Brotherhood of Warriors, by Aaron Cohen and Douglas Century

Images-2  

The social value of memoirs is in allowing us a view of
someone else’s life experience. Obviously, life is short – we can’t experience
everything we might want to during our short span of years. But we can add
vicariously to our experience through the ways in which external happenings
bring others’ lives to a crisis point, creating the need for change. In this
way, we come to understand the resilience, the malleability possible – as well
as the long-term emotional traps possible in life experience.

 

In this memoir of a bratty rich boy Aaron Cohen, a Jewish adolescent
living a pampered life in Beverly Hills, California, we note a transformation
no doubt similar to many entering military service around the world. Following
an episode in which he runs up a horrendous bill on his mother’s credit card,
Cohen is sent to a Canadian military school. Surprisingly, he takes to the
harsh discipline and begins to develop an interest in his Jewish heritage, in
the state of Israel itself. This leads him to apply for military service in the
Israeli Army.

 
Images-1
 

His experience there begins to harden as he moves from
kibbutz life to army enlistment to an arduous experience in Israel’s special
forces. He doesn’t dwell in this memoir on the details of his bouts with Hamas
and other Palestinian factions considered terroristic in Israel. But he does
give us a first person account of such a clandestine experience on his own
life.

As one might expect, his life perspective narrows with the
focus such work demands. He struggles in the memoir to balance the feeling that
all Palestinians are enemies, but his training has left him hyper-aggressive,
with hair-trigger responses to possible threats that might him and those nearby. 

Still, he begins to sense the negative effects of such
training and under-cover experience, and ends his military life in Israel,
despite an offer to be enrolled as a Mossad officer.

Returning to the States, he’s at loose ends, unable to trust
anyone except those who fought with him in and near Israel. This is then the
baggage one carries as one attempts to reconcile the gentler civilian lifestyle
that inevitably follows modern warfare experience. 
Cohen is unable to crawl from under the possibility of terroristic
threat, so he forms a company to train police, soldiers, even schoolteachers,
in coping with terroristic acts.

 

The presence of Douglas Century shouldn’t go unnoticed here.
No doubt something of a ghostwriter for Cohen, he gives us largely a
replication of Cohen’s experience in Cohen’s own vocabulary and reproduced
personality. But such dual-author writing often labors under the inescapable
possibility of random changes in voice and tone. In this one, Century’s voice
seems to appear early on, in narrative passages that are much more elegant than
the salty, confident, often troubled voice of Cohen.

 

This book does reveal much about the narrowing of
perspective, the commitment of soldiers involved in modern military life, as
well as a consequent alienation from civilian life. Cohen does air his burdens
with great candidness here. But I suspect an equal interest in promoting the
quasi-military protection and training service he’s begun. That this became his
interest in civilian life, speaks loudly to the emotional baggage such
combatants will carry, probably for the rest of their lives.

 
Images-3  

My rating: 3-1/2 of 5 stars

 

 

Of Books, Kindles, iPads, and Bullets in the Foot.

100426_r19553_p233  A recent issue of New Yorker magazine carried a story, ostensibly about the expected future shoot-out between Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad for control of the burgeoning ebook industry.

In this rather long and detailed article,the author poses some rather surprising – even shocking – views of the crumbling publishing industry:

  • The publishing industry as a whole has never had a real – collective or individual – business plan. These companies depend on individual bookstores for trends, data on volume of general sales, and the like.
  • Publishing companies have traditionally considered bookstores to be their customers. Consequently, they know little of their real customers, the readers.
  • These publishing giants have never taken much of an interest in electronic technology or in the Internet to hawk their wares. This is largely why Amazon has been so successful at book sales.
  • The result: publishers are making something on the order of $1 profit per book. This in turn has forced them to cut editorial services, marketing, and publicity – – all of which has made it near-impossible for new writers and established mid-list writers to sustain themselves financially. So many writers have turned to academia as a financial haven (a problem for the quality of creative writing in itself – I've posted on this previously ad nauseum)
  • The consequence: Apple and Amazon are of the opinion that the publishing industry is unnecessary, and are going to the writers directly to publish their work (case in point: my own venture with Amazon – a novella, The Blue Bicycle, on Kindle)

I'm of a mixed mind about this. I grew up with books in my hand, even nearby, have kept it so all my life. I love the feel of my recliner at my back, a book in my hand, a beverage on the table beside me. Still, I have to be realistic: the book industry has shot itself in the foot, and there will likely be no turning back. 

