§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: June 2007

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Palestine: Peace not Apartheid by Jimmy Carter

I liked this book as a timely review of the history of Israel and of the conflict with the Palestinians. It goes up to the war in Lebanon last summer. And basically I agree with Carter’s premise: the situation that exists needs to end in peace, not a separation by ethnic group: situations like the treatment of blacks in the US for 100+ years after the Civil War as well as Apartheid in South Africa were incredibly destructive in place and incredibly hard to end.

I don't think choosing the word "Apartheid" in the title was unwise. The book is a warning, that this conflict needs to be solved or the result will be something that no one wants. His view is that most of the Israeli people as well as most of the Palestinian people want this conflict solved and are willing to compromise. Carter believes it's a relatively small group of conservatives in Israel responsible for the stalemate.

It’s kind of quaint that Carter always calls it "the Holy Land" which seems to me anachronistic (haven't heard it called that since Sunday School days), but I understand that that was his initial motivation to go to Israel and eventually to try to make peace. He's always concerned with the rights of everyone to worship in their Holy Places. Though I must admit his emphasis on religion bothers me a bit, mainly because he investigates situations where Christians, both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories who are discriminated against. Of course I don’t think that’s good, but it’s a side issue it seems to me.

I admire Carter for writing this book--knowing it would be controversial and that he would be stoutly criticized, as he has been. People in the US generally don't know the details of the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, nor do they know the history of Palestine and Israel since WWII. And they don't understand how secular a society Israel is, which makes the controversy not so much religious as ethnic.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Slow Man by J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee continues to amaze me. This one is about a man in his sixties who was riding on his bicycle when he was hit by a car driven by Wayne Blight or Bright—his name is never clear inviting the reader to consider whether the accident was a tragedy or an opportunity—or both. As a result his leg has to be amputated. He refuses prosthesis, but discovers that it’s not all that easy to accommodate even his very restricted lifestyle to his disability. A man long divorced and a photographer by trade who’s evidently already retired, he lives in a fairly upscale but dullish condo (he’s never changed the furniture or put his stamp on his living quarters), Paul Rayment faces a crisis he doesn’t want to deal with. He has, it seems, practically no friends and doesn’t call on those for help. He’s visited by an old lover who finds him exasperating. There are a series of condescending nurses who treat him as a patient/child. Then Marijana Jokić becomes his nurse, and Paul evidently decides to deal with his problems by falling in love with the Croatian immigrant nurse who used to be a picture restorer—and with her whole family: husband Miroslav (called Mel in Australia) who’s an inventor turned mechanic, son Drago in whose life Paul quickly involves himself and daughters Blanka (a shoplifter) and Ljuba.

At that point, an uninvited guest drops in, a woman Paul knows by reputation only as a fairly well known Australian novelist named Elizabeth Costello. Readers of Coetzee’s previous novel—named Elizabeth Costello—take note. Evidently Paul is a character in her latest novel and he’s taken what seems to her a ridiculous turn so she’s come to straighten him out.

This sort of mixing of fiction and nonfiction, in which readers are made aware not only of the fiction they is reading but of the process by which fiction is made, is hardly new. It’s called “self conscientiousness” because the fiction seduces readers into a world of the imagination and simultaneously reminds them that it’s all, after all, just made up—sort of like when a character is a play or film turns and addresses the audience directly.

What’s different about Slow Man, though, is that there’s nothing gimmicky about Coetzee’s self-consciousness, even though we recognize from the novel Elizabeth Costello, in which ideas and even nonfiction writing of Coetzee’s is attributed to Elizabeth Costello, that’s she’s kind of a fictional alter ego for the author. It’s also fairly evident that Paul Rayment, a Frenchman who immigrated to Australia as a child and has never felt like he belonged, shares some characteristics with his author as well.

This may not be a completely successful novel, but it’s one which causes the reader to think pretty seriously, not only about the dilemma of a man approaching old age whose life becomes constricted and who reacts a little desperately, but about the dilemma of a novelist in the 21st century seeking a place for the novel in a world where the 19th century novel of character and plot and the 20th century post modern novel both seem to have run their course.

Friday, June 15, 2007

White Noise by Don DeLillo

White Noise at once seemed terribly dated and full of cultural insights that blew me away. My best example of the latter—I can’t find it in the book so am not quoting exactly: If you found yourself among hunter-gatherers, would you be able to bring one thing to them from our world. A car? A computer? An air-conditioner. I wouldn’t and I don’t think most others could either, even if you understood in some detail—as I don’t—how they work and how they’re built.

The main character—and also the narrator—of White Noise is Jack (professionally J. A. K.) Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies at a College in a small town in what seems to be New Jersey. In the words of Jayne Ann Phillips, who reviewed the novel for the New York Times when it was published in 1985, Gladney is “one of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices yet to comment on life in present-day America.” Gladney and his wife Babette live in a blended family, with children belonging to him, her, and them and are occasionally visited by other children who don’t life with them. Gladney has two girls, 9 and 19, who are full sisters from two different marriages to the same woman. I think he had 4 wives and 5 marriages.

