What I Read in April

May 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin. I decided to read this after listening to a recent Book Fight! podcast about another Baldwin work, If Beale Street Could Talk. The Fire Next Time is not a novel, but a pair of open letters: one, titled “My Dungeon Shook,” addressed to Baldwin’s nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and a longer one, “Down at the Cross,” subtitled “Letter From a Region of My Mind.”

The first of these, while shorter and a bit more colloquial, struck me as particularly sobering in light of the conversations that men of color, especially in recent months, are forced to have with their children about the assumptions that will invariably cloud over them when they are seen in public. The Fire Next Time burns with a quiet, slow rage as Baldwin unspools his thoughts, biting his tongue at the facts he bitterly lays down:

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

In a time of heightened awareness of how black men are approached during traffic stops, the unapologetic slaughter of children of color passing through upscale neighborhoods, the letter’s resonance is multiplied. Nothing has changed since the sixties; for people of color, it’s gotten worse.

Big World, Mary Miller. Short Flight/Long Drive produces a number of titles that, at 4 x 6 inches, are only slightly larger than a standard mass-market paperback. They fit perfectly in the pocket of my hoodie, so I was able to read Big World at moments on the go, like when I was waiting to pick up food.

The characters in these twelve stories are women who seem defiantly in love with their own idleness, but who are not expecting solutions to come down to meet them. They have a sense of being trapped. They walk around with quite a bit of sass. They observe one or more other characters in judgment. They make terrible life decisions, enter into doomed relationships, and linger when they should flee. But they are also old enough to know better, and their lack of apology layers the book with an endearing, almost heroic attitude.

The lack of motion in Big World infuses the title with a bit of sinister irony. That big world exists outside the bubbles in which Miller’s characters seem resigned to remain, secure in their avoidance of big decisions:

I was the only person who really knew him, he’d told me, but after six months he still felt brand new. I knew enough facts that I could present a decent-length paper, a timeline of major events, but when he put his hands around my neck, I couldn’t say for sure he wouldn’t kill me. No one knew the real me, either—all of my relationships had been the kind where they think they’re seeing the worst of you but it’s only a distraction. I had successfully hidden myself from everyone I’d ever known. (“Fast Trains”)

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre. I am not a person who reads spy novels, particularly, as many of them as there are. Without knowing better I would hazard a guess that efforts to hyper-romanticize the profession through fiction can leave most nonfiction accounts of it looking pale. In the case of Macintyre’s book, and its subject, Kim Philby, nothing could be further from the truth.

I was faintly acquainted with the story of Philby, the MI6 officer who, it was eventually revealed, had been operating as a double agent for the Soviet Union for many years. His story is one worth tracing, not only for how he managed to secure the position he did without anyone interfering but how incredibly close he came to getting identified as a traitor and caught, only to harmlessly slip away.

Born in India to a member of the Indian Civil Service, Philby was reared in the close (borderline incestuous) back-slapping world of the prep school elite, securing himself a job in the Foreign Service simply by putting his name in with the right people. A natural twinkle-eyed charmer, he was at ease in conversation and had a fondness for drink, a combination that earned him many friends and many more useful contacts. None of these friends, however, knew that he was secretly a Communist, using his position in Soviet counterintelligence to reroute valuable information to Moscow.

The book is only partly about Kim Philby and partly about those close to him who ended up duped. Chief among these is Nicholas Elliott, a school chum who sailed up the Foreign Service ranks alongside Philby. Elliott grew to idolize and emulate Philby, right down to his manner of dress, even going so far as to buy the same fancy ebony-handled umbrella. When two of Philby’s old MI6 colleagues are outed as spies and suspicion is aroused regarding Philby’s relationship with the Soviets, Elliott is among the loudest to step up to defend his friend. It is due to many factors—a lack of concrete evidence, an explaining away of suspicious behavior, and chiefly, a wish by those in charge not to confront the difficult question of how they could let such a popular figure within their ranks betray them—that Philby is eventually allowed to escape and vanish.

There is a feeling that Philby was far more in love with the erotics of deception than the values of Communism. He left almost no writings on the subject, never stumbled into an underground meeting, and supposedly never read Marx. Macintyre’s book is so fascinated with the gamesmanship, the personalities, the posturing, and the assumptions that allowed Philby to get away with his treachery that the motive of why he committed it feels insubstantial.