The Story’s The Thing

Images-1  Summertime, by J.M. Coetzee

 

Before writing this post, I did something I rarely do: I
read other reviews of the book. What seems faintly amusing is an
apparent mindset by reviewers regarding the relationship of authors to their
fictional works. England’s Guardian
newspaper wonders if Summertime – a
fiction in which Coetzee is the principal character – is not an act of evasive
action, i.e. an attempt by Coetzee to obfuscate his life. Others sense
something afoot with this book that they can’t put finger to. So they step
gingerly around what might seem autobiographical revelations.

 

A wise move, such wariness. It’s indeed tempting to attach
the word “cagey” to Coetzee, but I propose that “inventive” may be the more
accurate descriptive, although less alluring. Think of a pair of his
recent books:

 

In Diary Of A Bad
Year
, Coetzee weaves a seeming series of crank essays on a number of
topical subjects into an “almost” romance between an aging writer and his young
typist. Elizabeth Costello gives us
another snapshot of an elder writer, this time a woman, bent on assessing the
world around her. As part of her assessment she can’t escape the notion that
her fame as a writer has long since outdistanced her true identity.

 

Seeing some similarities, despite the differing
characterizations and novel structure? Don’t be deceived here: wariness is
still the watchword regarding Coetzee and his relationship to his writing. But
I’m going to throw that word aside and make my own stab at what Coetzee is –
and has been – up to in his more recent novels.

 

But first a word or two about this story:

 

In Summertime,
Coetzee has died and a man named Vincent is researching for a biography of
Coetzee. As part of his research, he’s selected five people from Coetzee’s life
to interview.

 

·     
Julia, a married woman with whom Coetzee has had
an affair while in his early to middle years

·     
His cousin Margot

·     
A Brazilian dancer whom Coetzee knew indirectly
– Coetzee was for a time her daughter’s tutor

·     
Martin, a university colleague of Coetzee’s,
and…

·     
Sophie, a French woman with whom Coetzee had a
sexual liaison in his early life.

 

Among the topics discussed in these interviews are:

 

·     
Coetzee’s lack of social graces

·     
His lackluster performances as a sexual partner

·     
His possible homosexuality

·     
His abilities as a writer

·     
His successes – or lack thereof – as a tutor and
teacher

 

Clearly, some of these interviews unearth accurate
biographical bon mots. But which?
Beware! Okay, I step into literary quicksand here.

 

These are my contentions:

 

·     
Coetzee is first and foremost a novelist of
great stylistic inventiveness. While his prose may seem pedestrian to some,
that’s not where his talent and vision lie. Birthed as a writer in the crucible
of South Africa and that nation’s checkered history, he has rarely written
directly about that nation’s history. In fact, his writing on the subject, as
with other subjects he treats, is somewhat oblique. He prefers metaphor and
symbol to the real, the tangible.

 

·     
Coetzee has embraced the postmodern tone and
style, although I wouldn’t term his work as mainstream (yes, this adjective is
laughable) postmodernism. The aspects of postmodernism he has appropriated for
his own use tend toward the deconstructive. They also minimize the autonomy of
the author and take a view of both history and fiction as a blend of the real
and the imagined.

 

·     
I suspect, then, that he’s been trying for a
decade to construct a legacy to bear his name. I also suspect he wants this
legacy to be one of literary adventurousness regarding style and structure. And
I believe he would want to minimize his personality in such a legacy. Hardly
the manner of Hemingway or Mailer, right?

 

In this light, Summertime
seems to be a subtle witticism on both his life and fame, one in which he
wishes to reduce his role to the minimal, and while he's at it, leaving an authorial
representation something akin to Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

 

But this review isn’t to be construed as all about Coetzee,
or the anti-Coetzee. With Summertime,
he’s constructed one of the most skillful and readable novels of his career. I
think this laudable to the nth degree. In an age in which so much poetry and
memoir is self-absorbed, Coetzee seems to be leaving us with a maxim we readers
and writers should forever hold close to our hearts: the story’s the thing.

 
 Images-2
  

My Rating: 4-1/2 stars out of 5

 

Envisioning An Apocalyptic Novel

 Images-2
Images-1   

Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon – Part 2

 

If one with Pynchon’s apocalyptic view of western society
and his desire to write about it were to devise a novel on the subject, what
form would suit his story best? In broadbrush form, it should probably consist
of episodic segments using arcane terms, everything bouncing from place to
place geographically, back and forth in time. Since life on planet earth has
grown absurd, then the story should benefit from wry, edgy humor.
Characterizations would be grossly exaggerated to fit this model of absurdism,
and since these characters personify such absurdity, they would be depicted
with little depth, the author dwelling on the manic, purposeless surface of everyday
life. Occasionally, the insertion of grim, acerbic all-too-real philosophic
passages would render such absurdism most trenchant.

