‘Huck Finn’s America’ by Andrew Levy

Huckleberry Finn / SmokingBy Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, Feb. 4, 2015

The famous preface to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” reads like a goad: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

No book is as regularly ransacked. Bowdlerized, when not outright banned, from the moment of its publication in 1884, it has been read like a rune and interrogated for its embodiment of American anxieties about race and freedom and language, the call of the open road (or river). “The brilliance of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ” Toni Morrison wrote, “is that it is the argument it raises.”

In “Huck Finn’s America,” a capacious, companionable study of the novel, some 20 years in the making, Andrew Levy allows that, “One doesn’t say anything new about Huck Finn — a fact that, in itself, is not even a new thing to observe.” But in sifting through the scholarship, he discovers contemporary readers might have been misconstruing the book. We understand “Huck Finn” as a story for children and also a serious book about race. But in Mark Twain’s time, it was the other way around: The novel was regarded as lighthearted minstrelsy that contained a pointed and controversial critique of how childhood was being debated.

“The current fight over ‘Huck Finn’ is most recognizably a fight over the ‘n-word,’ ” — which appears more than 200 times in the book — “and whether or not the book ought to appear in secondary school classrooms,” Mr. Levy, an English professor at Butler University, writes. But in the 1880s, another noisy public discussion reigned.

Children were being conceived of as a social class for the first time. Public playgrounds and pediatricians had started appearing. The number of public schools increased, and compulsory attendance came to be enforced. There were battles over corporal punishment and whether dime novels (the video games of their day) were a dangerous influence. With “Huck Finn,” Twain “was contributing something more than a lighthearted ‘boy’s book,’ ” Mr. Levy writes. “He was thinking and speaking about literacy, popular culture, compulsory education, juvenile delinquency, at risk children and the different ways we raise boys from girls, and rich from poor.”

Debates about race simmered at the time, too — Reconstruction began collapsing in those years — but Mr. Levy says Twain was less central to that conversation. “He was somewhere nearby, ingenious, outraged, self-interested, vastly more interested in how many Americans play with race than in how they rise above it, or render its terms obsolete at the ballot box.”

Twain began composing “Huck Finn” in the summer of 1876, Mr. Levy writes, in a “little octagonal study filled with cats” in Elmira, N.Y. Life seeped into the writing; Twain’s small daughter Susy, a terrific liar and a terrible speller, acted as partial model for Huck, and the book’s central plot derived from a real incident. A friend of Twain’s once found a fugitive slave hiding out on an abandoned island and tried, and failed, to help him. The slave was caught, mutilated and murdered.

Mr. Levy shows that much of the violence in the book, abhorred by critics at the time, was ripped from life. Twain’s childhood was filled with gothic horrors — he watched his father’s autopsy through a keyhole — and the newspapers of the day served up a steady fare of thrilling savagery. “I have to have my regular suicide before breakfast, like a cocktail, and my side-dish of murder in the first degree for a relish and my savory assassination to top off while I pick my teeth and smoke,” Twain wrote.

The papers at the time were especially excited by a new menace: feral boys, “made morbid by the habit of reading,” an editorial cautioned. “Victims as well as the patrons of the literature of crime.” Continue reading

‘The Sexual Night’ by Pascal Quignard


Illustration from “The Poem of the Pillow,” by Utamaro.

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, December 5, 2014

“The Sexual Night” is a damp little relic, the sort of psycho­sexual mumbo jumbo one thought — one hoped — wouldn’t survive Norman Mailer. Alas, the French writer Pascal Quignard, best known for his 1991 novel “Tous les Matins du Monde,” has resurrected the genre in these Freudian disquisitions on classic depictions of sexual imagery.

He summons all the usual suspects: Leonardo’s anatomical sketches; Kali standing astride the body of Shiva; Caravaggio’s “Medusa”; Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde”; the 19th-century Japanese woodcut “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” which features a woman blissfully entangled with a pair of octopuses.

