Sunday, October 21, 2012

Thoughts on The Green Lantern

Jerome Charyn spent a great deal of time studying Russian literature.  My experience is more limited.  Aside from the recent Ice Trilogy (perhaps the most notable recent example?), I've read Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov is a favorite of all possible books) and the collected works of Isaac Babel (who is likely a favorite of Charyn's), though his famous Red Cavalry/Benya Krik tales remain his best.  In style, Charyn's The Green Lantern is very similar to Russian literature.  It is also an affirmation of his distinctive style.

Set in Russia in the years leading up to the invasion of Moscow during WWII as Stalin seeks to solidify his place in Soviet history by a systematic purge of his critics, the book follows the unlikely rise of a stagehand who becomes King Lear and then the darling of an entire country.  This foundling is an archetype in Charyn books, usually thrust into a pack of wolves representing a much larger institution.  In Johnny One-Eye, for instance, the stage was the American Revolution while in The Tar Baby the staff of a literary journal that dominates a small California town (at least in its own imagining).

Another hallmark of Charyn's work in his ability to accept sexuality as a necessary element of human affairs.  He usually employs the least savory aspects of this basic biological urge, the ones society will tend to judge, which is to say his women tend to be whores.  In The Green Lantern the biggest whores are no different from anyone else, simply trying to survive (which is true in any of Charyn's books), but this time there's a more subtle explanation given.  The lead whore is a world famous actress who made the mistake of traveling to Hollywood and then returning home.  The idea of home for Charyn is always a complicated one.  He likely subscribes to Thomas Wolfe's adage, "You can't go home again."

Stalin's Russia is a unique literary stage for me.  As was the case in Johnny One-Eye, Charyn's depictions of historical figures prove to be a revelation.  Stalin himself is a human monster, but more often human than monster, a classic trickster in the author's eye, able to contradict and remain faithful to himself.  At the start of the narrative he is mourning the death of his wife, which like all the deaths in the book is actually an execution, and appears to be a tragic figure.  Yet every time we see him he appears vital, impotent only when called to public appearances.  (The title of the book comes from a fictional novel based on a character originally created by Maxim Gorky that plays Stalin for a fool, using the signature green lamp that hangs outside his window at all hours as its symbol, a work redeemed only by the onset of WWII.)

Stalin is surrounded by real and imagined celebrities.  It's the march of these celebrities, their rise and fall, that informs the urgency of the book.  In a lot of ways, The Green Lantern is the necessary piece of Russian literature that explains a problematic period of the country's history, the Tale of Two Cities for the Soviet revolution.  I'd previously read the excellent Archivist's Tale that recounts Babel's final days, and reading Babel's own stories and about his life put new shape to a time that for many Americans was simply a precursor to the Cold War.

If you need another reason to read the book, consider it a cousin to the more famous Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which details the human fallout of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with Shakespeare taking Balzac's place.  It's also striking that Charyn continues to evoke a previous era in literature altogether, even in so Russian a novel, what might be familiar to readers of Melville's Israel Potter, the story of a tramp who stumbles through history (many years before Forrest Gump or Zelig).  As Joseph Ellis relates in After the Revolution, this was exactly the kind of material Americans were writing before anyone thought Americans had anything worth saying, borrowing from the work of Swift and Sterne, farces that shed light on life through the most esoteric means possible.  That Charyn is still doing this today, and that he has worthy contemporaries like Thomas Pynchon sharing his efforts, speaks to the enduring strength of the genre.  Yet Charyn is distinctively his own, creating an ever-shifting landscape where good frequently inhabits a coat of gray, like everything around it.

This is the guy who evoked sympathy for Benedict Arnold, after all.

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