Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Specimen Days

Stories that combine a number of different narratives can sometimes be a little challenging.  Some critics will consider it gimmicky.  Me, I like the challenge of integrating them, figuring out how the creator intended them to coalesce into a single message.

The case with Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days starts to emerge with the second narrative, "The Children's Crusade."  At first it seems as if "Crusade" is about as different from "In the Machine," the narrative that precedes it, as you can get.  "Machine" is set in the nineteenth century, while "Crusade" is in the twenty-first.  The third and final narrative, "Like Beauty," is set in the indeterminate future.  Names and relationships become a pattern, despite vast differences otherwise, plus the recurring appearance of a peculiar bowl.  The unifying element is a character named Simon whose life experience always ends up rejecting an emerging paradigm shift, while characters with variations on the names Lucas and Catherine struggle less successfully around him.

"Machine" is Cunningham's least successful literary effort in the story.  It's very much like someone's basic impression of an M. Night Shyamalan film, or perhaps an impression of what literature was like in the story's given time period.  The main character is Lucas, Simon's younger brother, who's struggling in the aftermath of Simon's death, and clinging to the relationships his brother left behind, the job that killed him and the woman he was going to marry.  Lucas has a simplistic view of the world, an impressionistic one, not so much innocent as naive.  Like each of the narratives he has a tenuous connection to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, unconsciously quoting it just as naturally as speaking, if not moreso, his own thoughts.  Lucas has no idea how to cope, and ends up rebelling against what his life is becoming by sacrificing himself to the machines that are just beginning to dominate life.  The strange thing, like the basic perception of a Shyamalan film, is that Lucas ends up saving Catherine, interpreting a sequence of events as something his brother began, by preventing her from being at work when a fire erupts there, killing everyone else.

"Crusade" features Simon as the lover of Cat, a police psychologist who answers phones for strange callers either explaining their own disturbing thoughts or taking credit for the latest crisis.  It's set in the aftermath of 9/11, and features a series of boy bombers, one of whom takes a personal interest in Cat, eventually subsuming the identity of her late son Luke.  Simon is depicted as out of Cat's league, in the relationship only to sow wild oats and preparing to move onto the life that's been waiting for him.  The Whitman connection is a little more tenuous this time, a background element of the cult conspiracy behind the suicide terrorists Cat finds herself connected to, trying to figure out if there's even a way to stop them, impressionable young boys corrupted into becoming born killers.  Part of Cunningham's overall message seems to be a cynical reaction to the direction humanity is going, part environmentalism and part reaction against environmentalism, far less on the nose than T.C. Boyle's A Friend of the Earth but when you think about it maybe less than you'd think.

"Beauty" features Simon most directly, at least this narrative's version of him, a synthetic life-form just trying to make his way in the world when he becomes fascinated by an alien named Catareen, whom he ends up running away with.  In its basic element "Beauty" is the culmination of the three narratives as they progress efforts to see what follows after a big decision.  "Machine" ends after Lucas makes the decision to follow through on his convictions.  "Crusade" follows Cat as she discovers that her convictions might have been mistaken.  "Beauty" is charitable enough for Simon to see his journey to one conclusion and yet another suggestion that it's just beginning.  Three narratives, one story, and Cunningham spends all of it on a single meditation.

The author previously based The Hours on a similar story pivoted around Virginia Woolf, which was made into a movie that won Nicole Kidman an Oscar.  He also wrote A Home at the End of the World, which was also made into a movie.  I figured I should read at least one thing by him, and I decided on Specimen Days because it hadn't been adapted for the screen, perhaps because of the aliens in "Beauty," though Cloud Atlas may have in several ways made any objections less likely to dissuade Hollywood from completing the Cunningham set.  (He does have other books besides these.)