It’s a glorious gallery of what the Romans called lucubrationes, activities that take place by lamplight — sex, certainly, but also the other great adventures of the nighttime: doubt, prayer, melancholy, crime. Quignard says humans have always had a need for an “enclosure within which images succeed one another on the inner walls” — caves, cathedrals, museums, movie theaters — and this book becomes such a space.

Many of the paintings are half-eaten by shadows; the figures seem spied on through keyholes. Quignard’s particular obsession is with what Freud called the primal scene — a child’s first witnessing of sex, usually between his parents — although Quignard understands it more broadly, and less about sex than epistemology. The primal scene forces the child to confront the mystery of his origins, and of consciousness itself. “I’m trying to take one step closer to the source of the terror human beings feel when they muse on what they were before their body cast a shadow in this world,” he writes.

The trouble with “The Sexual Night” is that we cannot linger on the images forever; we must, at some point, reckon with the prose, where we encounter such silliness it’s almost impossible to stay the course.

There is some unpardonably bad sex writing, most of it unprintable here (and, in a just world, anywhere). We must contend with “uterine” as a favorite adjective. We must contend with a tender, anxious regard for virility and the concomitant dread of the “female sex organ,” variously depicted as cave or coffin. We must suffer nonsense like: “Woman steals sperm as Prometheus stole fire. Stealing what belongs to the gods.” Or, worse, Quignard’s odd ideas about evolution: “There is only one human posture — standing upright on account of the erection.”

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‘The Wallcreeper’ by Nell Zink

71cXxcL4PHLBy Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, Dec. 2, 2014

You don’t read Nell Zink so much as step into the ring with her. Every sentence is a jab or feint, rigged for surprise. Every word feels like a verb. The plot leaps will give you vertigo.

Her debut novel, “The Wallcreeper,” is a very funny, very strange work of unhinged brilliance — rude sex comedy meets environmental tract. Tiffany, our narrator, a creature of almost profound indolence, marries Stephen, her senior colleague at a pharmaceutical company, within three weeks of meeting him. Imagining marriage as a kind of early retirement plan, Tiffany hopes only for a protracted break from work that would allow her to pursue a nebulous course in self-actualization — as well as discreet sexual adventures. She follows Stephen as he is transferred from Philadelphia to Bern to Berlin; they start to get to know each other but quickly think better of it. Soon they’re into birds, Berlin’s radical activist scene and sleeping with other people. Stephen dabbles in drugs, Tiffany in eco-terrorism. They are magnificently ill suited, and they cannot be parted.

“The Wallcreeper” has the lineaments of a familiar story — young Americans go abroad and come apart — but it also has Tiffany, who sounds like no one else in American fiction. She has a voice that announces itself immediately, in the book’s indelible first line: “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.”

The rest of the opening scene unfurls like something out of “Fawlty Towers.” Bleeding profusely from the head, Tiffany collapses on the ground (“not in the vomit but near it”) while Stephen ministers to the bird he hit, a wallcreeper. (The species is a bird with a secret: When it opens its wings, it looks like a butterfly.) It’s “a lifer,” Stephen says, a major sighting that will go on his lifetime bird-watching list. He swaddles the bird in a bread bag while his wife rests her head on the loaf of bread and retches to stay awake.

It’s an antic episode, a fine introduction to the universe of this book, its off-kilter charm. And it allows Ms. Zink to toy with us a bit, which she likes to do. Having taught us to expect flippancy, she now slays us with the full measure of Tiffany’s grief: “I wasn’t pregnant, I noticed. I clenched my hands into claws and cried like a drift log in heavy surf. Stephen put his hands on my ears. Much later he told me he thought if I couldn’t hear myself I might stop. He said it reminded him of feedback mounting in an amplifier.”

