes “Gone With the Wind” from much of the Southern literature that came before it, or has followed since. The South, viewed through the eyes of Margaret Mitchell, was a heresy to the world she grew up in, which celebrated the war and the brave men who fought in it against the Yankee invaders. Yet the tone she adopts is at times sarcastic, bitter, ironic, and merciless, much like her heroine.

I don’t mean to say that Mitchell didn’t believe in the myth of the South, or that she consciously set out to debunk it. The picture that the movie celebrates is there in the novel’s pages to be easily picked up. But when we hear Scarlett’s sometimes hysterically funny observations about being a lady - like how she wishes Ashley would violate her and therefore be honor bound to marry her - we can see a little of the wit and grit of the author.

But what of the book’s troubling racial consciousness, or lack of one? The O’Hara house, infuriatingly, could not function where it not for Mammy, who seems untroubled by her role, only concerned with seeing yet another generation raised properly. When we learn the slaves look down on white trash, “proud to belong to people of quality,” it turns our stomachs at another generation’s views of “quality.” The O’Hara house, indeed, runs in large part because of the slaves in spite of the white people. Just as it takes women to preserve the social image of men, the slaves’ acquiescence is needed to continue the institution of slavery.

The book has an equally unforgiving picture of war, not the usual glory of the Rebellion. When Scarlett and Melanie flee Atlanta, Melanie listlessly asks for a daguerreotype of her brother Charles, who just happens to be Scarlett’s first husband and father of her child. When Scarlett gets a glance at the portrait, she realizes that she barely remembers the man. Later, Scarlett overhears Rhett ridiculing the armies of the Confederacy, and she feels a strange pang of patriotism for “all of the gay and gallant young men rotting in shallow graves.” Encapsulated in those two vignettes are harsh realities of war worthy of Hemingway - the cheapness of human life and the cheapness of the emotions that sometimes send men to die for ideas they barely understand. Again, Faust's "This Republic of Suffering" easily confirms the novel's assessment of brutality that the Southern woman endured because of the arrogance and short-sightedness of its ruling class.

The final chapter of “Gone With the Wind,” of course, is Rhett leaving Scarlett after the twin catastrophes of their daughter Bonnie’s death and the death of Melanie. Rhett is 48 and he is defeated, resigned, his face like that of a man “watching the last act of a none-too-amusing comedy.” He is giving up on Scarlett, content to leave her and perhaps renew his connections to his old family life. As with every moment in the book, Rhett is the true barometer of the reality of things - he saw Scarlett for what she was, as he did Melanie and Ashley. Scarlett realizes too late that “he always understood,” and at 28 has both gained the whole world and lost her soul, perhaps many times over, Rhett declares.

It is he who passes judgment, that he and Scarlett have been working at cross purposes - he in love with her, she in love with Ashley. Yet at the moment she no longer loves Ashley, Rhett gives up on her, realizing that she takes the love of those who love her and holds it over their heads “like a whip.” It should be noted that the metaphor he uses is that of the slave master.

Though the movie usually swells with triumphant music as Scarlett, unbowed, resolves she will find some way to get back the only man who ever really loved her, I found this inevitable note of hope missing somehow reading it for myself. So much of this book is tragedy - almost Greek tragedy, like other writings of the Civil War.

In Greek tragedy, the hero or heroine is caught in their own hubris toward a fate which will consume them no matter what they do. The hero realizes too late his fatal flaw and cannot alter the past nor save the future. One gets the sense that Scarlett hasn’t really changed all that much. She has traded one illusion - the dream of a life with Ashley in abundance - with another - that she can tease Rhett into forgetting his misgivings and giving their life together a second chance. The image again is Calvinist - sinners in the hands of an angry God, powerless to break free of the Almighty's designated fate.

Then again, we may not worry too much about Scarlett. She has survived the loss of her family and her reputation, neither of which she really valued, and the loss of her dreams, which she never really understood. If she thinks about fate, it's the one she intends to forge for herself. She still has Tara, and she clings to it in the hope that she may yet convince Rhett to take her back. If she is able to, we wouldn’t be too surprised, since she’s already endured so much. Yet Mitchell wisely decides to draw back the curtain at just this moment, concluding that by not answering the question, the reader is left wanting more.

Always more.

(Portions of this posting previously appeared in Solander)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

What did we do for evil before the Nazis? They make the best screen villains, they have great uniforms and a perfect symbol, and serve nicely as the embodiment of absolute evil. They give us the perfect laboratory for our deepest fears and most desperately twisted desires. We can look down on them and their evil and silently enjoy the revelations of corrupting power as they are recounted in gruesome detail. We shouldn’t be surprised that they will probably inhabit our collective imaginations for generations to come, endlessly providing us with … God help us, entertainment. Anyone who has seen the movie “Stalags” will understand.

The latest installment in “Springtime for Hitler” is Jonathan Littell’s “The Kindly Ones,” an absolute doorstop of a book that recounts the “confessions” of a Nazi, Max Aue, who witnesses the chaos of the Eastern front and the collapse of Nazi Germany. He is unapologetically one of the workmen of the Final Solution.

When writing his monologue of a devil, “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis employed a style he termed “diabolical ventriloquism” - the narrative voice taking delight in the deadly, terrified of the good. He admitted later how effortless it was to write in this voice, given its gifts for easy comic and ironic commentary. It’s a familiar artistic technique to anyone who’s listened to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Norman Mailer’s last novel, “The Castle In the Forest,“ took this to another level when he gave us the voice of the demon overseeing the life of Adolf Hitler. Some of this same technique is on display in Littell’s work, which was translated from the French.

Aue begins by telling us that the war was only “a confirmation” of whatever evil was already there in him. It’s not for us that he’s writing, really not for any reason we might discern. We get the impression that Aue is a man who is concealing himself by revealing “everything” - that he is in fact revealing nothing. That even as we get the nauseating details of his dark career, we are being escorted away from the details of his soul like a motorist being hustled past the scene of a grisly car accident by a traffic cop.

The easy association made in some reviews of this book is with the notorious “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis, the first-person account of a Wall Street figure who may be a serial killer or may have an active imagination. Though his friends call him “the boy next door,” Patrick Bateman believes himself to be an “evil psychopath.” What people forget is that “American Psycho” wasn’t torture porn as much as yet another indictment of the “evil” of the materialistic 1980s. (A much longer discussion is probably in order about the subtlety of liberal political commentary.) But the comparison between Ellis and Littell misses a point, just as the violence in both Ellis’ and Littell’s works overshadows the point they seem to be trying to make.

Littell comes the closest early in his “confession,” when his narrator asks who is responsible for the deaths of the Holocaust? He gives a tiny moment - the euthanasia practiced by the Nazis - and asks if the nurses and doctors who checked out the doomed patients are guilty. They were merely doing their jobs, as was the man who turned the knob for the gas that killed them. As did the crews that cleaned up their bodies. As did the policeman who filled out their death certificates. Everything the Nazis did was legal, after all. So who are we to judge? Was the railroad man who directed the tracks to the death camps complicit? He was merely doing a job he’d done for hundreds of other trains to hundreds of destinations.

Littell, I’ve learned, is asking a question through his narrator about the nature of evil, or sin. He is judging it as the Greeks did, on the act that was done, rather than whether the perpetrators meant to do evil, or consciously knew they were doing evil. By making a Greek point, he unconsciously made a further point for the Christian concept of sin. In Isaiah, the prophet reminds us of the holiness of God and our utter inapproachability to God because even what we consider our goodness is a travesty, “filthy rags” in the sight of God. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that fulfilling the law outwardly is only part of our obligation to God. Our inner life matters just as much. Lust never acted on is just as worthy of divine justice as adultery.

In other words, the question of who is guilty is all consuming - we are all guilty, completely, of everything, at all times. When we act, when we don’t, when we think, when we feel, when we don’t feel.

Hannah Arendt’s famous portrait of Adolf Eichmann on trial recounts his last moments before the gallows, stating how he didn’t believe in an afterlife and then gave the men around him the assurance that they would all meet again. Arendt showed this as an example of the “banality of evil” - evil doesn’t need a raucous laugh of a malicious facial scar or a hook for a hand. It is human. It is normal. It is familiar. It’s who we are.

The idea of telling a story from the perspective of a Nazi may trouble us most of all because the Third Reich proved that, given the right circumstances, anyone can be transformed into a monster. The state can take an evil step and, to make its institutional conscience easier, encourage its citizens to take part in any new definition of right and wrong. “The Kindly Ones” takes a long route to showing its cost not on the victims, but those who carry out these historical eruptions of redefinition.

All of this says nothing about the literary merits of the novel itself. I would say I’m always skeptical of this sort of thing, because it seems calculated to attract an inordinate amount of attention to a novel and give it the borrowed clothes of philosophy, when it really seems an excuse to parade sex and violence before the reader like a huckster. It also indulges a portion of the psyche I think best left dormant. Max Aue may escape judgment from his literary creator, but we won’t from our Author.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Man Who Should Never Have Been Born

Judas Iscariot, subject of a spate of recent books offering would-be gospels and spurious scholarship, would hardly seem hard up for attention. A recent offering, "Judas: A Biography" by Susan Gubar, synthesizes the 12th apostle's life as it exists in the four Gospels and as it endures in art, film and literature. Like many books of its kind, it treats the Gospel stories as just another set of texts, subjecting them to rough critical treatment, finding contradictions where none exist, picturing Judas as a stand-in for the West's tradition of anti-Semitism and the personification for the Jews' rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

The book also offers a chance to examine one of my favorite short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, "Three Versions of Judas." Published in Borges's "Collected Fictions," this odd little story is written as an academic essay. The style is so seamless that one might read the story and easily think its lists of publications, commentators and theologians actually existed.

