Siste Viator by Sarah Manguso

September 13, 2011

As readers of this blog know, I have been a longtime fan of the Tournament of Books. Though I would love for it to have a more literary bent, the Tournament uniquely creates a dialogue between book lovers who are prize/awards judges and the broader book-loving community. The Tournament is not a prize/award/competition on the Moses model, no tablet descends from on high with a title etched on it. Rather, the judges issue opinions explaining why they chose one book over another.

I, an attorney, like this decisional aspect because it emulates the common law tradition brought to the judicial system of the United States from England. In the common law system, (appellate) judges are expected to publicly defend their legal opinions in written opinions. In this way, the Tournament is perhaps the most open and democratic of the literary prizes/awards/competitions.

That openness, that juridical quality, also brings accountability to judges. We, the constituency, know who to blame for a particularly poor decision and who to praise for a particularly good call. The commendation or condemnation can come not only in quickly-stifled yells of glee or dismay that, being stifled not quickly enough, bring concerned family or co-workers running, but also via posts on the ToB’s message board or one’s blog. However, the best form of praise is good, old-fashioned money. That’s right, do like they do in Louisiana, pay the judge when s/he rules in your favor. Well, it isn’t exactly the same thing unless your book is actually being evaluated, but purchasing a particular judge’s book seems like a good way to reward a noteworthy ToB decision. I like to try good ideas, so I did try this one.

Sarah Manguso was my favorite ToB judge of 2011. Hers was, happily, only one among many finely reasoned and written literary opinions. I probably should have bought a shelf-full of books. I chose hers. I even chose poetry despite prose options. I guess Nicholson Baker will do that to a fellow.

So, poetry.

Did I mention that Baker participated in the ToB in 2010 and that Manguso’s 2011 ToB opinion was outstanding. It was awesome. She was great.

That’s Cloud Cube by Heidi Neilson on the cover.

Okay, I have a confession. I do not read much poetry. Baker really is responsible for my choosing a book of Manguso’s poetry, Siste Viator, rather than her prose. I am going to have to buy another of his books now, because that was an awesome thing he did. Manguso rocks. I have to buy another of her books too. This could get out of hand.

My delay and avoidance in getting to the merits of the book is due primarily to the fact that I am acutely aware of my limitations with respect to coherent commentary on verse, rhyming or otherwise. I know only how this poetry made me feel.

I smiled wrly at “Everything” and its line: “I am the statue that thinks it’s running.” The joke is on me too. I was inspired by “Asking for More” and have determined that, for me too, “The horse I ride into Hell [will be] my best horse.” I won’t share anything about “Kitty in the Snow”, but….damn! The thing about this poetry is that it pulsates. You reach out to feel that bit of life and it slaps you in the face. This is not poetry with which you cuddle, but you will, on occasion, clasp it to your breast in a fierce embrace. I loved it.

Baker helped me be less afraid of….uh, I mean better appreciate poetry, but I still don’t entirely understand the alchemy by which a mere splash of words can shatter the window between reality and you, that window you didn’t even know was there. Whatever the process, Manguso has produced gold.

The poems are in free verse, typically, and not rhyme. This, it seemed to me, rendered Baker’s metering discussion useless for this collection. But I am not even sure of that. I really am lost when it comes to poetry. However, even I can hear the lyricism in these poems and the vigorous thrashing for and at life. Manguso exposes the frustrated artist and, equally, the frustrated human.

Frustrated is not exactly the right word. It implies too much passivity. Manguso evokes an energy borne of the clashing of action with ultimate futility. Hers is not a Munchian scream of anxiety or terror, but a scream of courageous defiance. This is not to say that the poems explore primarily anger or opposition to fate. There is humor and tenderness too. Mostly, the poems reflect an intensity of passion that makes me ashamed. Why didn’t I think to ride my best horse into Hell? Now, being handed the idea, do I have the courage to mount my fastest steed and spur it into the mouth of Hell?