Figuring out what Cunningham is trying to do has less to do with Whitman than you'd think, but the constant meditations from his poetry does tend to give the impression that all of it has a great deal more resonance than it does.  When you figure out that all of it pivots around the Simon figure, even though he's only the lead in one of the three, unlocks the riddle easily enough.  It also elevates each of the narratives to the same level.  Cunningham has no real insight into Lucas in "Machine," substituting a lack of answers with a basic simplicity that only makes it easier to reach his conclusions.  Even Cat in "Crusade," who throughout the narrative has a lot more conviction and direction than in the conclusion, gets away from him for convenience's sake, although again it's the insight from the Simon character that makes it work.  Simon himself, because he's the lead, allows Cunningham to focus, figure out where the Lucas and Catherine figures end in a straight interpretation of the basic Simon narrative.  It's funny, because neither ultimately matter to him, which is not what you might think from "Machine" or "Crusade," although in the latter it's a strong suggestion and in the former it's speculation, because in that one, of course, Simon is dead from the start.

As a whole, Specimen Days is fascinating, which is much the point, and needs to be, and why Cunningham spends all of it using the same elements.  In a book like Vladimir Sorokin's Ice Trilogy, individual narratives shifts along a timeline and takes new looks at the same elements, too, but in order to see where it all leads.  "Machine," "Crusade," and "Beauty" are not really connected.  They could be read individually and you need not even trouble yourself over Cunningham's overriding goals.  Yet if you do, you'll end up with something that's greater than the sum of its parts, fascinating as they may be.  Whatever you think Whitman was trying to do with his poetry, or what you think of Whitman himself, Cunningham suggests that it's transcendent, and it's that quality he attempts to convey in this book.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Reading List: Specimen Days

Specimen Days
by Michael Cunningham

For a while, the movies really loved Michael Cunningham.  Nicole Kidman won an Oscar starring in The Hours, based on Cunningham's meditation of Virginia Woolf.  Colin Farrell made an indy film of A Home at the End of the World.  So at a certain point, I decided he must really be worth reading.  So I chose this one, mostly because it's based on Walt Whitman, one of the patron saints of American poetry.  The title of the book is one Cunningham and Whitman share, by the way.  It would certainly be more obvious if, say, that title were Leaves of Grass.  But Whitman worked on that one for many, many years.  Best to look elsewhere.  Hopefully not the case with this book.

The Daughter of Time

When I was in college, I took a course on early American history, and one of the things I vividly remember to this day (aside from the inspiration behind a character's suddenly rapid development in a book I've been working on for a really long time and the pretty girl who always sat in the front of the class and an attempt to broaden at least one classmate's appreciation and comprehension of poetry) was the moment I learned that John Adams prosecuted the court case for the Boston Massacre, and rightly defended the accused British officers as not only not being involved in an actual massacre but only reacting when they eventually did at great provocation.

Oh, don't get me wrong.  What I most took away from that was a new-found and enduring respect for Adams' integrity.  But it was my first libertyvalance, my first Tonypandy, when I discovered that the history books don't always take the side of history.  I grew up believing in the Boston Massacre as much as the riled up patriots of the day, so to have my view of that event completely turned around was a formative moment of my development.

(I'm getting around to our subject, I swear!  To wit:)

Earlier than that, I got caught up in the small hoopla over the Al Pacino film Looking for Richard.  It's probably the last time critics respected Al, but I continue to digress.  Looking for Richard is about his staging of Shakespeare's Richard III, the play best known for "My kingdom for a horse!," featuring the famous bastard king of England in his ultimate downfall as all his machinations finally come crashing down around him, much like Nixon's Watergate.

What I took away from it, and what kept bringing me back to it, was Al's incredibly sympathetic understanding not only of the play but of its subject.  I think that's Al's great strength as an actor, to identify the flaw at the heart of a perfect design and to look completely miserable even when everything seems to be going his way, the suffering fool, the martyr to a cause no one will ever fully comprehend.

That in a way is what The Daughter of Time is all about.  It's about trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard III by way of an investigation into the facts of his supposed murder of the two boys, Princes in the Tower, who were supposed to be the legitimate heirs to the thrown he ruled for two years.  The investigator is Alan Grant, Josephine Tey's own Holmes or Poirot, locked up in a hospital bed with a broken leg with nothing to amuse him that he actually finds amusing until an acquaintance brings a stack of pictures to him, one of which he mistakes as an unassailable innocent rather than the unmistakably corrupt figure Richard III is known to be by everyone Grant knows.