 

Gravity’s Rainbow
incorporates each of these traits, and I believe that’s why Pynchon chose the
post-modern form. I suspect he didn’t intend to further this form of
literature; rather he appropriated the then-embryonic form to suit his vision
for the novel he chose to write.

 

For example:

 

As alluded to before, Pynchon apparently had, at least in his early
years, an ability to assimilate both the exotic language of science
and technology and the equally esoteric language of the various schools of
mysticism that have proliferated over the ages. Used in tandem in Gravity’s Rainbow, these have the
effect of padding the terminology of science with that of exotic spirituality.
In his hands, this launches his characters into a story of a humanity
spiritually bent toward excess of all sorts, and death in the form of
self-destruction:

 

“As some secrets were given to the Gypsies to preserve
against centrifugal history, and some to Kabbalists, the Templars, the
Rosicrucians, so have this Secret of the Fearful Assembly, found their ways
inside the weatherless spaces of this or that Ethnic Joke.”

 

In Pynchon’s hands humor becomes ribald, sophomoric. That shouldn’t
be seen as an impediment in this novel, though; the more inane and childish the
humor, the more his vision of an absurd humanity gains flesh:

“There is some excitement amidships. The Russians have
thrown back a tarp to reveal the chimps, who are covered with vomit, and have
also broken into the vodka…Some of the chimps are docile, others are looking
for a fight.”

 

“And now, libeling,” Margherita with a rare and somewhat
phony, smile, “let’s hear ‘Animal Crackers in My Soup’!”

“’Super Animals in my Crack,’” hollers a humorist from the
crowd.

 

Page after page of this comes to a halt before:

 

“What the leaflet neglected to mention was that Benjamin
Franklin was also a Mason, and given to cosmic forms of practical joksterism,
of which the United States of America may well have been one.”

 

Humor, then, counterbalanced by abject reality or depictions
of institutionalized paranoia, allows the ground under our feet to shift, and
we slip into Pynchon’s form of literary chaos.

 

But any drunk or doped faux-writer could accomplish
something of this sort. Is Pynchon one of these? Hardly. He knows his way
around literary technique. Clearly he knows how to use the post-modern form –
what it can and can’t do. He stretches the form perhaps beyond reasonable
limits; still, he’s consistent in its use, and its effect on this reader’s
sensibilities becomes consistent.

Among other clever uses of language, he compresses dialogue
tags with narrative snippets and stage directions, adding to the book’s
intensity:

 

“Well now—“ at which point Närrisch comes walking into them.

 

and

 

“You’re really hot, Rocketman, wow,” Krypton lying in back
offering ankle and taped cocaine bottle go to Shirley with a smile.

 

This then is Gravity’s
Rainbow
in a pair of nutshells. But does it work? Is it literature? Debate
argues the case on both counts, even some thirty years after its publication.

 

While I have to admire certain aspects of Pynchon’s efforts
here, and while I recognize his ability to make such mental scramble consistent
in its effect, it’s difficult to follow. It’s work, not fun. Consistency is not
coherence, and it seems not to matter if one skips a hundred pages ahead in a
story line that offers a glacial pace and overwhelming, largely senseless
detail.

 

And so we come to the question of accessibility. This work,
along with James Joyce’s and others, will always be lauded by some, simply
because their convolutions are technically well crafted and manage consistency.
Some will also say that art should have no social import; its presence in an artistic form is enough. Regarding Gravity’s Rainbow,
then, I have to ask: If not for a world set on its ear by the stupidity,
depravity, and senselessness of the early twentieth century, why would one
write such a novel?

 

It’s good (and part of the reason literature exists) to
challenge readers, to confront them with unexpected style and structure, but if
such work is so daunting in its inanity as to put off those who might otherwise
read it, then even its presence as art should be challenged.

 

That’s why my rating remains: 3.5 of 5 stars.

 

 

Educator/ Writer Lyn Hawks Publishes!

Images-1  

As a writer, I'm always happy to hear that a writer friend has been newly published.
My pal, Lyn Hawks, has recently had just such success:
Here's her message about it:

I'm happy to announce that I have a new book published with NCTE: Teaching Julius Caesar: A Differentiated Approach.

