Caballera, Cabalheira, Caballero

This was the… fourth? worst post title I had for “the resurrection.” Recent trends and events have inspired me to take an interest in Latin American literature, and the farcically tenuous nature of the linkage in this post probably warrants an apology, which is available on request.

Clorinda Matto de Turner, Birds Without A Nest (1889)

Learning of Clorinda de Matto Turner was an inspiration for two reasons: her life and works, at least partly dedicated to improving indigenous rights and conditions in nineteenth-century Peru, and the fact that I’d never heard of her at all. Having conducted myself in the imagined temples of cultural literacy with the decorum and respect of a kid under a Christmas tree, and consequently amassing a jackdaw avalanche of knowledge both useless and no, it’s always a pleasure to find how much I still have to learn. Turner was one of early post-colonial South America’s most famous and influential writers, equally at home in poetry, drama and fiction, and she was one of the earliest writers at all whose fame and influence crossed national lines in the days when borders south of the Usmacinta were so tempestuously fluid. A fierce champion of indigenous rights and critic of the Peruvian government (the general tendencies of Latin American governments during this period usefully described and analyzed in John Charles Chasteen’s alternately fascinating and tedious Born in Blood and Fire), she lived in exile in Argentina for the last years of her life, continuing to write and inspire. Birds Without A Nest was one of her most famous works, a plea for tolerance, understanding and justice in the vein of gringa equivalents such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona that still holds up relatively well today, if through veils of privilege and distance and its being nowhere near as engrossing or involving as its successors in this post (which, of course, is hardly her or its fault).

Don Fernando Marin and his wife Lucia are “foreigners” (i.e. from out of town) in the Peruvian village of Killac in the 1870s. As in the rest of Peru, society is more or less split between wealthy or well-to-do criollos and the mass of peasantry and laborers, most of them Indian. Fernando, a well-meaning, progressive mining engineer, and Lucia come to the aid of native farmers Marcela and Juan Yupanqui after the latter is cheated by the local governor, Don Sebastian, and the priest, Don Pascual. Their intervention proves successful but tragic after the latter provoke a riot in which Marcela and Juan are killed, leaving their beautiful daughter Margarita in the Marins’ charge. Don Sebastian’s noble, upstanding son Manuel falls in love with Margarita as he and the Marins try to get some kind of posthumous justice for the Yupanquis and safeguard Margarita’s future (and their own). Political upheaval in Lima complicates matters as Fernando and Lucia adopt Margarita as their ow, only to find that the sins of earlier generations, as always, cast a long, dismal shadow over their progeny.

Birds Without A Nest has a reputation, it seems, for greater value as a historical artifact and the first of the indigenista novels (i.e. dealing with native relations) than for is actual quality as literature. Indeed, Naomi Lindstrom, in her introduction to the reprint of the classic 1904 English translation gets downright snippy about it (partly for political reasons?). Admittedly, some of the prose is flowery even for a Victorian novel, but, well, I enjoyed it (there are apparently a whole host, too, of technical flaws and structural irregularities). The basic story’s gripping, moving, and one learns a good deal about nineteenth-century Peruvian (and South American, for that matter) society (a good deal that should admittedly be cross-checked against proper sources, if you, like me, know little as yet about the history and social conditions). Turner manages to relate Killac to wider themes and worldwide currents (it may have been an accident of time, but the Marins reminded me a little, in their bourgeois good intentions, of the transplanted Yankee couple in Charles Chesnutt’s Conjure Tales). The sudden irruption of national politics may prove illusory, but the political realities of Killac itself are depressingly familiar, with the have easily manipulating the have-nots and ensuring a cyclical renewal of drudgery and oppression (Isidro and Martina, another Indian couple, mournfully evoke the fates of Juan and Marcela). Even the villains are caught up in the web; one of Birds’ most controversial features at the time, an implicit plea for (the restoration of) clerical marriage in the Catholic Church, remains pretty controversial, if not invisible, today. Even with all its flaws, Birds Without A Nest deserves substantially better than its present reputation.

Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart (1943)

I knew the name “Lispector” more for the quirky French hiphop artist who sang on the Go!Team’s last (and sadly final) album, Rolling Blackouts (2011), with the lovely “Ready To Go Steady” than for the cult Brazilian novelist. Curious, I thought I’d learned that she’d named herself after the latter, only to find the article where I’d first read this mysteriously vanish from the Internet, if it had existed at all. The mystery is fitting, in my own desperate way, for the elusive beauty of Lispector’s life and writing. Her work came highly recommended, especially her first novel, and it felt like more of a gamble than I’d recently taken on a personally unread writer. Born in the war-torn Ukraine of the Russian Civil War, her family emigrated to Brazil amid unsurprisingly traumatic circumstances. Her mother died paralyzed, and her father struggled to establish the family in the strange new society of Brazil. Lispector herself lived a somewhat enigmatic life. A media darling from the getgo, she married a diplomat after the publication of Near to the Wild Heart and lived a peripatetic life for the next few decades full of excitement, boredom, love and pain. Not least among her irritations were the bizarre attacks on her, before and since, for being a literary lightweight who got by on beauty and cultivated mystique (her childhood and intricate prose apparently having been a fucking cakewalk). Her introspection apparently baffled national contemporaries, who accused her of writing non-specifically-Brazilian literature. After reading Near to the Wild Heart, the attacks feel even more insane (if a depressingly prophetic forecast of Internet culture).

Joana grows up the child of a widowed and distracted father, and is then orphaned herself and sent to live with her aunt. Curiosity, then bewilderment, mark her school years, as the various blandishments of teachers, administrators and family fail to convince, and Joana grows into an unconventional young woman whose ways entice and then repel her husband Otavio, who quickly turns to his childhood friend Lidia for consolation, sex, and an accidental child. She’s frequently described as “amoral” by the novel’s critics and commentators, but much of this seems to cite the reactions of others, as well as the childhood incident where she throws a book at an old man’s head. Kids can suck, folks, and we must all learn to deal with it.* Nobody in Near to the Wild Heart does, and their failure casts a shadow over Joana’s life, but not a long one, as she responds to everyone’s averted glances by just being more herself, from obsessing over the writing and philosophy of Spinoza (and good on her, there) to countering Otavio’s infidelity with her own belated hookup. Her reaction to Otavio’s admission of infidelity is one of the funniest things in the whole (often darkly funny) novel, and her subsequent discussion with the drippy Lidia possibly even more so. I’m still not entirely sure how it ends, and that feels true to this thing in a way I never imagined.

