I'm going to kick back, blog-wise, until after the gift opening, until hanging out with family and friends winds down, and until I get bored with the plethora of bowl games. Meanwhile, my wish for those who've been suffering the winter's storms will be a return to warmth and electricity and a hard-to-put-down read at bedtime.
For the writers out there, I wish you a bucket full of story-line epiphanies, many well turned phrases, and agents and editors who believe in you and your work.
For the publishing industry, I wish you the boldness to tell the bean-counters to take a hike, so you can concentrate on developing deserving writers.
And for those who will persist in reading my sometimes-cranky blog posts in the future, I wish you a few drops of Visine, a well-developed sense of humor, and the moxie to put your own thoughts out there – whether in comments to me, or in or your own posts.
Homecoming, by Bernhard Schlink
I have a musician friend, the son of a divorced couple, who had no contact as a child with his father. His father was a heavy drinker living in South Carolina in a house trailer with several other destitute drinkers. My friend didn’t know this until at age nineteen he hitchhiked up I-85 in search of his father.
Was he disappointed by the eventual confrontation? Yes. Did he regret meeting the decrepit man? No – it was a way for my friend to close a chapter in his then young life – in Schlink’s words, to hang an unadulterated picture of his father in his heart.
In Schlink’s story, we first find the young Peter Debauer living with his grandparents in Switzerland. The grandparents’ avocation is a project called Novels For Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment, and the old couple serve as editors for the series . They entertain the young Peter by allowing him to doodle on the blank sides of manuscript pages. But they admonish him not to read any of the often-risqué writing.
Peter grows up in nondescript fashion and begins to work as an editor. Rediscovering a stack of his doodles, he decides to read the manuscript fragments. The title and author aren’t given in this particular stack, but Peter is drawn to the piecemeal story: a soldier’s experiences during World War II’s battles on the Eastern Front. He then sets out to discover more about the manuscript and author.
For a short while, Debauer moves to the U.S., partly to distance himself from a failed romance. On his return, he slowly begins to discover links between the manuscript, the unknown author, and Peter’s mysteriously missing father. He questions his mother, places ads in papers, writes publishers, all leading him to more and more information about his father, who seems to have been an unrepentant Nazi.
A trip to East Germany (this is at roughly the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall) reveals that Peter’s surname isn’t really Debauer; instead, he discovers, he was born Peter Graf, the illegitimate son of his mother and an unnamed man.
Later, and once again in a difficult romantic relationship, one he braves losing, Peter travels to the U.S. to confront a man, John de Baur, whom Peter is convinced is his father, Johann Debauer.
I’ll say little about the book’s rather muddy ending. Instead I’ll lean a bit on Schlink’s literary devices. He alludes constantly, and in rather clunky fashion, to Odysseus’ decade-long journey from Troy following the ten-year war there, to his home in Ithaca. Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, as you may recall, was a month old when Odysseus left for Troy, and is nearing twenty when Odysseus returns to find a crowd of 108 suitors vying for wife Penelope’s affections. This part of Homer's story, we discover, roughly parallels Peter’s discoveries about his parents' lives.
Schlink uses a prose style in which there’s little if any transition between scenes, the story’s present time and its backstory. He occasionally drops a line of dialogue into a narrative passage, challenging the reader to make sense of who is speaking and why. His purpose here is surely to create a postmodern metaphor for the fragmentation in Peter’s life as he tries to make sense of his past.
But in the end, these devices prove unnecessary. Schlink’s grander metaphor here is the fragmentation within German life following World War II and the still-ongoing attempts to piece together a German nation following its official reunification in 1989. But the meat for this metaphorical stew is made, as the best of metaphors are, in seeing its micro-view: In this case, the manner in which Peter has lost his family identity and seeks to regain it parallels similar efforts to unify Germany.
As in his renowned book, The Reader, Schlink struggles to express here the manner in which the German people permitted the Nazi experience without being in agreement with its darker, partially hidden aspects. Homecoming is a difficult book to read. Certainly, it was a difficult book to conceive and write. As always, I admire Schlink’s persistence in pursuing his literary quest, and his efforts do succeed in portraying Peter as a personification of the emotional complexities of German politics and history. Schlink clearly loves his homeland, and the picture of a difficult, still fragmented Germany he's hung in his heart with Homecoming makes the book worth reading.
My rating: 3-1/2 of 5 stars.
The Gathering, by Anne Enright
I wasn’t familiar with Enright’s previous work when I bought this book; I must confess I bought it because it won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, always looking for another writer’s work to fall in love with. Did I fall in love with The Gathering? It’s a close call, but no. Still, that doesn’t color my appreciation for what Enright does here.
I continue to be uncomfortable with Irish literature, and this book may have given me a couple of clues as to why. There’s not much to give away here, so let me get to it. Liam Hegarty, one of twelve children of that family has just died—a suicide. The book is a slowly fructifying look at the day of Liam’s funeral—and into the family’s past—through the eyes of Liam’s closest sibling, Veronica.
The usual Irish plums are here: a father who turns alcoholic violence onto his family. A love/hate relationship with religion. A lyrical transcendence of all that is dark in Irish life through emotion and language. The lovably cantankerous Irish personality. What’s new here is the cause of Liam’s death: a different, more heinous violence turned against him in childhood, a violence that touches into the lives of the other family members and darkens all their lives.
