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The End of 'Mad Men'

In the lingering aftermath (or afterglow, depending on your degree of fandom) of the Mad Men finale, it’s worth recalling The Paris Review interview of show-runner Matthew Weiner a couple of years ago. In it he explains his method of plotting and the influence of certain films (Apocalypse Now, North by Northwest, Days of Heaven) that resisted or flouted narrative convention.

People [like] to talk about “act breaks” and “rising action” leading to a climax, but what about Apocalypse Now? Someone’s on a journey, and sure, we’re heading toward a climax, but there are so many digressions. To me, those digressions are the story. People would say to me, What’s holding this together? Or, How is this moment related to the opening scene, or the problem you set up on page 15? I don’t know. That’s where the character went. That’s the story. So many movies in the seventies are told this way, episodically, and they feel more like real life because you don’t see the story clicking.

Celia Wren, writing in our current issue, raises valid points about the occasionally frustrating aspects of Mad Men’s seven-season unspooling. While the creator of a work should not be let off the hook for its shortcomings, I think some should be seen in the context of the general challenges of television production – actors leave, schedules are delayed, budgets and salaries change, as do perceived business needs – and to the particular production of Mad Men: ninety-two period-piece episodes engaging to lesser or greater degree the cultural, political, and historical issues of a decade, filmed over eight years about a half-century after the time depicted.

A time that many can remember first-hand, and that many more have relived or experienced second-hand, and vividly, through innumerable and infinitely replayed documentaries and TV programs. The audience thus viewed it through their own filtered stores of memory and recall – as well as with the expectations cultivated by deeply internalized notions of television convention. Unhappiness with the show was inevitable, and there were suggestions of it in how energetically the final-season prediction mill churned. Would Don Draper commit suicide? (Based on what – an opening-credit sequence that showed a suited man falling? Then what about his safe landing on an office couch in iconic draped-arm pose, cigarette dangling from fingertips?). Would he prove to be seventies myth-folk figure D.B. Cooper? (Why? This would be completely outside the dramatic universe Weiner so carefully constructed). Would Peggy find love, would Joan and Roger get together, would Sally become a Patty Hearst-like figure? There was an observable method to Weiner’s Mad Men, and it was not to go out with a shocker, address a nostalgic yearning, or tidy up storylines. Though some of that was delivered after all, which proved too much for fans like The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum: “There was nothing wrong with those other, often very pleasurable stories, in aggregate, although for a person like myself, who tends to like her finales like her men, without too much closure or wish fulfillment, the fan-service element made me twitch a few times.” You can’t please everyone, not even those who like you.

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National Poetry Month: Danielle Chapman

Danielle Chapman is a poet sensitive to life's intensities. Her new collection, Delinquent Palaces, regularly charts the fierceness of sensory experience, how the world, in its overabundance and strangeness, can strike us like revelation, as when she describes a "wad of gum" being dropped into a glass of ginger ale: "Bubbles rose like souls / unburdening from selves, bearing tiny spheres / of bliss that broke upon the surface / like sleepers to the touch of consciousness."

These lines, with their intricate linking of sound (bubbles/unburdening/bearing/bliss/broke), indicate another kind of intensity that Chapman is sensitive to--musical intensity, the way that language, in its play of sounds, can bear meaning beyond the merely semantic. Here is the opening to "Rituxan Spring," which echoes the opening of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "As kingfishers catch fire": "As derricks draw ink / from parched plains / we've struck / Time, silky and game / as a stick streaming / snake roe."

This isn't the only time I heard Hopkins haunting the background of Delinquent Palaces. Like Hopkins, Chapman is a poet of religious intensity. Her poems engage with suffering head-on, looking to God not as a way to forget about loss but as a way to think through and with it. Here is the concluding stanza to "In Order":

Now that that grief's gone and others come

I come back again to understand

the first one, plum blossoms brushing

the attic window as I look out upon

a yard that has been left untended

by any hand but that of God.

And here she is in "Believer," which begins with the declaration that the speaker "hadn't wanted to believe myself / numbered among the unlucky ones" and ends with this description of the beautiful and haunting complexity of suffering :

In fact it seemed a blessing or a talent

sometimes, or its own kind of deeper luck,

the way I walked into each suffering

which was its own intricate world complete

with wild children wrangling to be king

of every broken square of concrete

and market stalls of shrimp kept cool on ice

whose infinitesimal limbs caught light

as if hauled glittering into genesis.