Reading Lispector would have been a fascinating experience in any time or at any age (and you’d better believe I’ll be reading more), but I read Near to the Wild Heart under circumstances that made it pack a lot more punch than it might otherwise: the iron fist in the velvet glove. Joana’s failure to pick up on social cues, strained relationships with parents (or parental figures like her smothering aunt), and self-absorbed behavior that makes perfect sense to her but which baffle everyone else around (she’s even compared to a snake early on in the book by one of many authority figures)… for someone in the throes of deep if marginally hilarious personal anguish, it was alarming how many buttons Near to the Wild Heart pushed, and quite unexpectedly. The title comes from a line in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it was believed for some time that she had been inspired by Joyce, but she apparently hadn’t read a word of the man before writing her superb debut. The sensibility is all her own, and even in the midst of my present madness, it’s nonetheless inspiring, even to the point of hope, that the travails of a put-upon woman in early twentieth century Brazil can speak so hard to a put-upon man nearing middle age in twenty-first century Michigan. There’s a weird universality here, in the way the prose slides so easily from Joana’s musings to Otavio’s frustrations and Lidia’s longing (it cracked me up later to realize that the mistress was the “normal” one and the wife the “weird,” in a funny inversion of the usual classic pattern anticipating in some ways Iris Owens’ glorious After Claude thirty years later). Otavio in particular is something of a buffoon, but a cleverly portrayed one (that hit home pretty hard, too, especially in the last week), and his relationship, such as it is, with Lidia forms a bewildered counterweight to Joana’s fierce individuality and determination to do it her own way. Joana’s fondness for Spinoza, too, struck a chord, as I’d read the Ethics earlier this year, even if she came away differently than I. Finding herself at odds with the world through no fault of her own (and yet who the fuck does the world think it is?), she holds her own and then some. Inspiration is inspiration, however dark, troubled or glittering.

Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives (1998)

Ah, Roberto. Beware a book recommended to you over the course of several years by, among others, dazzling bookslingers made of wildfire and inspiringly rumpled local music honchos (even if the latter were actually reading 2666). Or don’t, because it really ought to be read. Bolano was a Mexican-Chilean wunderkind who led, if anything, a more nomadic life than Clarice Lispector, and left behind far more questions in the course thereof, none of which look close to an answer. The Savage Detectives was instantly hailed as a masterpiece, a worthy successor to the “Latin American boom” (i.e. Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa) and (according to one) “the novel Borges would have written.” It’s unlikely Borges (an acquired taste on which I’m still stuck halfway) would have approved of the characters’ preoccupations or actions, but the stick up his ass, despite his mindblowing visionary genius, is well-documented. Bolano has other fish to fry, among them the state of Latin American literature, politics, love, and existence. The world’s, too; this might actually take one a few hours to read. Say, three hundred.

In 1975, well-to-do young poet Juan Garcia Madero falls in with the extreme groups surrounding the not-all-that-charismatic Joaquim Font and the hangers-on who soon reveal their true colors as literary necromancers. Inspired by the mysterious Cesarea Tinajero, a poet of the revolutionary era who disappeared around 1930, they aim to bring back the ways of “visceral realism,” a poetic movement whose precise character is left hilariously unefined, save for its being in opposition to just about everything anyone’s ever known about Latin American literature, politics, etc. etc…. that and Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, essayist and diplomat who plays the role of an entertainingly mild-mannered bete noire for much of the book (and who died the year it was published, which was probably coincidental). Two of the visceral realists, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, get in trouble with rougher types–possibly government-connected–and flee Mexico City with Font’s car and Garcia Madero hopping along on what he’s sure will be a wild, life-defining adventure. For the next two decades, a multitude of characters run into Belano and Lima throughout Latin America, Europe and even Africa as the two talk, fuck, connive and brood through the shadows of their radical sunlight (and the world’, for that matter, though both sunlight and shadow are seen to be darker and lighter than they appear). And what happened to Garcia Madero? One must brave a bold, burgeoning, brilliant, bewildering book to find out. One might, anyway; still beats the shit out of me.

The Savage Detectives saw me approach with little sense of any difficult reputation. What seems like a fairly typical roman a clef of a young literary type morphs–well before the weird shit truly begins–into a glorious protean mess of different consciousnesses and existences. Garcia Madero’s world, reminiscent at times of Michael Chabon’s awful Mysteries of Pittsburgh in its privileged narrator slumming in the name of art, turns out not to be its own universe entire but a tiny moon knocked into a cometary path, one of so many lives that crazily interact with the twin axes of Belano’s and Lima’s existence. Just as eccentrically concentric are the impressions and associations that rise almost unbidden from the story, at least for this reader. The visceral realists’ obsessive quest for purity and truth still speaks to the writer in me that’s convinced it’s in many ways futile. Their perpetual exile–partly a result of Belano’s Chilean citizenship, a dangerous thing for a left-wing writer during the Pinochet regime–found a melancholy echo in so many progressive dreams and ideals have fallen by the wayside since their phantom heyday. Their desperate need for fellowship and community? Enough said, really; even more so their fundamental urge to write what they want and need, publication be damned. Again, this is really a novel about everything, and it’s so painfully this that it’s sometimes a relief to take refuge among the often repetitive and labyrinthine remembrances of the various interviewees. These run the gamut from decaying literary lions like “Quim” Font to formidable American expats like Barbara Patterson, all of whom share varying degrees of frustration with and longing for our “heroes,” or indeed their disciples. Some may find themselves wondering what they would say when asked for their own memories, had they been inspired, irritated, loved, or ripped off by Arturo or Ulises. I will find myself wondering what you’ll think of them, and anything else, when you read this book.

*It’s impossible (okay, not “impossible,” but it would feel bad) not to cite here the musings of “Dr. J” on a recent A.V. Club review of the Left Behind movie with Nicolas Cage that was unsurprisingly filmed mostly at my hometown’s depressing airport. The subject was not roses, but the apparent evangelical belief that when the Rapture comes, all kids under thirteen will “get in free,” as it were. A brief paraphrase: “Kids are horrible. They’re repulsive little monsters. They dropped a rock on Piggy. Shit, they called him Piggy. Kids suck. What was the question again?

