BOOKS UNKNOWN & UNHEARD-OF
10.07.2006: Against Oblivion, a review by Jeremy Hatch:
This slender and elegiac novel, which would turn out to be Gina Berriault's final excursion into the form, opens with a quotation from Miguel de Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life: "A tremendous passion is this longing that our memory may be rescued from the oblivion that overtakes others." As this epigram suggests, loss, absence, the fear of oblivion — and the effort to escape oblivion — are the overriding themes of this novel; in fact, they pervade every line of this haunting and little-known masterpiece.
The focal character is Ilona Lewis, a woman in her mid-thirties and apparently a writer of fiction, although very little is made of the fact. More relevant is the deep, writerly solitude that marks her life, to which even her strange name makes allusion. The action concerns an extended crisis in her life, a crisis of repeated personal loss, of the kind we all sustain and learn to survive.
With an economy typical of Berriault's fiction, the story opens with a deft movement of 5,000 words — the longest chapter in the book — a single scene that develops the setting, sounds the main themes, and introduces all the characters. The scene is a casual dinner party in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Ilona has been brought to the party by an old friend, Claud. The party itself is hosted by a young wealthy couple, Jerome and Elisa, who intend to celebrate the success of a mutual friend. Only one invitee is missing: the guest of honor, Martin. He is a freshly successful novelist in his early thirties, and Ilona's lover for the past four years. He has been prevented from attending this party by the exigencies of his newfound fame, and his absence dominates the party — he is the subject of every conversation and remark, whether rueful, admiring, or skeptical. In an image that will be echoed later, Ilona thinks of him in an airplane, "up in the sky, somewhere over all, as the suddenly famous ones seem to be." And later, when Jerome gives a cynical speech while holding high the issue of TIME with Martin's face on the cover, it serves only to underscore the fact of their absent friend's literal elevation above them all.
By the end of the opening third of the book, Ilona has lost Martin. The affair ends with a dramatic, definitive gesture on Martin's part, but in the ensuing third the two reach a quiet reconciliation, in a series of delicate scenes that present the flickering out of their once intense passion. And then another loss, this one much more sudden, pushes the story towards its very satisfying conclusion.
Apart from Ilona and Martin, the cast of characters is very small and focused, limited for the most part to those named above. Although a few secondary characters do flit by in the book, with one exception (to which I shall return below) all of the characters are deeply involved in the unfolding story and with one another, even if much of it occurs offstage, outside Ilona's immediate view. Most of them are writers as well, and far from being neutral, as is the case with Ilona, it all but defines two of them. Jerome has secretly written a vengeful novel about his wife's infidelities, a manuscript which is later destroyed in a dramatic scene; and Claud is the negative image of Martin: a former writer, a man who had a single paralyzing success ten years earlier and hasn't written a thing since. Ironically, he is by far the most talkative character in the book.
The exception mentioned earlier is Albert, Ilona's disabled older brother. She is his nearest living relation, and she bears a keen guilt arising from her abandonment of him more than a decade earlier, shortly after their mother died. Just as Claud can be understood as the negative image of Martin, Albert can be understood as Ilona's negative. Characteristically, Albert is defined by his absence and monk-like renunciation of comforts: for two-thirds of the book he lives alone in a rented room in Chicago, from which he sends occasional letters, and then he dies, prompting the final phase of the story. Early on in the book, Berriault describes Albert's reliance on Ilona at the time of their mother's death:
She was already twenty but for him she was the child who had protected him from terrible possibilities waiting for him everywhere, inside the city, out in vast space, and in the narrow confines of buses and streetcars, and now if she would only allow him to repay that kindness he would be grateful for the rest of his life.