Borges follows the career of Nils Runeberg, a Biblical scholar who revises his theory of who Judas was over his lifetime, inheriting the rising scorn of the theological world all the while. Runeberg starts out with the theory that Judas was a negative image of Christ - that as Christ came from heaven as the personification of God, Judas was the personification of man to lead him on the path to salvation. After earning the wrath of the critical public, Runeberg adjusts his theory in another book to say that Judas was instead sacrificing himself. As Christ gave up his divine omnipresence to endure the sins of the world, Judas renounced God in order to become evil that redemption might happen. His final theory, the most controversial, is that Judas was in fact, the incarnate God, "man to the point of inquity." Borges goes on to tell us that Runeberg later went through a kind of madness and died after extreme stress. "The writers on heresy, the heresiologists, will no doubt remember him; he added to the concept of the Son, which seemed exhausted, the complexities of calamity and evil."

All Biblical scholarship, of one stripe or another, bears the mark of the person doing it. Albert Schweitzer, who wrote his own book on the historical person of Jesus, later said that books about Jesus tell us more about the author than about Him. (For my money, the best one volume book of Gospel scholarship is "Jesus and the Gospels" by Craig Blomberg.) It's interesting that, in Borges' story, we have only the basic outline of Runeberg's life (Nils, meaning nothing) with little to tell us why he hit on these theories nor how he dealt with the rising stress in reaction to them.

It is commonplace in modern, popular books on the Bible to denegrate the Gospels' storytelling style, or to point out that they were never written as biographies in the modern sense. The first criticism ignores the undeniable fact that the Gospels are collectively the most successful persuasive texts ever written. The second allows the author to superimpose his own interpretations over the facts of the Christ story, or ignore the parts that are embarrassing or do not fit in.

But Judas presents an interesting problem. He was apparently chosen by Jesus to be a disciple, and with the knowledge that he would be the betrayer. Very little is recorded about him except that he betrayed Jesus, that he apparently stole from the collective purse, and that he killed himself in a fit of remorse. The idea that he is a stand-in for the Jews ignores the fact that the Gospels themselves attribute his betrayal to the work of Satan.

But the question of why continues to hang over Judas. The Gospels silence on this probably means that even the writers had a hard time understanding why one of Jesus' own handed Him over, and with a kiss. It is a familiar problem to anyone who studies crime, in life or in history. Ron Rosenbaum, in his "Explaining Hitler," asks similar questions about Hitler by examining those who spend their lives studying the life of the Fuhrer. What is the nature of evil? Was Hitler evil? Was he consciously evil, or was he convinced of his own rectitude? The same can be asked of Judas.

Perhaps Runeberg's first hypothesis was correct - Judas, if he represents anyone, stands in for the human race. Given free will, man can accept or reject Jesus as savior. As Judas demonstrated, a man can walk and talk and live with Jesus and in the end reject him with a kiss. It's not that there's necessarily any opposition to anything Jesus says or does - as the song goes, "Jesus Is Just Alright With Me." It may be advantageous to agree with Jesus from time to time. But on one crucial point - which may not seem crucial at all - a break seems the right thing to do. It doesn't even seem like a break. There's no note of finality, or maybe there is. But like everything else, you can probably fix it later. Remorse may come, all too late, with not even a satisfactory explanation for why the break came in the first place. But suddenly, there is no chance to right the situation.

If all mankind is sinful, yet convinced of the goodness of its actions, then it isn't inconceivable that a man can perfectly recognize and still reject ultimate good. Borges' story, and Judas', reminds us that our own interpretations of good and evil may constantly change, but an answer must ultimately come.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Fates Worse Than Vonnegut

The late Kurt Vonnegut gets a little attention in today’s Wall Street Journal, thanks to a book of letters from one of his former students and romantic interests, Loree Rackstraw. It’s the sort of attention though, that usually greets writers once they immediately pass from the scene - the dismissive glance backward of a critical re-evaluation.

Vonnegut was famously called one of our most overrated writers, and one of the worst technically, by Gore Vidal. (It’s easy how critical you can be when nobody reads your own work…) His final novels tend to resemble paycheck affairs where he seems contractually obligated to put in a few hundred pages wandering gamely around an idea fit for a short story. His political writings are smug, overly simplistic, hypercritical, and unrelentingly bleak, even for humanism. To judge from some of his essays, his not committing suicide before his death in 2007 was an act of moral courage.

In retrospect, he doesn’t seem to have coped well with the titanic fame that descended on him in the late sixties. Salman Rushdie told of meeting Vonnegut in the early 1980s, who asked him if he was serious about “this writing business.” “What you should know, is that there is going to be a time when you don’t have a book to write and you still have to write a book,” Vonnegut supposedly told Rushdie. That statement, more than anything, seems to sum up some of his later work.

Unlike many of his readers, I did not discover Kurt Vonnegut in high school or college but about 10 years later, and it was, to put it bluntly, a revelation. In recent years, I've seen people who used to praise him instead turn their backs on him as being overly simplistic, much like readers of C.S. Lewis who later decide they've "outgrown" him. Those who dismiss Vonnegut as a crusty, cranky hack ignore a very technically adroit writer who produced a whole stable of brilliant novels when the literary world was looking elsewhere.

Instead of writing the same, inane novel about young intellectuals struggling in New York City, or suburbanites crushed by the weight of bourgeois morality, Vonnegut instead wrote morality tales swathed in pseudo-science fiction. He created whole worlds and customs for his characters and blithely destroyed them, while violating the rules of exposition and structure to our great delight. His early work seems steeped more in a clear-eyed utilitarian libertarianism rather than the murky liberalism he espoused in later years. Strangely enough, his novels’ bewildering structure disrupts the flow at just the proper points. He doesn’t feel the need to dazzle with long sentences, and dazzles anyway.

I would choose two works to sum him up - besides the obvious choice, the enduring, semi-autobiographical “Slaughterhouse Five.” Vonnegut took the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann as his inspiration for “Mother Night,” a dizzying tale of an American Nazi collaborator, Howard W. Campbell Jr., who is not all he appears to be. It illustrates Vonnegut’s enduring idea of how human beings can be absurd pawns in much larger games and yet responsible for their own undoing by becoming willing participants.

The other is “Jailbird,” a 1979 novel from his later period that I think is easily the best. Its hero, the bureaucrat Walter F. Starbuck, is a Watergate collaborator with a connection to a forgotten labor massacre. In the novel, Vonnegut prophesies the increasingly corporate nature of American life and sends his hero to prison and back for various reasons, tragic and comic.

The secret to Kurt Vonnegut is the same as his alter-ego, the well-traveled science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, who appears out of nowhere in his novels seemingly to disrupt the plot with his own plots, and leaves us with a vision that is much sharper. And more fun. Much more fun.

“Life goes on, yes - and a fool and his self-respect are soon parted, perhaps never to be reunited even on Judgment Day.” - Jailbird

Friday, March 13, 2009

Youth Without Youth by Mircea Eliade

"At a certain age, you can expect anything." This what a doctor tells Dominic Matei, the main character in this novella. A recent film based on this work recently marked the return of Francis Ford Coppola as a director. It would seem an odd choice for the director of "The Godfather" trilogy and "Apocalypse Now," but it represented a challenge - a motion picture depicting thought as much as action.

Mircea Eliade, a scholar of comparative religion, tells the story of Matei, a scholar working with language who has spent most of his life trying to finish one great work on the origin and composition of human language. Yet, he is an old man with little hope of doing so, when he crosses a busy street and is struck by lightning. He survives and almost immediately begins to transform into a young man.

Philip Roth, as noted here before, has made a mini-career chronicling how a human being can feel alien in his own body as the aging process takes its toll. As the narrator of his recent book "Everyman" observes, "Old age isn't a battle. It's a massacre." Yet "Youth Without Youth" gives seemingly the best of both worlds - youthful vitality without youthful ignorance. But something is lost in the process as well - youthful freedom. Matei must change his identity in order to avoid capture by the Nazis. He then embarks on a multi-decade odyssey, carrying him in search of answers to the great questions of his life.

Eliade only vaguely sketches out the outlines of this. Dominic Matei, like many, is haunted by the feeling that the events of his life have occurred for a reason, and that someone is watching over him. Yet, even as a regenerated man, there is the nagging feeling that this watchful presence might not always be benevolent or a disinterested observer. "Why has this happened to me, of all people?" he asked. If there is a test beneath these events, one feels terrified of failure.

He is not alone on his journey. Later in the book, he is accompanied by a figure known only as the double, an alter ego who questions him, challenges him, occasionally directs him. He also encounters a young woman with an experience eerily similar to his - she begins having episodes that hint as a reincarnation several centuries old, in a different language. Of course, Dominic is the only one who "understands" her. The themes here, of literally being "born again," are inescapable.

In the end, Dominic still finds himself alone, his search for knowledge ending in a conclusion that he has "been fated to lose all that I love." This is not all that different from anyone else, as time inevitably robs us of our most cherished possessions, knowledge, and relationships. But Dominic does not have the prison of age to control his ambition, though he knows at any time, he can renounce his second youth.

"What do we do with Time?" he asks, echoing a question found throughout history in all walks of life. In Richard A. Cohen's study of the philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas, "Elevations," Cohen observes:

"Contemporary philosophers invariably take stands - explicitly or implicitly - regarding the structure and significance of time ...Time is as central in contemporary thought as was eternity in ancient and premodern philosophy."