If you know any middle and high school English teachers interested in differentiated instruction, please feel free to share this link.

http://www1.ncte.org/store/books/shakespeare/131418.htm

Of Sex, Death, And Rockets

Images-1  Images-2
  

 Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon – Part 1

 

Reading has always been meant to be entertaining, and sometimes informative, but I often pick up a book that I hope offers other rewards to this reader. Not that I want to be inundated with printed blather, you understand; it's just that the writer in me seems always on a quest to uncover new takes on the novel as an art form. So I bought the book, procrastinated for a number of months, then sighed and dug in. Actually, digging is probably the most apt description of the experience facing a reader of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

 

It's helpful to consider Pynchon's personal history for a moment before such digging begins. Thomas Pynchon was born in 1937, his childhood no doubt colored deeply by the years-long drama of World War II. He began college in an engineering-related curriculum (now there's a connection for this former engineer) at Cornell in the ‘fifties, and one may suppose college proved to be a tainted challenge. He left Cornell to serve briefly in the U.S. Navy, then went to work for Boeing in the aerospace industry, writing safety articles.

 

Clearly a person of intense curiosity, with an ability to absorb arcane facts, Pynchon became a bit player in the ‘sixties counterculture, befriending folk singer and novelist Richard Fariña until Fariña's untimely death. Gravity's Rainbow showcases evidence of the disparate influences the Navy and the counterculture had on Pynchon, affording him a worldview underpinned by the cultural angst following World War II, the ensuing Cold War, and the mass movements begun to circumvent what seemed an impending apocalypse.

 

But now the book and its gist. (Next week I'll post on the technical aspects of the book and how I suspect his style and structure ties into what there is of a story.)

 

One reviewer has described the book as a transgressive novel. Another deemed it a consummate piece of absurdism. Odd descriptions, and somewhat accurate, I think, but I'll get to that next week. The "story" is a hodgepodge of vignettes taking place in Europe's western theater during World War II. A rough depiction would have the book's storyline concerned with efforts by an American military officer, Tyrone Slothrop, who had been handed the mission of trying to stop Nazi development of a rocket, simply termed 000000. Along the way, he has to contend with psychologist Nathan Portmann, voluptuous double gent Katje Borgesius, Nazi colonel Weissmann (also known as Blicero), German rocket scientist Pökler, an African named Enzian, British officer Roger Mexico, Soviet spy Vaslav Tchitcherine, and a supporting cast of hundreds – enough to make Cecil DeMille proud.

 

Slothrop has been left with a certain mental suggestion by Harvard professor, Laszlo Jamf. What suggestion? To predict in an unerring way German V-2 rocket attacks on London by the timing of his erections. Meanwhile, the Schwartzkommando, a mysterious group of Herero tribesman from Namibia, which has been exiled to Germany, are attempting to build a similar rocket, the 000001.

 

Slothrop's many sidetrack episodes, including all sorts of outlandish sex acts, drug use, gambling, and other sensory appeals are mean to be the reason he fails in his quest to stop the rocket.

 

But what are we to make of such a jumbled story? Pynchton seems to be sketching the way he thinks two world wars left Europe and the U.S. in a state of mind so cloudy as to render politics and international affairs and the accompanying social structures distorted to the point of the absurd. (Note: Pynchon comes by this notion honestly; absurdism began to infect European art, particularly drama and literature, after World War I, and particularly after the Second World War.)

 

In a nutshell, his characters are acting out a nihilistic ethos: human preoccupation with sex never dwells far from humanity's tandem preoccupation with violence via war, executions, and murder. The ultimate sex/violence act: suicide. His metaphor here begins as a sexual one, to be sure. The rocket – in a society led astray principally by men, abetted by women who get what they want from men through sex – can only represent the male erection. The subconscious belief that sex, while creative, is the beginning of a convoluted sequence of acts that lead to suicide.

 

Thus, the German rocket, and the American and Soviet fascination with it, represents humanity's ultimate vehicle for wholesale human suicide.

 

Slothrop's journey ends without stopping the rocket (after all, how can humanity possibly stop the one act it was, in Pynchton's view, destined to commit – self-destruction), and in the book's final pages, the ten-to-one countdown begins to fire the 000000, laughably aimed at Los Angeles and a group of people watching a movie.

 

Gravity's rainbow is, then, a metaphoric description of a law of physics in which something propelled with a concentrated blast of natural energy eventually loses that energy and begins to fall in a parabolic arc. The implication here is clear: everything that rises (apologies, Flannery O'Connor) descends to its ultimate ruin. And every aspect of human abstraction: politics, religion, philosophy, science – plays its part in this ruinous completion of the human experiment. In one passage, Pynchon writes:

 

"…trying to make believe the Christian sickness never touched us, when everyone knows it has infected us all, some to death."