But she cannot allow him to do so; doing so would mean chaining herself to him, and his care, for the rest of his life, and denying her own development as a human being. This she cannot accept, so she puts him on a bus to Chicago and herself on a bus to San Francisco. Under the weight of her guilt she has been unable to accept his repeated invitations to visit him and share his simple life for a time; she cannot bear the idea. Therefore, when he dies and she travels to Chicago to clean up his affairs, it is the first time she sees how he has been living. There is a wonderful passage towards the end, an echo of the early airplane image, when Ilona, returning from disposing of her brother's few worldly affairs, looks out the window in the night, and describes the view:
Far below lay the endless bas-relief mountains, lead color, iron color. There must be a moon, ravine shadows were sharp, and she thought — If some people were in the light, like the ones up there on the small screen, like Martin, like the woman he loved, like all those who were embraced wherever they went, it didn't follow that all the rest were lost to the dark.
The story wraps up in a highly satisfying way, which depends in part upon the jewel-like artistry of this book. The story is classically constructed, in three sections of equal length: the first two introduce conflict in a measured way and each ends with a reversal — the second more dramatic than the first, naturally — and the final section draws together all the threads and resolves all of the conflicts, on the thematic level as well as the level of action. Although the construction is nakedly obvious, Berriault manages to make it seem a virtue, perhaps because a good part of the novel's interest lay in her skillful pattern-making. As with the airplane example, every powerful image is later echoed and balanced by a complementary image in which nearly everything is reversed. The final scene itself is a complement to a scene very near the beginning. At the end of the book, left in the wake of an affecting story, you also find yourself left in the wake of a perfect piece of writing; perfect in the sense that a single change would make it less of a work of art.
This is a supreme achievement in any form. But in this case the achievement makes it all the more disgraceful that this work has fallen out of print for the second time, especially as Berriault is one of our most highly-regarded and widely-anthologized short story writers.
7.25.06: Discovering a New World, a review by Jeremy Hatch:
If memoir is indeed the new novel, then perhaps it is time to re-discover the great memoirists: those who, whether or not they have had extraordinary life stories to relate, have related them with extraordinary skill. Ved Mehta is among those few memoirists who enjoy both distinctions. In 1935 he was born in, which was then part of India, to a higher-caste Hindu family with an ambitious doctor father and a devoted mother. They were neither wealthy nor poor, and there was every reason to suppose that Ved's future would be bright. But then, when he was only four years old, an attack of cerebrospinal meningitis crushed his optic nerves and blinded him permanently. He had lost more than his sight: in his society, the blind were all but fated to become beggars. His father wanted him to escape that end, and so he sent Ved off to the only school for the blind that he could locate in India — essentially an orphanage — in a distant town. During a four-year stint there, Ved became ambitious to accomplish more, and when it became clear that the only opportunities for higher education lay in the United States, he pursued them in the face of enormous official discouragement. Eventually, a school dared to take him on, and thus it was that a blind fifteen-year-old Hindu boy arrived in Little Rock in 1949, to study at the Arkansas School for the Blind, where he would graduate with honors in 1952. That episode is the subject of the memoir under review, Sound-Shadows of the New World.
In one respect, the book tells the story of Ved's discovery of American culture by way of a thousand small, disorienting details. As Mehta has said, in a radio interview given for this book twenty years ago, the residential school was a safe haven from which he could explore this alien culture. In many places Mehta relies upon extracts from his typed journal of those years, and although this often results in slow reading, the entries he has selected are rich with these encounters. In one place the fifteen-year-old writes: "We had a Thanksgiving dance but what is Thanksgiving? There are so many things I'd like to ask about, but won't — I don't want to remind people of my separateness." In another place, Ved is taken on a field trip to a livestock show, and the students are given cowboy hats to wear. "The brim of my hat extended almost beyond my shoulders," Ved writes. "[We] had trouble walking together because our hats were always bumping into each other. I wished I knew what cowboys were and why they wore such hats." As if to complete his tour of American culture, he has a frightening encounter with evangelical Christianity when the piano teacher attempts to convert him, he gets a summer job packing boxes in an ice-cream factory, and of all things, he even has a bruising encounter with the fledgling ETS in his efforts to get admitted to a U.S. college — an experience which has in the meantime become almost a rite of passage in America.