So he starts to look into the facts, partly to clear himself of the apparent botched identification, when he prides himself on just that ability (a little like the central character of Javier Marias' brilliant Your Face Tomorrow).  Soon he has people bringing him books and then the helpful aid of an American already doing his own research at the British Museum, so he can sift out the record from the history.

He discovers that Richard is indeed quite innocent and that his successor, Henry VII, is likely the true source of the scandal and attempt to pin it on Richard.  That's it, really.

It's both disappointing and reasonably exhilarating, like any mystery.  Grant himself is paper thin, the American speaks the same English phrasing as Grant, and it devolves into Tey pretty much presenting all her research and thoughts without any real story happening around it.  In a way, this was prepared in advance for the reader by having Grant muse how the most interesting histories are the ones that present it with dialogue.  Well, maybe not like this.

Yet people really did like Tey, and The Daughter of Time, in its original publication.  The author was hailed as the writer of mysteries that were basically anything but the expected framework others used, and true enough, this is no standard mystery.  It's a history lesson as mystery.  Except Tey is in such a rush to present her conclusions that she does a disservice both to them and the story.  At a certain point she just lets her characters start drawing the necessary lessons and knowing exactly what they need to know in order for a fairly speedy end to wrap it up, even going so far as to finally admit that most of this was already known in the final pages, and that her characters simply didn't know it, especially somehow the American doing all the heaviest research.

And yet somehow it's supposed to be surprising that people generally skip over facts in order to draw conclusions.  Well.

Plenty of writers have used this framework in the years since.  The Da Vinci Code famously drew up the scandalous true nature of the Holy Grail and served it up to millions because it was a mystery the central character breathlessly solved, even though Dan Brown based it on a book that had existed for years.  Even J.K. Rowling used these ideas when shaping the story of Harry Potter, not just as the wizarding establishment presented its own version of events as they were developing in strict contrast to what the reader knew, but in the presentation of Severus Snape, the hero at the center of the saga's real tragedy, who worked alongside the good old boy Dumbledore in order to pretend allegiance with the big bad villain Voldemort, so that everyone, even most of the readers, believed that Snape was a rotten apple the whole time.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart prints the legend instead of reporting what John Wayne really did, because it reads so much better.  Much of what happened to Richard III was the last rattles of the Wars of the Roses, which Americans should find plenty familiar, given that we've had our Wars of Elephants and Asses for decades now, and have sat through endless speculation as to how JFK really died, even watched as the film JFK was whitewashed with character assassination and court historian-approved dismissal in Reclaiming History.  The intrigue of Daughter of Time isn't really what became of Richard, but how its author couldn't connect B to C, as Grant muses in the book.

Well, maybe it's not so surprising.  Josephine Tey never actually existed.  And neither did Gordon Daviot.  Both were pseudonyms for Elizabeth MacKintosh, who apparently never really came to understand why historians are as prone as authors at making up their own stories.  Authors with various names will always amuse me.  They will always have their reasons.  But it will always boil down to the fact that it makes it easier for the authors themselves to reconcile their peculiar career choice.  This is one who chocked up reconciliation as a diatribe against her own cousins, and then wrote a book about a convoluted royal affair, assuming that everyone really did consider Richard III a villain and working backward from there.

Although in truth Henry VII was pretty successful on that count.  I believed all the weird accusations against Richard, even the hunchback myth.

