Quotable: David Mitchell

September 22nd, 2012

I’ve tried to avoid the trailer of the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. (I mean: the Wachowskis? Tom Hanks? Hugo Weaving as an Asian man? Huh?) But last week I gave in and watched it and now I’m curious to see it. The novel has six interweaving story lines, although ‘interweaving’ isn’t quite the right word to describe what Mitchell does: multiple voices, multiple styles, multiple genres, multiple eras, all of them held together with a fragile thread—the transmigration of souls.

The passage below, about life, death and rebirth, and which I can hardly ever re-read without having a knot in my throat, is from the Frobisher story, “Letters from Zedelghem.”

Luger here. Thirteen minutes to go. Feel trepidation, naturally, but my love of this coda is stronger. An electrical thrill that, like Adrian, I know I am to die. Pride, that I shall see it through. Certainties. Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools and states, you find indelible truths at one’s core. Rome’ll decline and fall again. Cortés’ll lay Tenochtitlán to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again, Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities.

Time cannot permeate this sabbatical. We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger let me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me in a heartbeat. Thirteen years from now we’ll meet again at Gresham, ten years later I’ll be back in this same room, holding this same gun, composing this same letter, my resolution as perfect as my many-headed sextet. Such elegant certainties comfort me at this quiet hour.

More on David Mitchell here.

Photo credit: The Guardian.

History as Story

September 9th, 2012

Some years ago, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company recommended three books I could take with me to keep me company while I was on a promotional tour for Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I bought the books, put them in my suitcase, and then of course read something else entirely. It wasn’t until last week that I pulled the three books that make up Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire from my shelves. This is brilliant, brilliant work. In brief, poetic vignettes, Galeano tells the history of the Americas from ancient times to the present. It seems impossible, doesn’t it, telling the history of an entire continent in just three books? But he does it so well and so sensitively. For each year, he selects one or two events and turns them into a little story, sometimes as short as a paragraph, sometimes as long as two or three pages, but always taking the time to bring characters into relief. I brought the books with me to Marfa, Texas, where I am on residency to work on my new novel.

(Photo credit: Marfa courthouse via West Texas Weekly.)

‘Among the Republicans’

August 30th, 2012

The Republican National Convention is getting a lot of attention in the press this week, but for me the best essay about it so far comes from… 1984. That was the year V.S. Naipaul traveled to Dallas, Texas, to write about the RNC for the New York Review of Books. He captures not the just the absurdities of political theater, but also the kind of detail that might seem at first insignificant but resonates deeply afterward.

That year, the benediction that followed Ronald Reagan’s acceptance speech was given by the famous pastor W.A. Criswell. Here is Naipaul:

Dr. Criswell, working up to his Judgment theme, spoke of homosexuality. His language was direct. No euphemisms; no irony; no humor. He was earnest from beginning to end. He moved about on the platform and sometimes for a second or so he turned (in his white suit) to face his red-gowned choir.

“In our lifetime we are scoffing at the word of God…and opening up society and culture to the lesbian and sodomite and homosexual…and now we have this disastrous judgment…the disease and sin of AIDS….”

AIDS, on the first Sunday after the Republican Convention, and in that voice of thunder! But if you thought about it the topic wasn’t so unsuitable. There was something oddly Biblical (though Dr. Criswell didn’t make this particular point) about AIDS, which struck down buggers and a special kind of black and spared everybody else.

“God is like his LAWS!” Dr. Criswell thundered. “There are laws everywhere. Laws of fire, laws of gravity.”

From this idea of Judgment and the laws (two distinct senses of “laws” run together) Dr. Criswell moved on to Karl Marx. A bugger? Only metaphorically. Karl Marx had his place in this sermon as a nineteenth-century atheist. Dr. Criswell gave Marx’s dates but said little about the heresies: in this auditorium Karl Marx was just his demonic name, and it was enough. Karl Marx wasn’t dead, Dr. Criswell said (or so I understood him to say: the theology was a little difficult for me). Karl Marx was still alive; Karl Marx would die only on the great Judgment Day.

You can update the language a bit, remove certain turns of phrase that now seem offensive, replace Marx with a certain Kenyan Socialist Crypto-Muslim, but otherwise it’s all there: fiery sermons, accusations of being “soft,” and even endorsements by former leftists. You can read the essay in full here.

Photo credit: Nobel Prize website.

Midsummer Days

August 3rd, 2012

And now, suddenly, it’s August. The last few weeks have gone by in a blur. I’m reading a lot, though, mostly on history. I recently finished Bernal Díaz’s The Conquest of New Spain, an eyewitness account of Hernan Cortés’ conquest of Mexico. (Warning: not for the faint of heart!) I also enjoyed Hassan al-Wazzan’s Description of Africa, a fascinating narrative by the famed Moroccan diplomat of his travels in northern Africa in the early sixteenth century. And I’ve just started Patrick French’s biography of V.S. Naipaul—some wonderful revelations about the writer here, though it does nothing to change my opinion about the man. Other than that, I’m working on my novel, of course, as usual, as ever, and trying to get ready for my residency in Marfa.

Travels in New Mexico

July 13th, 2012

Ghost Ranch

I’ve just returned from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I spent a wonderful week with my family. The picture above was taken outside Ghost Ranch, in the small town of Abiquiu, about 50 miles north of Santa Fe. In the distance, you can see Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain that Georgia O’Keeffe spent years and years painting.