But this is not merely a story about culture shock. In an important respect, it is also the story of a singular adolescence, an adolescence so complex that his blindness becomes incidental for long stretches of the book. Ved is tormented by all of the usual conflicting urges and desires of those years, but his situation is complicated by his roots in a distant culture, by the loss of home, family, and anything familiar that might have given him something to steer by through those difficult years — he spends many hours listening to the few records of Indian music that he brought with him, and pines desperately for a good Indian meal — as well as by the blindness that brought him into this situation in the first place.
As one might expect, he has the most difficulty with the problem of sex. In his India, young men and women had been paired up into marriages by their parents and older relatives; it was typical for the couple to have little contact prior to the ceremony, and indeed it would have been seen as immoral if they had managed to meet privately. In place of such meetings, young people first relied upon the assurances of their elders that the chosen one would be an acceptable partner, and second, they had no expectation of a partnership of equals. Ved now finds himself in a world where young boys and girls go out, in search of partners for themselves, often on unsupervised dates — a world in which light petting and kissing between unmarried partners was, if not exactly encouraged, certainly not seen as immoral. Ved regards this whole situation with a mixture of shock, disapproval, fear, and a deep longing to participate and 'fit in.' At first he attempts to stay aloof and dedicate himself to studies — for he is keenly aware of how fortunate he has been, and he feels a deep responsibility to do right by his father — but he is no match for the pull of sexual desire. When his first experiments go as badly as might be expected, he retreats deeply into himself and does not dare again to seek a relationship until college. "Years later," Mehta writes, in a revealing passage,
I realized that the source of my confusion over the whole dating issue was the clash between my ideal of an arranged marriage and an all-encompassing family, on the one hand, and my wish for romantic love and an individual destiny, on the other. Because of my abrupt separation from the family, [my father's] remarks, over the years, about the superiority of the Indian system and the inferiority of the American system had become for me as sacred laws carved in stone, and, again because of that painful separation, everything I had lost often seemed good and everything I was discovering seemed bad. I tended to idealize India and imagine that everything in America, by contrast, wore the face of corruption. I told myself that eschewing the pleasures that money could buy — or women could give — was an incomparable act of purity. And yet I was constantly tempted by the new, frightening customs and the throb of my own senses.
Under the pressure of this confusion, he writes long letters to his father and his closest sister, attempting to analyze his conflicts. "About a month after I posted the letters," he writes, "[the secretary] called out to me as I was passing the door of the office, 'I've got a letter for you from your dad — it's as fat as all getout.' She had never sounded more disconcertingly Arkansan to my ear." Of course, Ved knows that this lengthy letter from the father must be highly personal — a letter that will have to substitute for a heart-to-heart talk — as it is, and does. The unfortunate secretary has the job of reading aloud this letter, which is a great embarrassment to both of them. When finished, "[she] made a great deal of noise refolding the letter, as if she were as much at a loss for words as I was. She handed it to me across the desk. 'It's a very nice letter,' she observed I hurried away with the letter in my hand, trembling like a kite in a gusty wind."
One cannot read this book without coming away impressed by the extraordinary and quirky ambitions that Ved conceives and carries out. He does a year's coursework over one summer, in order to graduate a year early and save his father the tuition; he builds an elaborate system for recording radio broadcasts onto magnetic tape, so he could later listen to Edward R. Murrow and take notes on the news; he even learns to navigate the world without the use of a cane. On his first expedition into downtown Little Rock, he is given a lift back to the school by a woman: " 'How much can you see?' the woman asked 'Well enough to get around,' I lied. 'You know, you partially sighted people are the link between the world of the seeing and the world of the blind,' she said. It was the first time 'partially sighted' had sounded pleasant to me."
