On ‘Living With a Wild God’ by Barbara Ehrenreich

When they choose to reveal themselves, the spirits have always shown a marked preference for young women — Joan of Arc, Teresa of Ávila, Hildegard, Mirabai, Rabia al Basri. When they chose 17-year-old Barbara Ehrenreich, they could never have guessed at her violent dismay. For this scientist in the making, these mystical visions were an unbearable offense, an affront to her carefully ordered mind. She went up a mountain with a boy. He was looking for dynamite, but she got blasted apart.

She never spoke or wrote about what she saw that day, save for entries in a journal she kept from 1956 to 1966. In 2001, preparing to send her papers to a university library, she found the journal again and took up the questions her younger self couldn’t answer: What did she see on the mountain? Could there be a rational explanation? She brings her journalistic experience and instincts to the investigation, treating the journal like a primary source.

wildgod“Living With a Wild God” makes for pleasantly prickly reading. Ehrenreich is intrigued by her questions, but also exasperated and more than a little embarrassed. After all, she’s Barbara Ehrenreich, she’ll have you know, an atheist and a journalist, the author of polemics against self-soothing delusions like positive thinking. She’s our professional skeptic, our slayer of platitudes. Not the sort of woman who would embark on anything so self-indulgent as a memoir, let alone babble on about mystical experiences. “I had — and still have — no inclination to try to patch this all together into a single story. I will never write an autobiography, nor am I sure, after all these years, that there is even one coherent ‘self’ or ‘voice’ to serve as narrator,” she writes in the foreword. And then, of course, she proceeds to do exactly that over the course of the next 200 pages. She strings together her visions on the mountain, the chaos of her childhood, her studies in science and her antiwar activism into a single story — a search for truth, she says — telling it in her “sternly objective reporter” voice, the voice she’s cultivated, the voice we know.

Born out of a fundamental quarrel with oneself — What did I see that day? What can I believe? — the book is lively with inconsistencies, pledges broken, courses changed. The tangle of contradictions give it a humming, querulous energy. And Ehrenreich becomes an unreliable narrator par excellence, capable of sounding as sepulchral and unhinged as Poe. She explains her decision to go to college in Oregon instead of California with the mournful “Outbreaks of sunshine were unnatural and disturbing.” For all her gestures at journalistic objectivity and the lovely science writing (she can describe a chain of hydrogen bonds so beautifully it glitters like jewelry), the story creeps into the gothic as Ehrenreich struggles to conceal her visions from the world. “Try inserting an account of a mystical experience into a conversation and you’ll likely get the same response you would if you confided that you had been the victim of an alien abduction.” She is her own madwoman in the attic.

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What Muriel Spark Saw

 

Photograph by Brooke DiDonato.

Parul Sehgal, New Yorker.com, April 8, 2014

She loved lightning. It wasn’t her favorite weapon—fire was, or knives. But lightning has a brutal, beautiful efficiency, and she used it to good effect, once frying alive a pair of lovers. Lightning seemed to seek her out, too. It struck her houses repeatedly, and on one occasion caused a nearby bell tower to come crashing down into her bathroom. The lightning entered her bedroom, she said, and danced across her upper lip.

To her readers, Dame Muriel Spark arrived aptly named and like a bolt from the blue in 1957, with her first novel, “The Comforters,” published when she was thirty-nine. She went on to produce at least a book a year with a facility that even she found bemusing. Writing novels was so easy, she said, “I was in some doubt about its value.” Rumor has it her drafts were pristine—no strike-throughs, scant revisions. It was as if she were taking dictation, faithfully transcribing those rawboned stories of blackmail and betrayal in her schoolgirl script. When she died, in 2006, she left twenty-two novels, poems, plays, biographies, essays, and a memoir—a body of work singular in its violence, formal inventiveness, and scorching opening lines. “He looked as if he would murder me and he did,” one story begins.

But her reputation has never been secure. Once considered a peer to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Spark is now regarded as a bit of a curiosity, the chronicler of kinky nuns and schoolgirl intrigue, exemplar of the “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish” women’s writing that Norman Mailer derided. But lightning, in this case, strikes twice. Several of her books are being rereleased in America. We have a chance to reconsider the prime of Ms. Muriel Spark.

