50 Books: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

In my mind there is a class of prose stylists that includes E.B. White and George Orwell—monsters of sentence-level literature who attained their place not by astonishing but by economizing, authors whose lives’ work are scalpels rather than edifices. I like Faulkner and Hemingway, Carver and James. These are eminently recognizable stylists, but we recognize their style the way we recognize a person’s way of dancing. There is another class of author whose style we recognize the way we recognize a person’s gait. They are writers for whom the sentence is a means to an end, and they pursue their ends so diligently that their styles becomes unique not like the shape of an orchid, but like the shape of a fish. Their writing has evolved to move through the medium of consciousness, streamlined and precise. To me, Annie Dillard is the exemplar of this class.

I have read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek more times than I can remember. It is the only book-length work of nature writing I enjoy. People liken it to Walden by Henry David Thoreau—my Picador copy, which I got at a used bookstore in Bronte Beach outside Sydney, mentions Walden five words into the jacket blurb—which is weird, because I strongly dislike Walden. I admit there are similarities: Dillard and Thoreau both go live alone in semi-wild areas not far from human settlement. Both are essentially dilettantes; they experience the natural world first as a novel alternative to civilization. And both are concerned not just or even primarily with nature itself, but rather with the phenomenology of experiencing it. Like WaldenPilgrim at Tinker Creek is about what living in nature does to the author’s consciousness, the changes it wreaks on her soul.

So why is Tinker Creek among the greatest works of the 20th century, even as Walden sucks a fat one? Dillard wrote her master’s thesis on Walden, and it’s safe to say it influenced her own book-length nature/isolation narrative. One difference between the two books, though, is that Dillard approaches nature critically. She is willing to consider the possibility that the natural world is not shot through with the essence of the divine, as Thoreau found it, but horrifyingly wasteful and cruel. After discussing a glob of tar found floating in the Atlantic covered in barnacles, Dillard considers the millions of barnacle larvae that drift through the ocean and find nothing on which to attach. Mature barnacles release up to four million larvae into the water at a time. “What kind of world is this, anyway?” Dillard writes. “Why not make fewer barnacle larvae and give them a decent chance? Are we dealing in life, or in death?”

A recurring theme of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the senselessness of a natural world we often imagine to be elegant and efficient. The book opens with Dillard’s revulsion at seeing a frog collapse as its innards are dissolved from below by a giant water bug. We spend a lot of time on parasites, including those wasp eggs that, if they are not deposited in a host soon enough, will hatch in their mother’s abdomen and devour her from the inside out. This is not the living temple Thoreau found. It is a charnel house. Dillard cannily notes, though, that humans are the only ones who seem to have a problem with that. If barnacle larvae experience their high mortality rates as unjust, we don’t know about it. Fairness and efficiency are ideas humans bring to the world. Nature’s failure to be decent might more clearly be seen as our failure to reconcile ourselves to it.

This Sisyphean inquiry—in the sense that it resembles the question asked by Camus, not necessarily in the sense that it is doomed—is what makes Tinker Creek enthrall me where Walden does not. Thoreau goes to the woods and says “wow” for 200 pages. Dillard is out there looking unflinchingly at her own revulsion. Her response seems more true to me, not because I believe nature is fundamentally gross or evil, but because of that prose style. It is so precise and streamlined that it feels honest the way a protractor is honest, the way the Harvard-educated heir to a pencil factory might not be.