Finally, it is impossible when reading this to avoid considering the issues of racism and segregation, a subject which hovers at the edges of this book, and to which he alludes only a few times, particularly by way of the remarks of a racist classmate. That blind children were capable of distinguishing so virulently between white and "Negro" is shocking enough, but what is most shocking is a moment when the racist student spits, in response to Ved's query, that the Arkansas School for the Blind is "white, you fool!" — which suggests that blind Negroes in Arkansas could expect much the same fate as the blind in India, and that Ved, although his skin is just as dark as that of many Negroes, was only allowed access to this education because he was "technically white." But this issue is not explored in great depth, perhaps because Ved himself lives in a rather circumscribed bubble in Little Rock, and therefore has little occasion to become sharply aware of it.
The book ends with Ved's graduation from the school and flight, both literal and figurative, to California; as we learn from the other books in the series, Mehta took two B.A.'s, one at Pomona College and one at Oxford, and by his return to the United States he had already launched a career as a professional writer. Deciding between a Ph.D. from Harvard and a contract with The New Yorker, he chose the magazine, and he would hold that position for more than thirty years. During those years he wrote two dozen books, married and raised a family, and eventually wrote an eleven-volume autobiography, or rather, a series of eleven memoirs (given the title Continents of Exile) which tells the story of his forebears, of his parents and his siblings, and of his own life from birth to his unlikely retirement in Maine after a long run as (an increasingly embattled) staff writer at one of the most popular magazines on the American newsstand.
In many ways his is the quintessential American success story — coming to America from abroad, without much money, and in the face of enormous odds, he succeeds owing to his determination, his ambition, his luck, and above all, his talents. And his is also an inspiring story of overcoming severe handicaps in order to achieve a career, both academic and professional, and a life that would still be extraordinary even without the blindness. Why then, are only the last four volumes of this series still in print?
The answer to that question is complex, having much to do with the shifting tides of literary fashion. Mehta's writing and indeed, his entire approach are sharply out of fashion today — his style is too understated for today's hyperkinetic world, and it is almost invariably labeled "pedestrian" or "plodding" by readers and reviewers more accustomed to the flashy pyrotechnics of memoirists such as (be it said) Rick Moody and Dave Eggers; and speaking of irony, Mehta's writing displays anything but: his earnestness comes directly out of another, more-innocent era, and many find it exasperating. Today, it seems, such earnestness is tantamount to an open invitation for ridicule. And then there is the reputation he acquired in his last years at the New Yorker, when he was repeatedly accused of being the least relevant and most boring writer on the staff.
Do any of these accusations represent a true assessment of Mehta's worth, or the worth of Continents of Exile? No, they do not. His style as a memoirist is no more barren than is that of (for instance) Luc Sante, or Paul Auster — which is to say that it is not barren at all, simply direct — and it reflects his modesty rather than an uninteresting personality. And although his earnestness may put him out of the league of a James Frey, such as it is, at least everything Mehta writes is true instead of merely "truthy" — at least the challenges he had to overcome were none of his own making. He did more with his talents than almost anybody else would have under similar circumstances, and in the end, he was able to write about his achievements in a fluent, readable — and amazingly modest — style. Seek out this and the other books in Continents of Exile, and read them: they are well worth the effort.
5.8.06: Re-imagining the Mundane, a review by Niranjana Iyer:
"What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?" asks Alice, in the opening sentence of Alice in Wonderland. The evident answer is 'not much,' for Alice, peeping into the picture-less and conversation-less book her sister holds, is soon dulled into sleep, and thence into her dream. However, pictures and conversations are not an enrichment solely reserved to children's books. Canadian writer Diane Schoemperlen's Forms of Devotion is a collection of "Stories and Pictures" indisputably aimed at adults, since it deals with the libido as much as the heart and the mind. This book combines art and prose with a whimsical literary genius; I cannot remember the last time a book allowed me to dip so deeply into such varied waters.