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Starting Fires

Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed (1827)

For a long time in my youth, post-Napoleonic Europe fascinated me, largely for Count of Monte Cristo-related reasons but also because there didn’t seem to be a lot I could find on it to read in that pre-Internet age (save for Paul Johnson’s characteristically awful The Birth of the Modern). The (decidedly mixed) promise of the French Revolution thwarted by autocratic regimes trying to turn back the clock was a heady notion to younger me. So heady, in fact, that it’s never really gone away even with my awareness of the promise’s deep imperfections and flaws. Reading something like The Betrothed helps me remember why. Manzoni’s historical novel, set in Italy almost exactly two hundred years before its eventual publication, swells with echoes of its present. Manzoni himself was lionized in certain circles in Italy for his achievement, rising to near-culture hero status. The fact that he barely wrote a word after The Betrothed‘s appearance only added to the mystique (not unlike Salinger or Pynchon). Perhaps most famously, Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, arguably the composer’s best-known non-operatic work, was composed in honor of Manzoni, who had died the year before.

Renzo and Lucinda, peasant lovers in northern Italy (then largely ruled by the Spanish, as it would be ruled by the Austrians at the time of Manzoni’s writing), look forward to their upcoming marriage, only to learn from the weak-willed cure Don Abbondio that he just can’t marry them, offering a number of half-assed excuses. The truth is that Don Rodrigo, a local landowner (the Spanish rule in Lombardy appears to have operated, at least in Manzoni’s telling, in a similar way to British rule in Ireland), has taken a shine to Lucinda, and hopes to entice her into his castle through fair means or foul. Renzo and Lucinda scheme as best they can (which isn’t saying much) and wind up separated, enduring warfare, rebellion, plague, and political intrigue on their long road back to each other. Along the way, they tangle with folks like Don Cristoforo, the ceaselessly upstanding priest who, due to legalistic shenanigans, can’t marry them either, but tries, in the end ineffectually, to help their cause, the mysterious Nun of Monza, a real historical character whose appearance doesn’t quite live up to the advertising, and the Unnamed, a disgraced nobleman who looms over the narrative like a shadow cast by a mouse.

The Betrothed is entertaining enough to read while it’s all going on, but in retrospect, it was a little disappointing. Manzoni’s importance to Italian national consciousness and literature is undeniable, but his most famous work can be a bit of a damp squib at times (he’s a lot more Scott than he is Dumas or even Sienkiewicz, the latter a much better comparison given the national consciousness angle) . Renzo and Lucinda aren’t all that bright, and though this can make for an entertaining plot at times, it equally makes it hard to care. The various promised sinister shenanigans of the assorted villains never amount to all that much, though the story is frequently leavened with wit and historical asides. As that last might indicate, it’s not all (or even mostly) bad. Manzoni does a pretty good job comparing the problems of the peasants to the greater story unfolding around them involving the Spanish territories in Lombardy (The Betrothed takes place during the War of the Mantuan Succession, a conflict that also provided material for Umberto Eco in The Island of the Day Before). Characters are frequently exhorted to stir themselves in defense of their ideals (or, implicitly, their country), and an extended sequence dealing with a plague striking Milan is calculated to stir the heartstrings. Especially if you’re interested in the development of the historical novel and its importance for European nationalism, The Betrothed is well worth a read, but it doesn’t quite stand up among its fellows or successors.

Frans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships (1954)

Jack Cardiff was a legendary cinematographer, most famously for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (and in that glorious subset for Black Narcissus), and a reasonably active film director, a part of his career unknown to me until I saw The Long Ships, his 1964 film starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. The former played a Viking smartass, the latter a Moorish emir. That casting alone should have ensured that The Long Ships was by rights amazeballs, but somehow it didn’t really come off. I couldn’t help feeling that an opportunity had been missed, though it was well worth it for the “can you believe this shit?” look on the cherubic face of Russ Tamblyn (the same). I’d shelved the relative disappointment until noticing The Long Ships on the NYRB shelf at Ann Arbor’s Literati Bookstore. For whatever reason, I’d never connected it with being a book, and found myself intrigued enough to eventually buy it. Bengtsson was a Swedish writer who published the stories of “Red Orm” in two volumes during the early 40s (a great time for publishing, we’ll all agree), and his tale fits in, to a certain extent, with the flood of mid-century historical fiction, much of it indifferent, and much of it I’ve read, much to my own surprise.

Orm is the younger son of a Danish family during the late tenth century (living in Scania, now part of Sweden but then, and for a long time, Danish), and like most of their younger sons, decides to go raiding to find his fortune. His irrepressible wanderlust and quick wit both land him in and extricate him from a number of tricky situations. He ends up a galley slave in Moorish Andalusia, fights alongside al-Mansur against the proto-Spanish kingdoms, hangs out with Christian monks in Ireland, fights at the battle of Maldon and marvels at the perfidy of the English while marveling at Ethelred the Unready’s fly-swatting skills, messes around in inter-Scandinavian politics, and follows a returned relative east to search for Byzantine treasure and make shady deals with Pechenegs. Along the way, he marries the King of Denmark’s daughter through trickery, winds up with a thorny English ecclesiastical adviser, converts to Christianity (sort of), has to deal with a renegade, sex-crazed Christian missionary, and goes literally berserk every now and again.

The Long Ships is a million miles away from The Betrothed: endlessly entertaining, with a lighthearted approach to history that both honors and lightly satirizes its inspirations in the Norse sagas and medieval chronicles. Orm could easily be a “misunderstood genius” kind of character, but his intelligence and wit aren’t really that much greater than those of his fellows. He just gets lucky more often. The portrayal of creeping Christianization is fairly plausible, and the general tolerance-based message of The Long Ships must have been doubly inspiring in the dark days of its initial writing. Sweden, though neutral in a way diplomatically useful to both Allies and Axis, controversially allowed iron ore shipments to Germany, and its effective imprisonment by the Third Reich and quasi-allies such as Finland must have been quite uncomfortable for someone like Bengtsson. A confirmed anti-Nazi, he refused to allow The Long Ships‘ translation into Norwegian until Norway was liberated from German rule. His liberal ecumenicism comes through loud and clear in The Long Ships, which portrays its different cultures with considerable sympathy, including a Jewish character who appears quite early in the story and eventually comes to assist our heroes. Pagans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, all are portrayed simply as the people with different beliefs that they are, and Orm’s instinctive grasp of this fact is at times a bracing counterattack to bigotry of Bengtsson’s time and our own.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)

