Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Suggestive Pacing

If you’ve read more than one of my blogs, you know that I pay special attention to how a book begins. I didn’t learn to read entirely by reading. There were helpful voices along the way, such as Ezra Pound’s book An ABC of Reading, or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, or my weekly poetry tutorial with Hayden Carruth back in 1975. We’d sit outside on balmy afternoons that fall, wild Asters in bloom by the bubbling brook beside his house in Johnson, Vermont, and he would show me what he noticed in my poems. He always noticed more than what I was conscious of writing. In that process of simple affirmation, he taught me to appreciate what was truly “mine” in the way I set things down. He did this in such a way that I didn’t have to force what was natural to me. I just had to open a door and get “myself” out of the way, and then see the sorts of things he had seen in the results. He found it remarkable that I was an aspiring poet who didn’t read much poetry. I tried to, I really did, but I am drawn more to narrative writing. That’s what I like to read.

Here is the beginning of a haunting narrative:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure. He hadnt kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.

When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

The author is Cormack McCarthy. The book is The Road. We enter the story in a factual statement about a man and a child sleeping for an undefined number of nights, cold, outside in the woods. Their environment is unnaturally dark and growing darker all the time. The man apparently touches the child to see if he is still alive. Each small breath is “precious.” The two people stink. The man has dreamed of them “like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost…”

In this first paragraph, there is something strange about the rhythm of the sentences. Some have a gesture of length to them, and then come some that begin with a stark noun, like the second sentence, “Nights dark beyond darkness…” Words left out, as if “saving breath” for the minimum number to get an idea out. The third sentence works the same way, saving breath. Then two longer sentences followed by the need to “catch breath,” in a manner of speaking. Back and forth it goes, moderately long sentences and “catching breath” sentences.

By the second paragraph, the writer is not just saving words, he is saving apostrophes. The man “wasnt” sure of the month. He “hadnt” kept a calendar for years. Years: the strange situation of the man and the child, in a dimming environment, has been an extended time. The geographical location of the two has become critical to their survival.

In the third paragraph, we see “the soft ash blowing in lose swirls over the blacktop.” The man keeps his face covered with a white cotton mask. In the last sentence of the third paragraph, we learn that the child is a boy, and the boy is the “warrant” for the man. And even a comma is spared in the last sentence of that paragraph: “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

The white cotton mask suggests that breath is not “precious” only because it is a child’s breath. ALL breath is precious when the air is full of “soft ash blowing in loose swirls.” Anyone who has ever cleaned the ash out of the fireplace knows how fine it is, how you don’t want to take a lungful of it as you sweep. The environment the man and child inhabit is dark and growing darker, and fine ash covers everything, and they have to be wary as they make their pilgrimage south to warmer country.

If the boy is the warrant for the man, what would the man do without the boy? Is the theme of this story what Albert Schweitzer called his central tenet, the “reverence for human life?” Why is the landscape “godless” while the man considers the child the virtual “word of God?”

A few pages later McCormack brings religion back into this godless landscape:

It took two days to cross that ashen scabland. The road beyond ran along the crest of a ridge where the barren woodland fell away on every side. It’s snowing, the boy said. He looked at the sky. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of christendom.

They pushed on together with the tarp pulled over them. The wet gray flakes twisting and falling out of nothing. Gray slush by the roadside. Black water running from under the sodden drifts of ash. No more balefires on the distant ridges. He thought the bloodcults must have all consumed one another. No one traveled this road. No road-agents, no marauders. After a while they came to a roadside garage and they stood within the open door and looked out at the gray sleet gusting down out of the high country.

Again the narrative pace has to “conserve its breath.” There could have been a comma after “the tarp pulled over them.” Instead, there is a pause for breath and a continuation, each phrase a sentence in its own right, allowing for shortness of breath.

A little later, before we’ve read much more than half an hour into this tale, we get a picture of what the human environment was like several years earlier.

In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all.

I thought of the “death of the humanities” when I read that reference to “old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night” at a time when all people appeared to be “creedless shells of men.” My late cousin Walt, the theologian, once quipped that “God is what’s left after everything else is gone.” In the narrative at hand, the life of the boy is the warrant for the life of the man, and it becomes apparent that the man has trouble breathing and that they are both slowly starving.

Halfway into the story,

They scrabbled through the charred ruins of houses they would not have entered before. A corpse floating in the black water of a basement among the trash and rusting ductwork. He stood in a livingroom partly burned and open to the sky. The waterbuckled boards sloping away into the yard. Soggy volumes in a bookcase. He took one down and opened it and then put it back. Everything damp. Rotting. In a drawer he found a candle. No way to light it. He put it in his pocket. He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

Despite the desperation of the situation, this tale moves fast on a concentrated fuel that is McCormack’s imagination. The environment may be in the last stage of collapse, but the energy that sustains a consistent narrative “voice” is perfectly focused and tuned. I felt I was breaking the spell every time I had to set the story down, and I finished it in a single day’s reading. There is something affirmative in this bleak and hopeless tale, or you wouldn’t keep turning the pages. It shapes an answer to the puzzle of faith when everything around is “godless” or “creedless.” When you read it, let the sentences guide your speed. They will set your pace. Hold to the pace they set. Absorb. Reflect.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Roberto Bolaño and the Numbness of Exile

There are times during a summer when the exhaustion of hybridizing daylilies is relieved by a trip to see distant friends. At such times, I take along several books for airport reading and to make the hours in the air pass more easily. Roberto Bolaño was the author I read on a recent trip to Ithaca, New York. A Chilean writer working in exile, Bolaño lived only fifty years. He died in 2003.

I read a collection of his stories titled Last Evenings On Earth. The collection is unified by a narrative voice of an exiled Chilean writer, perhaps a different writer in each story, as the historical time may shift from story to story, and by an offhand, informal delivery infused with an absolutely rigorous vagueness. Also, a love of unexpectedly vivid descriptors, like this passage about Henri Simon Leprince. Look how the story opens:

The events recounted here took place in France shortly before, during, and shortly after World War II. The protagonist – whose name, Leprince, is oddly appropriate, although he is quite the opposite of a prince (middle class, well educated, respectable friends, but downwardly mobile and short of money) – is a writer.

Naturally he is a failed writer, barely scraping a living in the Paris gutter press, and his stories and poems (which the bad poets regard as bad and the good poets don’t even read) are published in provincial magazines. Publishing houses and their accredited readers (that execrable subcaste) seem for some mysterious reason to detest him. His manuscripts are invariably rejected. He is middle-aged, single, and accustomed to failure.

Bolaño’s phrase, “some mysterious reason,” is part and parcel of the atmosphere of offhand vagueness that is elevated to a style. As the story continues, Leprince is drawn into the Resistance. His task is to help better writers escape the Nazis. He is willing to take great risks. Whatever made him detestable in the opening passage comes back into a description of his work for the Resistance:

For the writers, however, Leprince is something of an enigma and a surprise. Those who enjoyed a certain notoriety before the capitulation and never deigned to notice Leprince find themselves running into him everywhere they go, and worse, having to depend on him for protection and safe passage. Leprince seems to have emerged from limbo; he helps them, puts the meager sum of his possessions at their disposal; he is cooperative and diligent. The writers talk to him. The conversations take place at night, in dark rooms or corridors, and are always conducted in whispers. One writer suggests he try his hand at composing stories, verse, or essays. Leprince assures him that he has been doing precisely that since 1933. The nights of waiting are long and anxious, and some of the writers are talkative; they ask where he has published his works. Leprince mentions mouldering magazines and newspapers whose mere names provoke nausea or sadness. These conversations generally end at daybreak: Leprince leaves his charge in a safe house, with a hearty handshake or a brisk hug followed by a few words of thanks. And the words are sincere, but once the episode is over the writers avoid Leprince, and he fades from their minds like an unpleasant but forgettable dream.

There is something elusive, something indefinable about him that people find repellent. They know he is there to help, but deep down they simply cannot warm to him. Perhaps they sense that Leprince is tainted by the years he has spent in the underworld of sad magazines and the gutter press, from which no man or beast escapes, except the exceedingly strong, brilliant, and bestial.

Another very strange story is titled Anne Moore’s Life. It takes an hour to read it, and in that hour the story lurches and shifts location and characters as if someone were trying to describe a family history to you while constantly flipping channels on a television. Dislocation and relocation is a major theme of the stories, and lives lived in backwater places, far from where protagonists began. The story of Anne Moore begins this way:

Anne Moore’s father served his country and the free world on a hospital ship in the Pacific from 1943 to 1945. His first daughter, Susan, was born while he was at sea off the Philippines, just before the end of World War II. Soon after, he returned to Chicago, where Anne was born in 1948. But Dr. Moore didn’t like Chicago, so three years later, he and his family moved to Great Falls, Montana.

That is where Anne grew up. Her childhood was peaceful but it was also strange. In 1958, when she was ten years old, she glimpsed for the first time what she would later call the ashen (or the dirty) face of reality. Her sister had a boyfriend called Fred, who was fifteen. One Friday Fred came to the Moores’ house and said that his parents had gone on a trip. Anne’s mother said it wasn’t right, he was just a boy, he shouldn’t be left alone in the house like that. Anne’s father reckoned that Fred was old enough to look after himself. That night Fred had dinner at the Moores’ house, then sat on the porch chatting with Susan and Anne until ten. Before leaving he said good-bye to Mrs. Moore. Dr. Moore had already gone to bed.

This is boring, and bewildering, right? You wonder why you’re reading such blather, seemingly an unedited ramble, though with surprising sureness about details. The passage continues,

The next day Fred took Susan and Anne for a drive around the park in his parents’ car. According to what Anne told me, Fred’s state of mind was noticeably different from the night before. He was preoccupied and hardly spoke, as if he and Susan had argued. For a while they just sat there in the car, in silence, Fred and Susan in the front and Anne in the back, then Fred proposed that they go to his house. Susan didn’t answer. Fred started the car and drove to a poor neighborhood where Anne had never been; it was as if he was lost or, deep down, didn’t really want to take them to his house, even though he was the one who had suggested it. Anne remembers that as they drove around Susan didn’t look at Fred once; she spent the whole time looking out of the window, as if the houses and the streets slowly filing past were part of a never to be repeated show. And Fred, gazing fixedly straight ahead, didn’t once look at Susan. Neither of them said a word or turned to look at the young girl in the backseat, although at one point, momentarily, she caught Fred’s eye in the rearview mirror, staring at her, hard and bright.

When they finally arrived at Fred’s house, neither Fred nor Susan made a move to get out. Even the way Fred parked the car on the street instead of in the garage was non-committal, provisional, a deliberate pause. As if by parking like that, he was giving us and himself extra time to think, says Anne in hindsight.

After a while (Anne doesn’t remember how long) Susan got out of the car, ordered her sister to do the same, took her by the hand, and they walked away without saying good-bye. When they were several yards away, Anne turned and saw the back of Fred’s neck; he hadn’t moved, he was still at the wheel, as if still driving, staring straight ahead, says Anne, although by then he may have closed or half-closed his eyes; he may have been looking down, or crying.

They walked back home and Susan refused to explain her behavior, in spite of Anne’s questions. She wouldn’t have been surprised to find Fred in their backyard that afternoon. It wasn’t the first time he and her sister had fought, and they always made up soon afterward. But Fred didn’t come around that Saturday, or on Sunday, and he wasn’t in class on Monday, as Susan was later to confess. On Wednesday the police arrested Fred for drunken driving in a poor neighborhood of Great Falls. After questioning him, they went to his house and found the bodies of his parents: his mother’s in the bathroom and his father’s in the garage. His father’s body was partly wrapped in blankets and cardboard, as if Fred had been intending to dispose of it in the coming days.

As a result of this crime, Susan, who seemed at first to be coping remarkably well, had a nervous breakdown and was in therapy for several years with a series of psychologists. Anne, by contrast, was unaffected, although the incident, or the shadow it cast, would revisit her intermittently in later years. But at the time she didn’t even dream about Fred, or if she did, she sensibly forgot the dreams as soon as she emerged from sleep.

Even while spinning out this yarn in excruciatingly unnecessary detail, Bolaño pulls us into a sense of what his writing confronts: numbness, lack of bearings, and vagueness: “by then he may have closed or half-closed his eyes; he may have been looking down, or crying.” Or this portrait of a literary style in the character of Fred: “Even the way Fred parked the car on the street instead of in the garage was non-committal, provisional, a deliberate pause. As if by parking like that, he was giving us and himself extra time to think”

Extra time to think; a narrative style that subjects you to an experience, and the experience is one of the writer's themes. And this line, possibly autobiographical, "Although the incident, or the shadow it cast." Toward the end of the story, the narrator, who is a writer says,

After that I had no more news of her.

Several months went by. I moved. I went to live by the sea in a village that has acquired a legendary aura since Joan Marsé wrote about it in the seventies. I was too busy working and dealing with my own problems to do anything about Anne Moore. I think I even got married.

“I think I even got married.” He must have chuckled when he thought of that line.

The notion of saying good-bye appears in the stories again and again, an obsession. Here is the opening of a story about Mauricio (“The Eye”) Silva

Mauricio Silva, also known as “The Eye,” always tried to avoid violence, even at the risk of being considered a coward, but violence, real violence, is unavoidable, at least for those of us who were born in Latin America during the fifties and were about twenty years old at the time of Salvador Allende’s death. That’s just the way it goes.

A couple of pages later, The Eye and the narrator are both displaced:

One day I heard that The Eye had left Mexico. One of his former colleagues from the newspaper told me. I wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t said good-bye. The Eye never said good-bye to anyone. I never said good-bye to anyone either. None of my Mexican friends ever did. For my mother, however, it was a clear case of bad manners.

Two or three years later I left Mexico too. I went to Paris, where I tried (not very hard, admittedly) to find The Eye, without success. As time went by I began to forget what he looked like, although I still had a vague sense of his bearing and his manner. There was a certain way of expressing opinions, as if from a distance, sadly but gently, that I went on associating with The Eye, and even when his face had disappeared or receded into the shadow, that essence lingered in my memory: a way of moving, an almost abstract entity in which there was no place for calm.

This memory of The Eye could be a metaphor for a memory of a lost homeland, an "essence" that "lingered in my memory: a way of moving, an almost abstract entity in which there was no place for calm." I’ll close with a kind of Bolaño magic from a story about a writer’s residency at a provincial writers’ workshop funded by a local arts council in a Mexican town named Gómez Palacio. A strange woman who directs the arts council has insisted on taking him on a twilight drive into the desert:

Now we’re coming to a very special place, said the director. Those were her words. Very special.

I wanted you to see this, she said proudly, this is why I love it here. She pulled over and stopped in a sort of rest area, although it was really no more than a patch of ground big enough for a truck to park on. Lights were sparkling in the distance: a town or a restaurant. We didn’t get out. The director pointed in the direction of something—a stretch of highway that must have been about three miles from where we were, maybe less, maybe more. She even wiped the inside of the windshield with a cloth so I could see better. I looked: I saw the headlights of cars. From the way the beams of light were swiveling, there must have been a bend in the highway. And then I saw some green shapes in the desert. Did you see that? asked the director. Yes, lights, I replied. The director looked at me: her bulging eyes gleamed, as do, no doubt, the eyes of the small mammals native to the inhospitable environs of Gómez Palacio in the state of Durango. Then I looked again in the direction she had indicated: at first I couldn’t see anything, only darkness, the sparkling lights of that restaurant or town, then some cars went past and the beams of their headlights carved the space in two.

Their progress was exasperatingly slow, but we were beyond exasperation.

And then I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road—a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground—but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

Then the director started the car, turned it around and drove back to the motel.

“Exasperatingly slow” is the effect of this style, almost like sitting in a “concert” of silence by John Cage and expecting something conventional to happen. Boredom, exile, and in that context, a vision of “a green light that seemed to breathe” in the middle of desolation.

Although the narrative pace is so offhand and vague as to seem careless, I found this collection a page-turner. The style is fascinating, and the situations memorable. I hope you saw some of the writer’s special gift in these excerpts.