Saturday, November 17, 2018

Stories worth savoring and studying

Jane Gillette says she began writing stories in 1962 for a creative writing class at Vassar College. The Trail of the Demon and Other Stories, published in 2017 collects eleven of her stories, all of which were published in literary reviews—The Yale Review, Michigan Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly, Missouri, Zyzzyva, Hopkins Reviews, Antigonish—and most of them published since 2010. The Missouri Review's editors were impressed enough by Gillette's writing to make this book the first in the publication's new imprint.

Gillette grew up in Muncie, Indiana (which appears in a couple of the stories), where her father managed a shoe store. She says she been an adjunct college teacher of freshman composition and a writer for association magazines devoted to historic preservation and landscape architecture (and Amazon lists a book called The Most Beautiful Gardens Ever Written: A Guide by a Jane Gillette who I am going to assume is the same person). She says about her personal history, "I more or less ran a press devoted to landscape architecture. Spacemaker published books and a bi-monthly magazine and I anonymously wrote lots and lots of things for them."

So she's an interesting writer, if hardly a household name. She's been working in a very special vineyard, the world of literary magazines. I like to think of myself as well-read, but I'm afraid I'd never heard of any of the people who praise the book: Daphne Kalotay, Anthony Varallo, Tina May Hall, Nancy Zafris, John J. Clayton. That I'd never heard of them no doubt says more about my limitations than it says about Gillette. (For one thing, it gives me a list of authors and works to investigate.)

Because Gillette apparently writes slowly and carefully, the stories are worth savoring and studying. She often makes it clear that what you're reading is a story; it's not pretending to be life. The title story begins, "This isn't a very nice story, but I feel I should tell it because at the time of the assault I lived six houses away from Dawn, and she has so much to say I thought I'd never hear the end of it." The Ghost Driver begins, "Let me tell you a story about how we became the success we are today." And Meditation XXXI: On Sustenance begins, "Since there's only one scene in this story and it takes place at McDonald's out on McGalliard Road in Muncie, Indiana, I'll first kill a little time discussing food."

By allowing the reader to see backstage like this, Gillette risks decreasing the story's emotional impact. We know Othello doesn't really kill Desdemona. At the same time, Gillette is skillful enough to engage the reader even as we know what she's telling us only a story about made-up people and invented places (Muncie, Washington, DC, Vassar). And she manages to dramatize how actual events, memory, and myth slop into one another so that not one is entirely real or true.

Let me quote from Speer Morgan's Forward because his observations about what she's accomplished are better than what I could say. In the story A Preface for Mrs. Parry, Gillette's suggests that "not only do relationships and even marriages become insignificant over time, but some of our most important personal memories may be so affected by self-mythologizing as to represent desire more than fact." She tells the story Divine Afflatus from two points of view and indicates that "personal tragedies become the sense through which we see the world and about how the world may refuse to soften, even for the suffering." Not a cheerful message, but a necessary one.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Kingsolver's fictional doings in a real Vineland, NJ

One piece of apocryphal advice to aspiring novelists: Chase your main character up a tree and throw rocks at her. The idea is that your reader will want to know how the character manages to get down—or not.

In Chapter 1 of Barbara Kingsolver's new novel Unsheltered set during the 2016 presidential campaign, Willa Knox learns that her family's recently-inherited, 100-year-old brick house is literally falling down around their ears. Also, the magazine at which she had been an editor has folded, the college at which her husband had tenure has gone out of business and he has become a lowly adjunct, her dying and raging conservative father-in-law lives with them, as does her free-spirited, tree-hugging daughter, recently returned from Cuba. Her son, a recent college graduate with over $100,000 in outstanding student loans, calls from Boston where he is living with lovely woman on the fast track to a lucrative law career despite just given birth. The woman has killed herself.

Chapter 2 is set in the 1870s. Thatcher Greenwood has been hired as the town's high school science teacher but has been forbidden to mention Darwin, evolution, or natural selection. His neighbor, Mary Treat, is an amateur botanist and entomologist who is serious enough to carry on a lively correspondence with Charles Darwin himself and his leading American advocates. Thatcher, a man of science, becomes friends with Mary, a woman of science advanced for her time (and an actual person who actually lived). The rest of the book's chapters alternate in times and point of view.

What connects them is that Willa and Thatcher live in essentially the same house in the same—actual—New Jersey town, Vineland. In 1861 Charles Landis, a 28-year old Philadelphia attorney, bought 20,000 scrubland acres in southern New Jersey, carved streets out of the wilderness, and established his own utopian community. Landis, another actual person who appears in Kingsolver's novel, required land buyers to build a home, live on the land, and plant fruit trees within the first year of purchase. So we have a novel that mixes historical reality and fiction, and by implication shows how far we've come—or not. One of the many things I find impressive about Unsheltered is that Kingsolver is able to weave the 19th Century and the 21st Century stories together without showing the seams.