In my more Anglophilic youth (which I seem to be rejecting all over the place these days–thanks, Guardian), the words “The Booker Prize” held an indelible fascination for me. If the Pulitzer was the creme de la creme, than surely the Booker must be the cherry on top; such was my own personal cultural cringe at the time. I’ve since done something of a turnaround. That’s not to say the Booker hasn’t been rightly bestowed over the years. Despite my cooling off with Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children was still a great read, and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, like all her other books I’ve read, was superb (even–especially?–if one can’t resist images of Ms. Atwood closing her eyes fiercely shut and muttering to herself “it’s not science fiction”). So when I heard about Wolf Hall, I should have been primed and ready to read it. I was already impressed with The Tudors (even if it took me until the end of the first season to truly appreciate it, as there are some terrible moments earlier on), and Ms. Mantel’s performance during various ginned-up crises among the awful British media (thanks, Guardian) couldn’t fail to inspire. None of this explains why it took me so long to get to the compellingly told personal story of Henrician bogeyman Thomas Cromwell, but it did mean that the wait was all the more worth it for its length.

Cromwell grows up, or tries, as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith and brewer from Putney, then outside of London proper. His father’s beatings eventually drive him to run away from home and take up soldiering as a mercenary in France and Italy. On his return, he uses his new-found experience to establish a career in the law, gradually coming to the notice of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s chief minister. The story will be familiar to many, but the stakes and the context really loom large in Wolf Hall. Wolsey recognizes in Cromwell someone much like himself, a commoner destined for great things, and he soon can’t do without his quick-witted underling. By now, Henry’s dead set on getting rid of his wife, Katharine of Aragon, and Wolsey’s expected to figure out how. Cromwell helps, though not enough to prevent his master’s fall, incarceration, and eventual death. Despite Cromwell’s attachment to Wolsey, Henry realizes Cromwell’s worth and keeps him on, relying on Cromwell to do the hard work of keeping his profligate monarchy afloat financially and diplomatically. In his quest to do so and, in passing, to stay alive, Cromwell comes into contact with the ferocious Anne Boleyn, Henry’s mistress and would-be wife, and into conflict with the learned, fanatical Thomas More (Mantel happily continues The Tudors‘ work of knocking STM down a few pegs from his Man For All Seasons prime). By the end, Cromwell triumphs, but what does triumph mean in a court so dangerous and temperamental? The sequel, Bringing Up The Bodies, will almost certainly answer, or lead the way.

I shed my interest in this era of history for many years until The Tudors brought it back to life, and Wolf Hall doesn’t help me with staying away. It’s a surprisingly propulsive novel; it’s a bit of a cliche to say that it “brings history to life,” but it does, and for one obvious reason off the bat. The entire book’s written in present tense: “In the damp autumn mornings, when it is still half light, his household are out early in the damp and dripping woods. You don’t get torta di funghi unless you pick the raw ingredients.” It takes a little adjustment, but once one’s in the clear, the rewards are great. Cromwell himself is usually portrayed as a less than appealing figure: an outright villain, in Man for All Seasons or Anne of the Thousand Days; a bumbling, inadequate bureaucrat, in Six Wives of Henry VIII; or a man on the make with more than a tinge of Protestant fanaticism, in The Tudors. Mantel’s Cromwell probably comes closest to the latter, but he’s much more a visionary statesman whose ambitious projects for his native land are consistently threatened or derailed by his monarch’s childish whims. The “visionary statesman,” to be sure, is a fairly common trope of historical fiction, but it matches Cromwell and the historical record fairly well. Cromwell’s constantly reminded of his common ancestry by one character or another (especially by Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk) and said reminders only strengthen his determination to make England a place where other men like him can flourish. In Mantel’s handling as elsewhere, he’s a fascinating figure: fiercely intelligent, devoted to vague yet solidifying Protestant principles, bullish yet capable of handling his temper when necessary, and never forgetful of a slight. Even knowing where these qualities eventually lead him, reading Mantel’s account of his further rise and tempestuous fall is a pleasure I’ll hopefully not long forego.

Immigrant Songs

Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913)

O Pioneers!–and Willa Cather’s work in general–wasn’t particularly on my radar as a young reader growing up in Louisiana, probably due to its regional grounding in the turn-of-the-century Great Plains. When I thought “regional classics,” I thought Kate Chopin, much like readers in New England might think of Sarah Orne Jewett–Cather’s chum, to whom O Pioneers! is dedicated–or those in California might think of Bret Harte or Joaquin Miller (and yet we read Hawthorne and Steinbeck; go figure). Mind you, I wasn’t terribly into Chopin either (especially after I read The Awakening), but Cather always struck me as dull, even before I’d cracked open a single book she’d written. No amount of “great writer” status or growing awareness that I had missed so much great literature growing up, even  given my relatively excellent education, really tempted me back into Cather’s corner until I read My Antonia! a year or two ago. Even then, it’s taken me this long to get around to O Pioneers!

The Bergson family have lived in Nebraska for almost twenty years and their time on the prairie had brought both prosperity and hardship, as the children grow less Swedish and more American by the day. Chief among the transformed is Alexandra, the Bergsons’ eldest daughter, who does as much of a job raising her siblings as her parents, and whose indispensability to the farm both inspires and irritates her. Once her friend Carl Linstrum leaves, she finds herself more alone than ever, until her vaguely ambitious brother Emil finds himself drawn to the vivacious Marie Shabata, whose husband Frank happens to be one of the most violent louts in town (that doesn’t sound like much, but it’ll do). A surprisingly full-blooded soap opera unfolds against the vast expanse of the Nebraska plains, landscapes just as compellingly portrayed in Cather’s writing as they are in a film classic like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978).

O Pioneers! feels simple, but there’s a lot of power that comes from both the characters and the setting. The timelessness of the plains, frequently remarked on by the characters, is undercut with human details like Lou Bergson’s dogged defense of William Jennings Bryan and Populism (the story stretches over about twenty years, from the 1880s to the 1900s). This kind of individual striving against the ultimate affects few less than Alexandra. Faced with the triangle between Emil, Marie and Frank, she finds her sympathies torn in a strikingly fallible, human way, due largely to her upbringing’s mores. She wants a greater, wider life somehow, but can’t bring herself to abandon the farm, or her troublesome, ornery family. Encounters with an old friend help to reconcile her to her place in the world and her fate. It all sounds a bit hackneyed, but Alexandra manages to burst her conceptual bonds  and make an impression as a profoundly sympathetic character, as much for what she denies herself as what she accomplishes. O Pioneers! is certainly a story about immigrants, and the subtle differences and conflicts between their respective communities (and the larger community into which they assimilate), but it never loses sight of its human focus, and therein lies its power.

Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey (1987)

I knew about Tripmaster Monkey long before I read it; it had been recommended to me back in my turbulent days as a Barnes and Noble “bookseller” (translation: sales clerk) by a colleague, and I’d filed the recommendation away and forgotten about it. Based on the description, it looked like another of the kind of freewheeling sixties romps of which I already tired. Looking at it now, it’s both a fascinating depiction of one take on the Asian-American experience, and a hilarious diatribe from the sidelines of the sixties counterculture (with a heavy hangover from the beatniks that formerly ruled certain parts of San Francisco). Acting as ringmaster, participant, and on-the-job screenwriter is Tripmaster Monkey’s inimitable proto-hippie protagonist, Wittman Ah Sing.

Named, in a misspelling, after the poet, Wittman comes from a theatrical family that entertained West Coast Chinese-Americans (a term that undergoes a fair amount of interrogation throughout the story) during Prohibition and the Second World War. A Berkeley graduate with a theoretically useless English degree, Wittman supports himself with a variety of jobs, some “normal” (a salesman in a toy store, from which he essentially fires himself in a hilarious sequence early on) and some not (a spoken-word poet in a restaurant), while pursuing his dream of producing an avant-garde run of Journey to the West–the classic Chinese tale of Monkey, his friends, and their quest for precious Buddhist sutras–that takes into account the Asian immigrant experience in America. Wittman himself isn’t an immigrant, but he’s obsessed with the subject, seeing his forefathers’ contribution to his own country in every corner, and yet just as constantly denied and twisted by the powers that be. After a series of misadventures, the spirit of which certainly wouldn’t be out of place in Journey to the West itself, Wittman manages to achieve something like his dream, even if, like most dreams, the inspiration and the result turn out to be nothing he expected.

A warning: Wittman will not shut up. This may be a metaphor for the attempted silencing of immigrant voices in America, but the cumulative effect is… something. His almost compulsive logorrhea takes up entire pages at a time, and one of the novel’s many amusements is simply to imagine the unsaid reactions from his various audiences. The kinetic charge from his artistic obsessions can be very sexual, and another amusement lies in Wittman’s pursuit of women, twisted by the nascent gender politics of the sixties and his own awareness of his subordinate status (real and imagined) in American society. Things are further complicated by Wittman’s place in the growing counterculture; he struck me more as a very late beatnik than an actual hippie (“tripmaster” suggests both the Tripitaka of Journey to the West and the person who makes sure you’re okay during an acid trip, not that I’ve ever done that*). He proudly references his attendance in the stands at the “Howl” obscenity trial, and finds his irritations with white America mirrored in young contempt for the Establishment. It’s a big, messy story, this, but surprisingly straight, spare, and fun once the haze clears.

Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007)

Mengestu’s light but moving novel, sharing some autobiographical details with his own life, came to my attention on a library-trawling expedition, as I wandered up and down the stalls until stopping at a random point. I’d been meaning to try it for some time, to shake my habits loose, and the first go-round proved quite a success (it helps that my public library is pretty awesome). Add to that a jacket blurb from Gary Shteyngart, and I would have thought someone was trying to tell me something if I was more superstitious.

Sepha Stephanos runs a bodega in Logan Circle, smack in the middle of the Washington, D.C., ghetto (named for Civil War general John A. Logan, whose statue pays mute witness to his national capital’s dilapidation), after fleeing to the U.S. from Ethiopia when his family were deemed political undesirables by the ruling dictatorship (the dates seem a little vague, despite the novel’s publication date, but it looks like the final days of the Mengistu era). Having failed his assimilating Uncle Berhane’s high hopes, he finds himself, or thinks he does, in acting as grocer to a neighborhood that’s on its last legs, and threatened by the shadows both of endemic poverty and looming gentrification. He spends much of his spare time hanging with other African immigrants–namely Joe from Congo and Kenneth from Kenya, both of whom have bettered themselves slightly, but not much, in excess of Sepha’s own efforts. Sepha finds some relief from his troubled background in a laid-back existence that sees little competition from his actual job; his opening hours are erratic, to say the least, which doesn’t seem to bother the neighborhood all that much (despite the occasional imprecation from area matron Mrs. Davis). Things change with the arrival of Judith, whose biracial daughter Naomi quickly strikes up a friendship with Sepha. The friendship between Sepha and Judith just as quickly promises to be something more, but as the events of Sepha’s own life and the life of the neighborhood demonstrate, promises are a thing whose worth is infinitely variable.

Sepha’s relationship with his adopted and native lands is appealingly low-key; even in the States, he lives in a place that has itself lived forgotten by the outside world until its “rediscovery” starts to make some think that being forgotten might not have been the worst deal. I found an uncomfortable analogy with my own interests. I’d been interested in African history back in my college days, and had planned to specialize in it at one point. However it happened, I started to lose track, much as “developed” countries like the United States found their attention wavering after the initial euphoria of 1960s independence (which, fittingly enough, touched Ethiopia but little).  Joseph and Kenneth play their “dictator” games with Sepha (throwing out the names of African dictators or warlords for the other player to match the country in a grim version of pub trivia, the drinks provided via the bodega’s styrofoam cups) almost as a way of reminding the reader, let alone themselves, of the colossal problems their homelands face. Uncle Berhane’s imprecations fall on deaf ears, as Sepha sees the world very differently from earlier generations of immigrants (a situation that has profound cross-cultural appeal, especially if one’s been born since, say, 1970). Judith and Naomi serve as one more complication for a life that has little to no solid ground beneath. Even with all his problems, though, Sepha is an enormously sympathetic protagonist (at least for me), trying to hold onto a personal identity in a world that doesn’t want to let him. By the end, with things in a greater flux than he’s seen since leaving Ethiopia, Sepha can at least tell himself that he’s seen worse; it’s perspective that offers more than one lesson to his adopted country.

*Sad but true.