As the funeral day approaches, Veronica attempts to plumb Liam’s psyche in an attempt to understand why he’s committed suicide. Liam has had the habit of drinking too deeply from his cups, but he’s been generally regarded as a happy but somewhat flaky family member. Surely, Veronica thinks, the suicide is Liam’s attempt to expose something about this dark act from his childhood. In oder to look deeper, Veronica must plumb the lives of all her family, particularly that of Ada, their grandmother.
A person peripheral to the family, Lamb Nugent, Ada’s landlord, enters the picture, and becomes the story’s antagonist, the catalyst for the family’s dysfunction. Would the family be this loose-jointed if not for Nugent? Sure. But the sort of hurt Lamb inflicted on the family certainly amplifies the Hegartys’ angst.
Enright textures this large family through the vehicle of Veronica, pushing most of them into the background such that the hum of their discontent amplifies Veronica’s. This is a skill only the most deft of writers can manage. Most of the children are alcoholics or, as Veronica might put it, shag-aholics, resorting to drink or sex to buffer their emotional pain. Veronica, as it turns out, resorts to both, and in the process, alienates herself from her husband and children.
Enright exposes Veronica thoughts to the reader in a Joycean manner, changing tense, leaping from memory to memory, person to person, event to event. It seems to this reader that the author’s strategy here is to portray an arguably typical Irish family through a foggy jumble of emotions. I’m not one to proclaim the truth of Irish life, but this seems to be a consistent thread through the Irish literature I’ve read.
And this seems to be the source of my own discontent with Irish writing: the troubled personality that reaches into its dark deeps and proclaiming it with poetic sweetness, as if that might wash the dark away. Also, the seeming compulsion to do Joyce one better bothers me a bit in Irish writing, as those techniques become overly cute. Still, Enright is true to this facet of the Irish spirit, I think, and she depicts her characters with remarkable dexterity. Does she deserve the Booker? Despite my problems with Irish writing, I have to admit: yes.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.
The Family, by Jeff Sharlet
I rarely read and virtually never post on writing of a polemical nature. When I first heard of Sharlet’s book I thought it would be of this kind, and it is—sort of. I’d seen Rachel Maddow on MSNBC gasping at Sharlet’s revelations in this book, seen him on a number of talk shows, including Maddow’s and Bill Maher’s, talking up his subject as if an early warning system to political decay (which it very well may be). Finally I decided to buy the book, even bought an extra copy to give a couple the missus and I know who are astute enough readers to share insights with us into Sharlet’s work here.
But, as often happens when I prejudge, Sharlet’s book yielded unexpected dividends. Of course, he has an agenda here: he’s a scholar at NYU’s Center For Religion and Media—a conflation bound to roil controversy. First, Sharlet is an investigative journalist of the highest order. Second, he’s no hack as a writer—but I’ll touch on that later. Sharlet proclaims something I’m not sure every American knows, particularly those with little interest in spirituality and religion, i.e., those who hold fast to America’s supposed secular values. He sets the book’s tone in his introduction with this:
This is a story about two great spheres of belief, religion and politics, and the ways in which they are bound together by the mythologies of America.
Sharlet does expose political hypocrisy as it appears almost daily within a select circle of those who seek to muddy the waters between state and religion. So adept is his reporting, in fact, that he’s managed a one-man full court press on those of both political parties in the U.S. who espouse the fundamentalist, evangelical, school of, well, shall we say, Christianity. And, in this reader’s opinion, he’s done our democracy a great service by such laser-like focus on fundamentalism.
His reportage here covers so broad a scope that I’d be doing it a disservice to try to synopsize. Suffice it to say that religious fundamentalism, driven as it clearly is by the antiquated precepts of the Old Testament, has moved from behind the curtain to both underground and above ground in fostering its political agenda. And it’s here that Sharlet’s focus becomes philosophically sharp. If I may quote once more from The Family, this time from the final pages:
American fundamentalism reveres the individual. So, too, the mystical liberalism of free markets, more similar to fundamentalism in function than secularists believe. Classical liberalism fetishizes the rational actor; fundamentalism savors the individual soul. Both deny possessing any ideology; both inevitably become vehicles for the kind of power that possesses and consumes the best intentions of true believers.
If I understand Sharlet’s intent here accurately, he hedges his bets when condemning fundamentalism for this reason: the political/economic alternative—secularism—tends to move away from the hodge-podge of real life, its ambiguities, its chaos, as quickly as do the tenets of religion – – as if the incongruities of life were horrific, the work of demons—to be avoided at all costs. Does Sharlet, then, excuse the easy answers, the cheap shots, the lies, that fundamentalist religion perpetuates? Of course not, no more so than those of secularism.
As stated above, Sharlet does the subject justice—immense as it is—in The Family. Both from the standpoint of his personal research, interviews, and understanding gained of fundamentalism from his investigations, as well as from the standpoint of his ability to articulate his perceptions.
If I have to fault The Family at all, it’s in Sharlet’s willingness to take on such a monumental subject in a single volume. At times, his treatment seems to wander because of this. Such isn’t actually true, however; he continually returns to the foibles of the human intellect, particularly as applied to religion, and how they’re being misapplied—and dangerously so—within the U.S.’s political arena.
Still, The Family, despite its tendency to the polemic, is an intellectual and journalistic force to be reckoned with in years to come.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.