Richard Dawkins The God Delusion

October 30, 2006

So Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is #4 on Amazon.com right now and #8 on the New York Times Bestseller list. His shill is simple: Belief in God is irrational and religion has caused irreparable damage to society. Unfortunately, his ideas are a bit too simple. Marilynne Robinson, in an essay in the November issue of Harper’s, thoroughly dismantles the idea that Dawkins possesses even an undergraduate-level grasp of logic. Her review can be found here, and please, please, do your critical reasoning skills a favor and read her critique before you make the mistake of purchasing his book.
Or, here for a similarly scathing review by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books.

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Mix Tape #4

October 27, 2006

An irony, of course, was that as soon as he’d surrendered – possibly as soon as he’d confessed to his depression, almost certainly by the time he showed her his hand and she put a proper bandage on it, and absolutely no later than the moment at which, with a locomotive as long and hard and heavy as an O-gauge model railroad engine, he tunneled up into wet and gently corrugated recesses that even after twenty years of traveling through them still felt unexplored (his approach was spoon-style, from behind, so that Caroline could keep her lower back arched outward and he could harmlessly drape his bandaged hand across her flank; the screwing wounded, the two of them were) – he not only no longer felt depressed, he felt euphoric.

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

Inside the back room, the woman has crawled out from underneath the man. Now fuck me like a dog she tells him. She grips a pillow in her fists and he breathes behind her, hot air down her back which is starting to sweat and slip on his stomach. She doesn’t want him to see her face because it is blowing up inside, red and furious, and she’s grimacing at the pale white wall which is cool when she puts her hand on it to help her push back into him, get his dick to fill up her body until there’s nothing left of her inside: just dick.

Aimee Bender, “Quiet Please”, in Girl in the Flammable Skirt

But once I’d gotten him to speak out on the open water, once I’d heard our story in his words, there’d been in me my own desire for this, so that as I lifted my skirts to him, helped him myself with his jeans buttons and gently lifted the suspenders off his shoulders, then felt him inside me for the first time in all that while, there rose in me the low moans, the sounds I’d heard our first night together in a hotel in Hattiesburg. There rose up around us the ghosts of my momma and daddy, the sounds they two made, and I couldn’t help but remember our wedding night, couldn’t help but recall the fear I’d felt, the trembling I’d made at his touch, the two of us finally alone. He’d been seated on the edge of the bed, me standing before him, and he undressed me with careful hands, my dress taking months to find its way free of buttons and clasps, his big hands fumbling, trembling of their own. He was young then, only a boy, me only a girl, our bodies new and unexplained, and when finally my dress fell away from around me, and then my petticoats and slip and underclothes, he’d leaned back, taking me in with his eyes. And then I undressed him, and we started in on the long and beautiful task of learning each other.

Bret Lott, Jewel

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The Road of Cormac McCarthy

October 24, 2006

So I just finished McCarthy’s The Road last night. I didn’t mean to finish it last night, I meant to start it, but by midnight I was convinced that it was good enough to lose sleep over. And the rest of the book certainly didn’t disappoint. Here’s a few bullet-pointed thoughts:

  • The most common dialogue between the son and father is “okay.” Rather ironic for such a hauntingly dark postapocalyptic tale.
  • The book’s obsession with food – missing it, finding it, describing it, eating it – turns every meal into a sacramental act, laden with the symbolism of memory and love.
  • What is most intriguing about this novel is not what is included, but what is excluded – McCarthy writes with enviable restraint. In a lesser novelist’s hands, it would have doubled in size to include much more backstory, internals, and explanation of the plague.
  • The religious element is pronounced – both anger towards God and the child associating his father with God – but mainly at the beginning and end of the novel. God is slipped in subtly in the middle – as curses referencing Christ or as references to Job: “Curse God and die.”

The story is told in fragments, and here’s an excerpt:

There was a skylight about a third of the way down the roof and he made his way to it in a walking crouch. The cover was gone and the inside of the trailer smelled of wet plywood and that sour smell he’d come to know. He had a magazine in his hip pocket and he took it out and tore some pages from it and wadded them and got out his lighter and lit the papers and dropped them into the darkness. A faint whooshing. He wafted away the smoke and looked down into the trailer. The small fire burning in the floor seemed a long way down. He shielded the glare of it with his hand and when he did he could see almost to the rear of the box. Human bodies. Sprawled in every attitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotten clothes. The small wad of burning paper drew down to a wisp of flame and then died out leaving a faint pattern for just a moment in the incandescence like the shape of a flower, a molten rose. Then all was dark again.