Finally, Chapman's poems return, again and again, to one of the primary intensities of lyric poetry: the intensity of love. We hear that "To love you is to love the grackles screaming / in Starbucks/ single tree"; to love you is "to build a teensy fortress of Dante's hell / within the real one, to read / while the underworld takes Texas back again." We hear of Chapman's love for her twin daughters: "You / murmur rapture / Life out of nothingness / Mother of beauties / you come through me / Unto us / Twice."

"Expressway Song" begins like this:

The expressway encircled me

and this was why I'd come: to love, 

believing in a love like work,

knowing the true work is waking

to pierce each morning with intent

and evening with irreverence

until the city surrenders,

lifts its iron, and lets one in

with the grace of a raising bridge.

And it ends like this: "a voice fell through me like cold chrome-- / we come to love what turns to stone." For Chapman, love is a matter of piercing, irreverant enchantments and chastening tragedies, a symbol of grace and an inevitable source of pain.

The poems in Delinquent Palaces show this again and again, and they suggest what poetry offers its readers, not just in National Poetry Month but the whole year-round: a reminder that, if we look, we will see a world bathed in beauty and terror, "the fire hydrants redder / than berries of blood on islands of thorn." 

Deciding not to have children

How to read a collection of essays on the “childless by choice” called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed? You could take the title as an accurate indicator of what’s inside, your assumption reinforced by the book’s subtitle: “Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.” It’s bad enough getting unsolicited, aggrieved explanations for a life-defining decision without getting them from a bunch of people who provide their unsolicited thoughts for a living.

Of course, that’s the anticipatory response editor Meghan Daum meant to provoke in selecting those words for the cover in the first place. I can’t speak for every mother and father, but there comes a point in the slog of child-rearing when a parent looks enviously (murderously?) on those who’ve opted out of procreation and issues – silently, or not so – just that verdict. Most of the contributors here report having been condemned in similar fashion, the opprobrium overt and subtle, coming from family, friends, and strangers, from quarters low, high, and in between. Pope Francis himself, in declaring early this year that “life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies,” said explicitly that choosing not to have children is “selfish,” which in spite of the slightly more nuanced context of his larger remarks won’t endear him to those who feel they have good reasons for not participating in the “valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated planet.”

That line comes courtesy of Geoff Dyer, one of three men represented in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. I dispense with him early because he, along with contributor Tim Kreider, has the relative luxury, I think, of deploying humor in his effort to explain (Kreider: “Whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to hold the baby, I always say ‘No thanks.’ I have been advised this is an impolitic response”). This has the effect of distancing its user from the matter at hand: As men, even men who’ve thought about it carefully, they can afford to joke about it, and they seem to know it. The more sober assessments come from those representing the other half of humanity, whom the question concerns in a significantly more encompassing way.

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National Poetry Month: Langdon Hammer's James Merrill: Life and Art

Literary biography is perhaps the hardest genre to get right. Though spending lots of time in the archive is necessary, it isn’t sufficient. You need to turn this research—the lunch receipts and discarded drafts and report cards and love letters—into a compelling narrative; you need to present not just a sequence of events but a life, with its recurring motifs and central dramas, its rising action and sudden reversals. Likewise, though citing from the work is crucial, it’s not enough. You need to be a critic, able to tell us how the poems or novels or plays work, how they fit into the broader fields of literary and social history.

Finally, and most importantly, you need to have a theory of how the life and the work relate to one another. You can’t reduce the work to the life, but you have to show how the life informs the work. You can’t claim that biography explains any given poem or novel, but you have to show how the alchemical transformation happens.

There are so many ways to screw things up, and the list of those literary biographers who have screwed things up is long and venerable.

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James Wood, Religion, and the Novel

This Sunday, the Guardian published a fascinating profile of the New Yorker's James Wood. In it, we learn that:

  • Wood has a new book, The Nearest Thing to Life, coming out later this month. In it, he worries over the God-like omniscience that novelists claim to have over their characters.
  • He believes that many--most?--great works of literature can't really be appreciated by younger readers: “It’s very difficult explaining The Portrait of a Lady to 20-year-olds, because it’s about choices and consequences, about the realisation that the world is smaller than it seems. Understanding novels requires wisdom, which it takes decades of living to acquire."
  • Wood's two children have become "totally American" and don't appear to love reading as much as he did at their age.

Of most interest to readers of this blog, though, might be Wood's comments on the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of writing a great Christian novel:

I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene’s. There are mystical novels – To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway – and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who’s dying – though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel’s innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it’s about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.

I'd be interested to hear what other readers of Robinson think of Wood's characterization here. I, for one, think Gilead is a deeply if quietly funny novel. Think of the scene with the horse in the ditch, for instance, or the baptism of the kittens (which is, of course, also very serious). If you've ever had the pleasure of hearing Robinson read/speak in person, you know that she has a great, great chuckle, and her novels elicit that same quiet, forgiving kind of laughter.  

National Poetry Month: Claudia Rankine and Michael Robbins

My next column for the magazine features a review of Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, so I'll keep my proselytizing short here. Rankine has written several strong collections before, but Citizen (2014) is of an entirely different dimension, especially in terms of formal originality. The book blends poetry, prose, and visual art, all in an attempt to show how race continues to shape and deform the American experiment.

Citizen makes for hard reading in two senses. First, it is difficult like The Waste Land or any other work of experimental literature is difficult. That is to say, our normal ways of reading aren't quite adequate here. And even when you finally feel like you're getting the hang of things, when you have gotten used to one mode of writing (say, Rankine's impressionistic prose poems), Citizen switches things up with fragments of lyric poetry written in free verse or snippets of overheard dialogue.

The book's second kind of difficulty: it shows us things that we'd rather not see or think about, how we as a society talk and imagine "the other"--in this case, brown and black bodies--and how this talking/imagining poisons not just the souls of "the other" but our own souls as well.  Here is a short excerpt from the book:

Some years there exists a wanting to escape—

you, floating above your certain ache—  

still the ache coexists.

Call that the immanent you—

 

You are you even before you

grow into understanding you

are not anyone, worthless,

not worth you.

 

Even as your own weight insists
you are here, fighting off
the weight of nonexistence.

 

And still this life parts your lids, you see
you seeing your extending hand

as a falling wave—

My second suggested poet, Michael Robbins, appears very different from Rankine on the surface. Where her work often seems to abjure poetic form, maybe even poetry itself, Robbins is committed to the formal constraints of verse. He writes most regularly in tight quatrains or quintets, regularly rhymes in surprising and inventive ways (you can hear the echoes of hip hop in many of his poems), and isn't above writing a sonnet or two. In a recent essay, Robbins, an occasional Commonweal contributor, has described the shifty term "form" as "those features that make a given verbal act shareable." His own work continually shows how poetic language might become shareable through the use of rhyme and meter--techniques that cause the community of readers to read with the same breath and cadence, to experience the same incantatory power of language.

Above all else, Robbins's work is comic: there are many, many lines in both of his collections, Alien Vs. Predator and The Second Sex, that caused me to laugh out loud, and that's a rare feat for a collection of poetry. In "Use Your Illusion," for instance, Robbins urges us to "Put the Christ back in Xbox," a line that I remember every time a war against Christmas is solemnly proclaimed on television and then is followed immediately by ads for Toys R Us. In "The Second Sex," Robbins writes, 

I say the wrong thing. I have OCD.
My obsessive compulsions are disorderly.
I say the wrong thing, did I already say?
I drive my dominatrix away.

The one thing that most clearly connects Rankine and Robbins? Their ability to make us see everyday language in a new light. For Rankine, this most often is the language we use in our encounters with the other; for Robbins, it is the language of American capitalism and patriotism: "Ask not what the Dew can do for you. / Ask about our special rates / for armed services personnel"; "Mistakes were made at Plymouth Rock." In a somewhat paradoxical manner, both poets, to quote Eliot, "purify the language of the tribe": they use the resources of poetry to distill and clarify the impurities of our society's language. 

Wolf Hall: The Modernity of Thomas Cromwell

Flickering candle flames in chiaroscuro-drenched rooms. Sunbeams that stream through castle windows, casting clear patterns on the floor. Innumerable shots in the engrossing six-hour miniseries Wolf Hall seem to scrupulously define—even call attention to—to the sources of natural light that the tale’s 16th-century characters depend on. Of course, resonant visuals and careful historic touches are what you’d expect from pedigreed programming like Wolf Hall, an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize–winning novels that airs April 5-May 10, as part of PBS’s Masterpiece programming.

But the meticulous lighting here amounts to more than just pretty cinematography and check-the-boxes historical verisimilitude: It contributes to one of the salient themes of the miniseries, which chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who becomes the chief fixer for King Henry VIII. Amidst the power struggles and religious turmoil of Tudor England, Cromwell (Mark Rylance) is a lawyer whose level head and supreme competence become essential to Henry (Damian Lewis), especially when the monarch decides to get rid of Wife # 2, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). In the larger scheme of things, Cromwell is essentially a forerunner of the modern era. He is a capitalist—a player in an information economy—living amidst the dying embers of feudalism. He is a self-made man, surrounded by people accustomed to a rigid social order.

The luminous candle flames and daylight-channeling windows in the televised Wolf Hall, directed by Peter Kosminsky, underscore the contrast between Cromwell and his environment. Surrounded as we are by bulbs and glowing screens, it is hard to imagine functioning in the years before electricity. For Cromwell, such a dispensation was normal—and yet, in this telling, he is able to analyze financial and legal realities as efficiently as any accountant-turned-lawyer  living in calculator-and-legal-database times. 

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National Poetry Month: Nate Klug

In honor of National Poetry Month, I'm going to be offering weekly recommendations of contemporary poets worth reading. Today, I'll start things off with Nate Klug, a young poet whose new collection, Anyone, has just been published by the University of Chicago Press.

In his Adagia, Wallace Stevens writes that "the poet feels abundantly the poetry of everything." To the poetic imagination, the world isn't described through poetry; it is poetry, at least when the world is seen most clearly and truthfully. Klug's work offers exactly this kind of reorienting of perspective, showing us the world in all of its particularity and with all of its resonances.

Klug, who has a Masters from Yale Divinity School and is a Congregationalist minister, has said that he only believes in God when he is writing, and his poems continually examine the relation between vision and writing, sensory perception and divine revelation. Take, for example, his poem entitled "Milton's God." (This and all subsequent poems can be found on the Poetry Foundation's website):

Where i-95 meets the Pike,
a ponderous thunderhead flowered;

stewed a minute, then flipped
like a flash card, tattered
edges crinkling in, linings so dark
with excessive bright

that, standing, waiting, at the overpass edge,
the onlooker couldn’t decide

until the end, or even then,
what was revealed and what had been hidden.

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Selling the Bible in Cinéma Vérité

Flannery O'Connor said of her short story "Good Country People" that Hulga, the "lady Ph.D." whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman, is forced to face not just the physical affliction the object represents but also a spiritual one, namely "her own belief in nothing." Albert Maysles, who died earlier this month and who with his brother David made seminal and semi-notorious documentaries like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, depicts no loss of limb, literal or symbolic, in 1969's cinéma vérité landmark, Salesman. But the door-to-door peddler of Bibles who emerges as the central figure of the film confronts no less significant a crisis of the spirit.

Paul Brennan and the other salesmen of Salesman seem not to have grabbed viewers the way Big Edie and Little Edie Beale or Mick Jagger and the Stones at Altamont have over the years. But since Maysles's death Salesman has received a fair amount of mention and was even recently aired by Turner Classic Movies (it's also part of the Criterion Collection and can be streamed on Hulu). Pay no attention to synopses that make throwaway allusions to Willy Loman; consider Salesman an early prototype for David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. There's a similar adrenaline-and-anxiety-fueled mood, with manufactured optimism verging on self-delusion as the salesmen alternately hail and curse a system under which they're free to make money using nothing but their wits.

Of course, the big difference is that Salesman, shot with handheld cameras in black-and-white and ambient sound, isn't scripted drama. That the products being sold are the Bible, the Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Missal, and other Catholic publications adds a whole other component: The quartet documented by the Maysles seem obligated to place special faith in what they're peddling -- after all, these aren't vacuum cleaners.

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What is female confessional literature?

Karl Ove KnausgårdIn the Hedgehog Review’s newest issue, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has a piece on confessional writing and confession at large. She begins with Augustine’s Confessions as a model for confession in the most redemptive sense of the word: a full accounting for the purpose of ridding one’s self of sin. But now, she argues, confessional literature is a consumer product and (usually) female writers are the commodifiers and the commodified.