Washington Square Review, Winter/Spring 2014. I’m not ashamed to admit a bias for WSR; they published one of my first stories, “Return Policy,” back in 2012, and this fall will publish another, “Wonderland.” But even before my association with WSR it was one of my favorite journals, with a sleek design and lively urban aesthetic.

There are two stories in this issue that take unorthodox looks at our backwards relationships with children. Joe Meno’s “Animal Hospital” starts off curiously in the picture-book voice of a narrator hovering among the ether:

Animal hospital! Animal hospital! the children would shout. We want to play Animal hospital! Together the brother and sister sounded like kooks, like bedlamites, like unchristened savages.

The father in the story is exasperated and unable to keep up with his children’s imaginations, and by the end has become submerged in a mild horror story:

Jesus, the father grumbled. Just…Jesus. He pulled a corkscrew out of a drawer and inserted it into one of the patient’s floppy ears. There, he said. This is an inoculation against both gangrene and polio. Now he’s fine.

No, the girl said. Now it doesn’t want to live.

Come on, the father said, a little too excited. You guys … Here, he said again. I just gave him some antidepressants. Now he’s feeling better.

No, now he’s overweight, the boy said. Now he’s got diabetes.

No way, the father said. No way.

We’re going to have to amputate, the girl said. We’re going to have to cut off its legs.

“The Outfielders” is a story about Little Leaguers and the clash of philosophical differences between an egalitarian father and a coach out to build a winning team. That dynamic alone wouldn’t be original, except Bryan Shawn Wang turns the story on its side, as the children get caught up in the tug-of-war between two outsized egos, and delivers a cruelly funny ending.

Simone White has a five-page dagger of a poem in this issue called “Preliminary Notes on Street Attacks”:

pushed out the turnstile by a white man today

being touched in so hostile a manner is better

as against another demonstration of disgust funny

eight thousand times since the age of eleven

when you first got followed down the street

by a stranger trying to grab your boob

you have calculated the nearness

of whosoever is not repelled by your “hostility”

it looks bad to yell at a white man in public

even if he has pushed you out of the way

Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey. Received as a Christmas gift after I put it on my Amazon wish list. The premise was interesting: Elyria, a soap-opera writer with a half-finished novel, decides to leave the Manhattan home she shares with her husband and run away to New Zealand. Her ostensible objective: to find Werner, a writer with publishing connections who once promised her a place to stay. The triggering action: Elyria’s adopted sister has recently committed suicide.

One might be tempted to say that Nobody Is Ever Missing might be trying to cash in on missing-spouse narratives like Gone Girl or journey memoirs like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. But Lacey’s book is not a typical novel of a journey. It tries very hard to work as a dream, and there are writerly efforts to infuse the narrative with dreamlike elements, right down to italicized dialogue and inchoate memories of Elyria’s life before everything crumbled. Lacey’s style is to take us spiraling down so far into the darkness of Elyria’s emotional struggle that we lose all perspective of how close she is to danger or coming up to the surface for air:

On the porch of one of the quiet cafés there was a woman with a long grey braid at a table by herself. Seeing her alone made me wonder if Jaye was alone with her family, if she had one of those families that being with is worse than being alone and maybe that was why she had invited me to her home for Christmas, to have an ally in that fight. I felt a slice of guilt, ate and digested it, then forgot about Jaye. I went up and ordered a beer from the window and I sat at a table near the woman with the grey braid and she looked over at me and smiled and said, It’s Christmas again, my dear. Where does the time go? And she looked up at the tree branches but the tree branches did not answer her, but if they had they would have said that time goes to sleep, it goes insane, it goes on vacation, it goes to Milwaukee, it goes and goes and goes and keeps going, going, gone.

Elyria’s narration covers every square millimeter of internal thought, every desire and fear and amusement, in place of a journey of possibility that could offer her a challenge and give us a sense of her strengths. But Elyria is too delighted with her habits of resistance to allow that to happen. As soon as a scene starts to pick up narrative momentum, it collapses into a stream-of-consciousness monologue that is meant to convey Elyria’s delirium but does little to enlighten the reader to anything but the fact that she’s delirious.

There are also an inordinately high number of conveniently placed pay phones and disappointingly scant description of the scenery of New Zealand—one has to think it was chosen as a setting only for its geographic remoteness—and since Elyria’s sense awareness is secondary to her need to plummet, the characters that she meets are treated as throwaways. All of the energy is focused on leading us to the nucleus of Elyria’s ache, but the map is inscrutable.

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