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Twilight of the Superheroes: Deborah Eisenberg

October 23, 2006

In Deborah Eisenberg’s latest collection of short stories, Twilight of the Superheroes, the reader is always catching up. In more than half of the stories she starts by throwing you in the middle of a scene, sometimes by way of a line of dialogue, and introducing three or more characters in the first sentence or two. For instance, she starts Revenge of the Dinosaurs with five characters:

Hi, Barbara, I said. You’re Barbara?
Eileen, said the nurse who answered the door. Nights.
I’m the granddaughter,” I said.
I figured, Eileen said. Barbara told me you’d be showing up. So where’s that handsome brother of yours?
Bill? I said, I beat Bill? That’s a first.

Or this opening for Like it or Not:

Kate would have a little tour of the coast, Giovanna would have the satisfaction of having provided an excursion for her American houseguest without having to interrupt her own work, and the man whom everyone called Harry would have the pleasure, as Giovanna put it, of Kate’s company: demonstrably a good thing for all concerned.

By the time you’ve unraveled the relational matrix of the original characters, Eisenberg has sped off to fill in back story, to add two or three more names to the many-spoked wheel of relatives and friends, and to ruminate on generational responsibilities (Flaw in the Design) or political repercussions (Twilight of the Superheroes). If you believe, somewhere in the middle, you have finally caught up, there will be a POV shift or flashback to stagger and surprise. If this disorientation of the reader were all she offered, Eisenberg would merely be a difficult writer, not necessarily a talented one. But she ensures that by the end of her stories, you have caught up, which makes the endings resonate.

Although her endings certainly aren’t a neat bowtie. In Window, a woman moves in with a man who has a small child. When the man becomes abusive, she runs away, kidnapping his child, yet the ending forecasts nothing – whether she gets away with it, where she’s going. In Like it or Not, Kate is taken (not entirely willingly) on a sight seeing tour with Harry, but the climax doesn’t even involve her. And it ends on a soft note, which does not wrap up the story as much as it simply portrays the end of an emotionally heightened span of time in her life. With stories this long, you would expect endings to make it towards the pot-of-gold side of the narrative rainbow, to reveal a twist or character turn. But they don’t. These endings don’t cater to plot, they cater to the emotional states of the characters, nipping at a sensitive region of a character’s motivations or state of mind, commenting in an elliptical way on the essence of their internal struggles.

For example, look at the end of The Flaw in the Design, a story about a disgruntled son who blames his father for the corporate greed ruining the earth, told from the perspective of the wife who has an affair. This last paragraph shows the scene just before the first paragraph, on how they came to be having an affair:

We had taken the taxi, had stood at the desk; we had done it – the thought kept tumbling over me like pealing bells as we rose up in the elevator, our hands lightly clasped. And we were solemn, and so happy, or at least I was, as we entered our room, the beautiful room that we might as well have been the first people ever to see – elated as if by some solution, when just minutes before we’d been on the metro platform, clinging fiercely, as if before a decisive separation, the way lovers do in wartime.

Between the beginnings and endings, these six stories are extremely long, although that isn’t a criticism. It’s just that they are longer than what is conventionally expected for short stories, which means they are in the no-mans-land between short stories and novellas. In this space Eisenberg still fleshes out remarkably complete human beings, welts, warts and all. Her characters often belong to the jet-set demographic, trafficking in the exclusive regions of the country, like plush lofts in Manhattan or sight-seeing along unnamed coasts. They often are disenfranchised – from their families, from knowledge of themselves, from hope. Bearing names like Giovanna, Matsumoto, Lucien and Alma, they seem to have their complete histories and futures implied inside a few scenes, a few bits of dialogue. In Some Other, Better Otto, the protagonist Otto is a gay musician and grammar nazi who cares for a sister so brilliant she had an episode and was institutionalized, and interacts with a little girl, Portia, who refuses to talk except to the microphone of her fist. Add in six or seven additional personas with character tags of their own, as well as a thanksgiving dinner, and you have an inter-relational maelstrom of delightful proportions.

It was challenging to wrap my head around these stories. They are difficult, but that is their virtue. These are the type of stories you must read at least twice: once just to get abreast of their accomplishment, the second time to try to unravel. To truly give them justice, they deserve many more readings than that.

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Janet Fitch Reading in LA

October 20, 2006

Despite that Paint it Black is a book with suicide at its center, the talk at the Los Angeles Central Library was refreshingly funny. Rachel Resnick kept it light by cracking jokes and by her repertoire of hyperbolic expressions (laughing face, shocked face, impressed face). Janet Fitch was composed, thoughtful, wearing a black leather skirt with high heels, and her mother and father were there to support her (her mother was listed as “Mother Fitch” on the reservations list). Other than an audience member that demanded to know whether White Oleander was based on Fitch’s relationship with her mother and subsequently inquired about her marital status, the night went smoothly. Here were some of my favorite quotes from Fitch during the evening.