Today, when confessional literature is indeed everywhere—when there are whole industries dedicated to the production of it—the type of person confessing is increasingly the same: female, often young but sometimes not, enacting a kind of failure and misery to an audience that demands the performance but often despises the performer.

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"In Paradise" - Another View

I found myself disagreeing with Paul Johnston’s review (3/6/15) of In Paradise, Peter Matthiessen’s last novel. I fear that his sober, almost disappointed judgment, putting stress on the author’s failure to engage the Shoah with sufficient spiritual vision, will put readers off.  Johnston asks for a novel that “requires us to remember – to insist- that the world is God’s creation and not our own, and that all people, including those unlike ourselves, are created in the image of God.” One can scarcely disagree with such a belief in the Incarnation, but Johnston is really posing a broader question: can literature, fiction, say anything adequate about the Holocaust? He raises a standard that is exclusive, and I would hold absolute in a way the hedges out the imagination. In the course of the review, I find that Johnston’s shows his own hesitation at the conclusion he reaches. While he admits Matthiessen achieves partial success, he notes that Matthiessen’s Buddhism keeps his vision from transcendence. As if looking back over his shoulder, Johnston can’t help but admire that struggle that is this artistic grappling with the past. The failure of the novel is what it says or doesn’t say to us and to those in the future. 

In Paradise takes us to an interfaith retreat at Auschwitz fifty years after the liberation of the camp. The participants are Buddhists, Jews, Christians, atheists, relatives of former Nazi guards, local Polish residents, and Clements Olin, a Polish American academic with family roots in Oswiecim, a town near the camp. Olin is the center of consciousness, ostensibly doing research on a Holocaust survivor, Tadeusz Borowski, and author of This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. He is also attempting to discover his own family history, especially the facts surrounding his birth and sudden removal to the USA. The novel explores the holocaust through Olin’s interactions with the other participants and those residents of the Polish village of his birth. The plot structure allows Matthiessen to provide a chorus of voices, some pious, others abrasive, some accusatory, and other proprietary. In sum, the characters grope in speech to confront the events that took place around them fifty years before. The weight of genocide burdens those in silent vigil upon the entry ramps. Their evening statements of witness after long reflection in silence find not consensus but divisiveness, and provide real opportunities for the novelist’s characterization.

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Salvation (Lila pp. 177 - 261)

She said to the child, “Now I been in Gilead a pretty long time. A lot longer than I expected. And you’re going to be born here. If I leave I’ll take you with me, I will for sure. I’ll tell you the name of the place, though. People should know that much about themselves anyway. The name of your father. Could be I won’t ever leave. The old man might not give me cause.” And then she almost laughed, because she knew he never would. She said, “That old man loves me. I got to figure out what to do about it.” 221

It’s easy to love. It’s hard to believe that you are loved. You are the only one who can know if you truly love and at the same time you are the person who cannot know that someone loves you. There is no “proof” that can convince someone of what is in someone else’s heart. Our knowledge that we are loved comes not from reasoned argument or from dialectical proof. Our knowledge that we are loved comes from faith. After so much practice, Lila Ames is starting to believe that she is loved.

In an important way, the question every Christian must ask himself or herself is simply: do you believe that God loves you? For God loving the world, and loving you as part of that world, is the central message of the New Testament. Jesus’s Good News is that God loves human beings and so human beings are called to love God and each other. The presence of such love is the mark of the kingdom of God. This kingdom will continue in the new creation that Christ promises, where men and women who are judged worthy will share in God’s love, and God will be all in all. But, and this is just as important, Christ’s message is that the kingdom of God starts now.  Lila has begun to learn that she doesn’t have to wait for the general resurrection to believe that she is loved.

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What's Changed Since Selma?

Saturday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On hand for the jubilee celebration will be Barack Obama. Last November, on the night it was learned that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the president spoke briefly on the rule of law and the need for peaceful protest. He went on to say: "What is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color aren't just making these problems up. Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion. I don't think that's the norm. I don't think that's true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials. But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down." 

