Tag Archives: books

90s Boys, Part I

16 Nov

My fiction consumption lately has featured novels with 90s high school boys at their centers, a kick driven by some of my own preferences and a product of what some good younger writers have put out in 2019. The first, Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed The Topeka School, operates on a different level from the second, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations; the latter is content to present its characters’ thoughts as-is, but the chapters in The Topeka School often have extended allegories and drift into stream of consciousness to tie the threads together. Its style is one a New York Times review calls “autofiction”: borderline autobiographical, the fourth wall broken as the protagonist, Adam Gordon, writes in 2019 about his teenage self and includes excerpts from his parents.

At its core, The Topeka School is a meditation on the power of language and an argument for its importance in how we understand our world. Adam in his prime contends for a national high school debate championship by mastering a technique known as the spread, an incoherent, rapid-fire style designed to game the rules of the competition that Lerner none too subtly suggests has leeched into American corporate culture and politics. (The causal arrow most likely goes the other direction.) Another chapter delivers a pained portrait of the loss of those faculties in old age, as dementia removes any possibility of comprehension. Whether an intentional debate tactic or a loss of bodily control, the collapse of language upends the world.

Adam’s parents, two psychologists at an institute in Topeka called The Foundation and direct stand-ins for Lerner’s parents, take over the narration for extended stretches of the book. Jonathan, Dr. J, makes for the most lyrical of the narrators, the man himself practically a living Hermann Hesse novel. But Adam’s mother, Jane, is the book’s moral core, a celebrated feminist author who withstands the misogynistic abuse she endures with carefully refined tactics, a pillar even as some of her most vital relationships crumble. The Topeka School has garnered deserved praise for its treatment of toxic masculinity, and at its best, it shows a way out of that hell, a love letter from a son to his mother for what she taught him, even if he often failed to see it.

The Topeka School makes a concerted effort to diagnose the ills of modern America through frequent references to the nation’s imperial decline. One chapter, “The New York School,” lays bare the underbelly of a glamorous life in the diplomatic corps at the apex of American hegemony, an attempt to question the idea that those really were the glory days. The novel checks the “end of history” phrase box several times and pokes at the conceit that filters down from grandstanding politicians to self-important high school debaters. More often, though, it lingers in the mid-90s ennui of well-off white kids in Kansas, following their forays into sex and drugs and gangsta rap. Each chapter begins with an interlude in the story of Darren Eberheart, a childhood acquaintance of Adam’s and a social outcast who becomes one of Jonathan’s “lost boys,” consumed by male rage. If this is the empire, Lerner seems to say, is its demise all that sad?

While Jonathan is the narrator in “The New York School,” Jane takes command of that chapter, which makes an extended metaphor out of guiding an airplane safely to the ground. That great machine up in the sky, so far beyond the imagination of previous generations, incredible until it suddenly becomes a machine barreling along at hundreds of miles per hour, one small mistake all the only thing between its passengers and certain death. While reading this chapter my mind went to the “Flight 93 election” conservative analogy to Trump, the claim that the salvation of the republic require that people of good faith take down the hijacked plane. This, Lerner seems to say, is exactly the wrong way to react when the plane starts to smoke. Jonathan and Jane’s patients’ attempts to talk through their problems are an attempted corrective to the spread, a hope for a halting path out from the incoherence. When crisis strikes Adam, Jane is there to guide him down, and Jonathan is there as our flawed and awed witness to both the heights and recesses of the mind. Here, amid an otherwise fairly dark rendering of modern American life, Lerner finds hope.

I have two great critiques of The Topeka School. One is that, despite growing up in a comfortable Middle American community a decade later with some talent of my own in academic competitions before heading East, I could not relate to Adam at all. This isn’t to say he’s a false character; maybe the world changed drastically in a decade, and maybe there’s a a red state-blue state split or some other cultural divide between Duluth and Topeka at play. I also don’t think relatability should necessarily be the foremost concern in rating a book’s merits. But I never felt Adam come together as a character the way Ben Weeks does in The Expectations, in part because it skipped over the years between innocent ten-year-old Adam and troubled seventeen-year-old Adam that would have described how he became the way he was. Though he is the supposed protagonist, his parents came to life better than he did, more obvious products of their own briefly rendered parents than Adam is of Jonathan and Jane.

Why does Lerner not seem to care about Adam’s progression through life? I’d hazard to say it’s because he sees his world as fundamentally fallen, a product of nature and forces beyond anyone’s control. A pool cue ball, a symbol of Darren Eberheart’s violent rage, “had been there all his life;” Jonathan cannot say how his lost boys of privilege come to be, and his mentor, Klaus, offers up a contradictory claim of both eternal failings and the product of imperial decline. Some combination of male aggression is inherent, and culture (especially in late capitalist America, a land of “adolescence without end”) acts as an accelerant; the best we can hope for is to tame it. In broad terms I’d buy this hypothesis, and Lerner captures many of its contours. But I’m not sure he gives Adam (and, through Adam, his own teenage self) enough credit; while Jane tells us that teenage Adam is really a pretty decent guy, we see him only at particular flash points, and this never really comes through. The portrait just doesn’t feel complete.