That’s a petty swipe at Thoreau, and I retract it as much as I can without deleting it. But I believe there is a morality to craft. It radiates from Dillard’s prose, which is at once plain and rare, like a piece of jade. She never uses two words where one will do, yet when necessary she breaks out “susurrus” or “viscid.” The whole body of the English language seems available to her, even as she cooks mostly with the prime cuts. Her prose reads easily in a way that conveys the tens of thousands of hours she has practiced to make it that way. As I get older, and the flaws in my own style become more evident to me, I find myself loving this kind of prose more than high modernism or the conspicuous minimalism of the last four decades. Dillard has become such a strong writer as to transcend her own style, so that her sentences become something close to their own objects. She is among the best to ever do it, in my opinion, and to say Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book about nature is akin to saying that a glimpse of a woman striding purposefully down the street is about the store.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next, we’re reading Earth Angel by Denis Johnson. Update: No, we’re not. We’re saving Earth Angel for real-life book club and reading Huckleberry Finn. It’s my favorite American novel. Come with me on this one.

50 Books: A Bad Man by Stanley Elkin

Stanley Elkin

I was setting a nice pace to finish 50 books in 2018, and then I hit A Bad Man by Stanley Elkin. I finished it last night, after three weeks of extremely slow progress—reading twenty-some pages and falling asleep, setting a timer for two hours and abandoning ship after 40 minutes, meaning to polish it off on the weekend and doing any other chore I could find. At almost no point in this book was I reading for another purpose than to finish. As you might remember, we got to A Bad Man via William Gass’s endorsement in On Being Blue. That book is, among other things, a paean to stylistic maximalism. A Bad Man is certainly a work of high style, but I found it utterly unpleasant to read.

What happened? I used to love books like this, from Absalom, Absalom! to Carpenter’s Gothic—books of literary performance, where the important work happened at the sentence level and story was incidental, an occasion to interrogate the bounds of prose. Although Elkin is not as mandarin as Faulkner or Gaddis, A Bad Man is very much that kind of book. The point is to demonstrate how good at sentences Elkin is. Reading it made me realize how such demonstrations have come to enrage me.

The premise of a A Bad Man is that Leo Feldman, department store owner and natural salesman, has been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit—although he has done plenty of awful things he got away with—and sent to a Kafka-esque prison. There he is identified as an especially bad man and forced to endure humiliations, both under the warden’s inscrutable system of constantly changing rules, and at the hands of other convicts who somehow recognize him as worse than they are. Also, he has a homunculus in his chest. The dead fetus of his twin brother, who perished in utero, is positioned over his heart in such a way that a sharp blow to Feldman’s chest will kill him. To paraphrase Chekhov, if a homunculus appears in the chest cavity during the first act, it has to go off in the third.

Not that A Bad Man hews to a three-act structure. It has a structure, like all books, but this structure is not narrative. In the fiction workshop, we used to sometimes say to each other, as gently as we could, “That’s not a story; that’s a situation.” A Bad Man is a great situation. It’s Kafka-esque, and the long first chapter promises an extended metaphor on the Jewish diaspora. Feldman’s unnamed crime promises a fun lacuna, and his established guilt combined with his prowess at sales promises a rumination on the morality of consumer capitalism. I also spent the first 100 pages thinking this novel might be about fascism. But none of those promises was fulfilled.

Spoiler alert: Feldman does die in the end, exactly the way you expect, after a long and intermittently turgid trial scene. The Jewish diaspora thread gets dropped early, although it periodically comes up again throughout the book. It’s possible, in the first half, to read the mercurial warden as the God of the Old Testament and Feldman as the Jewish people. That reading falls apart, though, as the focus shifts to Feldman’s interpersonal betrayals in a series of intense, psychologically realistic flashbacks. You think that Elkin has gotten sick of Kafka-esque absurdism and switched to a redemption story midway through, but then the novel ends with no change in Feldman’s character. He dies defiant, insisting on the same self-deception he brought in.

Elkin sets up a lot of interesting points of departure, but he doesn’t go on any trips. He is in it for the sentences, and—like any talented stylist trying to preserve momentum without the benefit of a plot—he winds up writing hard. There are so many similes in this book—similes that are inventive and, at first, unexpected. Then they multiply so numerously as to become mundane and, finally, dreaded. Elkin averages more than one simile per sentence. Everything is like something else, so that his loving descriptions of Feldman’s wares, delightful at first, wind up cloying. You start to think about how many of them don’t make sense, how little Elkin’s unexpected connection between tubes of lipstick and nuclear warheads, for example, contributes to the reader’s understanding. There is so much figurative language in this book that it becomes an argument against figuration. A Bad Man is to fine writing as the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball: thrilling at first, but finally an object lesson in the limitations of virtuosity.