What would seem a blow against entrenched denialism was struck earlier this week when the Justice Department released its report detailing civil rights abuses by Ferguson's police force and municipal officials -- practices that Conor Friedersdorf likened to the kind of criminality favored by the Mafia. The repugnance of the behaviors documented (including taser attacks, canine attacks, physical and verbal intimidation, unlawful detainment, and implementation of an extortionate system of compounding fines for minor traffic violations, all targeting people of color) support the analogy. Not all municipalities resemble Ferguson; the problem is that any do. “What happened in Ferguson is not a complete aberration,” the president reiterated Friday. “It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s something that happens.” Meanwhile, criticism of the Justice Department's report from certain quarters as politically motivated isn't just off-base, or offensive; it also simultaneously reflects and reinforces what's illustrated by the findings.

Last year, which in addition to the police-related death of Michael Brown also saw those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley, marked as well the twenty-fifth anniversary of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing. The 1989 release was preceded by a stream of ugly commentary masquerading as criticism from nominally reputable pundits and reviewers who took issue with the movie's climactic depiction of a riot. David Denby: "If some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible." Joe Klein: "David Dinkins [then running for mayor of New York] will also have to pay the price for Spike Lee's reckless new movie about a summer race riot in Brooklyn, which opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes)."

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Booker Prize Guarantee?

Ambiguity in response to a novel rests with judgments that test values - literary, stylistic and ethical. I read Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning Narrow Road to the Deep North ready to turn away from the page at the shock of his recreation of a WWII Japanese work camp in Burma; but I could not deny the power of the writing. The novel might cover the same territory as the Bridge on the River Kwai, but Flanagan’s account makes tactile the foul degradation and suffering. His characterization takes us into the minds of the Australian prisoners and their Japanese captors, in particular that of the officer Doctor Dorrigo Evans, the Aussie chief, and his counterpart, Captain Nakamura. On the one hand, the novel offers us the mentality of the Captain who can justify working men to death even as he demands they be beaten to insure their compliance; and on the other hand, the mentality of his opponent who encounters such treatment and yet does not collapse, rather finds the strength to accept cruelty, resist with caution, and remain generous. Such focus has little by way of sentimentality. The extremity of the situation is evoked in measured, unadorned prose. Flanagan gives us two men who reveal themselves in acts of self-justification. Each asks: am I a good man? Their answers lay out a moral spread that stretches from assurance to distrust. If a claim can be made for the novel’s stature, it is in its willingness to entertain such moral contrasts. This is fiction that takes us into dark places.

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John Jeremiah Sullivan: An Appreciation

This week, John Jeremiah Sullivan was among the winners of the Windham Campbell Prize alongside Geoff Dyer and Edmund de Waal in the nonfiction category — an honor that comes with $150,000. Sullivan is the Southern editor of the Paris Review, and an all around gem in contemporary literary non-fiction. If you're tempted to despair at the state of that particular genre, Sullivan's work is a counter-argument.

His long-form essays pop up everywhere from GQ, the New York Times Magazine, to the food journal Lucky Peach, and they're never boring or predictable. This owes a lot to his deep research and attention to detail which lets his subjects shine through in all their particular weirdness.

Take, for example, his profile on former star of the reality show The Real World, nicknamed "the Miz." Even only knowing that piece's premise, it is easy to see how Sullivan could have played his subject matter for laughs. "The Miz" is one of a host of reality television stars who make club appearances for a living after their show has aired, but Sullivan doesn't stand apart from the circus and point. The Miz comes across as someone you could have known once. Even more, Sullivan is willing to say more than the obvious about reality television — in all its staged feelings and produced hot-tub scenes — and its appeal, then go ahead and implicate everyone.

And I just get so exhausted with my countrypeople—you know the ones, the ones you run into who are all like, "Oh gosh, reality TV? I've never even seen it. Is it really that interesting?"...To me that's about as noble as being like, "Oh, Nagasaki? I've never even heard of that!" This is us, bros. This is our nation. A people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.

Did I mention he's funny? He's really funny.

I particularly wanted to point out one of his more well-known essays, Upon This Rock, which also originally appeared in GQ. Sullivan goes to a Christian music festival — a curious event in itself — but about halfway into the piece's 11,000 words, we discover that Sullivan was once a creature of that vibrant evangelical subculture. So while the essay describes the bands, the Christian rock industry and its colorful fans, it's about confronting a faith that has died, but still haunts you. "I love Jesus Christ," he admits.

 "...Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can't I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?