She is especially crafty when it comes to sex. “My down there plays a minor role in several scenes to come,” Tiffany tells us, and these scenes are coarse, warm, unprintable. “He was uninhibited, as in inconsiderate,” Tiffany says about Stephen after a particularly clumsy encounter. “Can I get more orifices?” She goes on: “Not that three isn’t enough, but that the three on offer aren’t enough to sustain a marriage.”

Ms. Zink brings the same frankness and astringency to writing about nature. There are moments of unapologetic advocacy in the book — about the ecological costs of dams, say — but the best moments are the quietest: how geese passing overhead made “so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.” Or how crows, patrolling a field, “spread out in teams like policemen looking for a corpse in the woods, turning their heads from side to side, staring at the grass with one monocled eye and then the other.”

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‘Citizen’ by Claudia Rankine


By Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, Dec/Jan 2015

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is an anatomy of American racism in the new millennium, a slender, musical book that arrives with the force of a thunderclap. It’s a sequel of sorts to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), sharing its subtitle (An American Lyric) and ambidextrous approach: Both books combine poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, words and images. But where Lonely was jangly and capacious, an effort to pin down the mood of a particular moment—the paranoia of post-9/11 America and the racial targeting of black and brown men in those years—Citizen’s project is more oblique, more mysterious.

For the book is, first of all, a surprisingly seductive object. Its pages are slick and pearly, and the full-color images—paintings, TV screenshots, photographs—give it the feel of a gallery catalogue, which, in a way, it is. Citizen guides us from spectacle to spectacle, from a consideration of Serena Williams’s career and the racist taunting she has endured to a beautifully reproduced photograph of Kate Clark’s Little Girl, a sculpture of a hoofed woman; from an elegy for Trayvon Martin to Carrie Mae Weems’s Blue Black Boy, in which three identical blue-hued prints of a boy are presented side by side, one labeled BLUE, one BLACK, one BOY. And in the book’s most powerful passages, Rankine reports from the site of her own body, detailing the racist comments she’s been subjected to, the “jokes,” the judgments. It’s what we commonly call microaggressions, what Rankine calls “invisible racism” for how swift and sneaky it is, how ever-present. It is the word uppity. It is the word strident; it’s “No, where are you really from?” It’s stop-and-frisk. It’s what Hilton Als calls “phantasmagorical genocide,” what Kara Walker calls the “perpetual reminder that in this culture a Black body is not safe and my humanity is not real.” It is death by a thousand cuts.

Increasing attention has been paid to microaggressions in recent years. There have been books like Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? (2011); social-media campaigns like “I, Too, Am Harvard,” in which students discuss comments that have made them feel marginalized on campus; even BuzzFeed lists (“21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear on a Daily Basis”). And there’s “Killing Rage,” a classic of the genre: bell hooks’s 1995 essay about the array of racism she encountered on a trip to New York, a scalding piece of writing that begins with the indelible “I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder.” Rankine works in a cooler register. She renders her encounters in language rinsed of color, cant, and emotion. Her descriptions could be courtroom testimony: “The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you.” “You have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected.” “The woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer.”

It’s the framing that gives the vignettes their teeth: By telling us these stories, some of which she borrowed from family and friends, in the second person, Rankine builds her book on shifting sands—the reader is never immediately sure who in the story is black or white, whom to identify with, whom to trust or fear.

That indeterminacy, that unsettling openness in the text, recalls the paranoia racism evokes (“Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard?”), and it’s an unusual feature of writing about race. From Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 memoir to James Baldwin’s essays to Teju Cole’s rereading of Baldwin’s essays, the dominant mode has been pedagogic, messianic: the writer trying to persuade white America of her humanity, trying to save its soul.

But Rankine keeps a different faith. In her work can be felt the opposing strains of wanting, and wanting badly, for her writing to serve some practical purpose (“I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness,” she writes in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely) as well as something more anarchic. When she quotes the filmmaker Claire Denis—“I don’t want to be a nurse or a doctor, I just want to be an observer”—it isn’t critically. Rankine is profoundly interested in witnessing how power and pain move through the body and the body politic—but without prescription. She doesn’t declaim. She rarely consoles. Instead she creates a space for readers to engage with their own preconceptions, fears, and hostilities. It’s the visual artists she seems most in conversation with, those who approach race at a slant—Weems as well as Kehinde Wiley and Yasumasa Morimura—with their reliance on repetition and juxtaposition, their ability to bring the viewer into the work. The plainness of Rankine’s prose, the deliberate flatness of her second-person set pieces, recalls Kara Walker’s silhouettes, those panoramic nightmares of plantation life mounted on bare white walls, on which the viewer’s shadow also falls. So do we enter Citizen. We are invited, we are implicated.

Click to enlarge

Carrie Mae Weems, Blue Black Boy, 1987, toned gelatin silver prints with text on mat, 17 × 49″.

We are also disoriented. Rankine scatters elliptical, enigmatic images and poems throughout. Take Clark’s sculpture Little Girl, a beguiling creature with the body of a deer and the face of a wary woman. Along her face, something glints, like tears or jewelry. They are tiny nails drilled into the skin. She appears to be the victim of some enchantment, one of those women from myth punished for spurning the gods. She huddles low on the page, puzzled and puzzling—until we read on and the riddle seems to reveal itself.

Racist language is, after all, itself a kind of enchantment, a kind of spell. And Rankine stages her encounters so we can see, almost in slow motion, how it enters and lodges itself in the body, and what havoc it causes. There is first the shock (“Did I hear what I think I heard?”), the somatic response (“Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs”). The taste it leaves behind (“a bad egg in your mouth”), that feeling of being marked, befouled (“puke runs down your blouse”). And confusion, even self-blame: “You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed, he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there. You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.”

Rankine reminds us that racism is an intimate violence—its perpetrators are not just institutions or strangers who deny our humanity but friends, colleagues. It is language that renders one “hypervisible,” she writes, quoting the philosopher Judith Butler. The body is made a public place, subject to scorn, suspicion, regulation. Continue reading

‘On Immunity’ by Eula Biss

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Oct. 3, 2014

Lucretius said to handle them with caution; Berkeley, not to handle them at all. Aristotle said that too many confound; Locke, that even one can “mislead the judgment”; Hobbes, that their natural end was “contention and sedition, or contempt.” Sontag said simply, they kill.

Pity the poor metaphor, so maligned, so alluring. We’ve been warned repeatedly — and, inevitably, in metaphors — that metaphors can do terrible things. (According to Sontag, the grotesque metaphors attached to AIDS and cancer contributed to their stigma and prevented people from seeking treatment.) And yet, it’s impossible to go without. Supposedly, we use one metaphor a minute, about one metaphor for every 25 words; we seem scarcely able to string together two thoughts without them (there goes one), they cast such clarifying, necessary light (and another).

The essayist Eula Biss is something of a specialist at handling our twitchiest, most combustible metaphors. In her 2009 collection, “Notes From No Man’s Land,” she picked apart the metaphors we’ve used to construct and report on race in America. In her new book, the subtle, spellbinding “On Immunity,” she goes under the skin. She asks why vaccination triggers such anxiety — anxiety so intense it lives in the language: The British call it a “jab,” Americans, a “shot.”