This book has eleven stories in all, and each hums with the author's intelligence. The title story, "Forms of Devotion," is a series of ten short interlinked essays, on topics such as faith, hope, strength and wisdom. Each essay makes us feel as though our lives are being examined under a microscope, by an unusually keen-eyed pathologist. Schoemperlen parses our every behavior, not only to find meaning, but to show how quotidian actions can accrete into a celebration — or rejection — of the human condition. In the essay titled "Faith," Schoemperlen writes:
On weekend mornings, the faithful take their children to the park and assume they will not be abducted or fondled behind the climber by a pervert in a trench coat. In the afternoons, they work in their gardens, quite confident that those tiny seeds will eventually produce more tomatoes, zucchini and green beans than they will know what to do with. They dig in the dirt and believe in the future. They put up preserves, save for retirement, and look forward to being grandparents. After they retire, they plan to buy a motor home and travel.
When they go to bed at night, they assume that their white houses will stay standing, their green gardens will keep growing, their pink babies will keep breathing, and the yellow sun will rise in the morning as it always does. Many of the faithful are women, giving birth being, after all, the ultimate act of pure faith. When their sons and daughters (whose as yet embryonic faith may temporarily fail them) wake sobbing from nightmares and wail, 'Mommy, I dreamed you were dead. You won't die, will you?' these faithful mothers say, in all honesty, 'Don't worry, I won't.' The faithful sleep soundly.
Schoemperlen's prose is remarkable; she plays with language with a joyous insouciance reminiscent of the proverbial toddler in a sandbox. Literary conventions are stomped down and new, surprising narrative structures spring up — none of which seem the least bit contrived. Rather, each story seems to have demanded a unique shape, and the author has only obeyed these demands. Hence, there's an essay-cum-story-cum-instruction manual, entitled "How to Write a Serious Novel about Love," complete with fiendishly accurate suggestions for naming characters ("Sometimes neutral names are best. After much deliberation, decide to name your characters John and Mary") and plot development ("Always bear in mind that in a serious novel, only trouble is interesting"). There is a piece titled "Rules of Thumb: An Alphabet of Imperatives for the Modern Age," where 26 imperative verbs, from 'Avoid' to 'Zealously Embrace' are explored and thoroughly enjoyed. The eleven stories also include a murder mystery, as well as a fairy tale; it is interesting to note that no villain appears in the fairy tale, just as no weapon appears in the murder mystery.
If the prose is enthralling, the pictures are intriguing. Most of the illustrations are antique woodcuts, thus offering a piquant contrast to the stories' contemporary setting. Some are simply pretty pictures, seemingly serving only to charm, but other illustrations bristle with meaning, adding further layers to an already lush narrative — for instance, one story, "Body Language," contains illustrations from an old medical textbook. Forms of Devotion holds Renaissance paintings, trompes-l'oeil, M.C.Escher-esque rooms that loop back on to each other, Tenniel-style drawings, and collages created by the author herself. Schoemperlen's tastes range wide and deep; the long list of sources for the illustrations include such titles as "Victorian Women's Fashion Cuts," "Picture Book of Devils, Demons and Witchcraft," and "Early American Locomotives."
Which brings me to my only quibble: If you are, as I was, enamored with a picture and would like to know more about it, there is no way to identify its provenance. Schoemperlen provides an alphabetized list of sources at the end of the book, but the illustrations themselves lack titles, artists' names, or even index numbers. I surmise that this omission is deliberate, done to retain the intimate tone of the stories; but still, it would have been interesting to know more about the room with the chessboard floor and aurora borealis roof and the coats-of-arms floating about under an almond eye.