The bad news first. The nonfiction, it seems, has gone off. “The Informed Air,” a collection of book reviews, “pensées,” and various exhalations, feels lumpy and slightly stale. And save for a weirdly mesmerizing section on watching a dairymaid cutting up a slab of butter, her memoir, “Curriculum Vitae,” is a work of almost sinister dullness—a shame, since her life was anything but, what with a stint in military intelligence, amphetamine-induced madness in her thirties, public betrayal by her lovers, public quarrels with her son. But the novels astonish, even now. All thanks, as it happens, to their “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish,” morally dubious glory; their kinky nuns and schoolgirls; their meddlers and murderers; a grandmother who smuggles diamonds in loaves of bread; a young woman on holiday who meticulously plans her own murder, down to picking out the tie she intends to be strangled with.

What hash Spark’s characters make of those eternal debates over unlikable characters or unlikable women. These women aren’t unlikable, these women are monstrous, and what’s more, Spark behaves monstrously with them. There’s a nasty little scene in her novella “The Girls of Slender Means,” in which a group of women struggle to escape a burning building through a small window. The window can accommodate hips that are at most thirty-six and a quarter inches, “but as the exit had to be effected sideways with a maneuvering of shoulders, much depended on the size of bones, and on the texture of the individual flesh and muscles, whether flexible enough to compress easily or whether too firm.” (Flexible enough to compress easily: Spark looks at her women like a wolf.) The skinny women have slithered through to safety; only the larger or pregnant ones remain. A tape measure is produced. As the room fills with smoke, the women present their hips for measurement. It’s a sweaty, agonizing scene. Once you’ve read it, you’ll remember it like some awful moment from your own life, with odd details taking on a terrible vividness—the way, for example, one trapped woman’s freckles seem to darken as the blood drains from her face. It’s also a deeply silly scene, if that can be believed, with women popping out of the window like corks and randomly disrobing. This is Spark’s particular genius: the cruelty mixed with camp, the lightness of touch, the flick of the wrist that lands the lash.

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On ‘Bark’ by Lorrie Moore

Bookforum Feb/Mar 2014 issue

The known risks of laughter, according to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, include dislocated jaws, cardiac arrhythmia, urinary incontinence, emphysema, and spontaneous perforation of the esophagus. None of this, I suspect, will be news to readers of Lorrie Moore, who has never taken laughter lightly. In her work, humor is always costly and fanged. Here’s her idea of a joke (from her 1998 story collection, Birds of America): found among the rubble of a plane crash is a pair of “severed crossed fingers.”

Bark is Moore’s eighth book—gaunt, splendid, and notable for having a significantly lower body count than usual. These stories rarely rise to the gaudy horror of her previous work. Death does not stalk her characters the way it once did. Children are finally allowed to survive to adulthood, and only animals meet spectacular ends—a decapitated deer’s neck is left “open like a severed cable bundle.”

But there is ash in the air; the September 11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are a through line. We’re meant to understand that these are stories of people in wartime, peculiar people during a peculiar war, a distant, endless war. Bark alludes to Abu Ghraib, Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the recession, but current events remain for the most part offstage. Politics are invoked but rarely shape choice or fate in these stories (the way they did in her 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which dealt explicitly with immigration and interracial adoption). They fade into backdrop for the more exigent narratives: the love stories. How could they compete? Moore’s real subject has always been Heterosexuality and Its Discontents. Her chosen people are the lovelorn.

And what an irresistible bunch of characters she conjures up: star-crossed midwesterners terrifically intimidated by their children and worried about their lawns. They are sweet, in a concussed kind of way. They suffer with great élan. In an interview with the New York Times early in her career, Moore spoke of discovering Margaret Atwood’s work: “For the first time I read fiction about women who were not goddesses or winners. In some way they were victims, but they weren’t wimps. They were stylish about their victimization.” This could be a thrifty description of Moore’s own characters; their spouses desert them, but their wit never does. “If you’re suicidal,” says one, “and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry.’” It’s as if Raymond Carver’s characters preferred wordplay to whiskey. Take the depressed divorcé from “Debarking”: “He did not like stressful moments in restaurants. They caused his mind to wander strangely to random thoughts like Why are these things called napkins rather than lapkins? or I’ll bet God really loves butter.”) They are prone to private revolutions, tart one-liners (“He had never been involved with the mentally ill before, but he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good-looking”), joyless couplings. “Hey, cutie,” a man calls to his wife “after not having looked her in the eye for two months. It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: Should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure.” You’ll notice that Moore’s characters continue to sound alike—and have sounded alike for almost thirty years, since Self-Help was published in 1985. At its best, this sameness of voice and unremitting archness give her work a Wildean luster. At its worst, the compulsive punning is just punishing (sorry): “He was really into English country dancing. Where eventually he met a lass. Alas.”

Even the title is a gag. The word “bark” crops up throughout the book, in different contexts and with different meanings, connoting, most often, human laughter, involuntary laughter mingled with scorn and surprise. It’s the harsh music of this collection, which has a looser weave than Moore’s other books. From what she described as the “feminine emergencies” and experimentalism of her early books, Self-Help and Anagrams, and the hard glitter of Birds of America, she’s now settled on a simpler structure and more muted tone: An encounter with a stranger forces a muffled epiphany and a languid denouement. Again and again, she assembles the powder keg, strikes a match—and blows it out. She still writes complex melodies for the ear—the sentences are full of sprung rhythms and internal rhymes (“The yard had already grown muddy with March and the flower beds were greening with the tiniest sprigs of stinkweed and quack grass”)—but narratively, there’s less shock and more mystery. We get ragged plotlines, a ruminative homage to Nabokov, a gentle ghost story, characters suspended in amber, mystified by their own paralysis.

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On ‘The Wind in the Willows’

NPR. org, December 27, 2013

Listen on All Things Considered

We want simple things from books in winter — or at least I do. I want a vindication of my desire to loaf, laze, retreat from the world, the assurances, in short, of The Wind in the Willows, whose edicts are sane and just: “No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.”

The Wind in the Willows was written by Kenneth Grahame, a middle-aged banker, in a shining decade for children’s literature. Much of what we know as the canon was produced between the years of 1902 and 1908: The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Peter Pan, The Railway Children.

Of these books, The Wind in the Willows is indisputably the most eccentric. It’s the story of two little rodents, Mole and Rat, who carry on like bookish Edwardian bachelors, “messing about in boats” and tramping in the snowy wood. But it’s also the story of an intervention and a Bolshevik uprising, with a character based, it’s believed, on Oscar Wilde. And these, mind you, are only the surface oddities. The Wind in the Willows is a book full of paradoxes — it’s an ironical and deeply political nursery story, an ode to the hearth and the open road.

The book passes through all the seasons, but it’s in winter that the friendship between the two deepens. They sit around the fire and talk until late. At one point they’re rescued from a frosty misadventure when they stumble on Badger’s house, where they meet and make merry with the other creatures of the wood.

But here I am summarizing, when the thing to do is to quote. Here’s Mole, off for a bit of an adventure: “The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on the winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seem to have kicked the clothes off. … It was pitiful in a way, and yet cheering — even exhilarating. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.”

That brings me to the book’s most enchanting paradox. Winter finds us slumberous, cumbrous and bundled up, but we lean hardest on our books and friends in this season. We return, like Mole, to the essence of things.

A Year in Reading

Picture 17By Parul Sehgal, The Millions, Dec. 17, 2013

The plan was to have an orderly Year in Reading. To finally fill the gaps, dammit, to scale The Magic Mountain and read Hollinghurst properly instead of flipping around for the filthy bits. To read sitting up for a change — like a human adult — rather than burrowing in bedclothes like a vole.

But it was comfort I craved, reliable pleasures: Anne Carson and Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Waters’s novels, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Zadie Smith’s essays, Martin Amis’s reviews (on Malcolm Lowry: “To make a real success of being an alcoholic, to go all the way with it, you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help.”). I read so much Larkin I worried I’d start sprouting anti-Indian attitudes myself.

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On ‘Art as Therapy’ by Alan de Botton

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A Tate Modern floor plan arranged according to a therapeutic vision; from “Art as Therapy.”

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 2013

Who’s afraid of Alain de Botton? At 43, he’s already an elder in the church of self-help, the master of spinning sugary “secular sermons” out of literature (“How Proust Can Change Your Life”), philosophy (“The Consolations of Philosophy”), architecture (“The Architecture of Happiness”). He has a remarkably guileless face and a friendly, populist vision of art. Why then do I keep checking my pockets? And why the grumbles that he condescends to his subjects and regards his readers, as the British writer Lynn Barber put it, as “ants”?