My second critique, related and more serious, is of the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that its attempt at a zeitgeisty twist fell completely flat for me. I felt some unease when I read the first chapter of the book when it was excerpted in the New Yorker this year: the subject matter drew me in immediately, but I worried it might be too clean in its vision of suburbia, too exaggerated in its effort to wash away nuance in its quest to set a brooding mood and say Important Things about contemporary American life. Beneath this desire to plunge into a full examination lay a simplistic, rather ideological lens, and in the last chapter, it all came back out again. If Jane’s plane had a gentle landing, Lerner’s skids along the runway.

Perhaps this is the price we pay for having a poet for an autobiographical novelist, a writer more drawn to rendering moods and meditative auras than crisp declarative prose. (Either that, or I wasn’t on enough drugs when I read the thing.) The Times review, trading off a point made in the Zadie Smith essay I quoted on here last month, thinks Lerner’s lack of authorial authority is just what the novel needs now, an admission that this author who is trying to say something about contemporary life (notably, a straight white guy from the Heartland) needs to acknowledge where his own perspective stops. The point, surely, is a valuable one. But the counterpoint, right there before us, is Jane Gordon, a far more interesting character than the autobiographical Adam. If only Jane could’ve had the last word; she wouldn’t have needed to append an account of her wokeness to prove she’s on the right side of history. Her life, as rendered in the book, is testament enough to everything that she and Lerner stand for.

Part Two is here.

Confessions of a Mouthpiece for an Elite Charade

30 Dec

In 2011…Georgetown found itself with a $1.5 million pot of money intended for student activities that the administration no longer wished to administer. It allowed students to vote on how to use the money. Out of several proposals, they chose one to create a “student-run endowment that invested in student and alumni innovative ideas that do good in the world.”…It was a perfectly laudable and well-meaning initiative, and it spoke to how many young people had been trained to think about change in an age dominated by a market consensus: as a thing that could be pursued by investment committee as much as by social and political action.

–Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

For the first time I’m in my life, I’ve received an indirect mention in a highly acclaimed work of non-fiction. As the public relations director for the Georgetown student government that helped push through the Social Innovation and Public Service (SIPS) fund mentioned in the above quote, I’ll be updating my résumé with a line that reads “Mouthpiece for the Elite Charade to Change the World.”

All joking aside, Anand Giridharadas’s new book came to me at a vital time as I re-think my role as a person on a road to a reasonably comfortable career that seeks to create positive change in one little corner of the world. Winners Take All opens with a chapter that follows a Georgetown student two years behind me (no acquaintance) who, while groomed for a by her financier of a father, also developed a strong urge to do good in the world, in part thanks to Georgetown’s devotion to Jesuit ideals and an Aristotelian philosophical tradition. (The book name-drops two Jesuit priests, Frs. Matthew Carnes and Kevin O’Brien, who I’d cite as mild influences on my life, and major influences on a few friends who did a better job of getting to know them.) As a result, she was drawn to a career at McKinsey, the elite management consulting firm that pitched her on a chance to be a change agent. As she settled in, however, her doubts began to grow: her clients were mostly wealthy corporations, and any public benefit to her work was often tangential at best. Is this really the best way to effect positive change in the 21st century? Or is that claim just a convenient ruse for people who want money and prestige to claim some broader benefit for their work?

Winners Take All takes no prisoners as it examines these do-gooding elites. Giridharadas’ primary targets are not the greed-is-good purveyors of unrestrained capitalism who led the neoliberal rise, but instead the liberals who quietly accept its premises (wittingly or unwittingly) and try to soften the edges. It blasts Silicon Valley in particular for its unctuous claims about changing the world while operating in ways that are blithely indifferent to, if not actively destructive of, the human lives on the other end of the screen. Giridharadas sits down with some philanthropists and social impact investors, who struggle to varying degrees to justify their work and the system that makes their wealth possible. He spends some time with the “thought leaders” from TED talks and Davos lectures who claim to have simple answers as opposed to the old ideal of the public intellectual who sees complexity and pokes holes. No one who tries to “do well by doing good” gets off unscathed, though some certainly emerge as more admirable than others.

