Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a wide-ranging chronicle of a Southern town and its inhabitants, a novel that reminded me at times of To Kill a Mockingbird, if it had gone more broadly over the lives of its characters. McCullers follows the lives of five people: a mute, Singer; a thirteen-year-old girl, Mick; a black doctor, Dr. Copeland, and his family; a “Red” agitator who travels from town to town, Jake Blount; and the owner of a cafe, Biff Brannon. All these characters are seeking a way through the misdirections of life to some true purpose, but McCullers is unflinching in her portrayal of their failures.

McCullers opens the novel by writing, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together” (3), a fitting opening given Singer’s eventual role as an imbiber of the stories of others. After his friend, the other mute in town, is sent by his cousin to an asylum, Singer becomes a confessional for those around him. It’s not that Singer offers advice – he doesn’t – but that, in a world that is never silent, that never allows a person the chance to be what he sees himself as being, he stands as a sort of reflecting pool, showing back to people just the version of themselves they wish to see. The room he pays for in Mick Kelly’s house becomes one of the most popular in the building, with the other major figures in the book streaming in and out of his space over the novel’s course. As Jake Blount might put it, Singer is one who “knows,” a man with a vision beyond his day-to-day life. What makes Singer such an attractive figure to the town is that he can be whatever they want him to be, can think whatever they imagine he thinks, for the simple reason that he can’t explain himself. Singer operates in a world that he often seems to find cryptic, and he is never able to understand the reason for his innumerable visitors, only to sit as their “faces crowded in on him out of the darkness so that he felt smothered” (384).

What makes Singer such an appealing figure to so many of McCullers’s characters may be that he, unlike them, is not a part of the town. Having lived there for years without their notice, secluded in his apartment with his friend Antonopalous, it is as if he comes out of nowhere after his friend leaves and he begins eating at Biff’s restaurant. He is at the same moment from everywhere and from nowhere, living his life separate from that of the town despite the claims people make on him: “The Turk at the linen shop who flung his hands up in his face and babbled with his tongue to make words the shape of which Singer had never imagined before” (385).

In giving her characters a confessional in Singer, McCullers makes their lives clearer to the readers; not just their day-to-day, their hopes and aspirations, but, through what they make of the mute, those parts of themselves they are unable to admit even to themselves. “Owing to the fact he was a mute they were able to give him all the qualities they wanted him to have.” McCullers’s vision of the town sometimes reads as a cold one; she is not gentle to her characters, she doesn’t shield them from sorrows that include a failing business, a dead spouse, a dead friend, a jailed and then disfigured son, growing up, and racism. Despite all that her characters go through, though, McCullers has a light hand that never seems to be guiding the plot, that never falsifies the lives she shows.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an extraordinary novel, one that highlights not just life in the 1930s South but life, as a whole. There are characters here – Mick and Biff and Singer especially – that can’t be forgotten even months after finishing the novel. This is one of those rare novels that, first, demands reading; and, second, is able to give us at one time the feel for a specific time in a specific place, and the feel of our country as a whole.

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#Longreads : Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life”
September 28, 2011, 5:50 pm
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , ,

Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life” is a wide-ranging piece about his experience in the Peace Corps, an encounter with Obama and his hopes for the presidency, the differences between travel and sightseeing, and the ways technology has changed the Peace Corps experience. Theroux’s article isn’t worth reading just by the people considering joining Peace Corps, which is how I think a lot of Peace Corps-centered pieces are viewed, but for anyone attempting to better define why it is important, why it is necessary, to do this sort of work in the first place.

Theroux hits on a couple things that have troubled me during my service. First, internet is so pervasive now that the opportunity to truly “escape” has vanished. Nearly everyone in Macedonia, not just American volunteers, has the internet in their homes, and Peace Corps has changed to such a degree that it’s nearly impossible to function without the internet. During the five or six months I didn’t have internet (either because I was training, or waiting for my internet to be installed at my house, or because I left the router plugged in during a thunderstorm) I missed countless emails from Peace Corps staffers and co-workers in my school, the sort of emails that I needed to see to do my job. But this sort of technology, as Theroux points out, fundamentally changes the Peace Corps by making it possible for volunteers to retreat to the comfort of phone calls with family on a bad day. Over the past few months, which have at times felt crushing (failed projects at school, strained relations with my school’s administration due to the failed project, a need to reclaim my privacy), I’ve been guilty of this.

Theroux also writes of one of the differences between travel with an organization like the Peace Corps and the sort of sightseeing that ends in description of what people do not have: “Out of a guilty, grotesque, almost boasting self-consciousness, these wealthy visitors enumerate the insufficiencies. That’s because they don’t stay very long.” This is something I saw when I was at home, and it was something I kowtowed to when I did presentations on my Peace Corps service, because it’s not just what the visitors see but what the non-visitors want to hear that influences how we describe our travel. People do not want to hear that I’m still awed by how close families here are, how generous the people are, and how much more secure in people’s honesty I often feel here than I do in America (leave your phone in a cab in Macedonia and the driver will call you and tell you which gas station attendant he is leaving the phone with; leave your phone in a cab in America and you’re buying a new one the next day); they want to hear about girls being married when they are sixteen years old and children being taken out of school after the eighth grade, and women doing everything for the men of the family, down to getting them glasses of water when they call for them. These things are true, but as Theroux writes, they do not describe the whole of the experience.

With what sometimes feels like endless criticism of Peace Corps and the work volunteers do (see: in a bar recently, an American traveling through the Balkans describing the Foreign Service: “Look at me, look at me, I’m an American and I’m here to show you I’m a nice person” [exactly what we do in the Peace Corps], so many articles and tv shows over the last year about rape in the Peace Corps, poor agency response to volunteer problems, and reasons why Peace Corps is a poor “aid organization”), Theroux’s essay, which is in part a summation of his time in Africa and in part a defense of the necessary work behind this sort of travel, is a fine response to those who tear apart the Peace Corps without an understanding of the organization or the value of its volunteers’ efforts.

Travel—not sightseeing, but real encounters with real people—has never mattered more in helping us to see how we’re crowding a blighted planet, how interdependent we are.

Read Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life”

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Review: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning collection of linked short stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is an extraordinary book, the sort that despite its occasional stretching of boundaries and definitions of what fiction is and can be (a powerpoint presentation, anyone?) is ultimately satisfying for Egan’s sheer good storytelling.

Goon Squad is full of gaps, spaces between stories that go unexplored until a hundred pages later, years of characters’ lives that are never explained or are only obliquely hinted at. It’s a powerful work for the ways Egan involves the reader in the text; details that would in other works be major plot points are here only gestured at, pushing the reader to do the work of filling in the lives that Egan has plotted for us. Following Sasha, who is at various times presented as wayward youth, assistant to the record producer Benny Salazer, a woman with more skill for picking up parts of other people’s lives than for understanding her own, and wife and mother. Sasha’s life doesn’t appear chronologically, though, and neither do those her story intersects with; Benny appears at one point through his wife’s eyes, as she struggles to fit in with the country club community they are trying to become a part of, at another time peripherally as a young man meeting the producer who will be his mentor, at another as his career falters and he’s taken to drinking hundreds of dollars of gold leaf with his coffee in the hopes it will return to him some of his former virility. Benny’s mentor, Lou, is a dying man being visited by the middle-aged women he once entertained as teens, standing by his bed and “unsure what to do” because they knew “him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying” (85), a success with a good car and something appealing to offer a teenaged hitchhiker, a father on a safari failing, in some way, to connect with his children, and in another falling into the life they push him to lead.

By showing her characters in glimpses, by having them appear only for a second in the story of another life and later in a light different than we ever could have imagined them, Egan illuminates the whole of a life, of many lives. One of her characters, the possibly off-his-rocker reporter Jules Jones, writes of the movie star Kitty Jackson that he feels “surrounded by her, blundering inside her life without having moved” (177), and that’s how the reader of this novel (or collection of stories, whatever you want to call it) should feel. Egan arrays these lives around her readers, and there’s a wonderful freedom in the way she allows her reader to blunder into the lives of her characters; there may be gaps, there may be unknowns, there may be times when we enter a character’s life at the “wrong” time, chapters before we will really know them as they once knew themselves, but in those blank spaces and stumblings from one time and one person to another there is a sense of immersion. Egan’s characters are everywhere, all at once, because she never limits where or when or how they can be.

The powerpoint chapter, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (by Alison Blake, Sasha’s daughter) has received an amount of attention that might seem exorbitant to anyone who hasn’t yet read Goon Squad. It’s this chapter, though, in which Alison charts her brother Lincoln’s obsession with pauses in rock songs, that provides a structure and way of viewing the rest of the novel. Lincoln’s description of the pause in “Bernadette” by the Four Tops acts as an explanation for his obsession with great rock pauses: “’You think, Hey, the song didn’t end after all – but then, 26.5 seconds later, it does end’” (244). It’s the pleasure, in these stories, of knowing that a story isn’t over although it appears to be over; it’s the pleasure of rediscovering a character before the marriage fell apart, or of reentering their lives and finding that they’ve managed to collect themselves in a way that seemed impossible when they first appeared. And, sometimes, the opposite pleasure, or pain, of having nothing more:

“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” (281)

The worlds of Egan’s characters revolve around music: people who make music, who produce music, who date people involved with music, who listen for the great pauses in music, who try (and sometimes succeed, and sometimes fail, and sometimes do both) to one degree or another to form their lives around music. We keep hearing that “time’s a goon,” and Lincoln comes closer than any of Egan’s other characters to explaining why: sometimes it pauses, sometimes we think it’s stopped, sometimes we think it’s over, but it isn’t; but we know, the whole time, that it will be over, and that eventually, that end will. be. for. real.

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Story Sunday: Kalpana Narayanan’s “Aviator on the Prowl”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Kalpana Narayanan’s “Aviator on the Prowl”, the most recent winner of Boston Review‘s Aura Estrada Fiction Contest (Aura Estrada being the subject of Francisco Goldman’s novelish memoir [or memoirish novel], Say Her Name), reveals itself slowly, almost as though the narrator is letting slip details by accident. At open she writes, “That summer I broke it up and down and got a job because I was tired of thinking.” It’s that job, a hellish restaurant gig that sees her being constantly berated by her overweight, twenty-something boss, that gives Narayanan’s narrator some way of defining herself other than the way she doesn’t want to touch, that of the older sister of a boy who hung himself with his karate belt.

The narrator may not want to reveal herself, or her family, in this story, but what she does let go manages to be at once funny and tragic, a family unable to face its tragedy but simultaneously unable to look away. The girl at center – or maybe it’s not really her at the center, it’s her brother – is motionless for the story, but she has plans:

I’d worked three months and didn’t mind it; it was good to be out of the house, and who knew when I’d be back at school. I’d come home only twice in the year after we cremated my brother. Now when I mentioned going back in two weeks my mother stormed off and flopped around her bed. My father tilted his head like a pup then talked about something else.

In this act of seeing the world around her, or of trying to, Narayanan gives us some beautiful descriptions, as when the narrator takes the bus home after work:

I took the bus the ten blocks home because the ground and sky were hot and I liked to watch people ripple over the tar like slow, pole-thin mirages of themselves.

It’s the last couple paragraphs of this story that are absolutely devastating. Narayanan approaches a subject that risks leaving the reader feeling manipulated, but writes it in a way that seems honest and clear rather than a blatant effort to tug at the heart strings. It’s an extraordinary story, the sort that makes you wonder: where are the other stories by this author? why does her bio mention her MFA and nothing else? why isn’t she an active social networker, informing us of her writing progress at every step? For now, though, “Aviator on the Prowl” is a pretty good story to read while we wait for more.

Read “Aviator on the Prowl” online

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Be sure to check out the Story Sunday post from Shivanee at Novel Niche as well. If you’d like to join in and begin posting your own Story Sunday feature, contact me for more info!

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Review: Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein

Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein is an inspirational text to my class of people, the sort who (despite being only in their mid-twenties) walk to the refrigerator and forget what they had planned to eat, go to the store and forget what they had planned to buy, avoid shopping malls because of the risk of losing the car in the parking lot, and forget the names of characters halfway through books. Foer’s memory isn’t markedly better than mine, but after covering the U.S. Memory Championships he’s intrigued by the claims of competitors that what they do (memorizing decks of cards, random numbers, names and faces, among other things) isn’t an inherent skill but something that can be learned.

If you’re me, this is about where you start rolling your eyes, but Foer’s book is immensely readable, busting with the sort of energy typical of Mary Roach’s science-y books. Moonwalking with Einstein follows Foer’s year of study under British memory champion Ed Cooke, but also explores the idea of memory and the lives of several memory champions and savants. Memory, he reveals, isn’t a matter of staring at a sheet of paper and committing its information, line by line, to your short-term memory, but of visualizing facts and placing them in a familiar place. Foer writes of the “memory palace”: taking a place that’s familiar to you and scattering throughout the house visual images. This means, if you need to buy cottage cheese, picturing a model splashing around in a kiddie pool full of cottage cheese. As you walk through your memory palace, Foer explains, the images are there as naturally as if they were part of your long-term memory.

Foer’s description of his journey to the 2006 U.S. Memory Championships is sometimes unnerving: much of his year is spent sitting in his parents’ basement wearing goggles and blinkers, memorizing decks of cards or sheets of random numbers. His exploration of memory, and of how the loss of memory and the rise of written memory has impacted our culture, though, is fascinating, raising questions about the way we choose to remember things and the way we educate our children. Memorization as a form of learning is routinely demonized, but Foer makes a strong case for the reintroduction of memorization to education. Not just that, though; he makes some unnerving points regarding our world of externalized memories:

Imagine waking up tomorrow and discovering that all the world’s ink had become invisible and all our bytes had disappeared. Our world would immediately crumble. Literature, music, law, politics, science, math: Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.

The sort of memory Foer is focused on gaining in preparation for the memory competition isn’t the sort that we need in our daily lives, and at end he’s clear that what he gained wasn’t an ability to remember grocery lists or where he parked his car, but an understanding that it is possible to “improve” memory (to the application of apparently useless tasks) through long-understood techniques, such as the Memory Palace, that we’ve long forgotten.

He covers a lot of ground, and he does it well, though there are points at which his goals in writing are unclear, as when he argues that the savant Daniel Tammett is simply a skilled practitioner of mnemonic devices. Foer’s accompanying argument, that if we are awed by savants because of the power of their brains to do the seemingly impossible we should be even more awed by the ability of an average man to train himself to do things like complex equations in his mind, is a strong one, but the reason for devoting so much space to Tammett isn’t readily clear, interesting as Foer’s argument may be. (If you watch the fantastic documentary Brainman online, you’ll be able to pick up all the backstory Foer goes through.) Tammett is an intriguing subject, but not one with any real links to Foer’s subject – unless, as Foer declares (and he is, to be clear, in the definite minority on this front) Tammett’s savant-like skills are actually the result of the same memory techniques Foer writes about. Despite this slip, Foer’s book is a fun one and worth reading, even if you, like me, can’t quite muster the strength to practice the Memory Palace on your grocery list, or even write the damn thing down.

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#Longreads : “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”
September 21, 2011, 4:29 pm
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , , , ,

Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

“What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” makes an interesting follow-up to last week’s article, “The End of Men”; both deal, in their own ways, with the question of character and what makes a successful man (or, in this case, student/person). Paul Tough (great name for someone writing an article about grit) considers, broadly, the idea of educating for character rather than for academic grades and test scores, and more closely what Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School (a prestigious private school in New York) and David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter schools, are doing to work character development into their schools’ curriculums.

What Tough addresses, what Randolph and Levin questioned as they began seeking a way to teach their students character, is how and why so many students succeed academically in high school, but are unable to succeed in college or on the job market. The very idea of an American character, of character traits that bring success and of trying to “train” for those traits, hearkens back to some American ideal of the pioneer, as Randolph acknowledges:

“Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

What, then, is awarding trophies not just to winning teams or awards to the best students, but giving accolades to all students and athletes – great, mediocre, and poor – doing to students as they prepare to enter the Real World? Is it possible to test for or train for true grit (with a nod to Charles Portis), or does attempting to search for and teach certain character traits among students essentially change the value of those traits? Is intelligence the most valuable trait in a student or person looking for work, or is it some less measurable quality, like how long a person will work at a task that seems at times impossible?

After you read Tough’s article be sure to take the “Grit Scale” test developed by Angela Duckworth (the test Tough discusses at length in his article) to determine your level of grittiness from 1 to 5.* And what do you think is more important to success (let’s say, success in one’s chosen career): raw intelligence, which often seems to be what our schools and society push for, or character traits such as grittiness, trustworthiness and curiosity?

* I score a 4.3, which maybe we could label “pretty definitely gritty,” but since I’m currently “earning” $200 a month and was dumb enough to seek a way to spend a third year in the Balkans, it seems too early to say whether my character (which we could describe as more “too dumb to know when to quit” than “smart”) will help me become a big success.

Read Paul Tough’s “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”

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Fragile Things Readalong: Week 2
September 18, 2011, 4:51 pm
Filed under: Fragile Things Readalong | Tags: , , ,

For the next month or so I’ll be participating in the read of Neil Gaiman’s story and poem collection, Fragile Things, run by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. You can see links to other responses to this week’s reading by clicking here.

“The Hidden Chamber” is a gorgeous, sad poem that twists and reforms itself even as you’re reading, from a story about a haunted house that can hold neither mice nor dreams (“Apart from ghosts nothing lives here for long. No cats, / no mice, no flies, no dreams, no bats.”) to the narrator’s decisions regarding the décor of the house:

I’ve broken with tradition on some points. If there is
one locked room here, you’ll never know. You’ll not find
in the cellar’s fireplace old bones or hair. You’ll find no blood.
Regard:
just tools, a washing machine, a dryer, a water heater, and a chain of keys.
Nothing that can alarm you. Nothing dark.

to the narrator’s love for the “you” of the poem, a love that includes within itself an urging for you to run away from the house and a sense of the narrator’s power when it comes to the house and its rare inhabitants in his consideration of whether to follow his love down the lane and bring her back, or wait in the house, light in the window “to light your way back home.” This is a poem to make haters of poetry fall in love with the form.

In “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire” Gaiman gives us a gothic story about a woman, Amelia Earnshawe, who has just inherited the family home and its accompanying curses. Gaiman alternates between this story and the framing narrative of a young man writing Amelia’s story; but as he tells everyone around him who will listen (including a speaking raven) he is tired of his story, of the realistic fiction he writes and the way he is unable to write anything that doesn’t devolve into slapstick.

Gaiman’s play here, making the gothic landscape of books like The Castle of Otronto the “real world”, is entertaining but occasionally feels unfocused; the joke is there, but is so drawn-out that the reward, at end, of finding that the “stock images of fantasy” are the average images of our day, “cars and stockbrokers and commuters, housewives and police, agony columns and commercials for soap, income tax and cheap restaurants, magazines and credit cards and streetlights and computers” doesn’t quite make up for the time devoted to this story that offers its reward only in a one-off joke rather than in a compelling narrative. When I wrote about “A Study in Emerald” last week it was with awe that Gaiman managed to succeed in a story that might have seemed cheap in the hands of another writer. In this case, the cleverness of Gaiman’s flipping of the fantasy/realistic novel isn’t enough to carry the whole of this lengthy and sometimes unfinished feeling story.

“The Flints of Memory Lane” is another story that plays, in its way, with the idea of stories and what makes a good story. The narrator opens by writing, “I like things to be story-shaped”; but of course, life isn’t story-shaped, and neither is his life. There’s some appeal to this idea, of “The Flints of Memory Lane” being not a story at all but an honest recollection, but Gaiman so strips his narrator of the ability to craft a narrative that there’s little of interest in the story. When in the second paragraph the narrator writes, “Recounting the strange is like telling one’s dreams: one can communicate the events of a dream but not the emotional content, the way that a dream can color one’s entire day” there seems to be some hope of an interesting back-and-forth on narration and how we are able to recount “the strange” of our lives, but at end this passage is simply a disclaimer for the story. The narrator recounts the events of his short ghost story, which is nothing more than an encounter with a ghost, an encounter that lasts the length of a smile, but there is no feeling behind it, no sense of emotional content behind the simple recollection.

“Closing Time”, I thought, made better use of the frame in its narrative, and did a better job with the childhood ghost story. The framing story sees four men in an after-hours club, the Diogenes, comparing ghost stories they were told as children and finding their falsities, until one tells a story from his own childhood. The facts of the story (playing with two older boys, exploring what they believe is an abandoned house, the story’s narrator’s seeming understanding of what has happened to the older boys, or at least that something has happened, uncolored by shock or horror) are basic enough, but Gaiman here gets the tone, the emotion, just right. Dealing with Gaiman’s framed narratives is teaching me that I’m not a fan of them, but here the device works well, with the framing close to the story adding to the central ghost story, amplifying it. And on both ends, that of the men being the last to leave a club, wrapped up in their stories and histories, and that of the child being initiated into a world’s inexplicable horrors, Gaiman gets the tone and the feel just right.

I didn’t love any of today’s stories as much as I did last week’s “A Study in Emerald.” But both the poem “The Hidden Chamber” and the story “Closing Time” mark what eerie depths of emotion Gaiman is capable of plumbing.

Click here to see other responses to week 2 of the Fragile Things read!

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