De Botton’s new book, “Art as Therapy,” written with the historian John Armstrong, begins with grim news. Every day, honest, upright citizens “leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed.” It’s a scandal, especially since the authors firmly believe art exists to make people “better versions of themselves.” They dream of a day when art can be prescribed for specific “psychological frailties” (including poor memory and pessimism), when museums can be redesigned as gyms for the psyche, grouping works not by style but by the feelings they depict and the muscles they work. Captions will whisper prompts like: “Don’t expect valuable journeys to be easy,” for Frederic Edwin Church’s painting “The Iceberg.”

“Art as Therapy” is handsome and depressing. It lays bare the flaws in de Botton’s method, chiefly that, well, he does regard his readers like ants. How dispiriting it is to be told that we cannot appreciate mystery, to see complexity cleared away like an errant cobweb. True, perverse, playful reductiveness has always been de Botton’s shtick — he’s just never done it so badly. The grant proposal prose saps all the fun from the proceedings. What should come across as cheeky sounds unhinged: “The true aspiration of art should be to reduce the need for it”; “We should revisit the idea of censorship, and potentially consider it . . . as a sincere attempt to organize the world for our benefit.”

Irritatingly, the authors do have a point: there is a hunger to believe art has a pragmatic purpose in our lives (witness the excitement over studies showing that going to museums makes us smarter and reading literary fiction makes us more empathetic). Continue reading

On ‘The Twenty-Seventh City’ by Jonathan Franzen

By Parul Sehgal, The Slate Book Review, Nov. 8, 2013

Some books ought to be allowed to molder in peace. Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, is a paranoid conspiracy novel, the kind of thing that doesn’t age well—and hasn’t. It has earned some rest. But it’s been trotted out for its 25th anniversary, and to make matters worse, saddled with a new introduction, a moist and ghastly piece of writing by an academic named Philip Weinstein. “Most readers know about Jonathan Franzen by now,” Weinstein writes. “One of our darling novelists, an earnest bad boy.” He tells us everything about the book—its excellent reception, its ambition and prescience—everything except how roundly Franzen has denounced it.

9781250046703The Twenty-Seventh City is one big mask,” Franzen told the Paris Review in 2010. “I was a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely middle-aged writer. To write about what was really going on in me with respect to my parents, with respect to my wife, with respect to my sense of self, with respect to my masculinity—there was just no way I could bring that to the surface.”

What Franzen was capable of bringing to the surface is a hectic homage to Pynchon and DeLillo that springs from an appealing, slightly porn-y premise. The year is “somewhat like 1984,” and three Indian women—a chief of police, a princess, and a junkie—orchestrate a real estate scam in St. Louis with the help of its most prominent citizens, who they sexually manipulate into submission. The police chief (and mastermind) S. Jammu meets her foil in virtuous Martin Probst, who is almost “Christ-like in his incorruptibility.” To win him over, she tries to induce in him something she calls “the State,” a confused compliance that takes over once an individual has been stripped of everything he values. Jammu arranges for Probst’s teenage daughter to run away from home and has an operative seduce and kidnap his wife. Then she goes to work on Probst with her own subtler weapons.

I confess I’m making the book sound more entertaining than it is. Rarely has a novel about municipal politics so evoked the feeling of municipal politics: the tedium, the needless busywork. On every page Franzen heaves around evidence of his research on everything from St. Louis tax laws to Indira Gandhi’s suppression of civil liberties. On every page is the palpable anxiety—anxiety that feels specifically male—to prove that writing is labor. Franzen’s own parents “actively discouraged” his work, he has said: “They considered art of all kinds, including creative writing, frivolous.” Hence this book, perhaps, its suspicion of beauty and pleasure that seems like an ethical stance. The son of a civil engineer is proving to his father that he could build a city (and destroy it).

“I see a 25-year-old with a very compromised sense of masculinity,” Franzen says in that Paris Review interview. “There was a direct transfer of libido to the brain—this was my way of leaving the penis out of the equation and going with what I knew I had, which was that I was smarter than most people.”