But there is more to the poem “Hell” than the wild charge she made. I am tempted to reproduce the poem in whole, but I limit this second excerpt to the punishing end:

…..What I do know is that there is a light, far above us,
that goes out when we die,

and that in Hell there is a gray tulip that grows without any sun.
It reminds me of eveything I failed at,

and I water it carefully. It is all I have to remind me of you.

This stab in the heart provides an example, I think, of how Manguso captures and fuses the frustrations and disappointments both of being an artist and a love-needing-giving-wanting human. The poetry in Siste Viator is intensely personal while managing universality. Love, loss, and art are the three principle threads Manguso weaves together. I say this as if each of those terms denotes a well-defined category when, I know perfectly well, they do not. I am at a loss as to how else to succinctly describe the purported “subject matter” of this poetry collection. I am not a poet.

A note at the beginning of the book relates the derivation of the title:

Siste viator (Stop, traveler)
was a common inscription
on Roman roadside tombs.

This bit of information both shocks and baffles me. More so before reading the collection. After, it makes the same sort of sense as suddenly finding two withered fists grasping your lapels and two bloodshot eyes glaring into your soul pleading for what you know not.


Everyman by Philip Roth

December 10, 2009

The unamed protagonist of Everyman is afraid of oblivion. He starts life frailer than his robust and outgoing brother and, consequently, begins worrying about the end well before most. As a child, he is admitted to the hospital for hernia surgery. The boy with whom he shares a room disappears one night and the protagonist, Everyman, assumes he died. Roth manages the scene with both knowing humor and the urgency of a naive child. Of course, maybe the roommate did die.

Everyman recovers from the surgery and has a pretty healthy life until middle age. But even before ailments begin to disrupt Everyman’s normally energetic lifestyle, he worries about death. While still in his thirties, Everyman enjoys a vacation at a beach house with a lover. Thoughts of non-existence intrude on the idyll:

The only unsettling moments were at night, when they walked along the beach together. The dark sea rolling in with its momentous thud and the sky lavish with stars made Phoebe rapturous. But frightened him. The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die. And the thunder of the sea only yards away and the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water made him want to run from the menace of oblivion to their cozy, lighted, underfurnished house.

He decides to put off worrying about oblivion until old age and does his best to follow this plan. Still, he returns again and again to the idea of oblivion. When he develops health problems sooner than his older brother, their once close relationship strained due to Everyman’s jealousy of his brother’s health.

Roth writes beautifully of a man obsessively concerned with his own end. The protagonist, is less beautiful. Everyman is extremely narcissistic. He has two chief concerns in life: sex and death.

His objective with regard to sex is that he get as much of it as possible. He cheats on every significant other in his life and, at 70-something, bemoans the discovery that the 20-something he had attempted to seduce was only humoring him. He regrets, not that he should have done more with the time he had, but that he does not have more time to engage in the same rather pathetic pursuits in which he has always engaged.

As for death, he is terribly concerned with his own. The deaths of others disconcert him primarily because it brings into clearer focus his own eventual fate. Oblivion is, for him, a great calamity.

It is unfortunate, I can agree, but Everyman thinks too much of himself. A person’s death is really only a calamity to those who love him, who are loved by him. A character who seems to have lived a more laudable life illustrates this point in a particularly touching scene. She is a student in the art class Everyman teaches, a class populated mostly by the elderly. She, his star pupil, has back pains which occasionally force her to lie down in his room. He finds her there, crying.

“Would a heating pad help?” he asked.

“You know what would help?” she said. “The sound of that voice that’s disappeared, the sound of the exceptional man I loved. I think I could take all this, if he were here. But I can’t without him. I never saw him weaken, once in his life. Then came the cancer and it crushed him.”

I suspect Everyman is more taken by the crushing force of cancer than the exceptional love of this woman for another. Cancer, heart disease, a bulldozer, something will crush us all. But not all of us will love like the art student, not all of us will be loved as was her “exceptional man.” Hers, theirs, is the calamity.

