Edward T. Wheeler

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

By this author

Memento Mori

We took an uncharacteristic winter break: seven days in Florida. New England weather has been mild, but today a winter storm is filling up the path to the house and the garden with wet, heavy snow. The air is white with it. Thirty-six hours ago we sat in eighty degree weather listening to the carillon at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wells, a nature retreat given to the nation by a publishing magnate.  The Spanish  Moss on the live oaks filtered the sun, palm trees and magnolias added to the canopy, and what are for us summer bedding plants bloomed in the borders. A garden Idyll.

Banjaxed

The front cover board of David Mitchell’s new novel, Slade House, is cut out in a squat rectangle to reveal on the facing page an intricate geometric design, the plan of the eponymous Slade House. Open the cover and even more detailed and cryptic symbols, faint scripts, and maze-like divisions are inscribed on the plan and suggest that the site will be mysterious, nay, nefarious. It is. The design promises revelations, but you have to squint to make out the signs. That in a way is the effect of the novel as a whole: psychic eye strain.

Readers of Mitchell’s previous, The Bone Clocks, will recognize the source of Slade House’s conflict, a spiritual war between the forces of light and darkness, delivered in the energetic, multi-voiced style that has made Mitchell such an entertaining writer:  witness Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. For whatever reason Mitchell has turned his imagination towards supernatural struggle, waged by Atemporals, those few individuals whose great power allows them to defy mortality by feeding on the souls of the “engifted” to preserve their shape-shifting lives. Their adversaries [particularly one Horologist, Marinus] equally powerful, but for the plot’s sake, fewer in number, muster a reactive defense, determined to stop the disappearances unto death of the victims of those who follow “the shaded path.” They have compassion, respect life, and have resources that appear to give hope for the future. (God is not present to assist.)

A reader gets hints of the larger superstructure loosely governing this duel of giant forces  whose combat literally swallows up hapless mortals. There are ancient savants, sites of power hidden in far lands, and, it would appear, schools of learning that allow the haughtiest of actors to speak with the condescension of all arch-villains. How much is camp, how much nudges and winks us into complicity? Is Mitchell wrong-footing us throughout with his apparently technical vocabulary: psychovoltage, orisons, and banjax?

Body of An American

We went to the Hartford Stage to see a performance of The Body of an American which will run there until the end of January. The play offered a great deal in a ninety minute, two-man performance. I scarcely felt the time pass, so quick and intense the shifts in characters’ voices and in the vignettes from the life of the photo-journalist , Paul Watson [Michael Cumpsty], who is the focus of the play. The playwright, Dan O’Brien, as his character [Michael Crane] makes clear, found Watson’s reporting from war zones, scenes of genocide, civil conflicts, and Artic Canada unavoidably compelling. He engaged in email correspondence and phone calls in an attempt to know the man who had taken such risks and witnessed appalling modern conflicts. The characters then offer the playwright’s personal search and the photographer’s response to his troubled experiences.

To make compelling theatre out of a series of stage interviews, by phone, email and finally in person, is a testimony to O’Brien’s art. The canny use of projected visuals and remarkable sound effects helped suspend disbelief. But in fact there was a distancing reassurance in the play’s mechanics, its notion of being a made thing. This was an imitation of an action – and with Aristotle in mind, there was a conflict, complication, and a muted climax, or perhaps series of high points.

The work of getting the story told, which could have caused awkward exposition, appeared effortless, in part because of the pace of the play and the ease with which the actors changed roles, dove-tailed their lines, and gave convincing portrayals.

Powder Treason

I had The Year of Lear for a Christmas present. This is James Shapiro’s extraordinary account of 1606, the year in which Shakespeare wrote Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. As he did in his earlier 1599, Shapiro puts the Bard in living context. I stress living in that the pressures, political, financial, religious and artistic that the critic discusses allow us to see Shakespeare as a working artist – as responsive to his times as say Miller was in writing The Crucible. The themes of the plays, the conflicts the playwright engages, in Hamlet’s words: “[hold] a mirror up to nature: to show...the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Shapiro takes us into the expectations faced by Shakespeare and his company, the King’s Men. The Royal demand for entertainments stretched the repertoire of the players. Shakespeare broke years of silence to pen Lear in the context of James’ push for union between England and Scotland, and he wrote Macbeth in part as a response to The Gunpowder Plot.  The latter event had the king, as Shapiro notes, deeply distressed and frightened of further armed rebellion. How was he to deal with the violent discontent of recusant Catholics and the excommunication issued by the Pope? What license did the Pope appear to be giving to his Catholic subjects? That the playwright should find a form of exploration in The Scottish Play says much – about James’ concern for possession by the Devil, the torments of conscience, and the brutality of a mind reduced to the will to destroy.

Shapiro devotes almost two chapters to a consideration of the Gunpowder Plot. I had paid little more attention to this event than as the occasion of Bonfire Night and the epigraph of Eliot’s The Hollow Men.” But in Shapiro’s clear presentation of the conspiracy I realized that had the Plot been successful, the King, his chief ministers, Lords spiritual and temporal, virtually all those responsible for running the state, and thousands of attending citizens (Shapiro tells us that contemporaries saw as many as 30,000 at risk.) would have perished in an effort to restore Catholicism to the country and establish James’ wife, a convert to Catholicism, on the throne.

Genesis 3:16

It is not too far a stretch to say that Anne Enright’s Booker Prize winning The Gathering (2007) is a gloss on this verse from Genesis.

To the woman he said, “I will multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.”

Here is Veronica, the forty year old narrator, an Irish middleclass mother of two, reflecting on her mother’s life.

[My father] did love my mother. There is always that unpalatable fact – the fact that my father loved my mother, and she loved him right back. But he did not love her enough to leave her alone. No. My father, I imagine, had sex the way his children got drunk – which is to say, against his better judgement; not for the pleasure of it, so much as to make it all stop.

The result: twelve children and six miscarriages. Veronica’s vision sees sex as a force to be managed, one that takes its toll, and leaves a woman burdened. Paradoxically, sex produces the children that are her joy, the living extensions of herself. In her ordeal, and this book traces Veronica’s ordeal, her husband is estranged by his very desire. What will he do “to make it all stop”? Veronica can imagine the worst, just as she condemns herself for such imagining.

Being a mother, a spouse, and a sibling in so large a family, is an issue that wraps itself around a secret—indeed, a putative crime. We learn in the novel’s first line that: [Veronica] “would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event.”

She does finally write “it” down; the impetus is the death by drowning, a suicide, of Liam, Veronica’s younger and closest brother. “The uncertain event” is the cause, so Veronica comes to believe, of self-murder.

The Green Road

Emily Dickinson set a high standard for recognizing a great literary work. “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” Something cranial but a bit less drastic occurred to me when reading  Irish  novelist, Anne Enright’s recent book, The Green Road. My head did not lose its top; rather it seemed to be displaced, removed into a way of thinking different from mine – disconcertingly different. The novel introduces us to the Madigan family, an Irish matriarchy ruled by Rosaleen who responds to the trauma she engenders by resorting, as her son Daniel terms it, to “the horizontal solution.” She takes to her bed, disappears from family life for days, only to explode from her chamber in rages that dwindle to fondling expiation. This tactic develops in multiple ways, appearing in manifestations that challenge her rare set of children. Here is the elder daughter, Constance, now a mother of three, waiting for the results of a mammogram. What mark has maternity left on her?

She was back on the road at Bunratty, cutting thought the field  - the impossible ease of it – and she remembered the undoing of her own bones as the children were born. Her pelvis opening – there was pleasure in it, like the top of a yawn – as the baby twisted out of her. It was all so simply done. And the baby was such a force, each time. Donal, with a grumpy look on him, Shauna who came out in a blaze of red hair, and her sweet-natured middle son, Rory, who turned his mother into a bit of dual carriageway herself, at the last with such a bad tear. He took both exits, as she said to Dessie [her husband] at the same time.

The prose mimics the free flow of thought without resorting to stream of consciousness techniques. Enright’s ability to project distinct voices and the habits of mind is enviable.

The novel’s structure is one of chronological growth of the Madigans. We have an opening chapter that introduces the family, and then we follow the lives of Rosaleen and  Pat and their children, in discrete chapters, over a period of thirty years. The novel jolts its way to an end with the Madigans various converging on the family home for a last Christmas dinner. Rosaleen, now a widow, intends to sell the site of so many family crises.The children gather with a sense of foreboding: what new confrontations await?

Translation as Meditation

MFA studies at the Iowa Writing Program took Aviya Kushner from the intimate world of her close reading of Hebrew scriptures to a first time encounter of the bible in English translation. Luckily, the dissonance that she encountered, caused by translations, was met with understanding, nay happy encouragement, by her teacher, Marylynne Robinson. Their discussion led Kushner to write The Grammar of God over a period of many years. She shaped the book into a personal account of meeting an interpretive world that had only fleeting resonance with the Hebrew she knew from childhood.

The Illuminations

True personality floats beneath surface consciousness, obscured by the fog of dementia or the fog of war. To meet what one is can affirm or destroy. This theme works its way ever so deftly through the parallel developments of two characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations. Anne Quirk resides in a care home on the Scottish cost, west of Glasgow. Luke Campbell, her grandson, soldiers for a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan. Their self-recognition, respectively and jointly, is the climax of the novel’s plot; hence the novel’s title, the grand lighting-up of the English seaside resort of Blackpool. 