Giridharadas concludes with Bill Clinton, the Georgetown alumnus who started his political career as an Arkansas populist before becoming the Third Way triangulator-in-chief as President and the founder for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), an echo chamber for wannabe world-changing elites who get together to network with one another. (In one of the book’s high points, Giridharadas skewers several CGI panels designed to reflect on rising opposition to high-minded globalists and their seeming loss of touch with the masses that consist only of high-minded globalists.) Giridharadas lingers on Clinton’s closing address at a CGI conference: “All that worked in the modern world was private, donor-financed world-saving, full of good intentions, unaccountable to the public, based on win-win partnerships initiated by companies and philanthropists and other private actors, blessed (sometimes) by public officials…The only problem-solving approach that worked in the modern world, according to Clinton, was one that made the people an afterthought, to be helped but not truly heard.”

While Winners Take All effectively highlights the mixed motives and questionable efficacy of world-changing elites, the quote on Clinton illustrates a perhaps a more serious threat of market-focused theories of social change: the way in which it undermines democratic norms, and indeed the entire public realm as a sphere of human activity. The recent populist turn in American politics will likely make some elites even more comfortable with the idea of some aristocracy operating above the supposed dirty work of day-to-day politicking, which feeds a cycle of bitterness and division. The book makes little effort to offer up an alternative save a return to a more redistributive system, which one senses is insufficient to counteract the market-based thinking that has suffused so much of the dialogue. Perhaps simple recognition is an adequate start.

On a more personal level, I’ve been wrestling with questions like this since my DC days. I went to a few recruitment and orientation-type events for a McKinsey competitor, but decided I’d rather spend my first two years out of Georgetown failing to write novels instead. It would be a stretch to say my decision was a noble rebellion against the elite charade, but I was certainly skeptical of any claims about the overarching good that work could achieve, a sense cultivated in part by my critical tutors in academia and back home in Duluth and in part probably just based in my temperament. If I was going to end up in a career with pretensions of world-changing, it would look very different.

Even so, it’s fascinating to see how some things come full circle: I now work for a consulting firm with a stated social mission. My firm has little else in common with the McKinsey machine; it is a nonprofit, it does not drape itself in overwrought claims of influence, and its efforts are largely grounded in service to a place and its people instead of a vague ethos of excellence. Even so, I now get the sense that I could have thrived in that high-end consulting world, to say nothing of what it would mean for my wallet and sense of prestige. I’ve taken an odd path to where I am now, with an eclectic writing life and an idiosyncratic urban planning master’s degree, and while I’ve wondered some over the past two years if I wouldn’t have been better off with a gaudy MBA as a credential of broader expertise, I am also independent enough that I will always relish a chance to view my chosen field from some distance and play the loyal opposition, if not an unabashed critic.

As for my own complicity, I will make no apologies for the SIPS program: there were limits on what we could do with it, and it has gone on to do some very laudable work, including funding for low-income Georgetown students to spend their summers in DC. I also take pains to emphasize the blurriness of class distinctions, and that sometimes those who have seen the belly of the beast are the most qualified to critique it. (Giridharadas, for example, is a McKinsey alumnus, and many of his interview subjects are contacts from his days in that world.) Those of us who brush into these circles at certain points in our lives must acknowledge our place within these larger debates, and be able to step out and reflect on our roles. The dynamics of power and class and democracy will always be fluid, but a commitment to self-examination and transparency need not be.

Learning from Utopia

5 Sep

I usually like to imagine myself a cynic, but we all delude ourselves in our own little ways, and as a person who’s never had any shortage of aspiration, a utopian impulse surges up every now and then. As I’ve explained before, I have deep reservations about utopian thinking, and am not a candidate to run off and join a commune anytime soon. But there’s always something we can learn from past efforts to build a perfect world, and as I think about articulating a more complete positive vision, the time was ripe to explore a few older utopian dreams.

And so the past couple weeks found me reading a book named Utopia Drive, in which author Erik Reece takes a road trip through some scattered American movements that aspired to utopia. He visits the Thomas Merton’s old abbey, explores Robert Owen’s Equity Stores, and sits beside Walden Pond, among other locales. Most of these date to the nineteenth century, fascinating but quaint tales of cultish communities on the frontier that achieved varying degrees of success before their sexual morals or the power of an industrial economy laid them low. Reece refuses to consider them failures, though: the Shakers, the Indiana town of New Harmony, and the perfectionists of Oneida, New York, all lasted for decades and more or less approximated their founders’ visions for a spell. Their common theme among the relative successes was a religious fervor that went beyond some vague sense of a brotherhood of man, which says some things about attempts to order societies only on intellectual principles, but we’ll save that for another time. Now, religious or not, none of these communities remain.