Is it funny? No, not really. I laughed once. A big part of the problem is that Feldman is the only developed character. The warden is interesting, but he is a deus ex machina more than a person. The other convicts step forward as needed to threaten Feldman or act as his stooges in crosstalk scenes, but then they fade into the miasma of non-Feldman personae again. This absence of developed characters rules out a whole category of humor; there can be no moments where we chuckle to ourselves and think, “that’s so Victman” or “that’s just like the warden,” because we don’t have a sense of how those people are. Neither can Feldman’s intentions bring about the opposite of what he intended, because he pursues no significant intentions other than to survive the prison. Like the author, he is doing time, looking for pleasure in the moment the same way Elkin looks for zingers in the individual sentences. As a result, A Bad Man is clever, witty, cynical, audacious—everything a joke can be when it doesn’t make you laugh.

It is, in short, better to think about than to read. It has a fun premise, and it manages to raise some interesting questions about the nature of evil. There’s a harrowing flashback between Feldman and his wife, and the story of his betrayal of Dedman is genuinely inventive and compelling. I found these scenes vivid and emotionally affecting in a way that called attention to the colorlessness of the rest of the novel. A Bad Man is a work of high postmodernism, and above all it serves as a compelling argument that style is a minor effect. I would have enjoyed Elkin’s prose much more were there even a rudimentary plot to pull me through. As it is, this novel is like a bare room with incredibly detailed wallpaper. You can lose yourself staring into the pattern for a few minutes, but ultimately you go stir-crazy.

I got so mad at literary fiction reading A Bad Man that we’re going to read a fantasy novel about a wizard next. I’m ten percent into A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, and I’m already more invested than I ever was in Elkin. I suspect we’ll be talking about it a lot sooner than three weeks from now.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next, we’re reading A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursule Le Guin. Join us!

50 Books: On Being Blue by William Gass

William Gass as photographed by Herb Weitman

Today I read an email—from a smart guy who was clearly a top-decile writer of English—that contained a parenthetical aside inside a parenthetical aside. Neither interruption improved my understanding of the sentence or my assessment of the person who wrote it, but I sympathized. The urge to add one more layer has overcome us all. Probably it is more likely to overcome those of us who have a knack for writing sentences. Nuances occur to us and we try to pack them in, for the same reason we overfill the tacos we make at home, until anyone else who tries to eat them winds up with a mess running down the back of their hand. The mess in this analogy is, uh, implications lost to unclear syntax. The filling falling out of the back of a taco is the failure of reading comprehension, whose rate increases with complexity until the audience for a given sentence shrinks to one. I am sorry for the inscrutable metaphor, but I had so much meaning for you to savor and I wanted to pack it all in there, until the tortilla just split apart.

How we put meaning into English sentences—or rather how it enters the reader’s mind unbidden, particularly overtones of sexuality related to color—is the subject of William Gass’s On Being Blue, which is billed as “a philosophical inquiry.” It is that. It is also a tour de force, partly because form follows function and partly because, it would seem, Gass really enjoys writing. That’s the gist of his surprisingly affecting closing argument, which is that [SPOILER ALERT] you’re going to die soon, so you should write as much as possible. He does not explicitly advocate this kind of maximalism until the end of the book, but he tacitly endorses it along the way through maximalism of other kinds.