Because once you've known Him as God, it's hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won't slacken.

Sullivan is both faithful to his old faith, and his current disbelief. This might be a strange description of an 11,000 magazine article, but it's full of restraint. Toward the end, he concludes of his new festival-going friends, "They were crazy, and they loved God—and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that love, which I never was capable of. Because knowing it isn't true doesn't mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were."

Lila Ames, theologian (Lila pp.91-177)

Theology is unique among academic disciplines. Although it is indispensible for a liberal arts education, its proper home has never been in the academy. The ultimate end of theology is reflecting on one’s relationship with God. It’s hard to imagine a chemist outside the lab or a historian outside the archives, but we can very easily imagine a theologian outside the academy. After all, Evagrius Pontus, the fourth century Egyptian monk, says that if you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly you are a theologian. Thomas Aquinas, writing on the Apostles’ Creed, argues that “no one of the philosophers before the coming of Christ could, through his own powers, know God and the means necessary for salvation as well as any old woman since Christ’s coming knows Him through faith.” My two grandmothers taught me more about Catholicism than any of my excellent teachers have. And my grandmothers’ tools were rosary beads and lives of devotion, not the volumes of the Sources Chrétiennes.

Lila Ames is a theologian because she does what every Christian theologian must do: she tries to understand God’s word in Scripture and understand herself and her world in light of revelation.

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Dylan Does It His Way

How should one approach Shadows in the Night, the new Bob Dylan collection of American standards once sung by Frank Sinatra? With curiosity, of course, or curiosity tinged with dread, or a roll of the eyes at the adoption of this latest persona. Or, if you're among the legions of indefatigable disciples and completists, with advance purchase and ravenous consumption. After a critic friend warned me a couple of months ago the disc would include "Some Enchanted Evening" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, we traded emails trying to one-up each other with versions of the lyric "once you have found her never let her go" in imagined Dylanese (his winning entry: "Once yubba fondue Lehigh Lego glue"). Thus add ridicule to one of the possible prejudgments, though both of us should have known better than to underestimate Dylan.

Which isn't to say Shadows in the Night is a great record. Everyone has accepted that a new Blood on the Tracks or Desire, to say nothing of Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, is not in the cards. But of the studio recordings it's no Infidels or Knocked Out Loaded or Shot of Love; four listens in, I can say easily and with relief that it's not an embarrassment. It's definitely weird; it may even be good.

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The Never-Receding Past

Critic James Wood once said about John Updike that “all of his books suggest a belief that life will go on, that it will be thickly unvaried, that things will not come to a stop." The "very form" of the Rabbit series, according to Wood, "incarnates a belief that stories can be continued.”

My colleague Kaitlin Campbell recently wrote on the topic of Facebook from the perspective of those introduced to it as teenagers. Those whose adulthoods compelled adoption – whether for social, recreational, or, in my case, occupational reasons – have probably experienced it differently. Back when I first had to set up an account for my job, plans for my twenty-fifth high school reunion were underway, unknown to me. But not for long: Within hours I was discovered by people I hadn’t been in touch with for decades asking if I'd be in attendance.

Reunions figure in Updike's work from the outset to the end, with "The Happiest I've Been" (1959) among the first to "The Walk With Elizanne" -- sexagenarian characters gather for a fiftieth high school reunion with few hatchets to bury or scars to heal but still holding a stubborn candle or two -- among the last, appearing in 2003 (life goes on…). I was much younger than Updike’s alumni. But I wondered whether my reunion – graduates of a regional high school in semi-rural western New Jersey that in (perhaps embroidered) memory shared similarities with Updike’s evocations of midcentury, small-town America – would be marked by similarly softened attitudes. After some indecisiveness, I went. Seven years later, it can feel like I never came back.

Facebook has kept in the here and now the past I assumed would return to its proper, designated place. The charitable view has it that being linked to people from all parts of your life creates the desirable illusion of having never left your idyllic hometown, even if it never existed -- a place where everyone knows everyone and the whole community comes out to celebrate a birthday or wedding or job promotion. That might appeal to some. I’d always anticipated leaving such a place, looking forward to wondering whatever became of a classmate with the assurance that no answer would be forthcoming. I could hold on to selected images from the actual past, but I could also conjure my own unfolding versions of unknown lives or allow mutable, perishable memory to do its thing. My choice, because a place and past left behind were supposed to stay there. It was part of growing up and getting older, then older still. Stories end: Part of what always made anecdotes from aging relatives enjoyable was the mystery that came in not knowing what actually came after.