In the mountains not far from Abiquiu, we also came across an adobe mosque. It was designed by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy in the late 1970s and is adjacent to an educational center and retreat.

Dar Al Islam

The landscape near Santa Fe is spectacular. We did some hikes in Bandelier National Park, but the big surprise this time was Plaza Blanca, pictured below.

Plaza Blanca

On Islamophobia

June 15th, 2012

The Nation

Samar Ali is a lawyer, an activist, a White House fellow, and a public servant who was recently appointed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to serve on his Economic and Community Development office. However, because Ms. Ali is Muslim, Tea Partiers are pressuring the governor to drop the hire, accusing her of being a “financial jihadist.” (The same group staged protests against the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro.) Though this kind of story may seem odd and even ridiculous, it’s becoming more common, which is why The Nation‘s special issue on Islamophobia is so timely. I contributed a piece about how anti-Muslim sentiment is often denied or dismissed. Here’s how the piece starts:

Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.

You can read my essay in full here.

Quotable: Toni Morrison

June 3rd, 2012

Morrison

Earlier this week, Toni Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony in the White House. In his remarks, Barack Obama mentioned that he read Song of Solomon not just to learn how to write, but also “how to be.” Song of Solomon is one of my favorite of Morrison’s novels. And it struck me that it often uses repetition as a stylistic device, which is something that Obama does a lot in his speeches. So I thought I’d excerpt two short paragraphs from the book, both of which use repetition masterfully. Here is a passage from early on in the book, describing Macon Dead’s car:

In 1936 there were very few among them who lived as well as Macon Dead. Others watched the family gliding by with a tiny bit of jealousy and a whole lot of amusement, for Macon’s wide green Packard belied what they thought a car was for. He never went over twenty miles an hour, never gunned his engine, never stayed in first gear for a block or two to give pedestrians a thrill. He never had a blown tire, never ran out of gas and needed twelve grinning raggle-tailed boys to help him push it up a hill or over to a curb. No rope ever held the door to its frame, and no teenagers leaped on his running board for a lift down the street. He hailed no one and no one hailed him. There was never a sudden braking and backing up to shout or laugh with a friend. No beer bottles or ice cream cones poked from the open windows. Nor did a baby boy stand up to pee out of them. He never let rain fall on it if he could help it and he walked to Sonny’s Shop–taking the car out only on these occasions. What’s more, they doubted that he had ever taken a woman into the back seat, because rumor was that he went to “bad houses” or lay, sometimes, with a slack or lonely female tenant. Other than the bright and roving eyes of Magdalene called Lena and First Corinthians, the Packard had no real lived life at all. So they called it Macon Dead’s hearse.

The repetition of the adverb “never” obviously emphasizes how little use Macon Dead makes of the car, but it also informs us about the multiple uses other people in his community might have made of it. Halfway through, the switch from “never” to “no” highlights the fact that the car, like its owner, lacks a certain essence, a kind of vitality. All of which leads us to its funny, and appropriate, nickname: “Macon Dead’s hearse.”

Now, toward the end of the novel, Macon Dead’s son returns to Montour County to learn more about his deceased grandfather, who was also named Macon Dead. And, here, Toni Morrison uses the same device, but for the opposite effect. This is a description of the farm that the elder Macon owned:

A farm that colored their lives like a paintbrush and spoke to them like a sermon. “You see?” the farm said to them. “See? See what you can do? Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling,” it said. “Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this county right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home, you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on–can you hear me? Pass it on!”

Though the sentence starts familiarly with the repetition of “never,” it doesn’t speak of what never happens, but of what people should never mind happening. It isn’t about absence, it’s about presence and power. And then other syntactic forms are repeated: the demonstrative (“this nation, this county”) and the imperative (“take it, hold it”), for instance, to emphasize that power. The beauty of the two passages is how, through the description of two simple possessions, the car and the farm, we get two portraits of two very different Macon Deads.

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Los Angeles

May 16th, 2012


The most recent issue of Newsweek includes a piece I wrote about the city of Los Angeles. Here’s how it starts:
I came to Los Angeles with a suitcase full of books and shoulder pads stuffed with cash. It was 1992, just a few months after the infamous riots, and I was about to start graduate school at the University of Southern California, near the epicenter of the unrest. One of my professors advised me against coming here—I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the substance of his message could be summarized in three words: Drugs! Guns! Violence! I had been warned so often about muggings that I decided to sew some bills inside the shoulder pads of my jacket. I didn’t know a single soul here.

You can read the rest of the piece on the website of Newsweek.

(Photo credit: Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles International Airport, 1964)

Who Should Have Won the Pulitzer?

May 9th, 2012

On April 16, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that there were three finalists for the award in fiction, but no winner—a decision that sparked an outcry in some parts of the literary community. The three finalists were The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace; Swamplandia! by Karen Russell; and Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson. Each book had many vocal supporters, who were understandably upset at seeing their favorite be passed over—and not for another book, but for no book at all.

So the New York Times Magazine asked eight critics and writers, including me, to write about the books they would have chosen for the prize. You can read about our choices here. And you can chime in with your own here.


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