All very interesting, but it could have been done better.  Sometimes John Adams turns out to be a lot more interesting than you used to believe.  But that's not the end of the story.  And that's not even to mention Quincy.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Reading List: The Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time
by Josephine Tey

Part of what I love so much about bookstores is that they have an infinite ability to surface the unexpected.  Praise ebooks as the future all you want, and marvel at your early adoption of the format, but for me there's nothing about it that compares to visiting a bookstore.  One of the most peculiar aspects of a bookstore is the bargain section.  Now, the bargain section is a mix of things that were once bestsellers and things that just didn't sell, and some of it seems calculated to be bargain material to begin with.  It's always worth browsing.  The Daughter of Time is a classic piece of detective fiction.  I wonder if I would have ever discovered it if I hadn't stumbled across it as a bargain book.  These things happen.  The introduction in this volume says Tey's readers fall in love with her books.  But the thing is, Tey doesn't have a reputation like Agatha Christie (who I must confess I've never read).  She's all but forgotten.  It's the title of the book that drew me to Daughter of Time.  It just sounds memorable, even without knowing anything else about it.  And in fact I didn't know anything else when I bought it, other than what was on the back cover.  It's a contemporary investigation of Richard III, so it works on a number of levels at least conceptually.

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs

As an English major in college professors loved to throw anthologies in my direction, surveys of the literary establishment.  Really, they're no different from short story collections.  Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs is a little of both, as its subtitle The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan suggests.

It's less about the short stories and more about celebrating the current crop of literary talent from Japan.  As such, the most obvious contemporary name, Haruki Murakami, appears.  The rest are present simply as a matter of exposure.  Each has a biography that appears before their story.  Some of the authors appear in English translation for the first time, or are so obscure to English language readers that this is an introduction.  So it's not really about the short stories themselves so much as presenting Japanese writers and current trends to a new group of readers.

Of course, you can absolutely read the collection for the stories themselves.  There are some pretty amusing entries, certainly led by Murakami's "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," featuring a giant frog introducing himself to a pretty anonymous individual and declaring that an earthquake is going to happen and that he can stop it with a little help.  There are other surreal stories, such as "To Khabarovsk" from Yoko Tawada, about a train trip interrupted by a dream, and "The No Fathers Club" from Tomoyuki Hoshino, about a group of students and then just a potential romantic coupling who imagine their dead fathers back to life.  There are several efforts that reminiscent of any short story effort you might come across, and don't necessarily have to be considered particularly Japanese at all.  The best of these is "The Diary of a Mummy" from Masahiko Shimada, which details a man's journey in starving himself to death.  

The highlight and main reason for anyone to read this, other than to sample Murakami, is undoubtedly "Ikebukuro West Gate Park" from Ira Ishida.  Apparently it's a whole thing in Japan, having inspired a TV series and manga.  It's the latest in my continuing exploration of the international crime genre, made most famous recently by Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo et al), which I will be reading at some point.  My favorite is Roberto Bolano's 2666, which uses and transcends the genre (and every other one).  Considering how immediately I identified "Ikebukuro" as part of this trend, I find it a little surprising that Digital Geishas is the only source of an English translation to date.  

It's the longest story in the collection at about 40 pages, not so long that it could be printed as its own book (probably) but easily long enough to sell the whole collection on.  Seriously, you need to get your hands on Digital Geishas just so you can relish "Ikebukuro West Gate Park" for yourself.  It's about a bunch of students who find themselves embroiled in a murder investigation.  It's not just about the investigation, but how a group of friends comes together and their connections in the wider community, in some ways exactly like the Millennium Trilogy as it demonstrates how the specific details of where they live and how they live lead to the story that defines their young lives.  

If nothing else, it would make a fantastic movie, much as Infernal Affairs helped give us The Departed.  In any collection there should always be a standout.  This one stands out brilliantly.  Mission accomplished, Digital Geishas

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Reading List: Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan
edited by Helen Mitsios

Before I go too far as to why this ended up on the Reading List, let me just admit the most obvious reason for me: former classmate and Movie Gallery co-worker Jonathan Lawless translates two of the stories in the collection, and that's really the only reason why I have it.  Lawless was one of my best friends growing up.  He went to Union College, studied abroad and fell in love with Japan.  His announcement about this book's release is really the first time I've reconnected with him since 2001, which is fine, because it means we're both in some way connected to the literary world.  Now, obviously, this is a collection of short stories from Japanese writers, translated and brought together for English readers.  I love reading international literature, and I've read at least one book (Snow Country) from a Japanese author that ended up becoming an all-time favorite, so I figure one way or another there's reason enough to read it, much less include it on the exclusive Reading List.  One of the contributors is the celebrated Haruki Murakami (who writes about the frog in the title), which will mark this as the first time I read him.

None Died in Vain

It may be common in other countries and in history, but it's still odd for me to think that Americans had a Civil War.  Now, I know that we're in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the conflict, and it was a topic that came up in school a lot.  Growing up in Maine, I probably put a lot more significance in the role of Joshua Chamberlain than most people (other than the filmmakers behind Gettysburg and Gods and Generals).

Lately I've been reading books about the American Revolution and the War of 1812, so I figured it was time to revisit the Civil War as well.  No other period in American history has as many devoted followers as this one, which is also known as the War Between the States.  Consequently there are certainly buffs who know enough where they don't need a survey like Robert Leckie's None Died in Vain to refresh some fairly basic details.  They certainly don't need Leckie to remind them about the significance of the major engagements, and the generals who fought them.  Well, someone like me does, and even after this survey I'd still need reminding about such details, because there's a lot of stuff to remember, especially since the Union army went through a lot of generals.

This was a war between North and South, Union and Confederacy, the right to continue the practice of slavery and the desire to finally end it.  I've read about some of the key figures (in JFK's Profiles in Courage) who helped forestall the war (Clay, Webster, Adams) through the strength of their convictions and willingness to compromise.  Continued expansion of the country meant that the South was continually faced with the issue of the North not agreeing with its structural policies, and felt threatened enough to finally secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln.  Leckie tracks the progress of the war and how it was fought, including the succession of Union generals as the North struggled, to my mind, with the same problem I expressed at the beginning of these thoughts.  Leckie presents the facts and personalities pretty well and concisely, never bogging down in unnecessary details or complicated accounts of specific battles.  He doesn't, however, bother too much with the psychology of the war, which is plain enough to read, at least as far as the North is concerned.

He also has a latent bias for the Confederacy, exhibited by his frequent glorifying of its generals and how handsome they all seemed to be.  I realize that a lot of writers talk about physical characteristics and tend to focus on the beautiful ones, because readers theoretically love that, but every time Leckie does it with the Confederacy, it's not easy to fight the reaction that he's as much in awe of men like Robert E. Lee as his own soldiers.  True, he talks about the Union generals who inspired their troops, but most of his thoughts in that regard are about their ineffectualness in combat.  The psychological approach might take into account a certain reluctance, or address the personality conflicts a little more forthrightly, or not armchair general every single military decision.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Leckie seeks to make it an artform, in essence joining the ranks of the North who kept wondering why the war took so long.  As far as I can tell, every battle seems to have degenerated into a quagmire.  There's simply no telling how anything could have played out differently.  War is in the end war, which is not pretty, and the Civil War was the least pretty war to that point in history (at least as far as Americans are concerned).

I wish Leckie would also have spent as much time, or given comparable attention, to what came after the war as he does to what led up to it.  Reconstruction is probably a tricky subject, especially if I'm accurate in deducing the author's true sympathies, although if the author is as conflicted as I think he was, then that's just another part of the book, another example of how complicated the subject matter remains.  It's hard to admit any sympathies.  Even the North was deeply ambivalent at best about the war.  Anyone who thinks Vietnam or Iraq are unique in American history as unpopular wars should probably be reminded that the Civil War was received in exactly the same way.  And just imagine if the Union had given up the fight!  Americans today probably can't imagine it, and those who can probably have a completely different reaction to how it ended anyway.

Above all, my reaction to None Died in Vain is appreciation for Leckie' character sketches.  Even though he limits himself almost exclusively to the generals who prosecuted the war, it's almost like seeing an entirely different version of what happened (and sometimes why).  I'm sure there are plenty of books that explore this aspect of the Civil War...
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