Rogue Rage

Gustave Flaubert, The Sentimental Education (1869)

Gustave Flaubert’s one of those writers who was known, if at all, during his life for another work or reason than the one “dominating his discourse” today. In this case, the Second Empire rural soap Madame Bovary has become his most well-known literary bequest, perhaps at the expense of entertaining historical potboilers like Salammbo or a thinly disguised roman a clef like The Sentimental Education. The former’s eclipse isn’t great cause for grief (unless you want a crash course in how unintentionally comic Orientalism could really get), but the latter could probably use a few more modern readers. I would assume as much, anyway; I write this in general ignorance of Flaubert’s general standing in whatever’s left of a “literary canon” these days, but would be surprised if Education was actually better known than Bovary (even if my knowledge comes from half-formed memories of high school English, where we didn’t read Flaubert in the first place). Some of the disparity’s likely down to accessibility. Bovary felt, when I last read it twenty years ago, like a heartfelt, romantic story, even if the themes and issues lurking beneath the surface were anything but. Education, on the other hand, is a relentlessly cynical carom through the revolutionary upheaval of mid-nineteenth-century France, an upheaval that’s largely ignored by its self-centered characters unless they can get something out of it.

Frederic Moreau hails from the provinces just outside Paris (Nogent, to be precise), the dazzling capital of Louis-Philippe so near and yet so far. His doting mother speeds him on his way after an inheritance enables both an education and the pursuit of his initial ambitions in the City of Lights. Chief among these latter are those of the amorous variety, with Frederic’s passions centering on Madame Arnoux, wife of a prosperous bourgeois whom Frederic alternately patronizes and despises. There’s still, of course, time left over for Rosanette (a.k.a. “the Marechale”), a vivacious courtesan who responds a little too warmly to Frederic’s vapid desire, and Louise Roque, the hometown girl who embodies both native comforts and the domestic chains Frederic left behind in his flight to the capital. Helping and hindering his antics, both in his affairs and his unending attempts to prise a career of some kind from the patronage of the shadily powerful M. Dambreuse, are the idealistic Dussardier and the cynical Deslauriers, among several others. Dissatisfaction with the Orleans Monarchy mounts up, another Revolution breaks out, and then another Republic, and then another Empire, and our hero is, by and large, unaffected by it all, save for a brief flirtation as a Republican deputy, a career that peters out for more pressing reasons than Frederic’s fundamental shallowness. The affairs don’t have the happiest of endings, either.

That’s not to say that they’re especially tragic. Much happens in Education that can be considered so, but Flaubert habitually undercuts whatever sadness might accrue from the death of a newborn or the financial failure of a family with an incessant snark that starts off in quite a bracing manner but grows tiresome as Education marches on. Among the very last works I to which I ever expected to compare Education was Eric Saward’s read-it-to-believe-it novelization of the 1984 Doctor Who serial “The Twin Dilemma,” but there’s a similar sledgehammer application of “satirical” “wit” in the proceedings (and Flaubert has at least the excuse of being great and of writing at a time when this approach could have seemed mildly shocking and salutary). Even carrying such baggage, Education succeeds, even if its “lessons” are somewhat depressing (and lightweight). Frederic and company flit through life with relatively few complications, and finish out the main story (there’s a coda set around the time of Flaubert’s writing) almost as well as they’d started out. I couldn’t help comparing Flaubert’s attempted panoptic examination of French life with Zola’s, and thinking how perversely satisfying it would have been to see the characters all run afoul of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat. It grew quickly apparent, though, that not only were folks like Frederic the kind of one-time firebrands Louis Napoleon courted, but that they all would have done just fine by the Second Empire (any one of them could have been a grand Zola villain–inasmuch as there was such a thing).

J.P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man (1955)

The Ginger Man will make your head hurt, so basically like actual ginger (maybe that’s just me under certain circumstances). It was a free book at a library giveaway and I’m not terribly sorry for it. Regarded by many as a comic masterpiece, The Ginger Man was based by Donleavy on his own experiences (and those of his friends, including future film director George Roy Hill) as an American attending Trinity College, Dublin, in the late 1940s. It purports to tell of the postwar anomie of a pair of expat Americans in Ireland, and the havoc they cause when they don’t get their way (sixty years later, some of the underlying themes seem awfully prophetic). With a name like Sebastian Dangerfield, it’s unlikely one was ever to lead a normal life (like I should talk). Brought to the Old World by a catastrophic war, Sebastian and friend Kenneth O’Keefe stay behind to spread the new American gospel in ways that aren’t (officially) covered by NSC-68 (which came out while Sebastian, O’Keefe et al. were studying, presumably without their knowledge).

Sebastian, a former officer in the U.S. Navy, remained in Ireland (his oft-eulogized “ancestral home”) after his war service to study at Trinity under the provisions of the G.I. Bill, or at least that’s his official story. Married to the terribly English Marion, and with a small child, he spends almost his entire time sleeping around, drinking, pining for home, and generally causing trouble, while hanging out with fellow expat O’Keefe as the only person who really gets him. Like Flaubert’s aforementioned hero, he waits on an inheritance, this time from a wealthy father who despises him and his wastrel ways. Though the hypocrisies of mid-century Irish society would probably drive anyone mad, Sebastian always unerringly hits on the best way to make things worse. He constantly browbeats Marion to work on her own wealthy (or at least aristocratic) father for money while just as constantly cheating on her, and habitually antagonizes his neighbors and landlady, never knowing when to quit. Eventually his misdeeds (affairs, arrears of rent, multiple misdemeanors) catch up with him, and his flight from Dublin to follow O’Keefe (who’s similarly “escaped”) reveals that, not quite like the Bourbons, he’s learned nothing, but didn’t remember a whole lot to forget in the first place.

The Ginger Man wasn’t an easy read for me, and not in a way that eventually rewarded. Donleavy’s been praised for his love of language, and how that love infects his prose (most particularly in The Ginger Man), but somehow it leaves me cold. There’s probably an argument to be made that Sebastian’s wallowing in his own problematic “Irishness,” and the contrast between the heartfelt ruminations and Sebastian’s own turgid, punching-down lifestyle makes for compelling reading, but it didn’t strike me that way, to say the least. Coming up with the “proto-American Empire” reading was the only way I could really make The Ginger Man all that interesting (and I seriously doubt that’s what Donleavy had in mind). Curious to see how others reacted, I unearthed a positive and negative review worth reading, and probably fall more towards the latter interpretation. Nowadays, there would be “trigger warnings” for Sebastian’s casual abuse of Marion (and the kid!), which go a long way towards undercutting the jovial “Oirish” blarney that supposedly infuses this hugely problematic, occasionally entertaining, but not very worthwhile work.

Gary Shteyngart, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002)

Shteyngart, over the last couple of years, has emerged as one of my favorite contemporary writers. I read his near-future dystopian romance, Super Sad True Love Story (2010), for my old blog and greatly enjoyed it, even with its melancholy and occasional bit of lead-footed satire. He became something of an inspiration, too, for a talk he gave on public radio (that I’ve only heard secondhand through friends, a recommendation in itself) in which he claimed that there were increasingly “more writers than readers.” I still consider this tremendous hyperbole, but it did kick me in the rear enough to start returning to consistency and application in my own reading. Handbook was his first novel, making a splash for its entertaining revision of post-Soviet Eastern Europe and its rendition of Shteyngart’s biographical details into an amusingly weedy antihero. His second, Absurdistan (2006), I’m saving for a special occasion. If the record so far is any guide, we should expect a new book next year. That I can have such a hope pleases me greatly, and gives me a good feeling both for contemporary literature and for the direction of this blog.

Vladimir Girshkin is, like Shteyngart, a Russian Jewish immigrant to the U.S., having arrived when he was a child as a Soviet refugee in the company of his intellectual but impoverished parents. The latter have managed to make good in the new society, but Vladimir hasn’t been so lucky (an unwitting victim of the “Boomer drawbridge,” perhaps), working a crap job as a clerk for an immigration aid society, a venue that gives him a front row seat to the multicultural panoply of pre-Giuliani New York. Acting on a tip from his friend Baobab Gilletti (his name, appearance and behavior might have come straight out of Jonathan Goldstein’s Wiretap, which is a very good thing), Vladimir gets mixed up with the “Catalan mob” (which is apparently a thing), before getting an out from a client of his, one Rybakov, who claims to be related to the Russian mafia in “Prava” (a fictionalized version of Prague, in an otherwise genuine Eastern Europe). Vladimir flies to Prava and gets involved in the nefarious doings of Rybakov’s relations, while ingratiating himself with the then-burgeoning community of American expats there (cue the infamous “you can trade ’em for a car” commercial). After a scheme he concocts becomes much bigger than he’d expected (creating a fake literary magazine for artistic minded expats, in a hilarious inversion of the CIA’s real-life support of Encounter in the 60s and 70s), he finds the pleasure from a new American girlfriend somewhat negated by the not unimportant fact that his life is often in danger.

Handbook is a wonderful, hugely entertaining comic novel, but what hit home hardest with me is how flat-out nostalgic it made me feel (Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which came out a couple of years earlier, had a similarly unexpected effect). Vladimir feels to some degree that he’s “come home” by returning to the former Iron Curtain, while I was struck by the powerfully familiar sense of time and place it evoked. I’ve never been to “Prava” (or indeed any foreign country apart from Canada), but I do remember the mystique its real-life counterpart evoked among well-heeled American students and young folk. The ensuing self-absorption and entitlement are bleakly portrayed, only to bring the laughter even harder. “Prava,” in this sense, can exist everywhere, even in small Midwestern college-supporting cities. Vladimir’s new girlfriend, Morgan, hails from Shaker Heights, Ohio (for Michiganders, the “Grosse Pointe” of Cleveland; for everyone else, a high-income small city perched at the edge of an ailing metropolis), and her hometown hilariously becomes a mantra for a frightened Vladimir after he learns she knows more than he believed about Prava’s history and culture. Unlike, say, Sebastian Dangerfield, whose own proximity to his “ancestral lands” turns him into more of an asshat, Vladimir’s too nice to thrive in this sort of world. The lightness of satire contrasts nicely with Vladimir’s turbulent relationship with his new employers, a relationship his own Jewishness makes harshly problematic. It’s not giving away too much, I think, to reckon that Vladimir comes to realize that he’s just as American as any expat, possibly more so because he knows so deeply (if not clearly) what it’s like to live in both worlds.

Bad Romance

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (1847)

The precise identities of our required reading in middle and high school escape me, but I’m reasonably certain that one of the books was Wuthering Heights (along with Great Expectations, As I Lay Dying, and some goofy Hemingway title). Whether through a greater interest at the time in Jules Verne (or, more likely, Sinclair Lewis) or through the normal distractions of teenage life, I don’t think I really “got” Emily Bronte’s legendary contribution to world literature. Wuthering Heights was a novel I would, and should, have remembered.

The Earnshaw family, living in darkest Yorkshire during the late eighteenth century, adopts, thanks to the paternalistic generosity of the family patriarch, a foundling they name Heathcliff, whose disturbing urban origins and ethnically ambiguous description have led to a host of different interpretations (notably Andrea Arnold’s controversial 2011 film in which Heathcliff is quite unambiguously black). The son, Hindley, treats him more or less like a slave, while the daughter, Catherine, is at first discomfited and then obsessed, an obsession Heathcliff comes to return (much to Hindley’s dismay). Mr. Earnshaw’s death and Hindley’s growing resentment of Heathcliff–along with Catherine’s prospective marriage to milquetoast pretty boy Edgar Linton, drive the Earnshaws’ adopted far away. Some years later, he returns, guileful and moneyed, to work his revenge on the Earnshaws, the Lintons, and all they hold dear.

Wuthering Heights begins gently enough, with the comically tactless narrator, a Mr. Lockwood, demonstrating amusing unease on his introduction to Heathcliff’s moorland world and the dark secrets it harbors. The narrative conceit becomes a pattern, as large stretches of the novel are instead recounted by Ellen Dean, a nurse, housekeeper, and general helpmeet and troubleshooter for the area’s families (her ability to transcend familial bloodlust reminiscent of Bel of Cuthilgurdy in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo books–or almost certainly vice versa). A number of sundry characters wind up doing the same, especially Edgar’s flighty, ill-fated sister Isabella. The bracketing of memories within memories creates a strangely refractive feel, one that threatens, but happily never succeeds, in holding the reader at arm’s length.

It’s strange to think that public consciousness of the novel, at least from what I remember, has been along the lines of a romantic love story between Heathcliff and Catherine, when the reality is anything but, a pair of twin obsessions that damage all who come into contact. The effect is one of somber inevitability, sometimes leavened with humor. Sometimes one almost wishes for a respite, as Wuthering Heights is full of emotion, mood and violence. Everyone’s feelings or actions (at least for Victorian literature) are turned up to maximum strength, and they match–as has often been remarked–the tempestuous nature of the surrounding landscape. The turbulent and occasionally savage events the novel chronicles radically challenge and disrupt an established family structure, and the challenges’ success remains excitingly ambiguous throughout Wuthering Heights.