You will notice that as mankind began to forsake the idea of infinite existence and the reality of God, his focus shifted from the eternal to the limits of his lifespan. Not much of a trade. Instead of considering how our lives are spent, we instead are left to cram experience into an uncertain and ever-shrinking vessel - our own lives. What do we have to show for our use of time? What will we do without it?

But consider the original question: What will our lives mean in the course of eternity? "Heaven and earth will pass away, but..."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski

I first heard about this novel via Stephen King and his column in Entertainment Weekly, where he tried several times to get it a larger readership. King castigated its publisher for not promoting it, and praised Berlinski for treating the missionaries who comprise part of its cast in objective prose. That was enough for me. (Full disclosure - I’ve read Stephen King since I was 14, and have read more than 20 of his books.)

Fieldwork” follows an American writer living in Thailand (his name happens to be the same as the author) who stumbles upon the forgotten murder of an American missionary, David Walker, by another American, Martiya van der Leun, an anthropologist studying a native tribe deep in the jungle. By the time our narrator finds out about the crime, the murderess has killed herself while serving in a Thai prison.

Berlinski’s first novel is quite good, and King’s assessment is right. The journey into the murder takes the narrator into a third generation evangelical missionary family, struggling to retain their heritage while they share the Gospel with a pre-literate culture. It also examines the life of the killer, a young woman who traveled halfway around the world to immerse herself the customs and language of a highly superstitious, primitive people. There are long but engaging digressions into the lives of missionaries, tribesmen, anthropologists and nosy freelance writers.

Several themes emerge. Naturally, both the fieldwork of the missionaries and the anthropologist are explored in tandem, as they reject then embrace their callings. Religion lies at the heart of the book, in not only the apocalyptic brand of Christianity shared with the tribesmen but also the tribal people’s tiptoeing fear in the face of a spirit world they have known for generations.

And King was right - the Walker family at no time emerge as wild-eyed zealots, judgmental fanatics, neo-colonialist cultural rapists or emasculated ciphers. They are people, passionately in the grip of a cause - “the sense that daily life was inconsequential…this wonderful sense that it just didn’t matter, the ’it’ being anything but getting right with God.” David Walker, the doomed victim, becomes a Dead Head for a few years in the United States before coming back to Thailand to lead the Dyalo people to Jesus, an act which ultimately spells his doom.

And Berlinski, to his credit, gets in these people’s skins, and their souls. It’s obvious much of this made-up story is based on conversations with actual missionaries. In an interview for the book, Berlinski said he was struck by how “normal” the missionaries he spoke to where - an assessment of evangelicals that is all too absent from public discourse or imaginative literature. He also does an interesting thing - he writes of a spiritual world, that both his missionaries and tribesmen believe in, with total objectivity. While he may not believe in it, his characters certainly do.

This week, an article in USA Today detailed how more Americans are affiliating themselves with no religion, one respondent saying the only time religion comes up in conversation among friends is as the butt of a joke. (We assume that religion is synonymous with Christianity.) An opinion piece, in the Christian Science Monitor, predicts tough times for an American Christianity too prominently married to conservative political causes and at odds with a rising secular rational spirit.

Christianity is going to survive, regardless of how people respond in surveys or how the faith is depicted in fiction. But it is interesting that Berlinski, a Jew, is able to write about evangelicals in a way that I doubt even most evangelical writers can. There’s a sympathy for the cause of winning souls for Christ that never veers into parody nor savors of propaganda. The Walker family doesn’t come off as transplanted hicks intent on transporting their overall clad Christ across the ocean, but as people who want to bring "abundant life." They stand in contrast to the Christians our narrator says he encountered before, Christians who “didn’t seem to take their faith seriously.”

When our Mischa reveals in a footnote that his fictional Walkers never actually witnessed to him, there is a genuine sense of disappointment in his fictional voice. That sense lingers beyond the book, and into a world that still wants to believe.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Just a Closer Walk With David Foster Wallace

My previous post about David Foster Wallace’s final novel, “The Pale King,” led me to a closer reading of the article in The New Yorker about the writing of that book. It’s well worth a read, because it gives you a look at what was haunting Wallace in the last years before his suicide last year. The author of piece says that Wallace was striving for something in his final pages that was, in short, redemptive.

“Good writing (he said) should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. …The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

A few things to think about - Wallace’s comment on the darkness and stupidity of life was not made in 2008, but in 1991, a time that by contrast seems positively paradise compared to the current news. Yet Wallace struggled his entire life with depression in one form or another, a depression so staggering he needed prescriptions to keep it at bay and sought solace in drugs as well. When one functions in that kind of world, whatever the day's news is becomes merely an excuse to rehearse once again the ills of existence. The other thing is Wallace’s perception that irony - or the cynical snarkiness we all seem to traffic in these days- can only reenforce our own self apprehension. It cannot feed the soul. Yet he was also put off by comfort and reassurance, as though the problems he struggled against were not the type that could be merely explained away or revealed as less than their crushing weight. There is the temptation to throw up one’s critical hands and decide this is an artistic temperament that will not be happy with anything. But I think we miss something critical.

While not everyone has Wallace's inner turmoil (thank God), we all have experienced the disjointed nature of time and the shallow core of existence in the day-to-day world. Wallace understood that fiction can explore and comfort, even though its material may not necessarily be comfortable or comforting. At the end of his life, he may have actually been on to how it could be done. But the more he tried, the more elusive his goal became.

“’The Pale King‘” had many ambitions. It would show people a way to insulate themselves from the toxic freneticism of American life. It had to be emotionally engaged and morally sound, and to narrate boredom while obeying the physics of reading. And it had to put over the point that the kind of personality that conferred grace was exactly the kind that Wallace did not have. In 2005, Wallace wrote in his notebook, “They’re rare, but they’re among us. People able to achieve and sustain a certain steady state of concentration, attention, despite what they’re doing.” It did not escape him that his failing to write the book was rising to a meta level—that he could not write it because he could not himself ignore the noise of modern life.”

If I dwell on a point here, it’s this - modern life cries out for grace. There is a hunger for redemption. There is a feeling that these are “dark and stupid times,” even if the times themselves do not seem out of joint. So many times we seek the answer in the wrong places - the arena of politics, or entertainment, or simple experience. The relief we feels seems illusory or nonexistent. Time has a way of destroying it. Politicians betray and disappoint. Movies run too short, too long, too meaningless. The intense pleasure we feel in experience has a depressingly short lifespan.

We feel out of joint, and we want to know why. Fiction cannot solve this problem either, no matter how well wrought it is. (In some cases, the less well-wrought, the more overwrought the reaction can be - witness the Ayn Rand crowd) It can only, at best, point in a direction that answers the problem. It can only pose a question to the reader that she will discover the answer to on her own, strangely enough, like a character in a book. The writer, can at best, make that search shorter, and the happiness upon finding the answer deeper.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Brief Interview with David Foster Wallace

News this week came that Little Brown will be publishing the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide last year after a short, brilliant career in fiction and non-fiction. For the curious, an excerpt, "The Wiggle Room," was published this month by The New Yorker.

Wallace is perhaps best known for his 1996 novel, "Infinite Jest." Before we start, I would like to state for the record that I have never read "Infinite Jest," nor have I even begun a trek through its 1,079 pages of absurdism, hysterical realism and satire. I read "The Broom of the System" shortly after his death.

A few random thoughts - Wallace, like Thomas Pynchon, is one of those writers I keep "meaning to get to." In other words, their books sit on the shelves and taunt me. Also, I was put off reading Wallace's work because of his style. The footnotes, the irony, the too clever by half tone, all of them irritated me from a distance. I was sure I would read him, but his books struck me as having that irritating quality I notice in a lot of contemporary fiction - too much reliance on theory, too precious, too much wordplay, too much style over what is being actually said, not enough story, and story telling strategies that seem only to magnify the writer's sense of his own intelligence and importance. The great writers, I thought smugly to myself, don't have to show how much they know on every page so ostentatiously.

And then, I read "Incarnations of Burned Children," a short story that appeared in Esquire about 10 years ago. Find it. It's a marvel of stomach churning power. In just a handful of pages, Wallace manages to put in blunt, cold, clear language the cruelty of life through the thoughts of a parent struggling with a toddler, accidentally burned. The words that result are a brilliant nightmare, and changed forever how I looked at him and his work.

"The Wiggle Room" deals with Lane Dean Jr., an IRS worker trapped in cubicle, slowly going through returns and feeling hell close over him in slow motion.

"He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connect to nothing he'll ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never goes down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind's own devices."

Just at a cursory reading, the one recurring word in this story is "pray." The word is used in passing several times, figuratively, jokingly, and then seriously. Dean the worker feels at some point he might pray to end his predicament, "stultified by pointlessness and tedium and a longing for violent death." Not only does the story revel in the sadistic nature of passing time, but also the way we torture ourselves when time passes too slowly, or too rapidly. No one does the burden of consciousness quite like Wallace, which shouldn't be a surprise, given what he struggled against in his all-too-brief life and career. In pace requiescat.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

The Times of London recently ran a story about a book on 13 unsolved questions of science. For example, the fact that we can only account for four percent of the universe, or that the fundamental constants of physics may have been different in the distant past, judging by the way light travels around the cosmos. One mystery in particular is that of consciousness.

Neuroscientists, for example, say that the entire idea of free will is an illusion - a trick our brains play on us. We are really walking brain machines that obey chemicals and instinctual commands hardwired into us by our Darwinian forebears. Guts - grace under pressure - isn’t so much a sign of character as good body chemistry.

In light of that, it might be time to take another look at a recent novel that was savaged from several different fronts earlier in this decade - Tom Wolfe’sI Am Charlotte Simmons.” Among its dubious honors was taking the Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction” award, recognizing distinction in the novel for awkwardly or poorly rendered erotic scenes.

I’m not going to tackle Wolfe’s prowess in this regard - his defense was that he was trying to deliberately make the scenes awkward and unappetizing. Judge for yourself. There was also plenty of criticism that Wolfe had either written an entirely unnecessary novel with the revelation - Gasp! - that college kids have wild, unprotected sex, or that the novel reads like a puritanical 70-year-old man trying to describe a world he neither belonged to nor understood.

Judge for yourself. There is a certain artistic hubris apparent in the novel, though you have to admire the guts of a man of Wolfe’s age encountering the milieu he describes. Instead, I think these criticisms ignored the real crux of the novel - free will. Mr. Starling, the professor says it plainly: “If man is an animal, to what extent does his genetic code, unbeknownst to him, control his life?”

Charlotte Simmons is Wolfe’s lab rat, an overly-innocent, sheltered high school graduate from a working class family who heads for Dupont University (a loose stand-in for Duke) with the hopes of her community and their unshakeable faith in her ability to hogtie success. Instead, Charlotte falls into the familiar traps of popularity and status, wanting to fit in and feeling left out. She stands ready to sacrifice herself, intellectually and sexually, in order to belong. At various points in the novel, Charlotte is contrasted with the laboratory experiments of the school’s doctors, which find that a culture can overwhelm the impulses of an individual.

One of the beauties of this perplexing book is that Wolfe, by setting the story in a university, is able to send up the progress of human civilization - that in the midst of all these great ideas are hormonal kids barely out of their teens, getting drunk and chasing after cheap sex, swearing all the way through. And life really doesn’t change all that much beyond the campus, even if the ideas remain. But what of the soul? Our concept of the soul has mutated along the way - the Judaic tradition borrowing from the Greek gives us a soul that is part of a community, while Christianity proclaimed God’s love for the individual. The Enlightenment then took the individual’s importance and replaced God with rationalism, meaning that we are worth something because we exist, even if there is no God. But neuroscience, like all science, promises knowledge that can be corrupted if it is used to turn mankind into masses of thoughtless automatons in the service of their nerve impulses.

This is why Wolfe is perfect for this particular story. Wolfe’s fiction is largely about status - about being and belonging. If someone does not belong, more often than not, it is a revelation that the character neither seeks nor fully understands, but the revelation is almost religious in nature. All truth becomes hypocritical because no one adheres to it. Whatever truth is revealed is usually at the expense of another, but in the end, all characters, fully-realized, are Darwinian ladder climbers who greedily pick each other off and gain their own revelations by inches. Somehow, they find a place where they belong.

When Charlotte sets off for school, she wants to create a life for herself, a “life of the mind.” In the end, Charlotte loses the person she was and becomes something else - a less uptight but more knowing individual, changed by her surroundings, but determined to be whoever it is that she now is. She is in control.

What I notice in this book, as I did in his earlier “A Man In Full,” is a phenomenon I would call “stealth Christianity.” Charlotte is so obviously a na├»ve, church girl, and yet this is only vaguely hinted at. There is little to bind her to her family other than their shared monetary status and the culture of good folks from the mountains. Yet this is the sort of sheltered saved girl who goes to college and discovers a world that either pays lip service to Christ or ignores Him completely. Charlie Croker, the hero of “A Man In Full,” becomes born again, only in the grip of Epictetus, the Roman philosopher instead of Jesus. In Wolfe’s fiction, which seems to catalogue virtually every aspect of modern life, faith is largely absent, hinted at, or sidestepped. The characters are more passionate about politics than God. One wonders if this is deliberate, and I would argue, it almost certainly is.

Wolfe, asked recently in an interview if he believed in God, said no. This surprised me. I had suspected that Wolfe, who revels in brandishing a conservative political worldview, was “hiding his light under a bushel.” But he also said the neuroscientist view, that there is no “ghost in the machine,” renders a life which is bereft of the mysticism that practically all of us would like to believe hides behind our tissue and bones.

The novel, and the neuroscientist view of our existence, also brings up an interesting point in a Christian discussion. Does it mean there is a biological explanation for the fallen human condition? Is the “sinful nature” something that can be found in the genome? Is the idea that we are “born into sin” something more than the simple poetry of the King James Bible? Is sin wound so tightly in the DNA that one cannot rip it apart from the human existence without destroying an essential part of us all? By novel’s end, Charlotte resolves that even if the soul is a myth, that myth is part of who she is. Discovering who she is will take the rest of her life, regardless of whether there is anything after.

Whether or not Wolfe’s novel is a success or failure, he does deserve some credit for tackling a question that science serves up for us all, whether we have the guts to face it or not. If this column reads like it wrote itself, then perhaps the neuroscientists aren’t far off after all.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Indignation by Philip Roth

News came this week that Philip Roth will be releasing not one, but two novels within the next year. Thus continues one of the most prolific streaks for an American writer at the end, and some would say, the summit of his career. Ever since his 1993 work, “Operation Shylock,” Roth has, to put it mildly, been on a hot streak. He’s won virtually every major American fiction prize in the last decade and a half, producing his widely praised “American” trilogy, a follow-up in his Kapesh books, an alternate history of the U.S. during the Second World War, and an end to his nine-volume Zuckerman cycle of novels.

Indignation” bowed last September with a strangely subdued reaction from the critics. Some reflexively praised it, while others felt it didn’t seem to fit in with his recent string of novels. Though there were comic elements, the tone was tragic and its ending hard to decipher. Still others tried, in a tortured fashion, to view its action during the Korean War as yet another indictment of the Bush Administration and the War in Iraq. Roth swatted this away, as he did earlier guesses at what inspired “The Plot Against America:”

"If I wanted it to be about something else, I should have written about something else," he said. "I'm not interested in writing allegories or metaphors." But the author should be the last person trusted with his work.

“Indignation” concerns a young boy - not unlike the narrator of Roth’s first novel, “Goodbye Columbus” - who uses his college education to escape his father, a butcher who believes in the work ethic, and who has a pathological fear of his son throwing his life away carelessly. This is the kind of character who would have been comic earlier in Roth's career, but he takes on a decidedly terrifying, unhinged demeanor as the story progresses. The narrator has internalized his father’s lessons about working hard, but he instead labors to go to a Christian university in Ohio, as far culturally from New Jersey as he can get. It is only about a third of the way into the novel that we discover our narrator, Marcus Messner, is relating his life from the grave:

"And even dead, as I am and have been for I don't know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen...Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime's minutiae? Who could have imagined that one would have forever to remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component? Or can it be that this is merely the afterlife that is mine, and as each life is unique, so too is each afterlife, each an imperishable fingerprint of an afterlife unlike anyone else's? I have no means of telling. As in life, I know only what is, and in death what is turns out to be what was. You are not just shackled to your life while living it, you continue to be stuck with it after you're gone. ..Who could have told me? And would death have been any less terrifying if I'd understood that it wasn't an endless nothing but consisted instead of memory cogitating for eons on itself?...It's not memory obliviated here - it's time. There is no letup - for the afterlife is without sleep as well. ... And the judgment is endless, though not because some deity judges you, but because your actions are naggingly being judged for all time by yourself. ...And how much more of my past can I take?"

It’s interesting that Roth's imagined afterlife is surprisingly Christian in some of its overtones, though with the understandable absence of Christ Himself. But the idea here is that we would not need a God to torture us, but would be more than effective and unforgiving as our own judge if we could view our life endlessly and dwell on the missed opportunities, regrets, mistakes, failures. Who needs eternity? We are all pretty effective in the here and now on that score…

Marcus naturally rubs up against sex on campus, then runs afoul of the college president, Lentz, an atypical Roth character. This is an old-school Republican from the Midwest who believes in a heartland Christianity and doesn’t get the kind of come-uppance that one might expect in a Roth novel. Instead, he gets a very long speech near the end of this short book to pass judgment not only on Marcus or his classmates, but we believe, on us:

“Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily - warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all. Well, you won’t be oblivious for long! You can be as stupid as you like, can even given every sign…of passionately wanting to be stupid, but history will catch you in the end. Because history is not the background - history is the stage! And you are on the stage! Oh, how sickening is your appalling ignorance of your own times!…What kind of a time do you think you belong to, anyway? Can you answer? Do you know? Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all?”

There is a strange sense in this novel that I don’t think exists in his other novels of consequence, that actions might reverberate in time and, what is more, eternity. This is not the Philip Roth that inhabits interviews and blithely dismisses the possibility of a life beyond the grave. This voice mocks that one, and from beyond the grave. I don't mean to suggest that Roth has been "born again," obviously. But he does raise the question of what we are to be "indignant" about. Is it that our indignation should be "righteous?" Or is it that the only plausible reaction to righteousness - or self-righteousness - is indignation, even if it leads to self-destruction?

Hard to know what to make of it, indeed. In a final section, "Out From Under," Marcus’ voice ceases and is replaced by a remorseless narrator, passing remorseless judgment over his life and his free-thinking love of Bertrand Russell. We wonder, out from under what? And who exactly is saying this:

“Couldn’t believe like a child in some stupid god!…Couldn’t sit in their hallowed church! And the prayers, those shut-eyed prayers - putrefied primitive superstition! Our Folly, which art in Heaven! The disgrace of religion, the immaturity and ignorance and shame of it all! Lunatic piety about nothing! …had he been able to stomach chapel and keep his mouth shut, (he) would have received his undergraduate degree…and thus have postponed learning what his uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along: of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most brutal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”

When one reads this, one might be tempted to think it a shame that Philip Roth will probably never write about the Crucifixion. He might be one of the few writers capable to doing it justice.