These noble relics lead one to wonder if this old eighteenth century ideal of a utopia distorts the use the concept may have in the present day. Even Oneida, which was relatively well-integrated into its surrounding community, could close itself off from the outside world in a way that isn’t really possible today. Separation is now nearly impossible. Most of Reece’s present-day examples rely on a key export or somehow take advantage of the broader forces of capitalism, as did the one present-day intentional community I’ve visited in my travels. One resident of the contemporary Twin Oaks community in Virginia, whose hammock-and-tofu manufacturing enterprise it allows it to operate more or less as it aspires to, laments that her friends there, in the end, aren’t any happier than those on the outside, and few stay for long. Outside of a few true believers, Twin Oaks comes across as more of a temporary resting house to where one goes to restore oneself, not a community bound for time eternal. In a similar vein, Rod Dreher’s attempts to explain his religiously conservative Benedict Option communities have (to his intense frustration) usually been construed as attempts to found isolated communes in the woods. While not explicitly utopian—for the orthodox Christian, that can’t come in this life—the debate here is much the same, and hinges on the question of just how far one ought to go in retreating from the world to build one that can coexist with one’s ideals.

For my purposes, though, that isn’t necessarily a problem. Reece’s book succeeds because it’s not just an elegy for a lost past or idolatry of a few scattered communities in the present. Instead, he looks to draw from the utopian impulse that many people feel; to take that quest for an answer on how life should be lived and apply whatever lessons might come out of those who have asked these questions in the past. The end goal of utopia, one senses, should not be happiness, but a community that inspires the somewhat more virtuous lives of which happiness is a byproduct.

Politically, Reece would appear to be an ally of the Bernie Sanders left, as his concluding chapter labels income inequality and dependence on extractive industries the two greatest threats to contemporary American existence. However, his takeaways from his road trip, while not necessarily opposed to such politics, point in a different direction. They carry an implicit understanding that turning the U.S. into Denmark (an ethnically uniform micro-state that makes Donald Trump look kind to immigrants) is not a realistic path. If the structural economic crisis is as great as Reece would have us believe, initiatives like raising the minimum wage will only amount to letting the people locked in steerage sit on the deck chairs of a sinking ship.

Instead, Reece’s answers are intensely local, and rarely involve government action. He points to Oneida’s silverware company and the Mondragón Cooperative in Basque Spain as models of cooperative ownership that successfully shared profits with workers for long periods of time. He gives a nod to land trusts, which can make homeownership reasonable for lower-income people. He talks about local loan programs, which can get entrepreneurs the capital they need to get off the ground, and managing public lands in trusts as well. (We’re already doing those two with some success here in northern Minnesota.) He explore things like local exchange trading systems, which provide structures in which (usually low-income) people trade the services that they’re capable of providing to one another (child care, home health care, picking up the groceries, etc.) in an exchange of labor instead of cash.

These are ideas worth tinkering with, and few require immediate political power to enact. For that matter, a number of them are less threatening to entrenched capitalist interests than direct redistribution. While this may disappoint the Jacobins in the crowd, it also raises the odds for success. The proposals amount to positive visions for a better society that do not always require their proponents to make bogeymen of opposing individuals or ideologies. Their implementation wouldn’t be seamless or without obstacles, but in all of this, one sees hints of an uplifting local approach that doesn’t lock itself in to old categories that drive people off before it’s even been tried.

The thrust of Reece’s proposals is also welcome for those of us who, despite entertaining occasional millenarian impulses, are mostly content living within the society that exists—or, at the very least, fear that blowing it up may blow back up in our faces in unexpected ways. One of the more fascinating images in the book comes when Reece quotes philosopher Paul Shepard on how the human genome “is encoded with a Paleolithic need for small communities and a closeness to the natural world.” While this certainly romanticizes caveman life, it does tap in to a certain communal bond made real. It underscores the need to build thick networks: close ties within an extended family, lasting loyalty to neighborhoods and place, homes with revolving front doors that people in and out and keep it alive with energy and creativity; a republic of front porches, in the words of one former professor of mine. It means a place to raise children who always know they have a town behind them. It may not be utopian, but it’s a place I’d want to live, and I have every intention of working to make it reality.

In the Light of What We Know

10 Jul

 “If metaphors increase our understanding, they do so only because they can take us back to a familiar vantage, which is to say that a metaphor cannot bring anything nearer. Everything new is on the rim of our view, in the darkness below the horizon, so that nothing new is visible but in the light of what we know.”

I don’t always jump on the bandwagon of the hot novel du jour, but one that got favorable reviews across the board this summer did grab my attention: In the Light of What We Know, a debut novel by Bangladeshi writer Zia Haider Rahman. It’s a novel that stems from that desire for metaphor detailed in that quote above—a desire “to analogize, to link one thing with another, and to make whole the disparate,” in the words of Zafar, the character who is the novel’s primary subject.