Anzia Yezierska, Hungry Hearts (1920)

Anzia Yezierska left little trace on the popular consciousness of American literature. Born in Russia, she came to the United States as a young woman fleeing the czarist pogroms, and spent the next two decades fitfully assimilating into American culture and building the life of the struggling, aspiring writer. Hungry Hearts, a set of short stories both semi-autobiographical and generally descriptive of Jewish working-class life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, appeared in 1920 to positive, if somewhat bemused, reaction. Yezierska’s literary success was quickly followed by the lure of celluloid glory, as MGM (!) moved to make a film of Hungry Hearts which bowdlerized its source material somewhat and appalled its author. Though she wrote several novels over the next several years, Yezierska, whose relationship with her own short-lived literary celebrity was always fraught and uneasy, never quite regained the fame she had once enjoyed, and died in relative obscurity in 1970, her rediscovery by literary scholars following almost a decade later.

The title of Hungry Hearts–which I could have sworn was a novel when I grabbed it on a whim during a store credit binge at Dawn Treader one sunny afternoon–suggests the kind of romantic frippery one might imagine characters of a more orthodox, high-minded novel of the period reading in order to escape drab, drudgery-filled lives. To an extent, the suggestion is accurate, as Hungry Hearts is full of emotionally unvarnished characters and heartsore feeling, much like Wuthering Heights, which I’d be wholly unsurprised to learn Yezierska read at some point during her successful education as an American and English-speaker. The characters almost all live in dingy hovels in the Bowery, and alternately celebrate and despise their close-knit immigrant world, itself riven by rigid boundaries of class and gender. Several of the stories, whose characters often know or interact with the characters in others, directly confront some of the nagging questions of immigrant identity.

Shenah Pessah, for example, works as a cleaner, and thinks of little but her job until a chance encounter with John Barnes, a handsome Gentile professor who encourages her instincts for “self-improvement.” Later (in another story) she nurses her former crush even as she meets Sam Arkin, an attractive co-worker (and co-religionist) in her new factory job. Her feelings transcend mere physical or romantic attraction, though; both Barnes and Arkin represent different aspects of her new experiences, the one a catalyst, rather than an end, of aspiration, and the other a fellow-traveler, rather than a drag, on her prospective journey. Sara Reisel, on the other hand, back in Poland, sees few prospects, either professional or matrimonial, until a letter from Hannah Hayyeh, a village girl made good in New York, inspires her and her family to make the sacrifices necessary to emigrate, where she finds both joy and sadness in her new life. Hannah’s life, meanwhile, isn’t so good as she makes out, resulting in a painful scene as her son returns from his service in the First World War.

The stories, though stylistically simple in both contemporary and current fashion, pack a deceptive punch that the occasional saccharine moment fails to sap. Some have echoes of other literatures: “The Free Vacation House,” in which a ghetto family learns that upper-class generosity can only stretch so far, even in the boundless stretches of the hinterland (or the Hudson Valley) was strikingly reminiscent of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales (“In The Basement,” to be specific). It’s hard not to deny the honest power of the protagonists’ struggles, even after eighty years of literary and cinematic evolution. Harder still not to compare, even if subconsciously, the travails of people coming to America then with those coming now.

Mary Gaitskill, Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991)

Gaitskill was a writer I’d been meaning to further investigate ever since I saw the 2002 film Secretary, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, which had been based on one of Gaitskill’s short stories. I remember being thrown for a loop at the story’s matter-of-fact embrace of saodmasochism (Gyllenhaal enters into a spanking relationship with Spader) and how nonjudgmental it was on the matter (Gaitskill herself didn’t seem to entirely care for the finished product). Ever since then, I’d been meaning to check out some of Gaitskill’s work, and finally took the plunge with Two Girls. Gaitskill’s a compellingly dark writer; the story’s already rather shadowy, but there were a few bits and pieces that remained with me for some time afterward, acting as a bit of a damper on the old mood for a good week later (though in a good way, if that makes sense).

Dorothy is a legal proofreader living in relative penury in Brooklyn, going about a fairly dreary life until she runs across an ad for interviews from Justine, who’s writing an article on the life of controversial philosopher and author Anna Granite. Both women come from fairly twisted backgrounds, marked by various forms of psychological and sexual abuse. Dorothy’s lower middle-class background, her father raging against a world plainly out to get him and her mother meekly acquiescing at the harm he visits on them both, eventually drives her into a dependent relationship with the charismatic Granite. Justine, her own, somewhat more refined upbringing failing to provide the kind of satisfaction Dorothy would have expected, develops a kind of romantic fondness for pain that profoundly affects her own life and awakens an interest in Granite’s life and work. The two enter into a strange kind of friendship based at first on their interviews, each resentful of the other, but which later, through a few dramatic moments, almost begins to feel real.

Two Girls is a darkly exhilarating work in many ways, even if it seems at first glance incredibly depressing. As in Margaret Atwood’s superb The Robber Bride (1993), a chance detail of a child’s abusive upbringing–physically or psychologically–almost started the waterworks, which in my case usually end up as an impermeable moroseness lasting several hours. In Two Girls‘ case, it’s Justine’s childhood horror at a Saturday morning cartoon where a dog, dreaming that he’s been cast into hell for planning to let its kitten rival burn in a house fire, finds a popsicle vendor (!) to assuage his pain, only to find the popsicles afire as well (he rescues the kitten). Maybe it’s a reflection on my own twisted moral priorities that I can read histories of wars and atrocities largely without blinking (though not always) but a simple, almost throwaway image like that can have me down for such a time. It’s not all doom and gloom, though; much of Two Girls‘ entertainment comes from its satire of the religiously selfish. Granite’s movement, “Definitism,” is a practically unveiled satire on Ayn Rand and Objectivism, and the cult-like fervor of the original gets a thoroughly worthy smackdown in Two Girls. Though Dorothy and Justine both suffer terribly in their different ways, it’s almost to their greatest credit that they survive their dealings with Granite and her followers. By the end of the story, they’ve won somehow, though it’s unclear whether their victory consists of anything else than finding someone else who might understand.