 

In another:

 

"What are all these persistences among a people, these traditions and offices, but traps? The sexual fetishes Christianity knows how to flash, to lure us in, meant to remind us of earliest infant love…"

 

another:

"…a discovery that love, among these men, once past the simple feel and orgasming of it, had to do with masculine technologies, with contracts, with winning and losing…Beyond simple steel erection, the Rocket was an entire system won, away from the feminine darkness, held against the entropies of lovable but scatterbrained Mother Nature: that was the first thing he was obliged by Weissmann to learn, his first step toward citizenship in the Zone. He was led to believe that by understanding the Rocket, he would come to understand truly his manhood."

 

Pynchon's book has been both lauded and assailed over the years. As always, the truth of literature is not to point the way to prevent or circumvent such catastrophe but to point out that the possibility exists. To that degree, Pynchton has certainly succeeded.

 

I'm rating this book a little lower than you might expect from the manner in which I've depicted it here. Next week, I'll try to explain why as we take on the author's style and structure.

 

 

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars.

A Case Of Time And Waiting

Images-1  Images-2
  

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk

 

It takes a certain emotional discipline to read European
Literature. No, change that – it takes a certain unique discipline to read any
literature other than that of these United States. We here in the colonies go
for hidden tawdriness, spelled out from page one with the page-turner style of
dime westerns (more like five-spot westerns these days).  The “other” requires us to stop, smell
the cigarette smoke, to inch into the book ever so slowly, in the hope that the plot is fructifying, even though we can’t yet discern it. That characters are
more than poseurs trying to seduce us with their cool, above-it-all aplomb. But
as Pamuk makes plain in his somewhat derivative novel, his Turkish characters
are as flawed, as human, as we Yanks are.

 

In The Museum Of
Innocence
, Pamuk gives us the story of Kemal Basmaci, whom we Americans
might call one of Turkey’s beautiful people coming of age during the
‘seventies’ turbulence there. They party hard, abuse friendships and loves, all
without a second thought, reminding me a bit of Gatsby.

One of Turkey's cultural paradoxes is that even as late as the
1970s, Turks submitted to arranged marriages. So it hardly surprises that one
day Kemal finds himself engaged to and more or less in love with the very beautiful and
cultured Sibel. And who couldn’t love such a person as Sibel? Pamuk seems to
ask. But his trick here is that Kemal and his friends are creations of both culture and family. All despite the way they
fancy themselves as European. But Kemal is soon to
learn the hard way – and over many anxious years – what real love is to make of
him.

 

He falls in love with Füsun, a distant cousin and a
child from the, well, less rich side of the family. They immediately enter into
a sexual relationship, handled (by Yank standards) with almost Puritanical tact by Pamuk. And with
each copulation, their intimacy and love grows stronger.

Kemal at first sees no conflict in his double sex life, but
as marriage to Sibel comes closer to reality, internal discord sets in. Füsun,
of course, wants to be his one and only, but this doesn’t seem to be blessed by
the stars, so Kemal and Sibel press on with their marriage plans. Then Füsun
disappears.

Kemal is devastated. His marriage plans soon fall apart, and
he sets out on a journey of decades to find Füsun and to reclaim her love –
reminding me a bit of Ian McEwan’s Atonement.


There are other tacit literary references: Victor Hugo and
Tolstoy and Henry James and a whisper of Dickens. But Pamuk’s vision for this
novel seems more philosophically complex than these derivative tactics might lead
us to believe; he seems to want to continue plumbing the Turkish psyche for
his readers. 

More to the point, he toys throughout with the idea of time, how
it shapes us and changes us. His eponymous museum is a paean to Füsun
– a collection of mementoes gathered from the many years of their relationship,
assembled in an attempt to freeze-frame moments of their time together. He perceives
from the very first, I think, that their love (and by implication, all human
love) is transient, that it will pass, later, if not sooner. We humans, he seems
to want us to understand, are uncomfortable with the very dynamism of the human
condition. There must be something more, his story whispers – a place or a condition
in which permanence rules.

 

Pamuk, as he did in Snow,
dallies with the techniques of post-modernism, but one turn of that pen near
the book’s end nettles this reader. His unnamed narrator turns the story over to Pamuk (who earlier makes
a cameo appearance at Kemal and Sibel’s engagement party), ostensibly to allow Pamuk to present something of Kemal
that couldn’t be depicted otherwise. Sadly, the technique seems more facade
than substance.

 

Pamuk has been for years one of his generation’s
foremost writers, one who dares to challenge us with philosophic insights
cloaked in story. And this book does little to diminish that.

 

My rating: 4-1/2 stars out of 5