My young son pushes a football into my stomach
and tells me that he is going to run
an out-and-down pattern,
and before I can check the signals
already he is halfway across the front lawn,
approaching the year-old mountain ash,
and I turn the football slowly in my hands,
my fingers like tentacles
exploring the seams,
searching out the lacing,
and by the time I have the ball positioned
just so against the grain-tight leather,
he has made his cut downfield
and is now well beyond the mountain ash,
approaching the linden,
and I pump my arm once, then once again,
and let fire.
The ball in a high arc
rises up and out and over the linden,
up and out over the figure
that has now crossed the street
that is now all the way to Leighton Avenue,
now far beyond,
the arms outstretched,
the head as I remember it
turned back, as I remember it
the small voice calling.
And the ball at the height of its high arc
begins now to drift,
to float as if weightless
atop the streetlights and the trees,
becoming at last that first bright star in the west.
Late into an early morning
I stand on the front porch,
looking into my hands.
My son is gone.
The berries on the mountain ash
are bursting red this year,
and on the linden
blossoms spread like children.
I’ve just finished reading Neverwhere for the third time since I picked it up at random in a used-book store four months ago. Gaiman, apparently, is rather well-known, but I’d never heard of him. I’ve now read American Gods, which I thought was pretty good but not nearly comparable to Neverwhere,Â a text which, in my view, doesn’t have a word or a scene that isn’t precisely as it should be.Â
It’s hard to say anything specific about NeverwhereÂ without spoiling Gaiman’s very careful exposition, so I’m going to put the substance of what I have to say about it after the jump, and urge people who haven’t read the book, but might, to do so before reading past the jump here.
It’s a fantasy with a realistic framework, set in the London of the mid-1990s or perhaps slightly earlier.
Two things the author might have expected me to know that I didn’t in fact know:
* The Marquis de Carabas is the title Puss-in-Boots invents for the miller’s son he wants to pass off as an aristocrat.
* The London Underground station in Islington is Angel.
As a bonus, here’s Pentangle performing the Lyke Wake Dirge, which furnishes one of the book’s epigraphs. (The other is from Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill.)
A poem about an intimate moment during a long family drive
The traffic lights went green yellow red
down the empty street in front of us
like a small mindlessness captured forever
in the double mirror of a barbershop.
Three in the morning, Dad, good citizen
stopped, waited, looked left, right.
He had been driving nine hundred miles,
had nearly a hundred more to go,
but if there was any impatience
it was only the steady growl of the engine
which could just as easily be called a purr.
I chided him for stopping;
he told me our civilization is founded
on people stopping for lights at three in the morning.
He was in that kind of mood.
My sisters were sprawled asleep in the back,
my mom was nodheaded beside me, lightly snoring.
I saw us all in a city where everyone
had died, traffic lights going on like a kind
of technological hair or fingernails
while Dad tells me about our civilization.
Beside us in a dimly lit laundry
empty suits were hung in rows
with numbers waiting on their sleeves.
James Branch Cabell seems to have borrowed his fantasy theogony from Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion.
From the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part V:
A man, who follows your [theistic] hypothesis, is able, perhaps, to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance, and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology, by the utmost licence of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him.
Surely this must be the origin, directly or indirectly, of the theogony James Branch Cabell invents for the Biography of the Life of Manuel, in which the God of Abraham appears as a created being, and thus at one remove of Heinlein’s in Job.
Footnote Can anyone tell me why the Library of America, which has published (e.g.) two volumes of short stories by William Maxwell and two more by William Dean Howells, has yet to publish a syllable of Cabell’s work, most of which is out of print?
Former UK Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s memoir is one of the best non-political books ever written by a politician
Former UK Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s memoir This Boy is one of the best non-political books ever written by a politician. It’s a beautifully written, uncompromising, touching and also at times funny account of a childhood lived out in grinding poverty in post-war Britain. More than anything, the book is a heartfelt tribute to the amazing mother and older sister who gave Johnson the love and support he needed to survive when his father abandoned their family.