“The metaphors we find in this gesture are overwhelmingly fearful, and almost always suggest violation, corruption and pollution,” she writes. And though vaccine production is one of our more rigorously regulated industries, vaccines have been blamed for causing everything from allergies to autism. Even though the scientific literature cited by the anti-vaccination movement has been repeatedly debunked, American children — particularly those of white, wealthy, educated parents — are going unvaccinated in increasing numbers, with the predictable consequences. There have been recent outbreaks of mumps and whooping cough. Measles, which had all but disappeared in America, made a major resurgence this year.

on-immunityjpg-f69e74785ff54cfaBiss doesn’t linger on the outbreaks, nor does she refer to an “anti-vaccination movement.” She speaks only of “mothers.” This book, she tells us, was born out of conversations she had with other mothers while expecting her first child, conversations that complicated her ideas of vaccination and introduced her to a vocabulary of dread. She was warned about potential contaminants — “the frickin’ mercury, the ether, the aluminum, the antifreeze,” in the words of the actress Jenny McCarthy, a vocal critic of vaccination. But Biss realized that what was troubling about vaccines wasn’t what was in them (not least because she says there’s nothing toxic to be found), but the fog of fear surrounding them, how strenuously these mothers insisted that vaccines were dangerous even when presented with evidence to the contrary. “Our fears are dear to us,” she writes, and she parses these fears with kindness and complicity. After all, she says, she matches the profile of the kind of woman inclined to be suspicious of vaccines — white, educated, relatively wealthy — a woman drawn to doing things “naturally,” who tells us she gave birth without pain medication, medical intervention or an IV.

That “naturally” is key. Our anxieties about industrialization, at how we’ve polluted the world and presumably each other, have given the word its particular luster: “Where the word filth once suggested, with its moralist air, the evils of the flesh, the word toxic now condemns the chemical evils of our industrial world.”

Biss reports from deep inside the panic. “My son’s birth brought with it an exaggerated sense of both my own power and my own powerlessness,” she writes. The world became suddenly forbidding: There is the lead paint in the wall to fear, the hexavalent chromium in the water. Even stagnant air, she was told, can kill her child. “It is both a luxury and a hazard to feel threatened by the invisible,” she says. “In Chicago, where 677 children were shot the year after my son was born, I still somehow manage to find myself more captivated by less tangible threats.” Weaning proved especially excruciating. “As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory,” she writes. “I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time. ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ my mind screamed.”

We do love to pit the sacred against the profane, but breast milk, it turns out, contains traces of paint thinners, flame-­retardants, even rocket fuel. If it were sold in stores, some samples would exceed federal food-safety levels for pesticides. “We are all already polluted,” Biss learns. “We are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”

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Drawing Words From the Well of Art: On Ben Lerner and ’10:04′

Credit Jake Naughton/The New York Times

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, Aug. 22, 2014

On a recent afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two standard poodles could be found lounging among the Monets. No one was looking at the water lilies; everyone was photographing the animals (allowed there as medical-alert dogs), particularly the white one, which had fine braids woven into its hair.

Ben Lerner, the poet turned novelist, was at the Met to visit the painting at the heart of his new novel, “10:04,” to be published on Sept. 2 by Faber & Faber. He can’t stay away from museums. Crucial scenes in his books are set at the Met, the Prado, the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.

“They’re these huge laboratories for all the different contradictory notions of what art is,” he said. Or, he added in the wry, lightly despairing voice of his fiction, “a place to show off your poodles.”

The painting Mr. Lerner, 35, had come to see is Jules Bastien-Lepage’s “Joan of Arc,” which depicts Joan swooning as she hears the call to battle. It’s something of a famous failure, but Mr. Lerner loves its flaws: “I like paintings that depict what paintings can’t depict, like hearing voices.” He said that the “glitches in the pictorial matrix” in this otherwise naturalistic painting — the cartoonish angels, the way Joan’s left hand dissolves into the paint — inspired his new novel’s questions about how artists render phenomena that seem impossible to describe: the passage of time, the texture of consciousness.

“What interests me about fiction,” he said, “is, in part, its flickering edge between realism and where a tear in the fabric of a story lets in some other sort of light.”

Mr. Lerner’s first novel, “Leaving the Atocha Station,” received an enthusiastic reception when it was published in 2011. It won a Believer Book Award and was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker, The Guardian and New York magazine. The writer Geoff Dyer declared it “so luminously original in style and form as to seem like a premonition, a comet from the future.”