It’s a novel that belongs in the same category as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: it’s a big social novel, trying to talk about the Way We Live Now. With an international flavor thrown in, it can almost seem like the most self-consciously zeitgeisty novel ever. (It’s a novel about the U.S. in Afghanistan! About investment banking and the financial crisis! About the collision of Western and traditional values! Life in the British aristocracy! Math and metaphors and through it all the meaning of writing and therefore of life! And on and on.) But then, of course, you realize that all of this is Zia Haider Rahman’s life, and that he’s just writing in the light of what he knows. Of course, that alone isn’t enough to dismiss the charges of pretension, and every now and then, the quotes at the start of each chapter grow to be a bit much, or the characters’ intellectual asides don’t quite ring true, even given the depth of knowledge they display. It’s clearly a debut novel, carried by the same instinct I first had when I started writing: the author believes he has to pack in as many of his thoughts as humanly possible, lest any one little drop of his brilliance be left unwritten.

The good news is that Rahman is rather brilliant, and knows this. One exceedingly self-conscious pre-chapter quote by Italo Calvino even lays it out: “overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature.” Indeed, why shouldn’t he go for it? Literature is far more forgiving of possible overreach than the real world, and if the end result gets us somewhere, who cares about the sniping of the cynic from on high? This is a novel as personal exploration, the lines between reality and embellishment obscured; one man’s effort to turn everything he’s known into a somehow coherent narrative arc. To the extent that anyone can meet that near-impossible goal, it does well, and the bevy of glowing reviews shows how sincere Rahman can be, even though his life story can seem so inaccessible.

The tagline for James Wood’s New Yorker review in the print edition called it “a novel of the global elite,” which is true in the sense that pretty much every character is in a position of power, and perhaps all save Zafar from privileged backgrounds as well. But Zafar’s inability to ever find comfort in that elite is the novel’s driving force, the source of his eternal foreignness. Even as he becomes fully conversant in its language and customs and courts a woman who is its ideal, alienation and disgust always simmers beneath. Zafar is a tortured genius, forever someone from somewhere else, and he can share this story only to the unnamed narrator; despite Zafar’s skepticism of bonds built around mere familiarity and his rejection of free will, he is, ironically, pulled toward another man from the subcontinent.

The bond goes a bit deeper than that, of course: Zafar and the unnamed narrator share a brotherhood born of curiosity, an identity as Oxford men and bankers, and a passion for math. In the cleanness of numbers, Zafar can usually escape the ambiguity that overwhelms his daily life, but even there, it doesn’t quite work, with Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem repeated throughout: within any system, there are claims that are true that cannot be proven true.

This is a powerful theme in the novel, with several unique takes on that old Socrates maxim that the wisest man knows that he knows nothing, with greater knowledge only opening up a realization of one’s ignorance. For all of Zafar’s brilliance, he only becomes more and more alienated, and the narrator, while wise not to go quite as far as Zafar in his jadedness, feels many of the same burdens of knowledge. Consider this brilliant turn of phrase: “The faith in having the measure of others really becomes unstuck when you begin to consider how many you’d acknowledge as having the measure of you.” The revelations are often unsettling, and it is not hard to see how circumstances could drive men like these, seemingly so privileged and powerful, into the depths of despair.

For such an erudite novel, it settles into a good pace after some early meanders, and the prose manages to reach a high caliber without being showy. The chapter entitled “The Gospel of St. Thomas” in particular grips the reader, as the details of Zafar’s courtship with Emily Hampton-Wyvern finally come into the light. I especially applaud the decision to eschew quotation marks, a technique that turns dialogue into a sort of meditative trance: the speaker is de-emphasized, and things flow together into a deeper reflection, at times even making us wonder what was really said, and what was merely thought, perhaps in retrospect. (At one point, there’s an explicit mention of this; it also raises the question of how much our narrator—and through him, Rahman—is massaging his depiction of Zafar for his own purposes.) It’s not a tool to be used frequently, but for the tone of Rahman’s novel, it’s ideal.

Readers will likely either love or hate In the Light of What We Know, depending on what they themselves know: how much can we relate to Zafar, a man with such an extraordinary biography? Thankfully, there are a number of ways to approach the enigmatic Bangladeshi raised in Britain, a child of both “a corner of a corner of the world” and Oxford: through lenses of class and race and culture, from intellectual affinity to political or philosophical curiosity. (There was a bit of Zafar leeching into my recent post on the U.S.’s role on the international stage.) Slowly, surely, the bond between the two protagonists emerges as the theme, though its development comes at the expense of the novel’s paper-thin women. For good or ill, they are in a world of their own, along with their author.