To give one choice sample of the sterling quality of Johnson’s writing, and his ability to bring people to life for the reader, here is his description of his English teacher:
His face, beneath a fringe of severely cut fair hair, bore a permanent expression of anxiety. Small and shaped like a bowling pin, he walked with tiny steps, as if his shoelaces were tied together. We were constantly expecting him to topple over any minute. A committed Christian, he also taught Religious Education, a role that did not always sit easily with the fierce temper he tried, but often failed, to suppress. He was once seen hitting a boy over the head with a rolled up newspaper yelling: ‘Christ is love, you little bastard!’
To my mind, the greatest shortcoming of the electric pencil sharpener is not its limited utility, but the way it alienates its user from the pencil-sharpening process. In a culture that prizes openness and accountability, this device remains a defiantly closed system; the ultimate black box; a windowless abbatoir.
The unreliable narrator can be an effective literary device, whether the unreliability stems from a weakness for rationalization (Humbert Humbert) or temporary impairment (Venya on his way to Petushki). But for comic writing, few things work as well as the oblivious narrator, the one who takes him or herself and surrounding situation completely seriously when any other person (e.g., the reader) would double over in laughter.
A friend who accompanied me to what I judged the second most-boring museum in the world (The Pencil Museum in the Lake District) recently did me the kindness of mailing me one such book: David Rees’ dead-on, dead-pan guide to the artisanal craft of pencil sharpening. The quote above is an example of the portentous tone of the book, in which an emotionally stunted weirdo who has devoted way, way, way too much time and thought to pencil sharpening dispenses wisdom regarding his craft. I think I pulled a gut muscle reading it and if you like this sort of humor, you’d do well to check it out.
Another book that is just as funny in the same way is my favorite Washington D.C. satire: The Columnist by Jeffrey Frank. The narrator is political journalist Brandon Sladder, a self-involved, self-serious jackass who addresses the reader with the evident intention to impress. He invites us into what he considers the high-minded, well-informed Washington insider life that he thinks he leads, but the result is that pretty much everyone but him recognizes that he is an empty-headed, shallow hanger-on. It’s wickedly delightful and if you know our nation’s capital, painfully familiar at the same time. As with Rees’ book, if you like this style of comic writing, you will be richly entertained by The Columnist.
The DiCaprio film adaptation of The Great Gatsby reminds me that of all the novels I’ve read, it had my favorite closing sentence:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
The novel with my favorite opening sentence is Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
What are you own favorite closing and opening sentences?
I was in Russia when a tourist from New York turned to me and said, â€œWhatever happened to Chicago?â€ To this mysterious question he added, â€œI kept thinking it was going to break through, but it never did.â€ Nonplussed, I tried to think of a Chicago breakthrough. Eventually I must have sputtered something about Nobel laureates because he interrupted me dismissively. â€œEds and meds,â€ he said. â€œEvery second-tier city has those.â€ That concluded conversation between usâ€“-for the rest of the trip.
And thatâ€™s the problem with Rachel Shteirâ€™s article on the front page of last weekâ€™s New York Times Book Review. Conversation ended the minute she turned a review of books about Chicago into a pan of the city itself. Oh, there were responses aplenty, but most were reflexively protective, the kind youâ€™d expect from a mother charged with having an ugly baby. So weâ€™ve had a week of â€œSoâ€™s your old manâ€ and â€œIâ€™m rubber, youâ€™re glueâ€ without anybodyâ€™s communicating much of anything worthwhile.
Which is a shame, because Shteirâ€™s review was a gigantic missed opportunity to investigate the fact that â€œChicagoâ€ is a performance. Chicagoans perform the cityâ€™s epic nature, its street smarts, its unshockability. Most of all we perform its blue-collar roots evenâ€“especially–when we have none of our own. How could a professor of theater miss the fact that sheâ€™s in the midst of a production as deft and complicated and self-referential as Brecht? Continue reading “Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality”