Dilettante's Diary
JUNE 22, 2019
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JUNE 22, 2019
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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MIMC
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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MOVIES
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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Rocketman (Movie); A Thousand Small Sanities (Social Studies); Sounds Like Titanic (Memoir); Late in the Day (Novel); Javi (Short Fiction); My Young Life (Memoir); Transcription (Novel); Dark Sacred Night (Mystery); Elevation (Novella); First Person (Novel)

Rocketman (Movie) written by Lee Hall; directed by Dexter Fletcher; starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Steven Mackintosh, Tom Bennett, Matthew Illesley, Kit Connor, Charlie Rowe

You should know that this reviewer may not be the ideal person to comment on this movie. That’s because, before seeing this movie, I knew only two things about Elton John: 1) he is married to a Canadian man; 2) he sang and played at Princess Diana’s funeral. Apart from that, I know nothing about pop music.

However, my having seen a lot of movies may qualify me to say whether or not this is a good one. It is.

Starting with the opening – We see Elton John (Taron Egerton) stomping down a long hallway in a fantastic outfit of demonic red, a hood with horns and enormous feathered wings. He’s backlit to create an impression of awe-inspiring importance and the music is swelling to a throbbing climax. He throws open some doors, pushes through them. And where do we find him? In a plain, church-basement-sort of room where some ordinary looking people in street dress are sitting in a circle. He flops down in an empty chair and announces: "Hi, I’m Elton, I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict and a sex addict..." And he goes on to list his various character flaws.

One of the people in the circle asks about Elton's childhood and that takes us to a flashback of his early years. Throughout the movie, we get occasional return visits to this group therapy session and, towards the end of the movie, some of the key characters from Elton John’s life take positions around the circle – as imagined by him – and make their case for themselves. The therapy group is an excellent structural device for providing coherence and unity to the sprawling tale that’s being told.

Of course, it’s not an unfamiliar tale, even if you’re as ignorant about the details of Elton John’s life as I am. Many biopics of big stars have exactly the same trajectory: the years of the misunderstood child prodigy, the uncomprehending and unhelpful parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) – except in this case there’s a sympathetic woman who appears to be the artist’s Grandma (Gemma Jones) – the gradual development of the talent, the big breakthrough moment, the hassles with hard-nosed managers, the sky-rocketing fame, the inevitable drugs and booze, the sexual excess, the loneliness at the top, the feeling of not being loved for oneself, the breakdown, the eventual recovery.

The thing that gives this story a special edge is the sexuality of the star. As shown here, Elton John himself was not clear about that for a long time. You can feel his discomfort when challenged on the subject. The story takes on a certain poignancy when it becomes apparent that the person Elton John has loved most is a buddy who makes it clear that he loves Elton John too but that, unfortunately, it’s not a sexual love. That leaves an undercurrent of sadness running through the whole story.

This is truly a Hollywood musical in the grand elaborate style that’s so popular these days. (It reminds me of La La Land.) Huge production numbers where you want to say that the sky’s the limit except that one of the most spectacular scenes goes in the opposite direction: an episode where Elton John has an encounter with his childhood self in the bottom of a swimming pool where he has tried to drown himself.

All this would be impressive and amazing, but it wouldn’t move me much, if it weren’t for Taron Egerton in the role of Elton John. He has an ingenuous quality that is totally endearing. (I don’t know whether or not Elton John was this attractive in his early years.) This helps to take us through the times when the man’s behaviour – and his apparel – become so outlandish. Beneath all the pomposity you can see the beguiling child. In the moments of despair and rejection, the hint of that innocent child in those sad eyes grabs at your heart.

The one thing that I found lacking in the movie was any skepticism about all the hoop-la. The movie seems to take for granted that any performer is ultimately hoping for so much fame and riches. It’s assumed that the notion of such extravagant "success" is the crowning achievement for a pop performer. But why? Is there truly anything good or worthwhile about such a life? Why does the public shower anyone with such idiotic acclaim? Is it any surprise that no human being can be expected to retain any shred of normalcy in such an absurd situation? But maybe it’s too much to ask a star biopic to pose such questions. (Elton John is listed as an Executive Producer so this must be the way he wanted his story told.) The movie business itself is all about fame and glory and exorbitant riches. Why would you ask any movie to undercut its own raison d’tre?

 

A Thousand Small Sanities (Social Studies) by Adam Gopnik, 2019

It’s amazing how much the ideas in this book resemble the ones in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (reviewed on DD page May 26/19). Which shows, I guess, that these kinds of thoughts are very much in the air among certain kinds of American thinkers and writers.

Adam Gopnik’s key point is that democracy works slowly by gradual reforms, not by revolutions. And yes, reforms do create new problems. Furthermore, success in improving the human condition is always limited; it’s never absolute. It may not be possible to achieve ultimate fairness but we can, at least, make things fairer now. Hence, the process of "a thousand small sanities," not sweeping ideas. Cures for civilization’s ills come from chipping away at them, not from huge breakthroughs. Social improvement is incremental. Rather than emphasizing eternal salvation, says the author, we should be "placing more emphasis on the well-being of the next generation and on the ‘horizontal’ axis of life than on achieving eternal bliss through the ‘vertical’ one."

The key to all this, for Mr. Gopnik, is liberalism, which he sees as:

A hatred of cruelty. An instinct about human conduct rooted in a rueful admission of our own fallibility and of the inadequacy of our divided minds to be right frequently enough to act autocratically. A belief that the sympathy that binds human society together can disconnect us from our clannish and suspicious past. A program for permanent reform based on reason and an appeal to argument, aware of human fallibility and open to the lessons of experience...

In Mr. Gopnik’s estimation, one of the first great champions of liberalism was the 16th century essayist Michel de la Montaigne. His musings on every aspect of life are marked by his recognition that the human spirit is irreconcilably divided. In Montaigne, it’s always a question of: maybe this, but perhaps that. Phrases like "on the other hand...." have to come into thoughtful argument about anything. Liberalism begins, Mr. Gopnik says, "with Montaigne’s original understanding that any government, any ruler, any system of order will be flawed, divided, inherently unjust and incapable of reconciling all sides of its nature." This "fallibilism," says Mr. Gopnik, is at the heart of the liberal tradition. "It is why we think of Montaigne as the first real liberal."

As for the way that a new political idea can gradually become plausible, Mr. Gopnik cites the work of the 19th century novelist Anthony Trollope, who put this description of the process in the mouth of the politician, Mr. Monk:

Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so, in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable; – and so at last will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.

Mr. Gopnik points out that one way in which we see this illustrated in our time is in the gradual acceptance of gay marriage in so many parts of the world.

We can rely on Mr. Gopnik, having been raised in Montreal (by draft-dodger parents, I think) to put in a few good plugs for Canada. He cites the example of Robert Baldwin, the Protestant leader of Upper Canada (Ontario) and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, the leader of Catholic Lower Canada (Quebec), who stood side-by-side to show that "national unity was possible on a biethnic and even religious basis." Mr. Gopnik goes on to say that the "history of Canadian tolerance is not perfect, but it is less imperfect than that of almost any other country." (But he acknowledges, in passing, that Canada’s treatment of aboriginal kids is one of the more imperfect aspects of its history.)

The book is addressed to his daughter, Olivia, as a continuation of the conversation he had with her on the night of November 2016 when it looked – from the liberalist point of view – like American society was taking a turn for the worst. As a cautionary note to any young person, he warns that campus radicalism will always seem ‘cooler’ than the more modest liberalism. He says he knows that his admonitions about avoiding the radical and opting for gradual reform sound like a fussy dad warning a teenage girl not to get into cars with guys who drink and don’t wear seat belts. But "The romantic utopian visions, put in place, always fail and usually end in a horrific car crash."

Acknowledging the contest on campuses between human rights and free speech, he points out that to the liberalist, free speech is such a necessity that it should only be curbed in the most extreme situations. There’s a difference, for example, between a professor exploring objectionable ideas in a classroom and a broadcaster spewing hate material. Another distinction applies: the difference between insult and an actual threat to safety.

One of the great things about liberalism is that, while it will inevitably harbour abuses, the correction of them comes from within. It never does in the case of an autocracy. That’s why Mr. Gopnik notes a certain irony in the story of Emma Goldman for whom he has a great affection in spite of some ambiguity about her judgements. A radical to the point of being anarchist, she never fully appreciated that, after she’d escaped the nightmare of totalitarian Soviet rule and sought safety in Montreal and Toronto, it was the liberalism of the Canadian culture that allowed her the freedom to rail against the evils of society as she saw them.

Mr. Gopnik’s ideas are so worthwhile that I wish his writing were more accessible. Often, too many ideas are packed into one sentence. For example:

It is the primacy that liberals still place on the kind of fallibility that Montaigne described as foundational to our humanity – the same flawed but not in itself sinful nature that Smith and Hume thought could become the glue of social sympathy – that makes liberals favor reform through what we could call "provoked consensus."

And:

Even in Taylor’s more progressive revolt against liberal secularism, the need for some permanent horizon of fulfillment larger than the temporary social agreement of individuals to buy and sell one another things, including things like university degrees, is always felt.

 

I find this clotted prose surprising from a staff writer on The New Yorker, a publication famous for the clarity and accuracy of its prose. Ditto for the failure of subject and verb to agree, from many examples of which, here’s just one: "Certainly, the deepest, most untouchable – or incurable – of all twentieth-century left beliefs are [should be is] that the working class of any nation is intrinsically progressive..."

Sometimes meanings are obscure, as in "We say that working people are distracted by those wealthy propagandists by social issues." Does the writer mean to say that working people are distracted from social issues by wealthy propagandists? Another sentence had me puzzling over it for a long time: "For the left, on the other hand, free speech is always a subject of power and its invocation frequently a mask for it." What does "a subject of power" mean? The rest of the paragraph would seem to suggest that what he means to say here is that the powerful like to talk up free speech as a way of disguising the fact that it is actually a tool to enhance their power.

The following passage made my head spin, with its conglomeration of terms:

What makes the radical right-wing communitarian complaint distinct from the left-wing attack on liberalism– which blames capitalism for all this human pain, first and last – is that it almost always places the blame for the loss of identity on the loss of authority. And it blames the liberal ideas (from secularism to relativism) more than it tends to blame free-market economics – which the right, for the most part with some significant exceptions, usually embraces, too – for the disasters of modern life. The right, partly for reasons of convenience – they tend to be funded by the corporate people who helped ruin Akron – but largely for reasons of conviction, believe that it is liberal elites, not capitalism, that are most to blame for the destruction of the community.

These quibbles aside, Mr. Gopnik has an important message to convey about our way forward. But one of his main points is that it’s never going to be smooth sailing. "A society, like a weekly magazine, is one long perpetual crisis." (Is he hinting at something about life at The New Yorker?) The history of modern times, he says, is "the history of constant agitation against the anxieties of pluralism and social change." There will always be "a drive towards a closed and settled system to control those anxieties." Anyone of a liberal cast of mind "will forever be in contest with the totalitarisn tendencies of the left and the authoritarian brutalities of the right." Liberalism can be crushed "by its own inability to stop the stampede of unicorns that we call the utopian imagination."

Getting though life every day requires us to distinguish "false likenesses from true ones, good coin from bad,"says Mr. Gopnik. (Here he’s sounding the same note that Pinker did when he pointed out that evolution has groomed the human race, as a whole, to choose the best options.) This why, says Mr. Gopnik:

.... the prehistory of liberalism is mostly the history of commonplace civilizations, of bazaars and agoras and trading ports – all those enforced and opportunistic acts of empathy, where you had to make bargains and share selling space and find workable commonalities with people fundamentally unlike yourself in order to live at all.

 

Sounds Like Titanic (Memoir) by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, 2019

This is one of the liveliest, most amusing memoirs I’ve read in a long time. Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman has a voice that grabs you and pulls you into her story in a way that doesn’t let you go.

As a student at Columbia in the early 2000s, Ms. Hindman was hired to play violin with a small group of musicians who appeared at shopping malls – and sometimes in concert halls – around America, mainly as a come-on for sales of a certain composer’s CDs. Ms. Hindman didn’t feel she was qualified for the job; she’d been hired on the basis of a tape she submitted, without even a live audition. But, coming from West Virginia, and having no family money to fall back on, she was desperate for the money the job brought in to pay her college expenses.

What made the situation particularly ridiculous was the fact that, most of the time, she and the other musicians were required to play so quietly that they could barely be heard or not at all. They were pretending to be performing and what the listeners were actually hearing was a blaring recording of one of the composer’s CDs. Thus, the musicians’ secret term for the process: "Milli Violini" – with a nod to the infamous case of Milli Vanilli, the pop group that was discovered to be lip-synching their performances.

Ms. Hindman tells all this with a zany sense of humour that emphasizes just how outrageous life can be. In her introduction she explains why she has adopted the second person "you" rather than the first person "I" to tell the story:

For many people, myself included, sitting down to write something in the first person feels like the worst type of fakery. There is no way "I" am in front of the live microphone, no way anyone would want to listen to "me," no way anyone has paid to attend this concert starring "myself," and so I become "you," and in faking you, I am finally able to say what I want to say.

That choice serves the story well. The reference to "you" rather than "I" gives the sense of a story rushing head-long, helter-skelter without the person at the centre of it being quite able to believe what’s happening.

However, the comic tone begins to fray when it turns out that Ms. Hindman has a lot of personal issues. In high school, she suffered terribly with a young woman’s life "in the body," which amounted to knowing that you were nothing but a sex object for boys. It was only by being a violinist that she was able to establish any other identity. Come university she wasn’t angry about having to struggle to pay for her education, but she did have problems with being surrounded by fellow students who took money for granted. And then there was her fury at American obtuseness about Muslims. She took Middle East Studies in university and happened to be in Cairo during the 9/11 attacks. She subsequently tried many times to get hired as a foreign correspondant reporting from the Middle East but she found that Americans didn’t want to hear any truth from that part of the world; they just wanted to hear that all Muslims were evil terrorists. High on the list of her troubles was the fact that, on the tours with the composer and his CDs, she developed panic attacks that made her feel that she had to constantly keep running to the bathroom.

On these subjects, Ms. Hindman’s use of the second person "you" doesn’t work so well, it seems to me. Her tone begins to sound a bit more peevish, more petulant than it would if she actually took ownership of these issues with the use of the first person. In fact, there are a couple of instances, near the middle of the book, where Ms. Hindman does slip into the first person "I" and "me." It’s hard to discern any particular reason for the switch in these passages; maybe it’s just that the charade of "you" was impossible to sustain without a break.

Whether her tone is comical or plaintive, Ms. Hindman’s story makes for rich reading. Chapters alternate in subject matter, switching between the concerts on the road and memories from further back. Her parents – a doctor and a social worker – were well-to-do by the standards of their West Virginia community but hers was by no means a cushy childhood. Getting the music lessons she longed for as a kid required gruelling eight-hour drives on torturous mountain roads. Her social commentary includes insights into the popular American dream of "making it" – i.e. achieving some kind of notable success, such as people thought she had by virtue of becoming a professional musician. She notes that people in the smaller towns in the US tended to cling to memories of the 9/11 attacks with sentimental patriotism whereas New Yorkers who experienced the horror first hand wanted to forget about it. And yet, she comes to this realization about small town life: everyone matters. "Not in some clichd humanisitic sense, but in a literal practical sense." The person who serves you in the fast food joint is the person who raised you in day care... "the same person who will arrrive with the volunteer Rescue Squad and perform CPR on your unbreathing body, the same person who will empty your bedpan in the nursing home..." etc.

One of the most touching incidents is the time she was seized with terror as a result of the cocaine she’d been taking to help her get through the stress of her studies and the concert tour. Afraid that she might die of a heart attack or a stroke – "coked up to the rafters" – she phoned a Russian violinist, a rather taciturn young man who had sometimes played with the tour musicians. He sat by her bed and watched to make sure she kept breathing. When she woke up hours later, feeling much better, that was the end of her cocaine habit. Wondering why he was the one who was able to help her, she finds that it wasn’t just because he was kind and smart; what was more important was that he wasn’t American: "he was not made uncomfortable by the sadness of failure."

Throughout the memoir, Ms. Hindman refers to the tour organizer simply as "the Composer." Given that some of their concerts – the ones in proper concert halls – were staged as "thank-you" events to PBS donors, it would presumably not be difficult to find the man’s identity. But Ms. Hindman apparently wants to spare him the ignominy that would come from her naming him. More than once, she mentions that he, on hearing the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, wasn’t able to identify the composer. People loved this man’s compositions and bought his CDs by the handfulls but they were clearly, in Ms. Hindman’s opinion, shlock or schmaltz. They sounded so much like the sound track to James Cameron’s movie Titanic, that, in one case, a few notes had to be changed to avoid a copyright suit.

The Composer’s dialogue that Ms. Hindman quotes (she was making notes on tour) is banal, if not inane. And yet, she does give the man credit for the generosity and kindness he could show. He used the profits from his CD sales to finance the tours for PBS and to produce benefit CDs for charities. He often gave his CDs away for free. He constantly reminded his musicians that their purpose was to cheer up listeners who might be suffering from cancer or some such trouble.

The man seemed to live on such a level of clich, however, that Ms. Hindman almost never had a meaningful conversation with him in all their time on the road. It wasn’t until he drove her on a one-hour trip to another gig, her last meeting with him, that he revealed anything of his inner self to her. With consideration for the man’s privacy, she doesn’t tell us what he said, offering only this thought:

He’s a person waging a battle I know intimately, attempting to slay Mediocrity with the sword of Work. He’s a person who, like me, struggles with life in the body. He’s a person who, like me, is afflicted with symptoms of American madness: self-denial in the service of self-aggrandizement. A malignant fear of the possibility, reality, certainty of failure.

Now an established university teacher of creative writing, Ms. Hindman has this wisdom to offer on looking back at the Composer, a man who did not know who John Kerry was on the eve of the 2004 election. The Composer was, she says, a person who "did not understand America’s basic facts, but wholly and completely understood its deepest feelings, its most powerful fears and desires."

 

Late in the Day (Novel) by Tessa Hadley, 2019

As far as I know, this is the first Tessa Hadley novel that I’ve read, but I’ve enjoyed several of her short stories in The New Yorker. As I recall, they’re usually quiet, intimate things about the lives of girls and women. (Too bad that title is already taken!) This one is in much the same mood although it’s about two couples: Alex and Christine, and Zachary and Lydia. The two women were best friends in school days; so were the men. Now each couple has one young adult daughter and they’re also best friends.

The novel opens with a somnolent Christine taking an evening phone call from Lydia. It takes a while for Lydia’s message to sink in: she is at the hospital, Zachary has dropped dead , presumably from a heart attack. The rest of the novel is about how the surviving three – and the two daughters – cope with the loss and adjust to such a drastic change in their relationships. In terms of story, what you’re expecting might happen does in fact happen, but not in quite the way you’re expecting. This is the only point on which there’s a bit of crafty plotting from Ms. Hadley.

Otherwise, the book consists of slow-moving, gradual developments in relatively undramatic circumstances. The book thus fits well into the genre of so many novels by British women writers like Anita Brookner, Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble. As in those novels, the characters are upper middle-class: Zachary a wealthy art gallery owner, Christine an artist, Alex a headmaster, Lydia unemployed (because Zachary is so wealthy). Class consciousness doesn’t intrude here the way it does in a lot of British novels but there is a whiff of British ultra-sensitivity in Lydia’s shrinking from some of the realities of dealing with a loved one’s death.

Unlike some of those novels, though, this one does not involve a lot of talk. The characters do sit around and chat quite a bit but the dialogue isn’t the main point. What the book consists of mostly is Ms. Hadley’s telling us about the characters, about their thoughts and feelings. At times, the author sounds like someone who loves to sit and gossip endlessly about her friends. This would seem to violate that sacrosanct writer’s rule of "show, don’t tell" but, in this case, it feels okay because that’s what the book is almost in its entirety.

The problem with such a way of writing, though, is that the author tells us so much about the characters that it’s hard to digest all the information. When she tells you about such-and-such a characteristic about so-and-so, you find yourself wondering: hmm, does this jibe with what she told us about this person fifty pages ago? That seems to be the drawback of telling rather than showing. You don’t see the people for yourself as if on stage or on screen. What you’re dealing with is more the author’s conception of them.

Still, the writing is very engaging. That’s because Ms. Hadley establishes a style that, although not quite conversational, has the ebb and flow of conversation. Her way with chronology, for instance, is fluid, not straight-forward. She’ll start telling you about an incident, then drop back a bit to tell you about something that happened earlier. Isn’t that the way most of us tell a tale? This creates a feeling of cozy intimacy between writer and reader.

In a somewhat more contrived way, Ms. Hadley will sometimes build to a cliff-hanger of a chapter ending, but the next chapter will take us to some events in the friendship of the two couples several years earlier. Sometimes, the writer takes us too far into details that we don’t really need to know – the ambiance of a bar that Lydia’s parents owned, for instance – but for the most part, these passages help to fill in the picture of their relationship which – in spite of whatever notable events are taking place at any given time – is the true subject of the novel.

Examples of Ms. Hadley’s fine perception:

  • Christine looking at Zachary’s things after he has died: "All these objects ought to compose him – they promised solidity and permanence, she was incredulous that he could have slipped away betwen them."
  • One of the daughters, regarding a peer who had been inconsiderate towards her, had "every reason to be grateful to the saving veneer of adult decency."
  • A young woman looking at a man’s sleeping body after having had sex, finds that "his intricate, difficult self was in abeyance, his beautiful body left behind was like her hostage."
  • Christine’s thoughts about some abstract art that had a trite effect: "You had to be so vigilant, if you banished all obvious meanings from the front of your art, that they didn’t return unobserved by the back door."

If there could be said to be a message to the book, it would be that life never works out quite the way anybody wants, nobody ever gets what they really want, but we have to do the best we can with what we’re given. As one character says, adapting a clich that’s become far too pervasive these days: "Everything’s what it is."

 

New Yorker Notables

Javi (Short Fiction) by Han Ong, The New Yorker, June 10 & 17, 2019

This story is remarkable for several reasons. In the first place, the scenario is nothing like the many variations that we get on the usual boy-meets-girl theme. Here we have a boy – it’s not quite clear whether he’s fourteen or sixteen – who approaches a woman painter in her eighties who lives in a remote hideaway somewhere in the New Mexico desert. He’s offering to be a sort of live-in handyman/gofer for her. She’s skeptical but gradually a relationship develops in stops and starts. The woman is truculent, not very communicative. She goes for long periods without saying anything. But the boy hangs in. Bit by bit, a more serious side to the situation emerges: he’s an illegal immigrant and she is, in effect, aiding and abetting him in evading the law.

All of this is told in plain, matter-of-fact prose that’s well suited to the personality of the painter and to the mood of the story. There are no quotation marks to separate dialogue from other facts of life like dust and heat. The lack of writerly flourishes makes the events all the more striking. One incident that contains high drama – even though it’s underplayed – conveys the painter’s contempt for notions of fame and success. In the end, we learn some searing truths about the boy’s mother and her women friends in their illegal circumstances.

 

My Young Life (Memoir) by Frederic Tuten, 2019

Although he’s the author of five novels which have been critically acclaimed, Frederic Tuten is far from being a household name. A New Yorker blurb about his recent memoir caught my attention.

It tells the story of a passionate youth whose dreams of becoming a great artist were somewhat at odds with the impoverished, blighted quality of his upbringing. His father, a charismatic, romantic figure more noted for his absence than for his presence, took final leave of Frederic and his mother when the boy was eleven years old. From that point on he was left in their flat in the Bronx with his mother and her Sicilian mother. The grandmother, speaking hardly a word of English, doted on the boy, showering him with love and attention. When she died, Frederic and his mother carried on as long as they could on their meagre finances while she bounced from job to job as a secretary and he took odd jobs in the neighbourhood. Much like Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie, she kept a candle burning, so to speak, for the long-lost husband, never quite accepting that he was not going to return to her and her son.

Mr. Tuten sketches his life, up until his late twenties, in short scenes, building a picture not so much by a continuous narrative thread but by an accumulation of incidents. A device that he uses – and one that I’ve not seen in any other memoirs – helps to solve the problem of jumping ahead in time and losing the focus on the early years. If Mr. Tuten thinks it’s important for us to know about something that came much later – his mother’s gradual deterioration, for example – he’ll insert a number in the text and that number will take us to a footnote in smaller font that fills out the details of later developments.

As might be expected of an esteemed novelist, each scene is created with vivid detail and sparkling dialogue. The prose is clean and spare, unencumbered by artifice. This makes the episodes stand out with startling clarity. An example of Mr. Tuten’s fine prose comes in this description of his being taken to the roof of a hotel to peek through a hole in a billboard at the scene below:

I felt Godlike, up above the world, surveying the movement and sway of human traffic. Below me were people without names or voices, bodies without history, without joy or tears. But then I came down a bit, and I realized although I was perched up high, I belonged in the street. I was one of the flow beneath me, and God was regarding me in the same way, indifferent to whether I was ill or in love.

There may not be any plot exactly – other than the young man’s struggle to find his way in life – but it might be fair to say that an over-riding theme is the gradual development of his sex life. One of the early milestones – and a highly amusing one – is the list that a buddy gives him detailing the eleven steps for successfully making out with a girl. It soon becomes apparent that young Fred doesn’t have to expend much effort in that pursuit; the women seem to flock to him. He doesn’t dwell on his looks but a woman who has just met him refers to him as a "Tony Curtis" type. By the end of the book, there have been so many lovers that, when the name of one from years ago crops up again, it can be hard to remember just which one she was.

The most memorable of all these relationships is the one that Fred had with a woman he encountered on a summer in Mexico as a student. Clearly he was dazzled by her and she was pleased to have caught this young man in her net. She’d show up at his apartment late at night, nearly always drunk, and she’d toss off lines like "Don’t be so nice to me. I can’t stand it. But don’t change, either, or I’ll hate you." A few years later, Fred discovers that she had been one of the most famous call girls in New York in the 1950s but had to leave the US in return for giving evidence against a notorious pimp. Four years after Fred had known her, she died a morphine addict. Fred offers this touching eulogy:

Most people I met were not as warm, as generous, as honest, or as fun as Diana. Stuffed shirts and hypocritical moralists and misogynist politicans, pimps for the wealthy and for giant corporations, don’t have an ounce of her integrity and spirit. She injured no one but herself and gave others much pleasure.

When he wasn’t having sex or dreaming about it, Fred was fantasizing about becoming a great painter who was going to join the legendary coterie of artists in Paris. Eventually, that delusion was knocked out of him when he discovered himself to be fundamentally devoid of talent. He was in and out of school, always thinking he could make a name for himself without anything as banal as an ordinary education. Luckily, though, he stumbled on mentors who gave him the right kind of encouragement. When he was in trouble with a classroom teacher, for instance, a principal noted his specialness and befriended him. With some amazement, he cites the financial aid that a Jewish organization offered him when he was a struggling student, even though he wasn’t Jewish.

One of the things that held him back in his ambitions, though, was the expectation of perfection. He didn’t think he could finish anything or submit it unless it was brilliant.

Years later, I realized what a fool I was to surrender because of an idea of perfection – how many middling artists and poets and writers are minnows who swim as whales? They appear impervious to self-doubt, their egos seemingly ironclad. They use what little they have to will themselves to success, or at least to fool others into believing in their worth.

A highlight of his early years came on that Mexico trip, when a taxi driver, who claimed to be a friend of Ernest Hemingway, offered to take Fred and a friend to visit the famed writer. The driver abandoned them on the approach to Hemingway’s retreat, coaxing them to forge ahead in spite of the signs warning against trespassing. The two young people timorously proceeded, finding Hemingway ensconsed with some male friends in his cottage. At first, he responded in a surly way to the intrusion, but gradually warmed up to the young visitors, inviting them to stay for a swim. They declined, feeling that they’d already imposed too much on him. When Fred heard of Hemingway’s suicide just a few years later, he flashed back to his companion’s observation about the sadness she’d noted under Hemingway’s friendliness. "Of course," says Mr. Tuten, "I understand better now, so many years later, how one’s public faade may just be covering a great internal despair."

 

Transcription (Novel) by Kate Atkinson, 2018

Here we have the life of Juliet Armstrong, a British woman. The book opens and closes with scenes in the 1980s when she’s an elderly person. The main bulk of the book alternates between chapters set in the 1940s and the 1950s. During the earlier time, Juliet was working for Britain’s MI5 as a typist, transcribing secretly recorded conversations among Nazi sympathizers in London. Gradually, Juliet was assigned some spy duties of her own during the war. In the 1950s, she was working as a writer/producer for the BBC schools programs. That corporation with all its oddities and eccentricities is re-created vividly. (Who knew that in those days programs were recorded, not on tape, but on disks like old fashioned record platters?) The thrust of the story at this point is Juliet’s interactions with people who may or may not have been participants in the skulduggery during the war and who may have assumed other identities now.

In some ways, this is one of your typical British novels: eccentric characters, witty chat and endless cups of tea. But there’s also intrigue. You’re never quite sure what’s going on. I do have some problems with the character of Juliet, though. In her behavior and her speech, she comes across as somewhat mousey and deferential. I suppose that is how a young woman in her position – a mere typist after all! – was meant to behave in those times and in that society. However, Ms. Atkinson gives Juliet private thoughts – asides, we might say – to show that there is a more feisty side to her. When, for instance, her boss is providing her with some jewels to wear for a bit of spying on a fancy occasion, she thinks: "Why not just give me a pumpkin and six white mice and be done with it..." About something that is happening, Juliet notes that it’s "as if history was doomed to repeat itself endlessly (but then it was, wasn’t it?)." When someone asks someone else "Has the cat got your tongue?" Juliet thinks: "What an awful idea...And how would the cat get it – by accident or design?" These asides give the impression that the author is trying too hard to make us feel that Juliet, at heart, is the independent-minded sort of woman today’s readers can identify with. But I must acknowledge the brilliance of one of Juliet’s asides. She’s pondering the fact that men in those days always expected women to clean up any mess. "I expect Jesus came out of the tomb, Juliet thought, and said to his mother ‘Can you tidy it up a bit back there?’"

In spite of all Juliet’s wit and savvy, her actions verge at times on a level of silliness that makes you wonder whether parody is intended. When called upon to identify the body of a woman who has been murdered and with whom Juliet had some connection, she pretends to be the deceased woman’s sister and – for no reason that I can discern – makes up a pathetically sentimental back story for her.

Although Juliet’s activities make for a good read up to a point, I ultimately found the story lines too tangled. There are so many characters that it becomes hard to keep track of who’s who, given the fake identities and pseudonyms in play. And that means that you begin not to care much about them all. At one point, there was mention of a character who had met a sad demise and it took me several pages to remember that said character was a dog!

At the back of the book, Ms. Atkinson gives four and a half pages of notes on the evolution of this novel. She cites many of her historical sources and identifies several of the real people some of her characters were based on. I wonder if this thorough research – and the subsequent attempt to cram in so much actual fact – is what prevented the book from developing in its own organic way as a story that would have been easier to follow.

 

Dark Sacred Night (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2018

Michael Connelly’s long-time hero, Harry Bosch, is still hung up about the unsolved murder of fifteen-year-old Daisy Clayton nine years ago. As we readers know, in retirement Harry is now working part time for the San Fernando police department. However, he sneaks into the Los Angeles Police Department to search files that might produce some clues about Daisy’s murder. While he’s there, he’s spotted by Rene Ballard, a detective whom we know from her recent debut in Mr. Connelly’s The Late Show. Not surprisingly, Harry and Rene strike an alliance to work together on the case of Daisy’s murder.

Meanwhile, they’re both working other cases. In this respect, Dark Sacred Night is not as tightly woven a crime story as most of Mr. Connelly’s books. There are a lot of sidetracks leading away from the main story; some of them connect back to it; others don’t. Is it inevitable that this rather loose structure would give the impresssion of a writer who, after producing about thirty mysteries, is running out of really strong ideas? Perhaps. I’m also noticing a lot of writing that seems a bit lame, a bit prosaic, littered with unnecessary detail.

It was one a.m. and well into her official shift before Ballard completed the paperwork that went along with the arrrest and booking of Theodore Bechtel on suspicion of breaking and entering and grand theft. After he was secured in a solo cell at the station, she walked through the parking lot to the storage rooms and retrieved a fresh box of shake cards. Once back in the detective bureau she set up in a back corner and soon was sifting through the reports on the human tumbleweeds, as Tim Farmer had called them, that drifted across the streets of Hollywood on a nightly basis.

Only the last couple of lines are relevant to the story we’re following. Couldn’t the rest have been summarized in a few words? In another scene, we see the detectives at the door of a professor who invites them to come in and offers them seats, then sits down. Does this create an impression of real life step-by-step? It makes me feel that there isn’t enough energy to the story to make it move more quickly.

Still, Mr. Connelly is such a good writer that, even if this isn’t his most compelling yarn, he kept me reading, page after page. There’s just enough of a spur to curiosity to make a reader want to know what comes next. As in her first book, though, I do not find Rene Ballard very interesting, in spite of her unusual circumstances. She doesn’t have a home and sleeps on the beach in a tent. Her attachment to her dog is about the only endearing thing about her. And it feels to me that Mr. Connelly is trying too hard to play his feminist card in the many thoughts that he attributes to Rene: about women being victims of male violence and so on. Not that there isn’t truth to those thoughts, just that they feel intrusive in the way of thoughts coming from a man who is trying to attribute them to a woman. The problem is that Mr. Connelly, as in The Late Show, hasn’t created a truly believable woman in the character of Rene.

The book has some of the typical clichs of the genre. For instance, the squabble over jurisdiction of the various police departments. And, once again, Harry finds himself suspended for some offence, which means that, yet again, he’s forced to work unofficially on a case from the outside, so to speak. However, he comes off as the character we know so well. (Mind you, we learn that he was born in 1950, which makes him a bit old, it would seem, to have a daughter of college age.) In Bosch’s climactic confrontation with the bad guy, Mr. Connelly’s writing is at its best.

 

Elevation (Novella) by Stephen King, 2018

I approach Stephen King’s books warily. Some of them have appealed to me - the Mr. Mercedes series, for instance – but I shy away from the horror and the paranormal that prevail in so much of his work.

This one starts off in a relatively realistic way: a man named Scott is consulting a friend who is a retired doctor about a medical problem. Scott keeps losing weight, rather rapidly. That sounds like a fairly ordinary start to a story, doesn’t it? But it soon turns weird. The reason Scott is consulting the retired friend, rather than his GP, is that he doesn’t want his problem to become known to the health care system. That’s because there’s an anomaly involved in Scott’s weight loss: his weight registers the same whether he’s naked or whether he’s wearing lots of clothes, including boots and a parka loaded with coins in its pockets. In other words, the clothes don’t seem to weigh anything when Scott wears them.

Okay, so now we’re into typical Stephen King territory.

But life carries on around Scott in a fairly conventional way in small town Maine. One problem he faces could be the kind that all of us have from time to time: neighbour trouble. A couple of women are letting their dogs poop on Scott’s lawn and they seem antagonistic to his efforts to stop the practice. Turns out there’s trouble with these two women in town generally. They’re lesbian partners who have recently taken ownership of a local restaurant. The townspeople would be okay with that if the two women would keep quiet about their relationship. But one of them is an in-your-face type of gal who insists on referring to the other woman as her wife. That the locals can’t stomach.

Those are the two threads to this rather simple story: Scott’s strange weight loss and the conflict with the two women. The ultimate resolution to the mystery about Scott’s physical condition could be seen as allegory or parable, I suppose. Maybe he could be seen as a kind of redemptive figure. There’s a kind of beauty to the ending if you like that kind of surrealism. I don’t particularly. But I do like Scott’s character; he’s an admirable man.

However, one of the lesbians is unbelievably hostile and vituperative. I don’t understand why writers create such characters. Maybe there are people like this in the real world but it’s the writer’s job to make the characters recognizable and believable. That doesn’t happen in this case. Worse still, the solution to the conflict involving the lesbians is simplistic and sentimental. Presumably it’s meant to send a message about Scott’s goodness but, to my taste, it comes off about as profoundly as a Hallmark greeting card.

 

First Person (Novel) by Richard Flanagan, 2017

Although this Tasmanian author is a winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, I’d never heard of him. And I knew nothing about this book until I picked it off the shelf and read this opening:

Our first battle was birth. I wanted it in, he wanted it out. All that day and half of the next we argued. He said it had nothing to with him. Later I began to see his point, but at the time it seemed bloody-mindedness and evidence of an inexplicable obstruction – as though he didn’t actually want any memoir ever written.

A very engaging voice but what the heck is this all about??

Well, it turns out to be a story, told in first person narrative, by Kif Kehlman, a young man who has been commissioned to ghost write a memoir for a notorious Australian con man named Siegfried Heidl. Heidl is soon headed to jail for having defrauded the banks of $700 million but a publisher has promised him $250 million for a memoir – which Kif is supposed to provide for a fee of $50 thousand. That sounds great to Kif, as he’s longed to be a writer, having produced nothing much but a prize-winning short story; he and his wife have one baby, they’re expecting twins and need the cash.

(Wikipedia informs me that this novel is based on Mr. Flanagan’s own experience. As a young writer, he was commissioned to ghost write the autobiography of a notorious con man known as John Friedrich.)

Trouble is, Heigl isn’t forthcoming with the facts of his life. Weeks go by with the two men closeted in an office at the publisher’s Melbourne headquarters and, no matter how hard Kif tries to dig up the truth, Heigl dodges the questions with evasions, changes the subject with airy speculations, talks on the phone to publicists or simply absents himself from the premises on the pretext of important luncheons or meetings to attend. On one of the most obvious levels, then, the book offers a biting satire of the publishing world, with a publisher who couldn’t care less about the content of the book that Kif’s supposed to be producing, who only cares about the commercial implications of the subject’s notoriety.

As for the few things about Heigl’s life that do emerge, there are multiple references to his work with the CIA, but Kif can never pin down any details. We do get some hint of Heigl’s supposed triumphs in business. One of them had something to do with a company that was reputed to stage dramatic rescues in cases of pending tragedies. Gradually, we learn that very little was accomplished in that respect and most of it was a lot of flim-flam. Heigl makes the – possibly quite valid – point that it’s all about inviting the media to believe the hype that they’re spinning about you. Clearly, in spite of many less than admirable qualities, Heigl is not a stupid guy. He even makes a clever joke about the role of the ghost writer, a joke which ties into the title of this novel. Ghost writing, says Heigl, is "simply a case of an I for an I." After one long and frustrating (for Kif) digression, Heigl blurts out a statement that pretty much sums up his attitude to the whole process: "Well, if you can’t see what I’m saying here, Kif, I can’t tell you."

Rewarding as the book is, it’s not an easy read. That’s mainly because there’s not much plot or forward momentum. The reader has to stick it out through a lot of circling around as Kif keeps trying one tactic after another to elicit enough information from Heigl to make a book. The pressure on Kif keeps increasing, given Heigl’s pending incarceration. Granted, Heigl does keep coming up with clever evasions and dodges, but the reader begins to feel, after a while, that he or she is going stir-crazy. It’s worth hanging in, though, because the riches of this book aren’t so much in story, more in observation and thought.

Just a few examples of Kif’s reflections:

Really, the world was full of stupid things yet without them what would we have to talk about? Perhaps the only difference between man and animals is man’s capacity to fill his days and life with a universe of stupid things until the only real thing, death, finally arrives to end the nonsense.

Here’s how Kif describes his reaction for a year or so after a near fatal boating accident:

....when I thought no one was looking I’d cling to the earth like a lunatic, ear pressed to the ground, and I knew the earth was turning and me with it. I would clutch it harder so that I might not be spun off. I would hold it until I could hear it breathe beneath me, and only then relax, and only then a little.

His disillusionment with the process of interviewing Heigl:

I didn’t even know if I knew what I was doing, working with a man who wasn’t even sure if the life we were writing was the one he had lived, but who – nevertheless – was happy to sell on subsidiary rights to chapters as I made them up, in the process making of my dreary inventions something infinitely more interesting.

After a while, you realize that this book isn’t simply about a young man’s difficulty with a writing assignment. It’s one of those books about a momentous encounter with someone that shakes your life; you’ll never be the same after this person’s influence on you. (I’m reminded of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Some of the awed reminiscence about this larger-than-life figure even brings The Great Gatsby to mind.) Heigl has so shaken Kif’s sense of what’s good and right, what’s moral, what’s legal, that Kif eventually talks like someone teetering on the void, losing his sense of which end is up.

At times, given Heigl’s lies and the pomposity, I thought that the author must have in mind someone like a certain prominent US politican. However, Heigl turns out to be much more interesting and complex, if not necessarily more admirable, than anybody who has ever occupied the White House. Kif says that, for other people, Heigl "seemed aglow with some indefinable aura, a wickedness that was also a glamour; a conspiratorial mystery that somehow you and you alone felt invited to join, and at its apex, a gorgeous darkness that wasn’t quite evil and wasn’t quite not evil." Sometimes, Kif says of Heigl, "his self-satisfied silences, his sly smugness, all bespoke a mystery I found myself wanting to enter and share." Every time Heigl spoke, Kif says, "I worried that there was within all this, in spite of his endless deceit, a genuine experience, or more, or less than that – an essence – that I should be capturing in the memoir."

Kif’s not without his own wicked humour: "Though I had nothing to say, I had read enough Australian literature to know this wasn’t necessarily an impediment to authorship." About the time before the internet, he says: "A machine for piping a sewer line of all the world’s horror into your home wasn’t yet viewed as progress."

The reader’s patience eventually pays off in some highly dramatic developments. Years later, Kif is looking back at it all with some moving observations about people who were involved in the fiasco of the "memoir’s" publication. Did Kif come out of it with any wisdom? Well, he comments on "the nonsense that we must go beyond ourselves to discover the world, when all the time it’s only by going within ourselves that we discover the truth of anything."

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