Such brilliance as Schoemperlen's has not gone unnoticed. Her writing has been nominated for a hatful of prizes: Forms of Devotion won Canada's Governor General's Award for Fiction (other prize winners include Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje). But while some of Schoemperlen's other work (such as her 2001 novel Our Lady of the Lost and Found) has attained a reasonable level of fame, Forms of Devotion hovers well below the million sales mark on Amazon. Perhaps it's because the focus of this book is the everyday and the ordinary — a field where Schoemperlen is all but eclipsed by her more established contemporaries in Canada, Alice Munro and the late Carol Shields — mistresses of minutiae both. One is tempted to speculate that the long, cold winters of Canada have engendered a literary tradition of looking inward towards home and hearth for meaning, but this is far from obvious.What is manifestly clear is that Schoemperlen brings to her subject matter a wholly original, startling sensibility. Daily chores and mundane objects, under her gaze, are revealed to be comical, bizarre, and more often than not, beautiful. The power of Schoemperlen's writing compels us to share in her vision, forcing us to look at our environment and at ourselves in a new way, oftentimes as much to our bemusement as our joy, even as ordinary items transform into repositories of wonder.
3.13.06: Literary Machines, a review by Jeremy Hatch:
There are many ways to experience a fictional text, but in general, to be a reader of a narrative is to be a passive recipient. The reasons for reading fiction — to be entertained, to be informed — don't require much of a reader other than some transient attention, and even reading with a critical aim requires only that a similar attention be paid more carefully. The text does not require the reader to take an active hand in shaping the material; ordinarily, the reader is neither asked to choose the order of presentation of the episodes, nor direct the storyline, nor solve puzzles in order to advance or reveal the plot. And it must be said that the reader is rarely expected to regard herself as an explicit character in the work.
And yet there is a kind of fiction, often but not always computer-enabled, which does require some or all of these activities and attitudes of the reader. This form of fiction has come to be called Interactive Fiction, abbreviated to IF, and it is the subject of Nick Monfort's 2003 critical study-cum-history of the form, Twisty Little Passages. For the purposes of his discussion, he limits the meaning of the term to one form of IF — the computer-driven text-based form, often called the 'text adventure' — and regards the other forms either as precursors or close relations of the form under consideration. Partly because of the strong connection with computer games, and partly because the book was brought out by the MIT press, most of the attention received by it thus far outside of the IF community has been from academics and computer geeks; this exhaustive (and somewhat exhausting) review on Slashdot is representative of the latter, and the former may be safely ignored, as the author seems to have used just enough theory to irritate certain academics — amusing from this distance, but of no real importance.
Almost every reader has encountered interactive fiction in multiple forms, whether it be a Choose Your Own Adventure book, a text adventure, role playing games — online or off — in all their wild variety, or some other interactive work, such as Robert Coover's "Heart Suit," of which more will be said in a moment. The key point to note about all these works is that, although they do resemble traditional narratives in some ways, they different from them in one key way: they are not fixed, unilinear narratives. Instead, they are potential narratives, multilinear in nature. The particular narrative or work experienced by a reader — really a participant — does not exist until the participant comes along to constitute or discover it.
So it is with Choose Your Own Adventure, where the reader imagines himself to be the main character, reads from the first page to a plot juncture, and then is given a handful of choices by the author; the direction and outcome of the story changes according to the choices the participant makes. In another popular form (as popular as these things get) the story is written upon loose sheets which may be read in any order, although the author might specify certain constraints, such as a first and last sheet. "Heart Suit," which was included in both McSweeney's #16 and A Child Again last year, is the most recent example I know of; Montfort cites "Composition No. 1" by Marc Saporta (1963, translator, Richard Howard); and I might add The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson (1973) as another example. And there are other, even more recondite forms, such as those explored by the Oulipo, which require a participant rather than a reader.
But IF as defined for the discussion — the text adventure — is a special case, and certainly this puts it among the most sophisticated forms, in that it not only asks the participant to do all of the things noted in my first paragraph, but also involves a computer program that:
This is a collection of qualities that no stack of loose paper can even approximate.
The first chapters are a blend of general history and notes towards a critical approach. These are followed by a chapter on the riddle, which is treated as the only traditional literary form that is not merely enigmatic (like many poems) but that actively requires a solution to be provided by the reader. ("I am the greatest of all teachers," one unsettling riddle poses, "but unfortunately, I kill all my students.") This perspective helps to illuminate the text adventure's dual nature as a literary work and as a game. Two chapters follow on the Illiad and Odyssey of IF, Crowther & Wood's Adventure and Infocom Inc.'s Zork; the ensuing chapter is about the 'Shakespeare' of IF, Infocom Inc., and the 34 games that company produced after the success of Zork. This is followed by a chapter about the more-unusual games that appeared during Infocom Inc.'s heyday, as well as the contemporaneous international scene, with a note upon the apparent commercial unviability of such works when marketed as games.
However, IF is kept alive by an enormous group of enthusiasts, who have continued development of the form, and this is the subject of Montfort's most exciting chapter. He introduces us to the creators whose work has been central to the post-Infocom health of IF, in particular Graham Nelson, Andrew Plotkin, Gareth Rees, Adam Cadre, and Emily Short as the luminaries among many others.
Several programming languages have been created whose sole purpose is the creation of interactive fiction, and these have allowed the casual participant to get involved as creators and design their own works with minimal learning. Among these is Inform, the language written by Graham Nelson. In the course of writing this review, I downloaded the materials necessary to write a work in Inform, along with a couple of manuals. Soon I had created a rudimentary work, modeling a simple world with a simple puzzle; with just a bit more effort I learned how to make that world more appropriately responsive. It wouldn't take much more to attain a fundamental level of sophistication. This is encouraging, as it means that the bar is low enough to allow almost anybody to create such works — exactly the situation with traditional narratives — which is how it must be if a form of expression is to have continued existence.
Montfort concludes the book with some notes on the pervasive influence these works have had on our culture and limited speculations on the future of the form.
Montfort is not only a scholar with a dual pedigree in the studies of poetry and computer science, he is himself an author of IF (see "Book and Volume," an engaging work which took me about four hours to complete). This background testifies to the wide-ranging nature of his interests and experience, which can be sensed on every page of this book. In addition, he has the enthusiasm and intuitive feel for the genre that only a creator can have, and this gives the book a special quality that is difficult to describe except in terms of what it makes you want to do: experience and create interactive fiction for yourself, either to see what it's all about or to re-acquaint yourself with some old favorite works. In all, a very worthwhile and stimulating book.
1.22.06: No Future, a review by Jeremy Hatch:
This novel uses a scenario that Power has recently used again to great effect, and which can be described in a few words: a disconnected cast of characters, each of whom longs for what they have lost in a painful past, now completed, and who have come to some anonymous place where that past will be replayed in memory and often acted out with surrogates. Such characters often seem to be estranged from their own lives; this is certainly true of Mariane and Ito, the two primary characters in Crawling at Night.
Mariane is a waitress, perhaps thirty-seven, definitely alcoholic, and what fragments remain of her youth give her little comfort. She drinks to numb herself and to feel good, her promiscuous habits often serve a similar purpose, and sometimes the two coincide, as when she couples with a man she has just met and she "doesn't feel a lot because of drinkies, an unfortunate problem."
But for the most part, Mariane drinks. Work, sex, and the rest of her life — her vague, stalled, half-serious ambitions — are only incidental to her drinking. Characteristically, when Mariane thinks of the future, she is actually thinking of the past. Her great hope is to one day retrieve her "baby" and care for it properly, a child lost to social services some nineteen years ago, and although the child is now grown, Mariane never quite faces this fact, and this idea of the toddler repeatedly bobs up into the fog of her semi-coherence. She is sustained by this hope, and it develops that Mariane has been meaning to clean up her act and get her kid back for almost two decades. She only realizes near the end, in a kind of existential panic, that her baby is gone from the face of the earth, beyond retrieval.
At the start of the novel, Mariane works with Ito, the head sushi chef at their restaurant. With forty-five years' experience, once-married and settled, and filled with aching memories of the Japan he once knew, of the wife who died of stomach cancer, of the courtesan he once loved, and of the son he lost as a result of these circumstances, Ito has no future either, but not because he has lost it to despair or alcohol. On the contrary, Ito lacks a future simply because he is old, because he has, in a sense, outlived his own life. But he also has been through a period of hopeless nostalgia — a Chinese singer he meets in New York reminds him of his courtesan, and he has begun (essentially) stalking her by the time he realizes that he has been chasing after a memory of his love. In a lyrical passage about this part of Ito's life, Power expresses this theme and many of the others I have alluded to:
No one takes a job across the seas, a lower position than before, less money, a single apartment, stripped trees outside brandishing worn windblown plastic bags in their limbs, dirty snow, a language they can't get around, herds of people unlike themselves, the cloak of loneliness, unless they seek love in some form of its dementia, a new start or a righting of wrongs, sometimes when a person has felt love for a fleeting time, despite the uprooting, the difficulties, they will seek its source again, for the comfort, simply the quiet comfort of mutual space. To know that person lives in the same city, breathing the same air.
That of all the soft yellow lights that shine at night throughout the dusky night, one is hers, one light is hers. And even if it isn't the same person, really, one can convince oneself it is. One can see, say, the same mouth of a beloved on someone else and feel the hurtle of love again, the aimless, silly loss of equilibrium, simply because of a mouth.
The story derives much of its forward momentum from Ito's fascination with Mariane, which is in part sexual and in part paternal: he is both attracted to her physically and concerned, deeply concerned, about her welfare and her health. In an extraordinary turn of events, Ito goes directly from courting her to making an attempt to save her, which leads him into acts so rash, so contrary to his character that one can only conclude he actually is in love with her.
Between these two characters there swirls a cloud of minor and not-so-minor secondary characters, each one deftly conceived and portrayed, usually starting with a rapid shift into their point of view and ending with an equally rapid shift out of it, never to be heard from again. The improbable connections and parallels that arise between these characters are delightful, not least because they seem so right in the moment of first comprehension while reading, and only come to seem improbable afterwards, after you've shut the novel and woken up from the dream. Power has enviable skill in using parallel situations in the lives of unrelated characters to explore aspects of that situation: like Ito, two minor characters also lose their spouses to prolonged illness; like Mariane, two women grow up motherless; one of these women barely flickers past on the last page, and yet because of everything the passage implies it seems to this reader to be one of the saddest passages in the book.
Powers's style is marked by a generally skillful use of the contemporary long sentence; not the classical long sentence, which begins by heralding its destination and which gives such a satisfying sense of closure when the end is eventually reached, but the kind of sentence that hurtles forward, beginning in one place and ending up somewhere quite different, rich in additive or modifying phrases set off by commas, and leaving a sense not so much of an articulated thought as of a dynamic, inarticulate experience given expression in words.
The passage I have quoted illustrates both her stylistic strengths and flaws. In a review of this novel for Salon, Mary Gaitskill took Power to task for lapsing from time to time into empty expressions such as "on some level." I'm afraid that this criticism is entirely just, and occasionally there are weird, apparent lapses such as the phrase quoted above, "that shine at night throughout the dusky night," which would seem either to need a comma or to have one night too many. But on the whole, her writing is very convincing, and such problems are occasional enough to ignore, or to secretly blame on the editorial staff.
Nani Power is one of those authors who, though fortunate to receive high-profile attention with each book, for some reason is still relatively unknown to the literary public. The novel under review was her debut, and it received enviable attention that year in all the major book reviews, and further, received what must be one of the most satisfying rewards, a glowing review from an accomplished and popular older author, in this case Mary Gaitskill. Yet for all this Power has remained something of an unknown figure in contemporary writing, unknown even to many people who keep up with new fiction. It is hoped that this review will inspire you to take a look at her work.