This isn't happening. An infrequent Facebook user, I'm nonetheless current on the marital situations, career trajectories, workout regimens, familial relations, and hospitalizations of numerous former classmates I didn't know all that well in the first place. The gym-class bully posts photos of sunsets and spiked marlins and sometimes of himself, now with a kind smile and a pretty nice boat from the looks of it. The quiet girl from history class happily and regularly reports on milestones in her children’s lives. Some seem to have gotten religion, old-time and otherwise, with others carrying on elaborate and at times esoteric conversations about Obama, security software, or rare musical instruments. There are also those who upload photos of their homes and yards and cars or the homes and property and cars they’re thinking of buying, of the fun they're having here and abroad. Laying across it all is that quality of "unvaried thickness," with little sign of the narrative coming to a stop.

Could it be read as a sign of optimism, or of something else? Of course, what people share is the result of more-or-less considered thought: As Wood says about realistic fiction, "a certain level of well-selected detail [is needed to keep] the balloon of verisimilitude afloat.” How real the stories on display really are can be debated. Yet the stories continue, with details sufficient to ensure that, unlike Updike's protagonist nobly struggling to name the unrecognizable classmate brought before him, the pleasure and the occasional necessity of not knowing cannot be felt.

Returning to the Gilead trilogy

Maria Bowler's excellent post below and Joseph Komonchak's post about Home have made me feel more guilty than usual that I haven't finished blogging through Marilynne Robinson's Gilead trilogy. I had planned on writing the posts in January. But I got busy with the beginning of the Winter quarter at DePaul, with two papers I had to deliver, with an (overdue) article I finally finished, with a radio appearance (?!), and with the normal craziness of life. I also read Phil Klay's Redeployment, Matthew Thomas's We Are not Ourselves, and John Williams's Stoner, and I hope to have something to say about all of them at some point soon. I do apologize for being out of touch for so long.

I have begun rereading Lila, which I first finished right before Christmas. And I think I'm now in a position to say that I'll post on the first 90 pages or so of the novel by this Friday. I'll write two more posts the following week (Deo volente) to finish the novel and finish the series of posts on the trilogy.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Thanks.

Accidental Armaggedon

“In the event of a nuclear attack, which of these items would be the most helpful? Rank them in order of importance.”

This was one of the first worksheets I remember from elementary school. There were about twenty illustrated items. My classmates and I were perplexed. Sure, we had probably watched a filmstrip that mentioned the Geiger Counter, but none of us could remember what it did. And why would we want a broom? Would we be that concerned with the tidiness of our fallout shelter?

IT WAS ABOUT 1983. That same year, the Russians shot down a Korean civilian airliner over the Sea of Japan; the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a lengthy warning about the buildup of nuclear weapons; and on September 26, a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel secretly saved the world from accidental Armaggedon. But more about Stanislav Petrov later.

Growing up in the early 1980’s, not far from North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) and the Air Force Academy, the Cold War was a hot topic – even for kids. Popular videos on the burgeoning MTV network, such as Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” satirized and lamented the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Dads took their sons to see “Top Gun” in theaters, and we cheered when Russian MIGs were splashed in the ocean. “Red Dawn” was always checked out of the video store. One of my favorite books, still there in my parents’ house, was titled “Great Warplanes of the 1980’s.”

KIDS TODAY don't have the same fears. They don’t know that the broom is to sweep nuclear fallout off your friends.

The globally-aware college students that I teach don’t think about nuclear annihilation. Environmental degradation? Yes. Terrorism? Yes. Economic inequality? Yes. Racial injustice? Absolutely. But if they think about nuclear weapons at all, it’s in the context of who might acquire them – namely, North Korea or Iran. The notion that the arsenals of the already nuclear-armed states should be at the center of moral concern seems outdated, like referring to music videos being shown on MTV.

The fact is, the nuclear capabilities that already exist have grown in power beyond human comprehension, and there have been enough “close calls” regarding their deployment to warrant the gravest of fears. In recent years, many influential voices have made the case that – regardless of whether nuclear weapons ever made us more safe – they certainly no longer do so.

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