There are two major and many minor plot events in a plot that frankly isn’t very plotlike. The first is the “airborne toxic event” when a toxic cloud from an industrial accident causes the Gladneys and everyone else in a large section of the state to evacuate. But the cloud, with includes a dangerous chemical called Nyodene Deritive (a byproduct of the manufacture of insecticide), blows with the wind, and is at one point in front of the crowd escaping along freeways in the middle of a blizzard. Nevertheless it was a more orderly evacuation than that leaving Houston in the face of Hurricane Rita and the accommodations for the evacuees were splendid compared to New Orleans Superdome during Katrina. The camps were managed by men in Mylar suites who work for SIMUVAC an emergency organization delighted to have a real crisis—we see it in later chapters endlessly conducting simulations and recruiting school kids and housewife and training them to be victims. There was even plenty of gasoline, though when Gladney gets out of the car to pump the gas, he’s exposed to Nyodene D which is rumored to cause all sorts of symptoms, from convulsions to déjà vu, symptoms which Jack’s daughters experience immediately after they hear each on described on the radio. As the crisis diminishes, everyone worries about the effects of the tiny microbes they seeded the cloud with to neutralize toxic chemical. Soon all that’s left are the spectacular sunsets which attract crowds at the freeway overpass.

Jack is told he’ll probably die prematurely because of his exposure. He doesn’t tell Babette who’s already obsessed about his dying first and leaving her alone. The second big plot item focuses on the mysterious pills Babette turns out to have been taking, pills, which, when Jack has them analyzed reveal a unique delivery system which is not yet on the market and an experimental drug called Dylar that’s supposed to banish the fear of death.

It turns out that what the “white noise” of contemporary society—the details of which permeate the book—obscures is death. Only Wilder (interesting name), Babette and Jack’s youngest is young enough to not to know he will die and therefore unafraid of death. The novel ends with Wilder riding his tricycle across all the lanes of the freeway.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I don't like dystopian novels or end-of-the-world scenarios much. I don't like allegories either. My reason is that the novel is an art work that works best exploring particularity, not in reducing everything to to an idea or a warning. I often find these dystopian (or utopian for that matter), or allegorical novels predictable once you grasp the concept they're working out. The "how" has to be awfully good for me to be happy finishing a novel that's predictable.

That said what saved The Road for me (which I still liked least of the three McCarthy novels I've read) was the "how" and style and tone are a big part of that. McCarthy's style is always spare and understated with a bleak view of human experience. There's always a narrator who sees violence close to the surface of the action. The controlled and understated styleand the narrator, experienced with the worst humans are capable of, behind that styleis what always raises a McCarthy novel above the crowd. That was true in Blood Meridian, his best novel in my opinion, and in All the Pretty Horses, the only other one I've read.

I think the key to tone and style in The Road is that McCarthy assumes the particulars of what happened. As readers we're supposed to know because it's the reality of anyone who's still alive to read a book. There's no preaching, no warning about how to avoid this end, only the tiniest hints even of what really happenedimages of cities burning, etc. There's no account of "where the man was when it happened" (the way we all know where we were when we heard of Kennedy's death or of 9/11). We know practically nothing of the man's past. We don't know how long it's beenthough we can guess since we know the boy was born just after the catastrophe. But who was the man? Where did he live (somewhere in the southeast, maybe Tennessee, is where he was from since he shows it to the boy)? What was his occupation? What did he like to do? We know the bare bones of the boy's birth and the mother's suicide, but we don't even know how old the boy is or when the mother left or if the boy actually remembers his mother.

The style tells us right away that we're never going to know all those details that we're curious aboutthat this particular narrator is not going to get angry about what happened or suddenly double back and fill us in on all the details of the catastrophe, or blame someone. What I generally hate about dystopian novels is all the focus on ideas and processesunderstanding what happened and why (presumably as a lesson).

It's important, by the way, to remember that there is a narrator, one who never reveals himself (I assume a he) but gets into the head of both the man and the boy. The narrator's story-telling stylespare, understated, but enormously empatheticfocuses on one man and his son and almost exclusively on their present, absolutely ignoring the reader's curiosity. No speculating about the future either. This narrator wants the reader to put himself or herself on that road, in those circumstances, to see and feel and taste what the man and the boy do, to force the reader to come to terms with the reality of that road, as the man has had to do in order to live himself and keep the boy not only alive but human. It's that spare but lyrical style that communicates the "lesson" of the novelthat survival depends on accepting the present reality and that you also have to do more than thatyou have to maintain your humanity and pass your values on to the next generation, even if there's no hint of a viable future for that generation.

I admit I'd not have read this one had it not been chosen for a book group where I'm the moderator. I don't like this kind of book. But since I did read it, I have to admit that it's far superior to any other novel of this type that I have read and it's the narrative voice and the style that redeems it for me. McCarthy refuses to hit the reader over the head with the lessons of the post-catastrophe world. Like the good novelist he is, he forces you to pull any lessons out of the particulars of the novel's characters and their situation.