Thursday, May 28, 2009

Books: The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover

I saw Coover’s name for the first time recently, when reading a lengthy New Yorker article on the passing of my favorite author, David Foster Wallace. The article’s author paired Coover with another of my favorites, John Barth, to illustrate a point (calling them both “postmodern trick[sters],” so of course I immediately added Coover to my reading list, choosing The Origin of the Brunists because it was his first novel. I found the Brunists much more like Oakley Hall’s Warlock than anything by Barth, though. In this book at least, Coover isn’t a trickster at all; he tells us a great story about a small town, and lays it out in a surprisingly clear, direct way. His writing is highly intelligent without ever engaging in the literary gamesmanship of Barth or the totemic Pynchon.

Hall’s book is a Western and Coover’s is not, but it is equally American, the story of a mining town struck by disaster that is quickly stormed by religious fanaticism. An explosion in the mine kills 97 out of 98 workers. The only survivor, Giovanni Bruno, was an inscrutable introvert prior to the explosion, which only makes him more sickly and strange. He is, nevertheless, proclaimed a prophet-messiah by a number of different fanatic female constituents—one stranger in the town who communicates with a spirit called Domiron in what she calls “the seventh aspect” via ESP, one Christian woman, the widow of a preacher-miner who dies in the same explosion, a telltale, half-scrawled note in his hand foreboding something of import on the 8th, and Bruno’s possibly half-wit sister, a winsome beauty who doesn’t speak much and is easily convinced by these two stronger women. A few other lonely widows, impressionable teenagers, and kooky spiritualist men join the small group, meeting in weekly circles around Bruno’s bed, and then on the hill near the mine, using specious numerology to calculate the impending end of the world.

Coover’s own voice of amused reason manifests in Justin “Tiger” Miller, the owner and, it seems, sole generator, of the town’s newspaper. Miller was a high school basketball star, and left the town after graduation to accomplish big things in the world; failing to accomplish them, he has come back, bought the paper, and lives the shambly life of a journalist—drinking, womanizing, and working all night to put a daily paper to bed. Miller joins the cult for a while, not believing in any of it, of course, but hoping to get the story and to bed Bruno’s lovely sister while he’s at it. He succeeds in getting the story—in fact, publishes so much material on the Brunists (which he first calls them, and they then begin to call themselves) that the town fractures into three angry factions: the Brunists and their supporters, the non-Brunist Christians, led by a raging minister who whips his many children in secret, including in that area between the legs where no child out of diapers should be touched, and the “Common Sense Committee,” a group of “concerned citizens,” if you will—the mayor, the banker, and the thick-necks—who mean to put a stop to this embarrassing madness. Meanwhile, the town is also beset by a series of ominous pranks—a pile of poop in the pulpit of the church, a dog fed ground glass, a widow’s house set on fire—all with the signature of “The Black Hand.” These crimes are perpetrated by two of the angry minister’s children, the older of which has stolen a charred, black hand from the mine explosion, but the frenzied residents interpret them as acts of the devil.

In the end, the Brunists cannot be contained—in fact, the fever pitch increases until the chosen night, when they join at the top of the hill, and all of the town comes out to watch them. Because of Miller, the story has gone national, and groups of Brunists around the world ascend hilltops as well. Foreign press floods the small town. A thunderstorm comes. There is a stampede, a few injuries, one death. Miller is trampled, beaten, and then trampled again. The end of the world does not come. Miller does not die (or, if he seems to, he is resurrected, coming back to consciousness in a hospital bed. As in all post-modern novels, the writer, certainly, is exploiter and redeemer, revelator and everyman, holder of the trump card: reason plus fancy.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Books: Wolf, by Jim Harrison

It must have been smut week, because after I finished with Innocents, I moved onto Wolf, a dime-store paperback a friend gave me last Christmas as a gag gift, which featured a svelte, long-haired couple embracing, topless, on the cover. A kind of On the Road (the book) meets Into the Wild (the movie), the thing turned out to be much less smutty than I expected, and it turns out that Harrison is actually a viable author (whose short stories became the film Legends of the Fall, and whose Wolf became a Jack Nicholson movie in 1994). Wolf, furthermore, is subtitled A False Memoir, a thing in which I have a special interest.

This is a fairly typical 1970s semi-fictional beat novel, except that Harrison’s narrator is a loner, so there are fewer instances of the madcap, freewheeling adventurism of Jack Kerouac or Henry Miller or Tom Wolfe’s book about the Merry Pranksters. The introspective narrator is camping alone in the woods; the passages shuttle back and forth from his swimming and fishing and fire-building to his memories of girls in cities, job applications he couldn’t bother to fill out, strangers in whose cars he hitch-hiked across the country.

There are far fewer sex scenes than promised (newer editions of the book do not feature the same cover photo), but that’s fine. The other deception is that no wolf ever appears, and while the narrator does mention the animal two or three times, he does not seem to be in search of it in the way the cover text suggests. Instead, the narrator himself is the lone wolf, a bit hang-dog in appearance, unwelcome in society, hungry, horny, but mostly wanting to be left alone, in the woods.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Books: Innocents, by Cathy Coote

I don’t know how Cathy Coote’s Innocents made its way onto my reading list, but whoever recommended it is a damned fool. Coots was 19 when she wrote the manuscript, and it shows. It’s precisely the kind of melodramatic smut that we would expect from a sensually precocious high-schooler who has read Lolita only once, and for content rather than form (i.e., the wrong reason).

The story is of an introverted, sixteen year-old orphan being raised by her unassuming aunt and uncle. Something of an artist, she spends her nights drawing sadist portraits of her friends at her girls’ school, attaining release from this visual masturbation. When her uncle walks in on her drawing one night, she runs away, to the home of the awkward male teacher who clearly has an interest in her. She seduces him, moves in; he quits his job and, for a time, they live as lovers, though she remains in many way a child, even consciously exacerbating her childishness to keep him ensnared.

The book is confessional, written in first person in the form of a letter from the girl to the teacher, after he has moved out (his attentions have inverted her sadism to masochism, and her games inspire him to anally rape her; she locks herself in the bathroom and cries, and, overcome with guilt, he leaves, dropping a packet of money on the door step each week). Coote writes with the appropriate hyperbolic self-criticism of a high-school girl’s diary, but the book lacks any additional layers to demonstrate that this isn’t just Coote’s own young voice. The vague characterizations and clichéd plot turns suggest that, indeed, Coote’s creative powers are weak. Frankly, this book should never have been published. I’m all for smut (and Coote’s success clearly lies in her willingness to milk the reader’s sexual desires with coy physical descriptions and steamy sex scenes), but of a literary, intelligent kind (see Portnoy's Complaint). If I wanted writing this cheap, I would buy Barely Legal.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Open Letter to New York City on the Topic of Libraries

After closing the Donnell Library, and planning to close the Mid-Manhattan, the city now plans to cut library funding as well. This is completely unacceptable and I have written my representative as such. You should do the same here. I wrote the following:

Dear Sirs:

I do not need the library. I am by no means poor. I have a Midtown corporate job and own an Upper West Side Co-op (and therefore pay a variety of taxes). I am an insatiable reader, but based on my income there is no reason why I couldn’t purchase my books at Barnes and Nobles, or buy a Kindle and subscribe to Amazon’s eBook service.

The person who taught me to use the library is the same person who taught me to be an insatiable reader: my father. As a child, every Saturday included a trip to the library, where I would wander the stacks (first the children’s, then the young adults’, then the adults’ science fiction, reading H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine while still in grade school, when my peers were hanging out in the school yard, braiding each other’s hair and kissing boys behind parked cars). Perhaps I missed out on one kind of socialization, but I gained another kind of skill and knowledge, ultimately far more important. My parents, I would like you to note, could not have afforded to buy any book they pleased, much less the literally hundreds of books I devoured. If it had not been for the library then, I likely would have found some other kind of lonely dissipation, far less constructive than the social criticisms of Wells and Bradbury (another childhood favorite).

As an adult and a graduate student at Columbia University, I was shocked by the shabbiness of that institution’s libraries. I obtained and Access card and did most of my research at the NYPL’s main library, which, without fail, had the books and periodical issues I needed. I wrote much of my thesis under the soaring ceilings of the main reading rooms, inspired by the generations of great thought surrounding me.

Now that I work in the MetLife building, I go to the Mid-Manhattan branch on my lunch breaks to return old books and check out new ones. My reading list is over 100 volumes long, and, the more I read, the longer it seems to get. But imagine my surprise when, last summer, at a meeting of the WNYC Community Advisory Board (of which I am a member), an audience member asked why the station hadn’t done any coverage of the closing of the libraries. I didn’t know what she was talking about—it seems there was very little coverage indeed of the proposed sales of the Donnell and Mid-Manhattan libraries (there seemed instead to have been a cover-up!). A Google search turned up only one New York Times article, one or two mentions on the development blog, and a short press release hidden away on the NYPL’s website. It seems that Mayor Bloomberg, who is also by no means poor, and who can afford to purchase all of his books, decided to dispense with the two main branch libraries in the city—they only circulating libraries in Manhattan that offer any chance of having the book you’re seeking, if you’re seeking something more erudite than a best-selling murder mystery or romance (for the branch libraries, forgive me for saying it, have unpardonably shabby collections).

Mr. Bloomberg’s offense is unforgivable. His role as mayor is custodial, one of stewardship, not ownership. The libraries, and the land on which they stand, belong to the people of this city, for their betterment. The Donnell is to become a hotel, a thing of which Manhattan offers hundreds. And the millions of dollars received in exchange? Funneled to some other, undisclosed project, since Mr. Bloomberg now proposes to cut library funding. It seems to me that with the imprudent auctioning off of the NYPL’s most precious asset—Mid-town real estate—there would be plenty of liquid funds available to not only maintain the remaining library services as-is, but in fact augment them! Was that not the stated plan, when hedge fund mogul Stephen A. Schwarzman pledged $100 million for the refurbishment of the main library, so long as it featured his name engraved on the stone façade?

Generally, I walk the streets of my city, overflowing with pride and gratitude. But every time I think of what is becoming of our libraries, I am filled with shame and disgust. The closure of libraries is not something that happens in America’s most intellectual and cosmopolitan city—it is a story belonging to the dark history of the Soviets, to totalitarian regimes operating by the backward, feudal principle that the people live to serve the government. In America, the government is for the people, and so are the libraries.

The tumbling down of the economy because of the past decade’s wanton profligacy points to one reason why I’ve always favored libraries to bookstores. As a recent installation at the Guggenheim proposed, we possess books in our minds, not our hands. The purchasing of books wastes two kinds of paper—the stock on which the words are printed, and the green-printed, cotton stock for which they are exchanged. After one’s bought a book, what does one do with it? I’ve found that many people don’t even read the books they’ve bought, but assuming they have, then what? It’s either stacked on a bookshelf at home to collect dust, or thrown into the trash heap. The lucky ones get passed onto a friend. Library books, conversely, are shared, read again and again. Nothing is more “green” than a library, which recycles knowledge through the community and reduces ignorance and thus despair, all by enabling books to be reused.

I ask your forgiveness if this letter has meandered; I’ve aimed to give you full access to my thoughts and feelings about this issue. In exchange, I hope that you will reconsider your plan to restrict access to libraries for me and my fellow New Yorkers, many who need that access much more desperately than I do. Every weekend I volunteer at 826NYC, which offers free drop-in tutoring for students ages 6-18. Every weekend I take a crash-course in a different topic, since students come in with projects and essays on topics about which, for some reason, they have no knowledge. I find myself saying, so often, “let’s find a book and look it up.” Without the library, where would these students go to find the answers to their questions about Ancient China, World War II, and Acids and Bases (three topics I’ve helped students research this April)? Wikipedia, as commendable a project as it is, cannot be the sole purveyor of knowledge for the next generation.

The city needs more from its libraries, not less—especially now, when fewer people can afford books from the bookstore and have internet access at home, when people desperately need help putting together resumes and finding work. New Yorkers, myself included, have chosen you, with our votes, and pay you, with our tax dollars, to care for our city and its institutions. You do not have our permission to cut library funding further.

With greatest sincerity,


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Books: Balkan Ghosts, by Robert Kaplan

I don’t know why I never enjoyed World History or Social Studies or The News when I was younger, but find it so fascinating now. The result is that, when picking up a book like Balkan Ghosts, a kind of travelogue that explains the various political crises of Eastern Europe in the 1980s through the varied histories of those countries’ vying constituencies, I constantly need to refer to maps to see how the geography fits together. Kaplan’s basic argument, deceptively simple, is that the constant political unrest over borders in the Balkans is based on each religious-ethnic group’s desire to “restore” borders to the dotted lines established when that group was at the height of its power. The natural borders of rivers and mountains won’t do; because there are a variety of conflicting historical precedents, thanks to nearly 1,000 years of rising and collapsing empires (the Byzantine, the Ottoman, the Austrio-Hungarian, etc.), each constituency can construct a semi-credible argument for its cause.

The other, perhaps more insistent reason for strife is a history of poor leadership. America is filled with vying constituencies, but these are not “tribal”—each will identify first as American. That said, ours is a nation of relative wealth and comfort. If we had leaders such as Carol I, the Romanian king who escaped his own country in the dead of night with nine train cars of national art and treasures, or the Greek Papandreou, who harbored terrorist organizations that systematically did away with voices of dissent—inept and power-hungry men of breeding, or military power, or mere charisma—who destroyed our economy (*ahem-Bush-harrumph*) we would, hopefully, oust them and then more forward, together. But bad leadership in the Balkans doesn’t seem to have ever unified people across religious or ethnic borders, instead serving to deepen the rifts between factions. There is a massive problem of grudge-holding. In the same way that the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, and some extremists deny the Holocaust, certain groups are at fault for refusing to admit that atrocious things happened in the past. That said, other groups are at fault for clinging to that past, for reenacting victimization and holding the descendants of the wrong-doers responsible for their ancestors’ cruelties.

America seems completely ahistorical in comparison to the Balkans, and this is likely a blessing in disguise. Though Kaplan writes with an incredible romanticism about crumbling palaces and Byzantine monasteries, trains without heat or food, and people who are perfectly happy to share their life history with a stranger, this is a world much more fun to read about than to live in. Reading this book made me wonder whether I had misread Gruz 200 (which doesn’t take place in the Balkans, but in the equally bleak Soviet-proper), for I at last had insight into Soviet-block desperation. The obscene nightmare of that film’s fantasy suddenly seemed highly probably. The Soviets are but one of the many fingers that stirred the boiling Balkan pot—England was another—but while Her Majesty’s role was one of distant slice-and-dice, the Soviets, through proximity and concomitant political domination, had a stronger economic impact—a negative one, of course.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Books: The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria

In the introductory pages of this book, published one year ago, just months before the onset of the “Financial Crisis,” Zakaria outlines various contemporary political crises and asks whether it is strange that the economy is so robust in spite this turmoil. He then explains that this is not strange at all, that the economy has often before charged forward in spite of political strife, citing World War II and Cold War as examples.

While recent history has revealed Zakaria’s crystal ball to be cloudy, it certainly has not rendered the main thrust of his argument—that America is no longer the “center” of the world—moot. Indeed, the title, however catchy, reads a bit more dramatically than the actual book; Zakaria is not writing about a world without America, merely one in which the American economy is no longer the only driving economy. Our singular, monopolistic power is being decentralized by the rising economic powers of China and India.

Zakaria is not the first to make this argument; in fact, it is a truth that seems to be as plain as day to a person at all engaged in current events. Like many political science hard covers, The Post-American World is a quick, easy read filled with easily digested bite-sized morsels of fact. That said, a number of sound-bites are valid arguments, especially when he wanders into more academic territory and acknowledges that a unified “Asia,” as the West understands it, is a construct. (I found this particularly vindicating given my recent experience at the Guggenheim.)

Perhaps as an Indian, or perhaps as an American, Zakaria is far more forgiving in his descriptions of India than of China (he suggests that growth in India is slower than in China because it is more organic; in China, decisions are made from the top down, and implemented based on efficiency and profit maximization, whether or not hundreds of people lose their homes in the process. This is not the case in democratic India.)

Ultimately, the “American way of life” is not in any particular danger; if we are losing economic hegemony, we continue to maintain firm cultural hegemony, so that progress to China and India means making those countries look more like our own. Frankly, I find the so-called “aspirational” tendencies of contemporary “emerging” nations rather tragic, but from a strictly protectionist, American standpoint, it is something over which to gloat, or in which to simply take comfort. In the Post-American World, strangely enough, more of the world looks like America—for better or for worse.