There was a time when I probably would have called this the best thing I’ve ever read. The novel’s reach is awesome, that of a social novel raised to the highbrow level; I admire its scope, and a number of lines have been written down to keep. I found some avenues to relate, at times a bit more than I’d like to admit. But now, safely emerged from my phase of overly anxious, morose soul-searching, I can’t help but find it incomplete: telling that narrative about oneself is great, but it’s only a start. To that end, I’ll be very curious to see what Rahman writes next. Now that he’s shed some light on his past, where does he go from here, now that all the self-consciousness is out of the way?

Exit Gabriel García Márquez

18 Apr

“Death really did not matter to him but life did, and therefore the sensation he felt…was not a feeling of fear but of nostalgia.”

—Gabriel Gárcia Márquez on death, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez died at 87 on Thursday, depriving the world of one of its greatest writers. I first met his work as a senior in high school, when I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude and devoured it in short order. Within a year, I’d started writing my own novel, and in the opening scene, the protagonist had his nose buried in One Hundred Years of Solitude. There was no coincidence in my decision, nor in that of my protagonist.Image

Among foreign critics, it’s normal to cite García Márquez for his portrayal of the “exotic” side of Latin American life. That’s true to an extent, as he wandered far from his home and probably had some appreciation for the apparent absurdities of life in rural, northern Colombia. But we must remember that, for him, these were not unusual and exotic locales: they were home. His hometown of Aracataca gave him fertile ground for writing, sure, and in interviews, he always modestly played down his own inventiveness. Yet García Márquez took a nondescript town in the middle of nowhere, Colombia, and made it into perhaps the widest-reaching allegory in all literature. Out of the little details of his home, out of the vagaries of local history, he created something both timeless and placeless. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a monument to the possibility of literature, one that shows how the novel can tell our stories—many of them at once—in a manner nothing else can match. No wonder I was sucked right in.

Glancing back through the opening lines now, I’m struck most by the simplicity of the writing. It’s not overly verbose—my edition is in Spanish, and I have no trouble with it despite the rather rusty state of my Spanish at the moment—and flows effortlessly into little glimmers of literary play, part silly and part poignant. Sure, there are elements of Hemingway and Faulkner and Borges wrapped up in there, but the voice is so distinctly his own.

It was a voice that came to define a literary movement, and for good or ill, most Latin American fiction since has been in its shadow. It also stirred up its share of political controversy; a number of the metaphors on that front are anything but subtle, and García Márquez added to his legend with his habit for hobnobbing with Latin America’s most powerful leaders. Chief among all of these, of course, was Fidel Castro, a man he counted as a friend, to the extent that Fidel has any friends. García Márquez’s leftism is easy to malign now, though Jon Lee Anderson’s 1999 New Yorker profile (temporarily freed from their paywall) suggests the author abandoned any serious belief in revolutionary Marxism some time ago. He was sympathetic, certainly, but he maintained his ties because he was still a reporter above all else, trying to get to the heart of the story, perhaps so as to ultimately have the final word. But once again Castro has outlived one of his more prominent contemporaries, and perhaps the only one who could have given his biography justice. However serious his political views, and however much we might judge them, García Márquez’s best works transcended political consideration and spared no one.

Life did indeed matter to García Márquez, and his work is infused with nostalgia. It is a collection of histories, from his parents’ romance in Love in the Time of Cholera to his exposure of long covered-up massacres of striking banana-pickers by the United Fruit Company in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The stories are personal, and that provides an added dose of care, despite his frequent use of the gruesome and the macabre. Perhaps that is why, despite his dark and often grisly works, despite the failure of his political views to gain much traction, he remained a genial optimist. He lived richly, and that wealth is evident in his prose. He had a strong memory and was willing to probe its depths with neither adulation nor disdain, but with an entirely different attitude: the world was his plaything, both in its triumphs and its absurdities, and the fruits of his delight will long endure. And while nothing I write will ever endure in that way, I do hope that, so long as I have life, I can share in that nostalgia-tinged wealth.

Of all of the ink spilled in remembering García Márquez, the best thing I’ve come across so far is this essay by Edwidge Danticat. As usual, the Spanish language Nexos magazine is delivering some quality content as well. If I find more good reflections, I’ll add links here.

Image credit: http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/gabriel-garcia-marquez-suffering-from-dementia-says-brother-1.1284018

Why We Travel

9 Feb

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my winter reading in Duluth often involves adventure stories set in places that are not currently buried in snow. As this winter has been a particularly harsh one, my impulse for vicarious travel has only grown stronger. And so the three works of non-fiction I’ve read over the past month (plus a work of fiction, though I’ll leave that out for now) take place nowhere near an iced-over Lake Superior.