On developing characters:
“I am a very ear-driven writer; I hear a character before I see them.”

On the order of writing:
“Plot comes last. Hearing the character comes first. The ending is also last because the ending is what shapes the meaning.”

On how just-published writers claim not to have unpublished books in the drawer:
[pantomimed a growing nose] “That’s just a crock.”

On her inspiration for depressing tales:
“You don’t get to decide the substance of your creative source. I just seem to have come from a dark place. When I was young, my brother would read me Edgar Allen Poe. So I didn’t sleep from when I was six until I was twelve.”

On making suicide realistic:
“One thing I did was to go to web sites for bereaved people every day or two, to remind myself, this is happening right now and I need to get it right.”

On how she picked a type of suicide for her character Michael:
“I really went through the metaphorical connotations of suicide: someone who takes pills wants to sleep. Someone who hangs themselves is suspended. Someone who drowns wanted to drown themselves. Michael – with profound self-hatred, and because he’s an intellectual – shoots himself in the head.”

On having a moral obligation to her readers:
“How do you reconnect people to the entire range of human possibility? They want to play happy all the time and when they feel something else they feel like they’re doing something wrong. So we need the whole range of human emotion. My moral obligation is to reconnect people with being human.”

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(Not) The Best Christian Short Stories: Bret Lott, Editor

October 17, 2006

I kind of liked some aspects of Bret Lott’s Jewel (the lyrical voice, the emotional connection to the characters), so when I saw he had edited a collection, I decided to give it a try. The title made me wonder if anyone was creating good literary works that dealt with transcendent themes, but Lott terrible selections responded with a resounding no. What he promises, in the introduction, is literary fiction. What we get is half-craft moralistic fluff. Why is it that so many religious authors resort to the moralistic fable? Why is it that they refuse to make characters actually do something evil? (unless they are roundly punished in the end) What can’t they curse like real human beings? (saying that a character said a word beginning with “D” and ending with “it”, is not, as one of these authors assumes, transgressive) Where are the Flannery O’Connors of today?

In fact, Lott picked such horrible selections (on some of these, the prose sounds like something straight from a young adult series) that it made me wonder whether the publisher wanted only to capture the evangelical market, rather than anyone who is near literate. The answer did lie in the publisher: WestBow is a publisher for “Christian” novels, which means they did want him to select goodie-goodie stories free of any nasty elements that might ruffle conservative feathers. Westbow even sponsored the contest that one of the included stories won, for which they promised a book contract. The question then is why Lott would agree to put his name on a collection like this – perhaps his taste is not quite as good as it seems. In the end, I guess to get a real anthology of Christian stories, you need a secular publisher to publish it.

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Joyce Carol Oates: Landfill

October 16, 2006

So Joyce Carol Oates based her fictional story Landfill, published in the October 9th issue of the New Yorker, on the real-life death of a student attending The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). So what? Professors at TCNJ have flamebroiled her with charges that she felt no pain in reawakening the trauma of the family. Regina Kene wrote in an email to Oates: “You so flimsily disguised the true College of New Jersey story upon which your fictionalized account is based, and used your imagination so cruelly, that it can only add to the overwhelming pain the [Fiocco] family has already suffered.” She added in a later interview: “It could not do anything but bring back horrible memories.” So Regina, do you read much fiction? I’m guessing not, because you teach for the department of sociology and anthropology and publish articles with titles like: “The Colored, Eco-Genetic Relationship Map (CEGRM): A Conceptual Approach and Tool for Genetic Counseling Research.” Which leads me to believe you’re sincerely concerned about the condition of this poor family in your community, but perhaps you’ve maybe missed all the recent fiction books about 9/11 (check out six novels about 9/11 here). You’d think books like that could bring “bring back some horrible memories.” But maybe you’d like to condemn all those too.

Of course, JCO doesn’t escape all blame. The problem is not that she used her imagination cruelly, just that she didn’t use it enough. Her defense of herself is likewise pitiful: “Most of my short fiction appears in literary magazines like Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, Conjunctions, etc., which are read by a small and exclusively literary audience,” she said. “If the story had appeared in one of these, it would have passed unnoticed.” Oh, so it’s just if someone finds out and gets angry? Great ethical reasoning; your attempt to preserve public image will surely win you the Nobel. The worst response from JCO came from an email she sent to the Associated Press just after the affair broke, in which she compared the school’s criticism to the Muslim fundamentalists who issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his “The Satanic Verses.” Sorry Oates, but there might be a few small differences here. You hardly have to hide in safehouses for the next decade. You don’t have the federal government demanding an apology to release international tension. You aren’t fearful for your LIFE.

Although, on the whole Oates is right about this. She should be able to take a real-life event and fictionalize it, even if a few people who see the connections get miffed.

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