The book has little in the way of conventional plot: An American poet in Madrid (where Mr. Lerner was a Fulbright fellow), addled by “porn and privilege,” wanders around, halfheartedly pursuing women, telling increasingly elaborate lies, pickling in his self-loathing. The style was the real story: a palimpsest of poems, prose, G-chats, essays and photographs that invoke the slacker novel, the expat novel, the manic monologues of Thomas Bernhard — infused with a sly stoner charm.

“ ‘Atocha’ is “full of formal innovations,” Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review and an early champion of the novel, wrote in an email, “the way it captures contemporary speech and thought and so on, but in a funny way, you take that stuff for granted. It’s not like someone using different colored inks or doodling in the margins — being ‘original.’ It’s more like you wonder how other novels got along without noticing those things.”

“10:04” picks up where the first book leaves off. The unnamed poet narrator has recently received “an alarming amount of critical acclaim” and is facing, to his bewilderment, a possible “strong six-figure” deal with a major publisher.

In one of the more frank discussions of publishing in American fiction, his agent assures him that the novel doesn’t have to — and probably won’t — sell well. (“Presses wanted a potential darling of the critics,” she explains, to help “maintain the reputation of the house, even if most of their money was being made by teen vampire sagas.”)

Around this strand, others twine: The narrator decides to donate sperm so his best friend can have a child; he learns he may have a rare genetic disease; an older friend falls gravely ill; the city braces for Hurricane Sandy; and he starts to write what we understand will become this book.

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On ‘Man and Beast’ by Mary Ellen Mark

01SEHGAL1-master495By Parul Sehgal, New York Times Book Review, May 30, 2014

Over the last 50 years, Mary Ellen Mark has photographed twins, clowns, patients in a mental hospital, Ku Klux Klan members and Liza Minnelli. She likes to look at people who are used to being looked at, and she uses her camera like Wonder Woman’s golden lasso — as a truth-telling device that peels performance from personality. In one of her most famous photographs, “Tiny” (1983), a Seattle street kid poses in her Halloween costume: a little black dress, little black gloves and a hat with a netted veil. It’s the daintiness of Tiny’s dress combined with her defiance that gives the photograph its charge. Tough Tiny looks afraid.

Mark has been shooting in Mexico and India since the 1960s, and in “Man and Beast,” she brings together her black-and-white photographs into an affectionate, annoying, stubbornly beautiful book. The new collection includes some of her most famous images and many of her obsessions — girls made up to look like grown women, disembodied faces rising out of water. There is that fondness for photographing twins, clowns and cross-dressers that has earned her inevitable comparisons with Diane Arbus, but while Arbus pounced on flaws and eccentricities with carnivorous delight, Mark’s mission is gentler. “I didn’t want to use them. I wanted them to use me,” she has said of her subjects. She’s known for her long, intimate relationships with the people she photographs. She’s still in touch with Tiny.

Mark does her Mexican and Indian subjects a disservice, however, by lumping together their photos without captions or real explanation. She writes only that “both countries overwhelm my senses,” that “there is a primal force I sense in the people and their culture.” It’s disappointing to see this photographer so alert to visual cliché indulge in exoticism, but a breezy dismissal of political and historical context has always been a troublesome strain in Mark’s work. She once said “Falkland Road,” her 1981 book on Mumbai’s sex workers, was “meant almost as a metaphor for entrapment, for how difficult it is to be a woman.” But what could be less metaphorical than those iron cages the women were housed and displayed in? To give the viewer a point of entry, she risks trivializing not only the suffering of others, but also the power of her photographs.

For the photographs are wise, warm and complicated. Like Helen Levitt, Mark is fascinated by the inner lives of children, but rather than capturing their play, their little dramas, she has them sit for immensely dignified portraits. And in “Man and Beast,” she extends that dignity to the world of animals. Continue reading