The first book was The Lost City of Z by David Grann, and it’s the sort of book that made me think I was born a hundred years too late. It’s the story of a British explorer who fulfills many of my childhood fantasies in his explorations of the Amazon for the Royal Geographic Society. It was an era of glamour in mapping and exploration, with genteel Brits trotting about the globe to its empty spaces and painstakingly mapping them, risking life and limb to do ethnographies on previously uncontacted tribes. Nowadays, geographers sit fly over things in planes or around in front of computers, and we’re rather lacking in untouched earthly frontiers. Even as we read the words, it’s hard to process the fact that it isn’t one great big romantic adventure: the hero of the book, Colonel Percy H. Fawcett, became consumed by his search for the mythical city of Z, and vanished without a trace into the jungle. We all want to be adventurers, but we also want to be the ones who came back, and it would be nice if we got a book deal out of it, too.

Next, I read a book by the closest thing to a modern-day Fawcett out there: Shadow of the Silk Road, a mid-00s travelogue by Colin Thubron, a Brit who set out to trace the old trade route from China west to the shores of the Mediterranean. It is perhaps the best travel book I’ve ever read, beautifully crafted and overflowing with sharp insights about the people the author meets on his adventures through Central Asia. Like his predecessors, Thubron aims to see the world as it is, but for entirely different reasons: he has no aspersions of fame and riches, nor does he see himself as the vanguard of the civilized world, venturing into the backlands to establish contact and pave the way for future discovery (or perhaps colonization). While there are a few moments of self-examination, with Thubron speaking to an imagined Sythian trader trying to understand why he has undertaken his journey, his story takes a back seat to his exquisite observation skills.

And so his readers are given windows into the souls of the nations he visits. Central China, modernized in stunning fashion over the previous two decades, with questions emerging as to what comes next. The ethnic Uighur Chinese province of Xinjiang, its people clinging to a fading identity as waves of Han Chinese migrants pour in, with only a few outposts of culture left. The former Soviet Stans, populated by people without a history, their ethnicity invented by the Soviets and new national myths manufactured to hold it all together, uniting all on the surface but failing to pull at the nomadic core beneath. Afghanistan, crippled by war, thus rendered even more fractured and tribal. The Iranians, so fearful of Western smut yet disdainful of their authoritarian regime, the myths of the mullahs long dead. The Kurds, brashly proclaiming their identity at one moment, but beaten into submission when among their Turkish overlords. In the end, Thubron finally comes to the Mediterranean coast near Antioch, alone, and his return to the West is no homecoming: instead, the dark clouds remind him only of his restlessness, his reality as a wandering soul unable to find home in any single place. He can dabble in any place, visit old friends in China or Uzbekistan, share in a delightful night of vodka and yogurt in Kyrgyzstan, but he is still some other, forever the solitary soul on his lonely path.

The lonely path is a theme in my last book as well, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Bryson’s infectious humor dominates every page, and as an out-of-shape recent returnee to the United States, he’s among the least likely hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Yet he endures long marches up and down mountains through brutal weather, mocking his fellow hikers and Americans in general with his delicious snark. He celebrates the environment preserved along the route, yet maintains a certain distance from the solitude of the Trail, and he captures the contradictory relationship so many wilderness adventurers have with their surroundings. I can relate completely. I go hiking or canoeing just about every summer, and the actual experience usually involves a lot of grumbling about why we’re abandoning our comfy beds to exert ourselves and do all these chores in the woods. I’ll admit it, I’m hardly an outdoorsman; my trips are rarely more than a long weekend, and I possess an unfortunate talent for staying awake all night for no good reason when sequestered in a tent. But yet, somehow, the trips are always a delight in retrospect, and memories of blissful afternoons in a hammock or staring at the stars through a tent screen always overpower those of the sleepless nights.

That’s how travel works. Every now and then, we have moments where we become truly aware of our surroundings—moments when we realize that This Is Water—but for the most part, our perceptions of things are either formed in anticipation or in memory, not in the moment. I’ve read that the process of planning a trip is often more pleasurable than the trip itself; it’s the idea of what is going to happen that captures our minds. After the trip is over, our memories pull out the most distinct moments and give them extra meaning. That’s what makes travel so powerful, for good or ill: it is so obviously a break from the monotony of daily life that it can’t help but be significant, especially for those of us whose minds are often racing into the future or lingering on the past.

There’s an underlying theme in all of these books: a sense of loss, a fear that these places are slowly being stripped of their novelty. Fawcett-esque adventurers would be laughable nowadays, and much of the Amazon he once explored is now open farmland. Thubron watches any number of people try to square their past with the march of modernity and development, whether in Chinese or Western form; most everyone thinks something is being lost, but the material gains are so great and often so necessary that no one is going to stop the process. Despite his love-hate relationship with the wilderness, Bryson fears its destruction at every turn, and is careful to educate his readers about environmental policy decisions on and around the Appalachian Trail. On the most basic level, they all fear the same thing: sameness. They worry that the world will lose some of those contours that interrupt an often numbing plain, a repetition of events that one cannot rise above—or sink below—in order to gain perspective.

