What I Read in January

February 10, 2018 § Leave a comment


The Plague, Albert Camus.

Do people read Camus—at least, anything apart from The Stranger—as much as they obsess over the image of Camus? It felt right, in our current climate, to read The Plague, and appropriately, I was sick with a nasty cold when I finished it.

Rats start turning up dead in the street in the town of Oran in 1940s Algeria. It’s passed off early as prank or coincidence, and by the time it’s taken seriously, an epidemic has spread. Through the eyes of Rieux, a doctor, we see families savaged, morgues piled up with corpses, and calculations of sacrifice having to be made in the name of a public health crisis. And the remaining able-bodied placed into responsibilities they assume with varying reluctance. A character named Rambert protests to Rieux:

“You’ll soon be talking about the interests of the general public. But public welfare is merely the sum total of the private welfares of each of us.”

Isn’t this where much of our nation’s current philosophical divide lies? That social responsibility is or is not adequately checked by each of us tending to our personal responsibilities? Between the war on the poor, the emboldening of rape culture and white supremacy, and the decimation of social programs, it is the justification for every ugliness we tromp through.

There are other familiar odors. There are the skeptics who don’t want to take Rieux’s assessments at face value, even though he’s the only character with any expertise on the subject (apparently the only able-bodied physician left standing in Oran) in the book. And even the media gets a jab:

The local press, so lavish of news about the rats, now had nothing to say. For rats died in the street; men in their homes. And newspapers are only concerned with the street.

Traveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker.

Traveling Sprinkler is a sequel of sorts to The Anthologist, about the poet Paul Chowder, who was struggling with writer’s block while trying to write the introduction to an anthology of rhyming verse. The first book stands out in Baker’s oeuvre, in my opinion, because the character is more than a reciter or explainer, or even a meditator, as are the protagonists in The Mezzanine or Room Temperature or A Box of Matches. In the sequel, Paul is swollen to enough of a personality to get in his own way.

Paul has split up with Roz, his girlfriend whose patience was tested in The Anthologist, and has turned from writing verse to dabbling in music. It’s a subject about which he knows much less than he does poetry, so while his curiosity propels his movements, his digressions lack the authority that his digressions on verse had. They also lack the same snap. Baker was a student at the Eastman School, and it’s hard not to read the musings as his own, rather than Paul’s.

Paul has also taken up a perplexing cigar habit, to Roz’s dismay. He seems to be regressing as an adult, carving out paths to nowhere that are more frustrating to read that we usually experience when reading a Baker novel, where the characters, as unfleshed-out as they usually are, at least seem to have their shit together. Paul’s attitude toward Roz, with whom he keeps a loving but cautious friendship, is alternately engaging and erratically oblivious, and Baker puts the poet to a rare test of character when Roz must undergo a hysterectomy. Their relationship, oddly enough, called to mind for me that between Paul Lisicky and Denise Gess in Lisicky’s wonderful memoir The Narrow Door, which I also happened to buy at the same trip, during a walk to Sheafe Street Books in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson. As I read this book I tried to pin down when it was set. There are signpost clues like Monopoly and allusions to a war, but it doesn’t say which war, and the story’s remoteness from any identifiers of community—it takes place in a rural town called Fingerbone (“never an impressive town … chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere”), on the edge of a lake apparently somewhere in northern Idaho–seems to propel rather than alienate it.

Sisters Ruth and Lucille are orphaned; their grandfather perished when a train derailed and plunged into the lake, and their mother, after abandoning them, drove their neighbor’s car off a cliff into that same water. In consequence they grow up under the care of a succession of increasingly eccentric relatives, beginning with a grandmother, Sylvia, whose elderly friends are “fond of white cake of pinochle” and whose “attention [was] heightened and at the same time baffled by an awareness that the present had passed already.” From there the girls fall under the care of a pair of aunts, Noni and Lily, who complain of arthritis and “enjoyed nothing except habit and familiarity, the precise replication of one day in the next.” Ultimately, care falls to their aunt Sylvie, who had been distant from the girls’ mother and whose oddities and devotion to simplicity, along with her unexplained past, give her the most immense presence in the book.

Sylvie is initially viewed by the girls as an object of curiosity. She has strayed from a marriage that hasn’t officially ended and had apparently been living the life of a drifter in Montana before being summoned to Fingerbone. An inexperienced homemaker, she accepts her duties as the girls’ caretaker gracefully but doesn’t grow into the role. There’s a tender scene where she has tea and warm quilts ready for the girls after they’ve spent a cold night in the woods. But while Ruth finds her habits—from sitting alone in the dark to helping herself to a rowboat for daily rows into the lake—endearing, Lucille becomes increasingly disenchanted by Sylvie’s unwillingness to bring the trio any polish, exemplified when Sylvie takes a nap on a bench in town like a homeless person. (“In the middle of town? In the middle of the afternoon?”) Gradually, as school is skipped and basic needs left unattended, the community and law enforcement take notice.

Through Ruth’s eyes, the narrative is packed with subtleties, from the torrential storms beating the house and flooding with “an intricate system of small currents which rolled against the floorboards” to the observation of buttercups in the woods as “the materialization of humid yellow light one finds in such places.” It swells when she understands her position to alter the trajectory set by her family’s dark past:

As I walked toward it, and the street became more and more familiar, till the dogs that slept on the porches only lifted their heads as I passed (since Sylvie was not with me), each particular tree, and its season, and its shadow, were utterly known to me, likewise the small desolations of forgotten lilies and irises, likewise the silence of the railroad tracks in the sunlight. I had seen two of the apple trees in my grandmother’s orchard die where they stood. One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as in expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost. At Sylvie’s house, my grandmother’s house, so much of what I remembered I could hold in my hand—like a china cup, or a windfall apple, sour and cold from its affinity with deep earth, with only a trace of the perfume of its blossoming. Sylvie, I knew, felt the life of perished things.


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