On Being Blue is hard to read. Despite his argument that the function of the writer is to create, via sentences, a consciousness for the reader to experience, a lot of Gass’s sentences demand we step away for a second to figure them out. I often read before bed, but I found that I could only comprehend this book in daylight. My approach was to read a sentence, think about what it meant, and then read it again to check my work. The distance this method imposed was compounded by the fact that I was re-reading; I first read On Being Blue about five years ago and, I realized with growing horror, remembered very little from the first time through. Instead of recognizing old twists and turns, I found the book to be like a hedge maze that, embarrassingly, I was lost in for a second time. The flaw in this analogy is that you cannot step up into the air and consider the hedge maze from above, whereas I kept removing myself from the flow of Gass’s argument to puzzle out what he just said.

This thicket of language is the right way for Gass to expound his theories of connotation and how the sentence says what it does not state. Most failures of comprehension were my fault. Occasionally, though, I was taken by the uncharitable suspicion that he was being intentionally abstruse. Take this paragraph from page 73, where Gass is discussing the changing significances of blue over time:

Seldom was blue for blue’s sake present till Pollock hurled pigment at his canvas like pies. Rarer still, since such sensitivity in the brush tip is a rarity (in the penis rarer, in the poet rarest of all), color became the breath of bodies, every hue the aching limit of a life, as if it rose up from within the substance it covered the way feeling changes the color of the chameleon, or like those remarkable cephalopods whose configurations alter with their moods, or as, inadequately, our own blood comes and goes like sunshine dreaming among moving clouds.

Emphasis added, and bro: you’re thinking of an octopus. That’s the remarkable cephalopod whose configuration alters with its mood. If you were to use this term that every child knows, you would admittedly lose some elucidation of meaning but also shave off one euphemism and two subclauses from what is already a very cumbersome sentence. I’m willing to do the work, but don’t make me jump through hoops to prove how cunningly you make them.

Clearly, this kind of maximalism is a choice. The question is whether it is necessary, which is a polite way of asking whether it’s performative. Maybe that parenthetical about penises and poets is necessary to unify perceived color with subconscious sexual desire and the artist’s craft, which is an important part of Gass’s overarching thesis that “blue” material enters into language through color and metaphor. Or maybe he made the connection and couldn’t resist pointing it out, i.e. telling us that he did.

That may be the real inquiry at hand in On Being Blue. Where does sophistication shade over into demonstration? When does the parenthetical not add another shade of meaning but rather indicate, as my high school English teacher said it did, a part the author knew he should leave out but lacked the discipline to cut?

Gass makes a compelling argument that there is another type of discipline: the type that leaves everything in, overfilling the taco but doing it so skillfully that nothing falls out. On Being Blue is proof it can be done, but I still wouldn’t eat it in the car, so to speak. It’s thrilling for that reason, though, and in its insistence on radical density it becomes a kind of manifesto. Part of maximalism is doing what is not strictly necessary, and in writing that is usually synonymous with failure. Paradoxically, it is also the precondition for success.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next on our reading list: A Bad Man by Stanley Elkin

50 Books in 2018: Death Wish

Charles Bronson, star of the 1974 film

Maybe the hardest thing to believe in the movie version of Death Wish is that Charles Bronson is an architect. The protagonist of Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel is an accountant. The natural advantage of the novel lies in rendering interiority, and interiority is where Garfield’s book lives. Most of the film Death Wish is Bronson shooting muggers and avoiding detection by the police. In the novel, Paul does not kill until the last 50 pages or so. In the meantime, he experiences himself losing his mind.

After his wife and daughter are attacked by teenage hoodlums—fatally, for his wife, and so traumatically for his daughter that she slips into catatonia—Paul Benjamin is profoundly alone. A lifelong liberal, he finds himself brooding on crime and punishment in his empty apartment. At rare dinner parties or during more frequent conversations with his coworkers and son-in-law, he gets in arguments, finding that the prevailing consensus on New York City in the 1970s—that crime is a social disease rather than the responsibility of individual criminals, who would be better citizens under better economic conditions—suddenly enrages him. This transformation in his thinking reflects the adage that a Republican is a Democrat who has been mugged. Paul expresses a variation on this idea to his son-in-law, a left-leaning attorney who is comparably bereaved but nonetheless horrified by the change in Paul’s beliefs.

This difference in how Paul and Jack react to the same crime engages the fundamental theme of the story. Death Wish has been called a meditation on fascism, and that reading certainly stands up. Paul’s progress from urbane CPA to night-stalking murderer reminds us that fascism lies adjacent to the upper middle class. Invariably, it’s the rich who implement actual fascist government, but it’s the professionals and small business owners who support it. This reading concludes that what people think of as their deeply held political beliefs are actually products of their circumstances. Paul turns out to be one violent crime away from pursuing the death penalty for muggers. His friends, who sympathize with his tragedy but haven’t experienced it themselves, remain righteous liberals.

But Jack does experience the same tragedy, and it does not turn him into a right-wing vigilante the way it does Paul. Here lies the counterpoint. If people’s political views are merely the product of their circumstances, why doesn’t Jack go off the deep end, too? The difference between his and Paul’s reactions suggest that the individual is responsible for his own political views—and, by extension, his choices—after all. Applied as a universal principle, however, this idea is the one Paul disastrously fails to resist. He kills because he embraces an ethic of individual responsibility and takes it too far. The muggers and car thieves he guns down on the streets of New York are not absolved of their crimes by circumstance or broad socioeconomic theories. In the end, each is responsible for the crimes he commits.

The tension between forgiveness and responsibility, broad trends and individual choices, is what powers the novel. Paul gives in to the violent urges that dominate his thinking after his wife’s death, even as he consciously turns against a society that forgives criminals for giving in to the violent urges it instills in them. Paul should be a thoughtful man. He should be able to process his own suffering without taking it out on others. He turns out to be as much an animal as anybody else in 1970s New York, albeit with stronger fan support among the police.

The detail of this novel—both in its narration of Paul’s unraveling and in its oddly close look at accounting—make it a more satisfying experience than the film (which, for the record, I also liked.) Death Wish the Book also gets high marks for its authentic portrayal of violence. Paul is scared and acting blindly during pretty much every action scene, and his first confrontation with a teenage mugger is among the most accurate depictions of street violence I’ve read. The pace is slow at the beginning and hurtling by the end, which gives the reader just enough time to consider the themes without getting sick of them.

Death Wish loses points for giving all of its characters bland, interchangeable names: Paul, Jack, Sam, Henry, Bill, George. A comical number of these people’s last names are also first names, so that everyone except Paul and his son-in-law fades into a uniform paste of dudes. Maybe this effect is intentional, but I found it irritating. This half-assed naming is probably the fault of Garfield’s virtues as a pulp writer, however, and its flip side is brisk plotting and a lean story. Take three days to read this one and three weeks to think about it.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next I’m reading On Being Blue by William Gass.

You like this riot-control bulldozer, right?

The Bozena Riot mobile crowd-control unit

The Bozena Riot is a 15,000-pound riot-control bulldozer whose frontal wall can expand to the width of city streets, raising and lowering to either protect or release dozens of police. It’s bullet- and fireproof, and it can be operated either from a cockpit behind the wall or by remote control. Its loudspeakers, cameras, and high-pressure tear gas nozzles just scream “consent of the governed.” As the manufacturer’s website puts it:

The system offers a solution for both protecting the law-enforcement units in action and controlling the situation whenever peace maintenance is required.

The primary use of the passive voice in English is to disguise whoever is doing something. This bulldozer system offers solutions for “whenever peace maintenance is required.” But who requires peace? If the Bozena Riot’s first role is to protect “law-enforcement units in action,” who endangers them by ordering action in the first place? The answer, in theory, is us. We pay the taxes that might purchase this thing, and we require the peace to be maintained. Right? You love the Bozena Riot and are glad someone manufactured it. I mean, what else could you love? Riots?

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