Reflections: The Body Artist

The Body Artist (2001), by Don DeLillo, falls into the peculiar genre of the "short novel" alongside works like The Stranger and Of Mice and Men. Short novels beg to be considered on different terms than longer pieces; they are often engaged in a hyper-focused description of one particular event or experience. In a longer novel, this would be precious or over-bearing, but in short fiction it is a kind of art: the micro-biology of the literary, if you will.

DeLillo here focuses on the intense mental anxiety produced when we confront the inexplicable. Lauren, the body artist, first faces the odd circumstances surrounding her husband's death and then the appearance of Mr. Tuttle, the name Lauren gives to a man child of unknown provenance who she discovers camping out in her home. Tuttle is incapable of creating comprehensible utterances but can reprise those he's heard before with eerie accuracy. In the rambling house that she has rented, she shares a space with her husband's ghost and the imitative Mr. Tuttle who brings his voice and gesticulations back to her at unpredictable intervals.

Lauren's response to the emotional challenges she faces is to rehearse them publicly in her professional role as a performance artist. Baffling her audience, she reenacts the odd occurrences of her life. In this regard she shares more than one might think with her Mr. Tuttle, putting on a show that aims to create human connection about abnormal events while simply underlining its impossibility.

Focusing in such detail on the odd events in Lauren's life and the strange mind that receives and processes them requires a narrative language far from ordinary. To recount the story of Lauren's coping requires, from the start, a language of its own that denies the order inherent in grammar and accepted nomenclature. The narrative voice sings a kind of poetry that walks a line between the now less than shocking language of stream of consciousness and an imagined representation of what mentalese would sound like if, paradoxically, it were put into words.


Reflections: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one for the ages. It's a rare novel that inhabits an impressive concept, brings painfully full characters to life, contributes well-crafted observations to the cultural vault, and entertains you with a gripping story throughout. This Chabon has effected with a style and grace that make the true lover of literary fiction ache with a combination of nostalgia, ambition, and wrenching pleasure as she reads the last lines and resigns herself to no longer having the novel as her daily companion. Do I wax ecstatic? In penance I will pull myself back to the hard earth of facts.

Chabon chronicles the story of Samuel Clay and Josef Kavalier, Jewish cousins growing into adulthood on the eve of Hitler's devastation of the old Europe. Sam's mother unceremoniously demands one evening that her son, a comic-book loving Brooklynite, shove over to make room in his bed for his hitherto unknown cousin Josef, who has just escaped from Prague in a coffin with a Golem. Sammy shares his bed that night, and the next morning becomes Josef's guide into American popular culture via the new media of the comic book. In an impressive act of hustling, the boys leap from being poor, aimless young men and strangers to one another, to being one of the nation's top-selling comic artist teams and one another's primary personal relationship.

For all of their intimacy and mutual understanding, they are separated by Joe's status as the saved son, who scrambles to succeed in this new land in order to rescue his family from the terrors prepared for them by Hitler's Reich. This mission is understood and supported by Sam, but it simply cannot be experienced by him, and this difference will drive a wedge between them and corrode the happiness of each man and the people who love him.


Reflections: The Man Without Qualities

Considering Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (1952, 1978) brings to mind the old schoolyard joke about how being forearmed/four armed is being half an octopus. The reader must allow me at least four arms, and their accompanying hands, to describe this epic novel. It is not a book whose theme one can state simply in a sentence or two.

It is, on one hand, a book about the conflict between romantic idealism and empirical rationality, which considers the effect on the human mind and spirit produced by aristocratic (romantic) versus bureaucratic (empirical) nation state apparatuses. On the/an other hand, it is a novel about the rise of German nationalism in the early twentieth century and the concomitant increase in anti-Semitism. On the metaphorical third hand, it is a fiction about the impossibility of arriving at a true consensus, whether between two lovers, a handful of eminent people, or a nation of citizens. Finally, it is a novel about the terrifying plight of finding yourself without a sufficient attachment to reality to allow you to withstand its constant incursion upon your mental life without suffering mental breakdown. To create in the reader the feeling of this experience, the novel takes as its dizzying project recording the incalculable effort that this life requires. The main character, Ulrich, is as interested in the task as Musil, and he figures that "If all those leaps of attention, flexings of eye muscles, fluctuations of the psyche, if all the effort it takes for a man just to hold himself upright within the flow of traffic on a busy street could be measured…the grand total would surely dwarf the energy needed by Atlas to hold up the world" (7 of the Wilkins, Pike translation). This is certainly how characters like Ulrich, Clarisse (his best friend's mentally unstable wife), and Moosbrugger (a convicted murderer who seems to stand in as a reflection of what Ulrich might have been, given a set of different circumstances) feel, and how the narrative tends, and, I believe, intends, to make the reader feel.

At the center of this philosophical novel is Ulrich, the titular man without qualities. Ulrich's moniker, like everything else in the novel, has multiple and contradictory explanations provided for it. Ulrich wears this label because he does nothing in life and also because he has all of the fine qualities in a man ("He is gifted, open-minded, fearless, tenacious, dashing, circumspect…"), but is not defined by any one of them (62). For the reader, he is a man without qualities in that he is as close to the narrator's idea of the generic citizen produced by the exigencies of the age, but for the novel's characters, that very generic nature causes him to seem extraordinary.

The thread of this novel's story takes up, perhaps, a mere quarter of its pages, while the rest presents (intentionally) inconsistent philosophical reflections on the human spirit. The story, such as it is, can be summarized thus: a capable but directionless young man takes a year's sabbatical to try to reconfigure his life in such a way as to support himself without sacrificing the few ideals that remain to him. His lack of a plan leads him into a job whose main responsibility is to identify the very core of the Austrian character circa 1914. In his dealings with friends, friends of friends, family, friends of family, servants, aristocratic employers, criminals, acquaintances, and would be lovers (of whom there are not a few), he (and Musil) flirts with the obvious conclusion that the empire is too diverse to share common values or goals. The volume draws to a close as Ulrich's campaign not only fails to discover a unifying force, but in fact becomes a force of disunification.

While not a pleasure read, this is a novel to be taken seriously as an examination of the factors that led to a period of simultaneous moral relativism and extremist reaction to that relativism. It is, too, a novel that successfully evokes in the reader the moral confusion from which its characters suffer, and so prohibits one generation's sanctimonious denial of the sins of another.

Reflections: Shroud

Samuel Johnson once crafted a simultaneously admiring and damning summation of the work of novelist Samuel Richardson with this statement: "[i]f you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment." Replace "Richardson" with Banville" and both "sentiment"s with "characterization" and you have a relatively fair assessment of John Banville's Shroud (2002).

Shroud places two odd personages in explosive proximity and then steps back to see what happens. Cass Cleave, a mentally unstable young woman with an Electra complex, provokes a meeting with an ancient, narcissistic academic whom she has discovered to have underhandedly taken on  the pseudonym Axel Vander in his late adolescence. Cleave's lack of clarity regarding what she would like to accomplish with the encounter finds its parallel in the story's uncertainty about what exactly it proposes to do with the reader it has invited into its pages.

As improbable as it may sound given the description above, Shroud might best be described as a love story. "Vander" watches his body decay and finds little to comfort him in his long-held, militant disbelief in inherent individuality. What he therefore allows himself to discover, in Cass and in retrospective consideration of his past affairs, is that despite what philosophers might posit about the unimportance of the self, the strange human habit of loving and coupling provides a constant, insistent rebuttal.


Reflections: Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas must be acknowledged as a complex example of contemporary literary fiction. At moments the reader is bowled over by the impressive technical skill with which Mitchell creates multiple distinct worlds and languages with a sprezzatura that Castiglione would have envied and admired. At others, however, the bottom of the reading experience falls out, and the reader wonders whether Mitchell writes in good faith.

The question of faith can be focused through a single moment in the text when Robert Frobisher, an aristocratic musician and n'er do well writes to his honorable lover and friend, Sixsmith, a description of his musical magnum opus:

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a "sextet for overlapping soloists": piano, clarinet, 'cello, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished and by then it'll be too late. (445)

The description of Frobisher's "revolutionary or gimmicky" composition corresponds with the structure of Mitchell's novel, which has six (nominally) "overlapping solo[]" narratives, "each in its own language." Each narrative is "interrupted" only to be returned to in a second "set."The structural parallels  invite the application of Frobisher's devil may care attitude onto Mitchell himself, as an author caught up in the madness of creation, disconnected from any responsibility to an audience's reception.

You may (justly) ask who is to say that an author has some deep responsibility of this kind, to which I would answer that what I think is irrelevant, but that Mitchell himself thematizes this responsiblity in his Sinclair-esque closing (but inconclusive) diatribe. The last pages of the novel see the radicalization of one Adam Ewing, a 19th century American notary who has just undergone a harrowing murder attempt. He declaims, "Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being... [However] [i]f we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers [sic] races & creeds can share the world as peaceably as orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just...such a world will come to pass" (508). Mitchell has thus ended his book that has lovingly detailed the ultimate destruction of human civilization with a plea for the importance of influencing the mind with positive ideas about life and humanity in order to create a civilization of justice and peace. The concern I raise is not so much one of literary ethics (although I admit that I do tend to believe that we could all use more positive images in fictional representations of all types) but of consistency and thoughtfulness.

Of course, my overall impression was certainly affected by my increasing disdain for the pseudo-profundity of the title and the annoyingly useless trope of the comet birthmark shared (absurdly and to no real end) by the characters, and thus I might lean more heavily on this closing inconsistency than I otherwise might. The novel is one that impresses, and at times rivets. I would recommend it as an interesting if not perfect piece of experimental fiction.


A Paen to the Book Blogging Community

Lovely Kim over at Chapter Chit Chat just tagged my blog in her "One Lovely Blog" list. This is another initiative on the part of creative book bloggers who value community; the award requires the awarded to then pass the honor along to other noteworthy blogs/bloggers. A win/win system, I must say.

Here are the rules:
1) Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who has granted the award and his or her blog link
2) Pass the award to 15 (well...) other blogs that you’ve newly discovered.
3) Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

As one now privileged to make my own list, I pass on the "Lovely Blog" mantle to:

Karen at Book Bath
SFP at  Pages Turned  
Tales from the Reading Room
The Resolute Reader 
Rache at Books I done read
Stefanie at So Many Books
Whispering Gums
"Mystic Wanderer" at What am I reading?