One way she does this is by making the 19th Century chapters sound as if they were written in the 19th Century. Here is an example picked almost at random:

"Selma gave a prompter's curtsey. A pale, fuzzy little mullein of a girl, nearly as young as Polly, he guessed, but more accustomed to work. 'Your mistress has such such praises of the Pine Barrens,' he said, 'I'm impatient to see them. I hope I can join you soon as an assistant to the assistant. I am very good at carrying things and getting deplorably muddy.' Selma made a squashed little grin. and glanced at Mrs. Treat. . . ."

And here is a sample of a current-day situation:

"Mother and daughter curled together in the recliner they all called the Big-Ass Chair, constructed for people of that particular make. It was an old thing, brown corduroy, beyond huge. Tig could lie in it sideways. Willa hadn't seen a piece of furniture like it before or known such things existed, but she'd seen the asses of course, so it stood to reason. The recliner had belonged to one of Sondra's clients, now in hospice, and the family wanted the furniture gone . . . ."

Another thing I admire about the novel is Kingsolver's ability to dramatize what are essentially abstract arguments about evolution, economics, social order, and more. I suspect some readers are going to be uncomfortable by some of the arguments some of the characters make. Here's Willa's daughter giving her what-for: "People can change their minds about little things, but on the big ones they'd rather die first. A used-up planet scares the piss out of them, after they spent their whole lives thinking the cupboard would never go bare. No offense, Mom, but you're kind of not that different from Papu [grandfather]. You want a nice house that's all your own, you want your kids to have more than you did."

It's no spoiler to say that by the end of Unsheltered Willa and Thatcher have been able to climb down from the trees into which Kingsolver has chased them. A rich and rewarding novel.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

So you want to survive as an existentialist

It sounds like an interesting and practical book: The Existentialist's Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age. The author, Gordon Marino, PhD, "is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College" in Minnesota. He's written and edited a number of books about Kierkegaard and is also "an award-winning boxing writer for The Wall Street Journal and other outlets."

I'm not sure what I expected, but this isn't it. Start with the title. If you bought The Desert Hiker's Survival Guide, you would expect to learn ways to remain alive / sustain yourself / keep body and soul together in the desert. What kind of guide would an existentialist need to survive? To survive what? Existential angst? In his Introduction, Marino writes that he will discuss "existential insights on how best to understand and relate ourselves to the trials posed by anxiety, depression, despair" and the more positive aspects of existence: "authenticity, faith, morality, and love."

What it all comes down to (spoiler alert) is a belief in and a trust in God. That's what Marino is selling. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, a Christian God. Not Allah, not Brahma, not Thor, not Torgasoak, not . . . but you get the idea. Perhaps because Marino has devoted so much of his scholarly life to Kierkegaard and because he was raised Catholic, he uses Kierkegaard to justify and explain his own faith. According to Kierkegaard, "we need God to teach us how thoroughly depraved we are. Faith is the opposite of sin, and paradoxically it requires faith to understand we are sinners." I'm sorry. I don't think I have black spots on my soul. I don't think we're all sinners.

Kierkegaard is famous for the phrase "leap of faith," which he never used himself. But he affirmed that one could know God—again, the Christian God—only through such a leap, not through logic, not through doctrine. But it assumes there is something to know. It assumes there is a God to know, to love, to believe in.

But why not take a leap of faith into knowing that you will be reincarnated? It would explain why bad things happen to good people—they're being punished for an offense committed in an earlier life. It would mean that there are a finite number of souls available—sometimes you come back as a dog or a cockroach, sometimes as a better person—rather than new souls having to be created constantly. (Where are these souls coming from?) Reincarnation, after all, is something millions of people believe it. Why not you?

When does magical thinking become superstition become faith? Or are they all flavors of the same thing? According to Marino, you have to accept faith on faith. "[T]here is no argument from Kierkegaard for faith. In fact, he warns that offering a defense of faith is a sin against faith, akin to offering a brief to prove that you love your spouse." That from a man who broke off his engagement and never married. In any case, the argument sounds both closed and circular to me. You have to believe because you believe.

What about the subtitle, living authentically in an inauthentic age? Well, the book has a whole chapter titled "Authenticity." But wait. I question: What is an inauthentic age? What makes this age inauthentic? Was there ever an authentic age? Marino himself asks, what does it mean to live "authentically"? What's the difference between sincerity and authenticity? 

Well, "to become authentic is to become yourself." Or as Camus wrote, "Above all, in order to be, never try to seem." This appears to come down to the Shakespearian, "To thine own self be true." And yet, and yet. Does the mask you wear make you inauthentic, or is it just one aspect of your authentic self, one of many? 

As you can tell, I fought with The Existentialist's Survival Guide all the way through. I disagreed with Marino in large ways and small, delighted with myself when I could see a flaw in the logic, frustrated by his dependence on Kierkegaard's cockamamie arguments. For that and more, I recommend the book. I don't think it tells you how to live authentically in an inauthentic age, but for Christian believers it should provide intellectual comfort. And for non-believers, we're back to St. Thomas Aquinas: "To one who has faith in God, no explanation is necessary. To one who has no faith, no explanation is possible." Just take it on faith. Trust me.