O’Hagan is a writer of many voices: he impersonates Marilyn Monroe’s dog in his earlier Life and Opinions of Maf, The Dog, and a pederast priest in Be Near Me. [The latter a work of insight and justice.] His third person narrations in The Illuminations offer us the surface life of the failing Anne through fragmented speech in dialogue and in carefully observed gesture or facial movement. In effect, O’Hagan takes on the fears so many of us have – the blank of demented senescence. He offers a conditional hope mediated by great respect. His male protagonist is a soldier, an officer, committed to his men, if not to his mission. Certainly his fractured self is alive in marvelously sustained dialogue, the “slagging” vulgarity which constitutes the verbal shield under which his squad operates amid the ambushes, the haze of marihuana, and the deceits of the Afghan war. The novel alternates its scenes between Lochranza Court, Anne’s care home, and a mountain road in Afghanistan where Luke and his men are in convoy on a so-say humanitarian mission. The venture ends in massacre and disgrace – the ignominious fall of Luke’s mentor, Major Scullion, and Luke’s own disillusionment.

Chautauqua

Chautauqua: a paragraph, perhaps a half-page, in my high school US History textbook; or Robert Pirsig’s term to characterize his self-communing in Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And then there is The Chautauqua Institution of 2015, a gated village of 750 acres, host to thousands of people – some true Chautauquans  - for a nine week summer program organized around weekly themes. History at Chautauqua is structural, certainly architectural: to enter the gates is to go back to the past, visually and communally. On brief inspection, one concludes that the average age of the participants stretches back more than two generations. This is a “senior world” (I include myself.), although there is no lack of families with children.

Well over a hundred years ago, Chautauqua began as a summer retreat for Sunday School teachers. It has transformed itself and its lake shore over the years. The major Christian denominations still have their residence houses, but one could almost be unaware of the thoroughly religious foundations of Chautauqua. There is, of course, morning worship services in the amphitheater, and the Department of Religion sponsors the major afternoon lectures,  an Inter-Faith program. No one at Chautauqua balks at religious sentiments; and the politics are left of center, socially progressive. As for ecumenism: there are regular Catholic services and a Jewish center, offering a wide range of religious and cultural programs.

The entry way to Chautauqua looks something like the toll both approach to a turnpike: busy, crowded with cars, and confusing: We were part of a tour and had to claim our entry passes amid a crush of people at the ticket office, but once we found ourselves inside the fenced acres, we drove hesitantly down very narrow, tree shaded streets, passing wood frame houses, Victorian in look and, in some cases, in origin. The road sloped down to the shore of the lake, to the grand Athenaeum Hotel, a Victorian wooden hostelry that recalls Dickens’  depictions of hotels in Martin Chezzulewit. The density of the housing, the lushness of the gardens that encroach on to the streets, and contrasts of shade and light on the frame houses work a transformation, as does the omphalos – the Amphitheater – spreading its bowl-like shape to focus on a stage platform, roofed above but open at its sides to the winds.

What is "I Refuse"?

The fiction of the Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, particularly his Out Stealing Horses, published almost a decade ago, has received general critical acclaim. Character, setting, mood and landscape open up a world familiar and strange. When I read him, I find a singular point of view, a consciousness shaped in a world in extremis – and all the more dramatically powerful for that.

The phrase, “I refuse” occurs three times by my count in Petterson’s new novel of the same name. It is spoken as an encouraging assertion of life over death – as in “I refuse to die.” So Tommy, one of the chief characters, to his mortally sick, adoptive father Jonsen – who dies soon after.  It is also a denial of family or marital obligation. Tommy refuses to bear responsibility for his aged, abusive, real father; and a waitress, Berit, refuses to wear her wedding ring, despite her husband’s demands, to free herself for an assignation with Tommy. Refusing becomes a form of independence, an assertion of the self, against the constraints of family ties, vows, or the menace of death. In their contexts, the refusals seem desperate, and ultimately unfulfilling. The sources or motivation for the decisions “to refuse” lie unexplored, rather stated as facts.  The Norwegian world of Per Petterson is not simply physically chilling, but deeply emotionally so.

This is a complex and teasing narrative, built around sharp disjunctures in time sequence and narrative voice. First person accounts by the two principals, Tommy and Jim, extremely close boyhood friends, reveal their chance meeting at the very beginning of the novel.  They have not seen each other for over thirty-five years. There are third person accounts of the events that caused the break in their friendship and reveal how Tommy’s mother disappeared and how he came to be raised by Jonsen. Siri, Tommy’s sister, recounts her brief romance with Jim, and his painful, inexplicable rejection of her.

The plot, if plot there is, takes its energy from the first, chance meeting, and through time shifts, alternation of voices, works its way to the frustration of any future meeting, and suggests the major theme of the novel – the isolation of each of us, and the corresponding inability to know the other person. Deeper still, Jim, whose adolescent ability in school, and his blond good looks, appear to set him apart and give him the advantage over his rough and unpredictable friend Tommy, suffers deep emotional depression, and scarcely survives a suicide attempt.

One typical Petterson scene points both to the inscrutability of motive and the lingering effects of guilt.