That perspective is essential, and it’s why I’ll continue to go on journeys, either on my own or through the words of other people. Some journeys must be undertaken alone, and no two travel companions will come away from an adventure with the exact same conclusions. As the old cliché goes, life is a journey, and there is freedom and power to be found in taking up the mantel of the adventurer: one sets one’s own pace, keeps a record of the sights, and charts a course through the unknown.

It isn’t that easy, though. The best example of that might come from one of the most famous adventurers of all time, Don Quixote. The popular image of Don Quixote celebrates him as a knight errant, boldly going off and chasing the impossible dream. It’s admirable, to an extent. But at the end of the book, the protagonist comes home from his journey, and concedes that he never was the hero he claimed to be. We can only invent so much, and if travel becomes routine, then it too becomes a lie, a false reality from which we cannot see the contours. Life is not a progression from point A to point B; it is a cycle, in and out, forward and back, requiring both spontaneity in the moment and the cold remove of distance. This is why travel stories make such good books: they allow for plenty of both. But it can’t all be vicarious. We need to go live it too, if only for a little while. That little spark makes all the difference.

Mario Vargas Llosa on Literature

7 Jul

From the 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance address delivered by the Peruvian novelist and erstwhile presidential candidate:

Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better, to orient ourselves in the labyrinth where we are born, pass by, and die. It compensates for the reverses and frustrations real life inflicts on us, and because of it we can decipher, at least partially, the hieroglyphic that existence tends to be for the great majority of human beings, principally those of us who generate more doubts than certainties and confess our perplexity before subjects like transcendence, individual and collective destiny, the soul, the sense or senselessness of history, the to and fro of rational knowledge.

I have always been fascinated to imagine the uncertain circumstance in which our ancestors – still barely different from animals, the language that allowed them to communicate with one another just recently born – in caves, around fires, on nights seething with the menace of lightning bolts, thunder claps, and growling beasts, began to invent and tell stories. That was the crucial moment in our destiny, because in those circles of primitive beings held by the voice and fantasy of the storyteller, civilization began, the long passage that gradually would humanize us and lead us to invent the autonomous individual, then disengage him from the tribe, devise science, the arts, law, freedom, and to scrutinize the innermost recesses of nature, the human body, space, and travel to the stars. Those tales, fables, myths, legends that resounded for the first time like new music before listeners intimidated by the mysteries and perils of a world where everything was unknown and dangerous, must have been a cool bath, a quiet pool for those spirits always on the alert, for whom existing meant barely eating, taking shelter from the elements, killing, and fornicating. From the time they began to dream collectively, to share their dreams, instigated by storytellers, they ceased to be tied to the treadmill of survival, a vortex of brutalizing tasks, and their life became dream, pleasure, fantasy, and a revolutionary plan: to break out of confinement and change and improve, a struggle to appease the desires and ambitions that stirred imagined lives in them, and the curiosity to clear away the mysteries that filled their surroundings.

This never-interrupted process was enriched when writing was born and stories, in addition to being heard, could be read, achieving the permanence literature confers on them. That is why this must be repeated incessantly until new generations are convinced of it: fiction is more than an entertainment, more than an intellectual exercise that sharpens one’s sensibility and awakens a critical spirit. It is an absolute necessity so that civilization continues to exist, renewing and preserving in us the best of what is human. So that we do not retreat into the savagery of isolation and life is not reduced to the pragmatism of specialists who see things profoundly but ignore what surrounds, precedes, and continues those things. So that we do not move from having the machines we invent serve us to being their servants and slaves. And because a world without literature would be a world without desires or ideals or irreverence, a world of automatons deprived of what makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.

From the cave to the skyscraper, from the club to weapons of mass destruction, from the tautological life of the tribe to the era of globalization, the fictions of literature have multiplied human experiences, preventing us from succumbing to lethargy, self-absorption, resignation. Nothing has sown so much disquiet, so disturbed our imagination and our desires as the life of lies we add, thanks to literature, to the one we have, so we can be protagonists in the great adventures, the great passions real life will never give us. The lies of literature become truths through us, the readers transformed, infected with longings and, through the fault of fiction, permanently questioning a mediocre reality. Sorcery, when literature offers us the hope of having what we do not have, being what we are not, acceding to that impossible existence where like pagan gods we feel mortal and eternal at the same time, that introduces into our spirits non-conformity and rebellion, which are behind all the heroic deeds that have contributed to the reduction of violence in human relationships. Reducing violence, not ending it. Because ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading, and writing, the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility.