Friday, February 16, 2007

A Little English Magic

Somewhere at the fringe of my mind resides an unmoored remembrance of an article read. Unmoored because I can't remember the reference. In it, the author, a Christian, takes issue with the strain of fundamendalist extremism that has placed Harry Potter on the blacklist for many deprived home-schooled children. Instead of thinking of magic as the devil's handiwork, the author would have us consider that prior to the scientific revolution in, say, the 18th century, magic was considered just as productive an avenue of research as science. The practice of alchemy, for instance, by luminaries as great as Newton himself, was consistent with what people knew about the world. Once the gears of industry and technology began to turn, however, moderism took hold and magic was forever banished from perceived reality. Books like Harry Potter ask us to suspend our disbelief in magic, and imagine a world where science did not win out over its more romantic adversary. All this to introduce another great book concerning magic, this one envisioning an England of the early 19th century where magic has not so much withdrawn itself from the public eye, as in the Potter series, but rather fallen into disuse.

Susanna Clarke's mammoth Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell tells the story of two "practical" magicians who enter the limelight during the Napoleonic Wars and garner fame both for themselves and their profession at a time when none but the library-warming, stodgy "theoretical" magicians retain any interest in the subject. Many subplots ensue and the eponymous magicians run up against a deeper, darker magical reality in England than what they had been playing at previously. That's all I will say about the plot, which is solid in spite of its sometimes rambling, episodic nature.

After I finished the novel, which due to reader negligence took more than a year, I read a symposium over at Crooked Timber (see "Addictive Blogs" at right) that engaged the book on several different levels. It was actually quite interesting because Clarke herself responded to the articles. One of the contributors wrote about an ulterior theme he saw in the novel, on classism in England. While Clarke was demure regarding her intentions for such a theme to be read into the story, she did not deny that she included a commentary on classism, however limited. Servant Such-and-such is unfairly treated, goes on to become a king, that sort of thing. Or perhaps she is more trenchant than that. Jonathan Strange, an obvious choice for the hero of the novel, is not so much more virtuous than Mr. Norrell (endearingly repugnant, in his own way) when all the data are considered. Clarke reveals a nuanced, slippery world of appearances and pretences where morality and class level do not necessarily go hand in hand. And this may have been what prompted some reviewers to compare her to Jane Austen.

Lionel Trilling once wrote an essay on the differences between English and American novels, with a view to explaining why American novels will never be as great as those of the English persuasion. The primary difference, he saw, was that England endured a class system for most of its history, which provided a fertile ground for producing novels bent on exploring what it means to be a civilized human. For indeed, how can one define civilized humanity other than by referring to the appearances and social edifices we put up to hide our inner reality? Although all groups of humans construct these edifices, those living in the upper class tend to do so with bewildering complexity. Trilling defined a novel as that specific art form which examines this phenomenon, and the moral compromises that result when the edifices are brought into conflict with the underlying self. Apparently, this type of art flowed down to us from the playwrights of antiquity, whose primary struggle worked itself out as the protagonists arbitrated between living as an animal - wild, free, and indifferent to morality - and living in a city, which is derived from a facade-like construction out of the comparatively formless elements of nature. If Trilling's definition of a novel is allowed to stand, and it indeed comes down to us from these ancient sources, perhaps America's offerings in this department will always be skewed. Our class system is very different in that it revolves around money - who has it, who's getting it - more than birthright and pedigree. Nouveau riche are not really despised, as America's fascination with People magazine proves. Consider the vehemence with which American films attack the classist sentiment (e.g. Titanic and The Notebook, to name a few).

What does this mean for American readers of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell? Simply that the milieu she portrays is utterly foreign to us. Even the way she writes betrays her deep English sensibility. She has a penchant for understatement, even in the midst of momentous events. She actually digresses on arcana via footnotes during the climax of the novel, something an American author would tend not to do (this may have to do with the sensibilities of American readers more than anything else, of course). This tendency toward understatement is a tangible hint that appearances and facades inform her understanding of the world, or at least the world she is describing, reacting against, rehabilitating. A good way to detect her views is to be on the lookout for discrepancies between characters' words and actions. The volume is not a moral tale, but definitely has that element within it. A contributor on the Crooked Timber project I mentioned above wisely noted that novels cannot be reduced to moral tales, precisely because they are stories and deal with characters who are no less real because they are imagined. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is no exception, but it should be noted that any lessons to be learned are not obstructed, but only enhanced, by the very entertaining characters, plotline, set pieces, and dialogue.

- Roger Dixon

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On Beauty

A long wait has produced a fine review by the dependable Ms. Josselyn. We hope that this submission will spark a flurry of holiday reviews from those contributors whose hands have lain still these past months. - RD

At a dinner party a few nights ago a friend dropped the old freshman English standby, “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” into the conversation. What followed was an embarrassing moment, as more than a few of us (including the estimable editor of this literary review) fumbled around for author, quote or other proof that we’d ever had to read this bit in some long-forgotten Classics seminar. I bring this up not to condemn a generation that does not have Keats at our fingertips, or a mastery of Tennyson on the tips of our tongues, but to indicate my worry that much of what was assumed for these men is quaint and slightly arcane in today’s world.

Keats boldly declares truth beauty and beauty truth, and one can’t help wonder at the ease of his definition, or, in a society that continually perverts beauty with a tawdry mix of sex and money, marvel that they were ever interchangeable. For those worried this may be mere social rant or, worse, an overly ambitious review of Keats, fear not, it’s only intended to be a review of Zadie Smith’s newest novel. This choice was made because a) there aren’t enough women authors reviewed here, and b) it was the only thing that looked good as I whiled away a few days in Amsterdam some months ago. While Smith handily published this novel under the title On Beauty, it could just as easily have taken its moniker from the other element in Keats’ venerable equation.

For Smith’s title is confusing. Little of what she reveals in her characters, their motives, or even their best of intentions is beautiful. What it may be is true, or the truth their deceit exposes. The lies we tell ourselves, within our families, our social structures, and our relationships, and the further untruths the lies demand we tell to others, make up the conflict, character and catharsis of Smith’s third novel. Her judgment of its characters lies just as much in the truth their actions create or deny as the beauty they are performed within.

Set in a small college town, On Beauty introduces us to an array of families and social constructs across international and socio-economic borders and, in a story continually dissecting pretenses, none is allowed to be simply one-dimensional. Each character – Mother Africa, Conservative Widower, Christian Wife, Haitian Refugee, Bright Student from the Streets – could be the book’s hero, its villain or, as is often the case, both at once. None are limited to a single role. They are, like most of us, these things and more, a fusion of their best and worst characteristics – themselves and their better selves. The hero may not be heroic, or might be undone in his final decisions. The aggrieved wife may allow herself to be continually wronged, the successful family patriarch may be a thief, the boy from the streets may return there, even after the gift of the college campus is offered to him.

Smith understands people to be composed of attributes that conflict within their very bodies: intelligence and idiocy, loyalty and adultery, constancy and change, love and anger, ambition and naïveté; the one never precluding the other. As her readers judge her characters we are disappointed and confused by their choices, but Smith’s conclusions are still satisfying.

There is no great moment of catharsis, of undoing, in this work, which Smith’s critics are quick to point out and rightly criticize. Not everyone gets what they deserve, for better or worse; even the conflicts Smith creates don’t necessarily come with conclusions. Einstein once wrote: “Nothing happens till something moves,” and certainly, what Smith’s novel is lacking is a grand-scale moment of movement, or what could be called the lack of a plot or story. Her characters, the women in particular, seem content to continue on with their unfulfilled lives, without seeking change or the conflict necessary to rile the waters. They condone their husband’s affairs, secretly harbor romances and fantasies and die quietly with few dramatic moments. But when they finally do act, what actions they are! There are the destructions of fortunes, the terminations of engagements, the screams of fights in the streets and the drunken violent sex of teenage girls. After, Smith settles us in to wait quietly for the next great movement.

In these in-between times, what she tells are the smaller realities of life, the moments of truth, the capture of characters’ feelings and responses as they brush up against each other and move on. Ultimately, these pictures, painted with Smith’s finely detailed brush, are more rewarding than the grandiose would have been. They are affirmations of the truth we recognize from our own lives.

Amid all of this, On Beauty is told with a wit and satirical edge that make her reader laugh, but with a love for the people whose story Smith tells.

- Lessa Josselyn

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Rabbit at Rest

A friend of mine once told me she thought John Updike’s Rabbit series a very “male” work of fiction. I can’t say that I saw her point, unless by her comment she was referring to the copious amounts of misogynistic asides, phallic references and dirty language strewn throughout the books. Alright, I give up: they are very male. But how could they not be, with their intense concentration on the thoughts of one particular male, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who happens to be slightly androcentric, priapic and foul-mouthed? So it is with a bit of crass and flippant zeal that Updike tackles what many regard to be his magnum opus (indeed, two of these books won Pulitzer prizes).

Rabbit at Rest was published in 1990 and is the last in the series, save for the novella Rabbit Remembered, published six years ago. The plot can be boiled down to a simple statement: Harry is fifty-five years old and feels that he is dying. Everything else is a set piece for this central intuition, which returns to the forefront almost every few pages as Harry reflects on his age, his heart condition, his slide into irrelevance and the phenomena of life moving busily in spite of him. We last saw him aged forty-five in Rabbit is Rich, where he finally came into his own with a small fortune from his wife’s Toyota dealership and some well-placed investments in gold and silver. In that installment, the author explored the ups and downs of middle-aged life in twentieth century America. Harry was old enough to see the depreciation of his youthful ideals, especially as compared to his son’s generation, but still young enough to be consumed with fornication – and that in experimental ways (described graphically, of course). In Rabbit at Rest his body has begun to slacken and his sexual impulses weaken. He still thinks about sex, and has one exciting encounter, but much of his physical drive has become cerebral; his primary outlet is now reminiscing on past carnalities. This estrangement from his more energetic self, and the era of his youth, embodies the tone of the novel, and provides Updike with some rich material for his own exploration of death and dying.

This is not a book where the plot affords respite from introspection, people undergo dramatic life-changing ordeals or pat solutions are forced down our throats. The characters do not betray their personalities, which are often annoyingly stubborn and selfish. Updike aims to mimic stone-cold reality. However, a subtle undercurrent throughout reveals a shift in Harry’s mentality that approaches magnanimity – or if not that, perhaps perspective. This, plus his depth of observation and synthesis, saves him from damnation in the eye of the reader (which, as a rule, flouts hypocrisy as it makes its moral judgments).

Despite the author’s irritating public image – the self-styled doyen of fine arts, cocooned in the adoration of the highbrow media – which somehow permits him to denigrate those threatening to steal his thunder (i.e. Tom Wolfe), and the run-on quality of his prose, designed to unload on the reader the minutiae of modern life, he does write quite beautifully. He has a knack for describing the details, and for stretching an action or a thought into something that the reader can actually feel. And this is really the essence of the book: we can feel the end approaching because it’s tangible in every thought, every place described, every color and object lingered upon. Updike can’t take us beyond death, as he himself has not yet traveled there, but he portrays the journey towards it with remarkable skill. Skill. In short. Daedel.

- Roger Dixon

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Black Gold of the Sun

Here's one by Lessa Josselyn, another welcome newcomer to TKR, on Black Gold of the Sun by Ekow Eshun. Lessa tells me that her interest in the subject transcends the mere professional: she will soon be traveling to Ghana herself. - RD

For those of us in our twenties, attempts to understand ourselves often start with others, beginning where we began, illuminating the upstairs rooms and back gardens of our families and the homes that witnessed our upbringing. In his recent memoir Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in Africa and Beyond, Ekow Eshun explores the flats of London and the village homes of Accra, Ghana, in an attempt to explain what he himself has yet to discover – a history and heritage he is unwilling to claim and unable to interpret. His struggle to do so is both the work’s greatest frustration and its ultimate redemption.

Before the second page, Eshun’s thesis is clear: “who you are is determined by where you are.” As the child of Ghanan diplomats buffeted by coups, appointments and, ultimately, chosen exile in London, place is of utmost importance to Eshun and his siblings. The return to Ghana which starts his novel is therefore not surprising, nor is the pilgrimage to one’s home country a unique form for memoir. And, while Eshun’s location is fascinating – the streets of Accra and costal towns of Northern Ghana have stories to tell – he is not quite comfortable with the words needed to tell them.

Eshun’s expositions on the London of his youth are clear and touching as he delves into themes like the uncertainty of childhood and the realization that we are individuals distinct from our parents, their decisions nevertheless affecting our geography and psychology. As he leaps to present day Ghana, however, his frustration with the society, what it represents as it is torn between a hip-hop culture imported from the West and the ancestral traditions he seeks, makes for slightly disjointed reading. It is as if Eshun expected to find a truth among the population of Ghana – a definition of what it means to be Ghanan that could fill the gaps in his own understanding of himself.

What he finds instead is a culture of contradictions. There are the fortresses of Elmina, which saw the backs of a fifth of the slaves shipped out of Africa. There is Eshun’s family home, built by his great-grandfather with the monies brought in from slave-trading. There is the influx of Westernization – the fashions of Sean Jean and the music of Tupac Shakur. What is more, the anti-American actions of Osama Bin Laden are celebrated alongside W. E. B. DuBois’ renouncing of his American citizenship.

If Eshun discovers anything, it is this: there is no singularity in truth – for Ghana or for himself.

In the final two chapters of the work, the freedom Eshun allows Ghana, and himself, liberates his story – both are allowed to be more than any one thing, to exist in the celebration of their contradictions. Here he writes with a clarity of vision that is lovely in its forgiveness.

I found myself wishing that Eshun had returned to the earlier chapters of his book after this important self-discovery. His direction, vision and exposition in the second half of the novel would have helped edit and clarify the first half’s frustrated stabs into the dark. Of course, such a cleanup may have taken away from the memoir’s resolution. How would we know whether Eshun found himself if we could not see how lost and confused he had been?

The texture of this novel, the obvious research he put into his subject matter and the honesty with which the story is told make Black Gold worth reading – perhaps all the more so as a reminder that we needn't have all the answers to who we are or whence we came at our fingertips, that there is beauty and value in working to discover them.

- Lessa Josselyn

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Master and Who?

Justin sends in his new review of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which, I quote, is "short, innocent, and somewhat ignorant." Come now, Justin, modesty doesn't score any points at TKR! - RD

A most unusual, but pleasant, conversation happened upon me several months ago while I was eating lunch on a patio outside Joe’s Pizza at the University of California, Santa Cruz campus. Now, although I would like to claim that I ventured onto the campus strictly to have lunch that day, I must admit that I was also participating in a discussion forum organized by a friend of mine. The forum was developed in attempts to engage students in dialogue about important “life” questions outside of the classroom. Being that I enjoy a good conversation, I volunteered to be the moderator for the event. On this one peculiar afternoon, an extremely inquisitive and eccentric student happened by my table and sat down; whereabouts he proceeded to interrogate me about the nature of the forum. After several minutes of conversation, primarily dictated by his thick Russian accent, I could tell that this student was a serious learner. He was by all accounts of the word, a book worm, and a developed one at that. He was a history major and particularly interested in Eastern European history because of his Jewish heritage. We talked intensely for an hour or so, the subject ranging everywhere from the verisimilitude of New Testament literature, to the current conflicts in the Middle East, to the current intellectual crises in American culture. Towards the end of our exchange he recommended a book to me, exclaiming, “I think you might enjoy this.” It was titled The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, and apparently it was one of the most influential books ever written about Soviet culture. That afternoon I proceeded to the nearest Borders Bookstore to purchase the book. Little did I know that my earlier encounter with the history student from UCSC would serve as a real-life analogy to the contents and themes of The Master and Margarita.

Written during the last days of Stalin’s dictatorship, in an attempt to undermine various totalitarian philosophies, The Master and Margarita is fascinating and somewhat troubling read alike, especially for a poor hapless American like me. Although I am sufficiently detached historically and culturally from the Soviet era, I appreciated this book all the same for its courageous renouncements of religious dogma, censorship, philosophical elitism, and the monotony of modernized life. For someone like me, this book was an intriguing look into the mind and culture of post-Christian Soviet life. Written in the wake of various “social cleansing” acts perpetrated by the Stalin propaganda machine, Master attempts to illustrate just how desensitized Russians had become to these heinous acts. One of Bulgakov’s subtle themes is that in time, tyranny can become “normative” and accepted. Throughout Master we see glimpses of just how brainwashed the public had become by the power of the government. We see this sort of power delegated and received unconsciously in nearly every facet of Soviet life.

The MASSOLIT (Masters of the Soviet Literature) is a good example of this power, wherein its members are continually shown to be antireligious and somewhat hegemonic in their application of certain philosophical axioms. In the minds of the elite that form this literary group, religion should not be talked about, let alone given the privilege of critical inquiry. Thus, censorship has not simply become a tool used by the powerful to control others, but an attitude applied by the elite to further marginalize the oppressed. Through this faint example, Bulgakov seems to be suggesting that, via various communist social reformations, the Soviet lifestyle had become disinterested in even the most critical forms of human dialogue. No longer was there a spirit of investigation in the academic medium, for it had been replaced by a dull specter of inheritance and stagnant intellectual tradition.

Or, as we see in the complicated and befuddled mess that is the character of Margarita, a woman so compelled to be entangled in the pines of romance, she willingly escorts the apparition of Satan to a dance in hopes that she may once again regain what had been lost to her for so many years. It is in this character that Bulgakov reveals his most compelling argument. The character Margarita becomes a startling example of how love, and the feelings surrounding it, had become for so many but a pathetic attempt to secure one’s own future through the future of another. Although Margarita’s love is true and steadfast, her pursuit of it becomes more important than the object to which it is directed.

From his satirical portrayals of Satan disturbing the Moscow elite, to his post-critical commentary on the life of Jesus Christ, to his delicate depiction of a romantically crazed woman-turned-witch, Bulgakov applies layer upon layer of meaning and symbolism in order to arouse the sleeping imaginations of his readers. Bulgakov, on nearly every page, draws into light the severity by which Stalin’s dictatorship had conquered the imagination and livelihood of the Soviet peoples. Drawing on themes from Goethe, Solzhenitsyn, Gogol, and Cervantes, Master is an exercise in truly “free verbal construction.” Bulgakov stops at nothing to surprise the reader, allowing the imagination to take authority over the security of the rational mind. It seems that Bulgakov was privy to information being withheld from the common Soviet, so his novel takes on a sort of mystical quality which engages the reader in the senses over and against a formal allegory based on historical fact.

Although I cannot pretend to know the entire historical situation from which this book was written, it is clear that Bulgakov was a literary genius, both in form and function. His book captivated millions of pre-Cold War Soviets who were struggling for air in the vacuous environment of Stalin’s dictatorship. I should hope and pray that there are some contemporary Bulgakovs in our midst today. Like the history student at UCSC, who appeared as if from a crowd of wandering intellectual shapes, Bulgakov’s masterpiece has appeared in similar fashion, from a crowd of dark and harrowing literary shapes, to provide an enlightened and unexpected spirit of optimism in the face of so much cynical confusion.

- Justin D'Agostino

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dead Fall

I'm pleased to say that my mom, yes my mom, has contributed a few words on a Patricia Rushford mystery she recently read. The best part about the piece is that it was unsolicited. So there are some people out there who enjoy reading and writing about it for its own sake. This is an attitude we try to foster at TKR. Alas, often to no avail. - RD

Patricia Rushford is a fine Christian fiction author. Her murder mysteries are compelling, intriguing and capture the reader’s attention from beginning to end. As the book jacket reads, “Patricia Rushford is an award-winning author, speaker, and teacher. She is also a registered nurse and holds a master’s degree in counseling. She is a prolific writer with numerous articles and over forty books to her credit…..”

Dead Fall is the second book in the McAllister Series, which was co-authored by Harrison James, whose career has placed him in a major supervising role in a metropolitan police department, to give the mysteries further credibility. We read, “His career accomplishments include work as an undercover narcotics agent, as a detective investigating hundreds of homicide and sexual and physical abuse cases, and enforcing big-game poaching and back-country investigations. James has also appeared in several reality police/crime television series.”

The authors spend time developing the characters with a little romance to balance the grittiness of the plot. The first few pages set the scene for the potential crime with a missing young man in the Oregon wilderness. With all of the characters, including a suspicious girlfriend and other suspects, in place, detectives “Mac” McAllister and his partner Dana Bennett from the Portland, Oregon State Police Department set out to solve the mystery of the young man’s disappearance. Along the way, mysterious bodies are uncovered to complicate the story. The reader has to ponder over the evidence along with the detectives to decipher the clues and determine if the young man was actually murdered and who the culprit might be.

The book is enjoyable and entertaining. Patricia’s other book series, the Angel Delaney Mysteries, is also a good choice.

- Barbara Dixon

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Preservationist

David Maine has given us two novels, both renditions of bible stories. Renditions, but not revisions. The author (whose unconventional mug graces the right-hand side of this review) takes his theology and biblical history rather seriously – which is as odd as it is refreshing. His two books to date are titled The Preservationist and Fallen and treat, respectively, the stories of Noah and the Fall. Enthusiasts will note that The Book of Samson is also due out this fall. The reviews I read on Fallen indicated that his first book was better, so I picked up Maine’s account of the flood and dove in.

Anyone who has ever read the Old Testament knows that many of its stories leave the reader wanting more information: personal, relational, historical, etc. The story of Noah, his family, and the ark is no different. Maine had before him the structural outline of the story; his task was to fill in the blanks. The surprise is that he manages to do so while avoiding the double pitfall of either a) pontificating from a fundamentalist soapbox or b) revising the account into a “love contains all the answers to our religious differences” mushpot. He provides plausible character backgrounds and extra-biblical settings while taking the Genesis account, with its legendary characteristics, at face value (who indeed is the "preservationist," Noah or Maine?). At the same time, a large amount of humor has been injected, which makes the book a very quick and entertaining read.

Maine tells his tale through the voices of each character involved, including Noah, his wife, their sons, and their sons’ wives. This effective technique allows us to get inside the heads of these people as they struggle to obey what seems like a ridiculous divine command. The reader is not privy to any more information than the characters receive, so the story becomes a journey of obedience, growth, and right living in the face of limited knowledge. But the fact that Maine sticks close to orthodox Judeo-Christian ideas about God does not prevent him from asking the hard questions: why were some people chosen rather than others? how can a righteous man like Noah rejoice when unbelievers are punished? why would God create the earth, only to destroy it shortly after? These and other piercing questions remind the reader of Job, who also questions the will of God. And like Job, the answer that is given is no answer at all. In other words, God is God and does what he wants. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

A few final notes. The book is rather earthy. By this I mean that Maine is especially occupied with the physical aspects of life in the early biblical period. Things like urination and coition, or “rutting.” Rutting actually takes a prominent role in the book: rutting in the sleeping room, rutting on the ark, next to the animals, rutting in front of the parents. If nothing else, it highlights the difference between modern modesty and ancient pragmatism regarding procreation. Or maybe it slyly comments on the modern slide into indecency? Finally, the author is charitable with characters written off by many – particularly Ham. The end result is a nuanced, loamy, fairly theologically-sound, often simply beautiful story of the flood that is sure to delight many readers.

- Roger Dixon

Monday, July 24, 2006


Jake's recent prodigious review production belies any notion that his inspiration for reading and writing had ceased prematurely - a notion that we at TKR were beginning to fear was the case, after a preternaturally long dry spell. Well, it hasn't, and we were wrong, which is a very good thing, considering the current paucity of gifted writers contributing to this space (yes, consider that a challenge). Herewith, a review of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex. - RD

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is a story, nay an epic, that escapes the feeble words of this humble reviewer. Its title, at first glance, suggests the well-known storyline of a young hermaphrodite who started life a female, yet finished as a male. But this is not so. Instead, as even the most casual reader will notice, it refers to the family estate just outside Detroit. But why name the house or the book Middlesex?

This vexing question, unfortunately, is not made altogether clear throughout the novel. Instead, it floats throughout the text, sometimes dramatically, beckoning its reader to empyrean musings. My mundane thought, however, is that Middlesex is an icon that exists at the liminal recesses of society. Consider the following. The house is a cross between Suburban utopianism and an F. Lloyd Wright nightmare. Middlesex’s Greek residents were consigned to this monstrosity because they were neither WASPs nor inner city thugs, but were merely trying to escape to a casern from the war-tattered remains of Detroit. Grandma bedrid herself - a linctus waiting to be swallowed by the netherworld as she wallowed through to the end of her life. Most importantly, it is in Middlesex that the protagonist becomes attracted to the female sex, first as a child and later as a teenager, before running away to a brief stint at a freak show burlesque in the Tenderloin district. Middlesex is thus an icon of existence between two worlds and the realization that such cannot be done.

This type of liminal survival, often cast in historical anecdotes concerning the research of Dr. Such-and-Such is interesting when compared to T. Wolfe’s recent satire, I Am Charlotte Simmons. There, Wolfe shows that even the most unconventional students, Adam and Charlotte, eventually succumb to peer pressure by divining the ideals of Dupont. In contrast to this pattern of learned “more mimicking,” sexual identity is deeper – and no matter how long one lives as a sex, there is no mistaking the fact that nurture does not always beat nature. Thus, sexual identity cannot be changed, even within the courtyard at Dupont.

Ensconced within this key theme is an epic vision. The story begins with the protagonist’s grandparents and their amorous introduction as brother and sister before continuing onto the next generation—cousin and cousin—on through the once chalybeate—but now decrepit—streets of Detroit. Throughout the pages, however, the story wafts along at the mercy of random events that in the end suggest kismet: the Turks savagely burn the Greek insurgents alive, impervious to the screams of children and their smoldering flesh; grandpa loses his job at the Ford factory and becomes a bootlegger; the great uncle fakes his death, but resurrects himself as a huckster selling Nation of Islam tripe to despondent and uneducated inner-city black folk; and brother (older) drops out of the University of Michigan, Ann Harbor, at the behest of his obnoxious Marxist girlfriend. These stories and others occur with nimiety, a quality serving to backdrop a larger-than-life epic that encapsulates not only a character, but a family and a nation, all with which we can identify.

- Jake McCarty

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Felines and Facades

Cooperating with our push to branch out beyond the mere "book" review, Jake sends in a few notes on a recent Newsweek article. - RD

In the most recent issue of Newsweek (July 17, 2006), a brief article summarizes the burgeoning of websites for dogs (, cats (, hamsters (, and “less conventional” pets ( It is one of the most banal and uninteresting articles to grace the pages of Newsweek in recent memory (p. 12).

The article reports that these websites are other ways for owners to talk vicariously through their pets, with users admitting that they “discuss human topics… but through cats.” For example, two fellow Catsters (Susan Bailey of Buckinghamshire, England and another unnamed person) met at the Bruce Springsteen concert in New York. But why mention the fact that this website is becoming a place for people to “hook-up,” mimicking the all-too-frequent self-advertisement of, which itself is scarlet laced with loneliness, without really commenting on this phenomenon? The author, Malak Hamwi, could have created an ironic and bemused satire on the fin de siècle of our culture, as we hide behind screens and buttons. But he didn’t. Now that we’ve trained ourselves to shelter beneath our most flattering internet pictures and our carefully crafted cleverisms, we can take it a step further and befriend that female mongoose owner named Shirley with our pet Schlange Jo-Jo, (noting, of course, a few interesting tidbits about its owner). And if you were wondering, the owner of a lovely tan American Cocker Spaniel puppy and a curious tabby kitten, is married. I guess he won’t make many friends…

- Jake McCarty

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Mind to Himself

Another one hits my desk from the estimable Justin, who has moved seamlessly into the realm of philosophy with this look at Soren Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. - RD

As I delved into this volume, a sense of disappointment overcame me. The words had so much width and breadth to them, and I felt as if I could never truly understand what Kierkegaard was trying to say (maybe because he did not know exactly what he was saying). Purity of Heart is a fantastic adventure into the mind of a Danish aristocrat/self-appointed genius, who over the years wearied of the Danish Church and its “stark contrast” to the early primitive church. Kierkegaard opens up the caverns of his mind and heart, and investigates the very bedrock of human existence. The volume is mostly stream of consciousness, in which Kierkegaard – at times haphazardly – unveils his most devotional and honest attempts to grasp the Divine occasion. His translator Douglas Steere notes that “nothing that he has written has sprung so directly out of his relationship with God as this address. Anyone who wishes to understand Kierkegaard properly will do well to begin with it.” It can safely be said that this introspective account borders on the edge of the comprehensive. Kierkegaard, through his presentation, leaves no rock unturned, and speaks so eloquently about detailed life through incisive generalities, that at times I felt as if he were speaking to my own experience.

Literarily, as Steere suggests, Danish doesn’t translate very well into English. Because of this, Kierkegaard went unnoticed, outside his immediate community, for several decades. However, when he was finally uncovered his musings catapulted into popularity, finding relevance and potency in the hearts and minds of the gradually progressing post-Christian West. His renunciation of the masses and his desire to expose us through our “solitary self” (hiin Enkelte) speaks profoundly to the plight of the human condition. Urging us to reconsider ourselves “alone with God,” Kierkegaard promotes a faith in which every human soul relies solely on the existence of the Eternal. Seeking to be stripped of everything except that which “can be grasped under every change,” Kierkegaard urges us to reconsider our faith as a private (existential) relationship between the individual and the Creator. Only once we eradicate our reliance upon the infatuation we all have with the crowd – where we find temporal shelter and security – can we truly become wholly devoted to God.

His brilliance is astounding as he takes both orthodox and liberal theology to their logical ends. He declares, “The all-knowing One does not get to know something about the maker of the confession, rather the maker of confession gets to know about himself.” He challenges both the orthodox understanding of confession and its fixation on mortals altering the Divine, while calling into check the liberal insistence upon the goodness of humanity. His somber, yet passionate desire to open up the individual to his or her potential is both refreshing and cumbersome, particularly due to the tension that Kierkegaard suggests between the past and the future.

I do find contention with his statement about social salvation. For Kierkegaard, “to speak of social salvation, of salvation by group, by tribe, by race, by class, by nation” is truly an act of spiritual betrayal. I rather suggest that social salvation is the result of Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the actualization of the individual in relationship to God. His preclusion of this approach, I believe, undermines his entire goal as a self-appointed prophet. Although I admit I may be reading him wrong, to isolate the individual and reduce salvation to a private endeavor can (and has) resulted in spiritual narcissism. It could be argued that the modern Western (American) Church has succumbed to the “bad tract” of Kierkegaard’s thinking; as we meet every Sunday for an hour and half, having little or nothing to do with each other. The pews have turned into private partitions, and our small groups have become amalgamations of private agendas and competing biases. Steere notes that Purity of Heart’s central theme is the “isolation of man from the flock, from the mass, from the crowd and the heightening of his consciousness as an individual which the Eternal accomplishes.” The goal of this isolation is to pursue “true identity” apart from generalized schemas. From a sociologist’s perspective, Kierkegaard’s thought is birthed out of a reaction to the overwhelming conformity of Danish civility. Not to mention that he was a natural isolationist, who was awarded all the benefits of a wealthy industrialized society.

Kierkegaard’s one thing: the Good. I see this conclusion as fantastically wild and possibly superfluous. How might I strictly will the Good, and only the Good? It is dangerous because it has few constraints, and exotic because it is so rarely perceived. He poses the question of Good in relationship to self-centeredness. So often Good is sought for the good of the self, with little or no regard for the other. Kierkegaard challenges us to allow Good to triumph in us, which is often unprofitable and hazardous. He finds despair in the unsettling separation between those who truly will the Good. “Why should the solitary ‘individuals,’ who sincerely will the Good, be so scattered, so separated, that they can scarcely call out to one another, scarcely catch sight of one another?” I too have often wondered this same thing, and found that Good’s greatest triumph is found during isolation. The private life is where Good and Evil ultimately find their rest, and it is here that one may be conquered and the other allowed. And this is where Kierkegaard comes full circle, and his call may be connected ultimately to the call of discipleship given by Jesus. The exchange of private influence is, for Kierkegaard, the playground where one can truly will One Thing, namely the selfless Good.

I used to think that words themselves were the gateway to truth and understanding. I can remember earnestly praying prayers, making sure to select the correct words so that the Divine could be made aware. But Kierkegaard is saying something else. He calls into question the act of speech itself. He is proposing more of a conversational type of prayer, vis-à-vis a monologue addressed God. As Kierkegaard sees it, vocalized prayer is a way to orient our heart and mind. The point of listening is not the reception of knowledge or information, but to induce us to think about ourselves. Kierkegaard believes that nearly all prayer should pose the question, how are you living? Prayer acts as a constant self reminder to will one thing. The role we have as Christians when listening to what Kierkegaard calls a “devotional address” is that we would allow the words being spoken to engage us in a sort of Divine reality. When a pastor gives a sermon, it is up to the listener to make it meaningful. Ultimately, it is an act of the listener to discover any sort of truth proposed in a sermon or devotional address.

This concept is directly correlated to Kierkegaard’s idea of the individual. A third party should never be involved in the accounting that takes place between God and a person. Kierkegaard believes that we hide from God in the form of crowds. We trick ourselves into thinking that God will shift the blame off us and onto the group. This is why prayer is such an important part of Kierkegaard’s individual. It isolates the human soul and calls it to account for its intentions. The human conscience is never shared by two people. It is the voice that God has implanted in each one of us and becomes unique to every individual. Kierkegaard holds that the most intimate relationship is the one in which “you as an individual, are related to yourself before God.” Prayer’s most powerful accomplishment is to enable us to know thyself. For you carry no responsibility more important than the responsibility to yourself. When we worship God in a corporate setting, we are united in unity of thought which connects and establishes a community of individuals. And Kierkegaard does not see isolation as being apart from others, but apart from our own self. In our conscience, there exists either a “lonely prison” or a “chamber of salvation.”

It is in this proposal that we find the birth of existentialism. Kierkegaard, without intending to, creates a clear distinction between the group and the individual. Of course, this cannot be a comprehensive understanding of the human condition. The social and cultural factors that play into our own consciences are irretrievable. It must be assumed that Kierkegaard’s time and setting compelled him to seek isolation of thought and heart. Living in an industrialized northern European society must have drawn Kierkegaard further away from communal living and thinking. The establishment of capitalistic tendencies and the powerful middle class structure were both contributing factors here. The autonomy of the individual was a new concept and it become more and more accepted as society progressed and flourished. Kierkegaard, because of the inheritance he received from his father, relied on practically no one. We see this even in his lifelong romantic relationship, in which he alienated himself from his lover because of his need for individualism. There is no doubt that Kierkegaard’s account of the individual is an accurate one, but only partially so. Regrettably, it does not address holistically the human condition.

“And what a puzzling arrangement the army of stars presents! Yet there seems to be an agreement between them that they shall arrange themselves in this fashion. But the stars are so far away that they cannot see the wanderer. It is only the wanderer who can see the stars, hence there may come no agreement between him and the stars. So this melancholy of poetical longing is grounded in a deep misunderstanding, because the lonely wanderer is everywhere surrounded in nature by that which does not understand him, even though it always seems as if an understanding must be arrived at.”

- Justin D'Agostino