Everyman’s preoccupation with death is as base as his drive for orgasms. He has all but destroyed every potentially meaningful relationship he has ever had. He is able to reach out to some other battered old men late in life, but that is only to console himself, to look inward again, at the tragedy he is facing. They are not people he will miss. They are not people who will miss him. They are simply examples of what awaits and that is what Everyman finds calamitous. That he, Everyman, must be swallowed by oblivion.

The writing is beautiful, but I am underwhelmed by Roth’s focus on death, deterioration, and sex. These are neither lofty nor abstruse concepts. We live, we die. Because all life has evolved to procreate, we have the desire to achieve orgasm. This latter fact is more tragic than oblivion. Our short time is spent preoccupied too much with the concerns of dogs within sniffing distance of a bitch in heat, not enough with more meritorious goals. If only our need to love, connect with, and respect our fellow travelers was as instinctively compelling, that would be something.

The true calamity, then, is that Everyman is far too much like every man.

(This is a review of the audio version, read by George Guidall.)


The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

September 25, 2009

I read this book as part of an ongoing discussion on theism/atheism with a friend of mine. He suggests a book, then I suggest a book. My suggestion was Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker, but my friend wanted to read this one instead. I had not read either and, obviously, this book had received a fair amount of press. I went along.

TheGodDelusionI have not read any of the recent books of this type (e.g. Hitchens’s god is not Great, Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation), so I cannot provide any opinion on the relative merits of this book versus those. What I can give you is my opinion regarding whether Dawkins succeeded with this book. Ultimately, I think he did not.

Dawkins is an outstanding scientist. He has been involved in many battles with creationists over the course of his career. I think these battles have probably colored his opinions for the worse. Dawkins is not simply an atheist, he is an anti-theist. This book is not so much a discussion of why he does not believe in a god, but why he thinks no one should and why he thinks belief in a god is an active evil. At least, that is almost certainly the only thing his purported audience, theists, will get out of it.

Dawkins is strongest in conveying his passion for science, which is why I would strongly recommend The Selfish Gene (an excellent book) SelfishGeneor one of his other science-focused books, rather than this book if you want to read something by Dawkins. In The God Delusion, he seems primarily to be venting his frustrations with theists and creationists rather than presenting a dispassionate argument regarding either the existence of gods or the net benefit of religion regardless of its truth.

An example is his devotion of six of the first eight pages to re-capturing Einstein for the atheist side. There is no doubt that Einstein is often invoked by theists as one of their own. This is generally due to quotes such as “God does not play dice” and the like. Dawkins is right that Einstein had, if anything that can be called religion in the sense theists use the term today, a Spinozan awe of nature. He did not believe in a personal, interactive god. Anyone remotely curious about this could discover the truth of the matter with only a little digging. But whether Einstein was a militant atheist or a fundamentalist Christian is absolutely irrelevant to the question of whether anything supernatural exists. This particular appeal to authority should have been beneath Dawkins.

If keeping score of which famous person is an atheist and which a theist were limited to the initial chapter, it would be forgivable. It is not. Dawkins spends far too much of this book determining who belongs on which side. He knows as well as anyone that the truth or falsity of a particular religious claim is not affected one iota by who holds that particular belief. The resolution of where on the religious spectrum Albert Einstein, Stephen J. Gould, Thomas Jefferson, Stephen Hawkings, Joseph Stalin, or Adolf Hitler fall is absolutely irrelevant to argument regarding the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being. Unfortunately, Godwin’s law applies. Dawkins loses by being baited into these sideshow debates by theists.

Dawkins does have good points to make. The problem is that the well-made points are (1) likely to already be known by atheists and (2) unlikely to be noticed by theists because the theists will be hung up on his discussions of personalities and whether the actions of certain men or groups are representative of either atheists or theists generally. Neither audience is likely to find the book edifying.

“The God Delusion” is not a scientific text, but a polemic. It is entertaining, if you have an interest in these theist vs. atheist wars, but it is a poor introduction to the arguments regarding the existence of the supernatural. It is even worse as a contribution to any discussion regarding the question of whether religion is a net positive or net negative. Dawkins even speculates, at one point, as to what research might someday show if a rigorous experiment were carried out. The prediction is foolhardy, because I would gander it is not far from an even question whether Dawkins is right. More importantly, he cannot win. Proof will not be helped by his own speculation. Conversely, if he is disproved, he will have achieved for the atheist side one of those self-inflicted wounds he so often bemoans.

I wonder whether Dawkins’s true purpose was to pen a call-to-arms rather than to persuade theists of their error. I do not think the book succeeds if the former, it is largely a failure if the latter. Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, but he is an unconvincing anti-theist polemicist.


The Road by Cormac McCarthy

September 24, 2009

This is a very emotionally compelling and evocative novel. McCarthy’s distinctive writing is well-suited to the subject. After only a few pages, the reader feels dingy and dusty and, after a few more, despairing of hope. The novel does not take long to read partly due to the book’s not being very long and partly because it sucks you in. As unpleasant as the setting is, the reader wants to see the plot through. At least, I did.

TheRoadThe Road has been regularly lauded and the movie is coming out soon. If you have not heard the basic setup, it is this: A man and his son are traveling down a road in a post-apocalyptic world. It is never clear what disaster befell the earth, but it has left only a few human survivors and, apparently, almost no other animal or plant life. The human survivors are desperate, starving, and, in many cases, cannibals.

Our heroes, never named, have decided to travel south on the road. The reasons for their decision are unclear. The man does not seem to know what lies in the south, other than the ocean. He simply has faith that something is there. Something for, if not himself, at least for his boy. And that is what the book largely is about, faith and perserverance in the face of an uncaring, unforgiving, and desolate universe.

As they travel through the bleak landscape, the man and boy have harrowing encounters with other humans, both living and dead. After one such encounter, the man reassures the boy:

You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you. Do you understand?

Yes.

He sat there cowled in the blanket. After a while he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.

Yes. We’re still the good guys.

And we always will be.

Yes. We always will be.

Okay.

The boy, of course, is constantly afraid, as is the man. Most of their dialogue involves the man reassuring the boy against his fear. The man is just as fearful, but, for the boy’s peace of mind, he hides it as best he can.

We’re going to be okay, arent we Papa?

Yes. We are.

And nothing bad is going to happen to us.

That’s right.

Because we’re carrying the fire.

Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

The boy is too young to remember life before the disaster. The father, however, remembers some things too well and, to his horror, others less well every day.

He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parasible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.

While there is much religious symbolism and allegory, the road could also stand in for life. The man often things about the brevity of life and “the crushing black vacuum of the universe.”

Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

In the face of desolation, though, man and boy keep going.

This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They dont give up.

For me, this seemed to be the message of the novel. And, yes, I think there is something of the message novel here. McCarthy is meditating on the human willingness to keep going despite evidence that there is nothing at the end of the road but more emptiness. The fire is passed from parent to child. The parent nurtures the flame in the child long after the parent has given up his own passion for life. It is what we do.

These characters are placed in a particularly bleak world. This is part of my problem with the novel. I thought the world was too bleak. The only non-human animal we see is one dog. By all appearances every other mammal, bird, fish, insect, or other animal has perished in the disaster. Plants of every type also seem to have been destroyed. Granted, with books like this, you simply have to enter the world and ignore some questions of plausibility. Still, the world felt a little too artificially constructed to serve McCarthy’s ends.

The book is overrated, but still well worth the read. It can be interpreted in many ways, both religious and non-religious, which probably explains its broad appeal and popularity. The novel is dark. The glimmers of hope are slim, often fleeting. This is not a happy, pleasant book. McCarthy will take you to forbidding, unsettling places. Be prepared.