Friday, 30 July 2010

All its places were terrible places

Nicola Barker is a really good stylist; her writing is almost always entirely delicious. I've begun to suspect, however, that this writerly delectation is, not a smokescreen exactly because that would require both a certain level of malice aforethought and Barker having any choice in her talent with words (which I doubt), but that it has, in the past, made up for a lot.

The problem is this: This is the fourth of Barker's books I've read (the previous being Darkmans, Heading Inland, and Five Miles From Outer Hope) and I've noticed something I wish I hadn't noticed - her books are really rather thin on plot. There is plot in all of them, of course, but it is loose, vague, and generally repeated in each (well, the four above) book. It goes something like this: Create several very strange and unique characters, preferably alienated from family/society/friends in some deep way, and then throw them together in unlikely and awkward circumstances and watch what happens.

What happens will be, without fail, hilarious, disturbing, touching, and enjoyable to read about - except that after you've read four, you won't remember any of the characters' names, much of what they did or said, or even in which book they did their doing and saying. If there's an exception, it's Darkmans, but that may primarily be because that was the first Barker novel I read; it would also be, in part, because of the evil, supernatural jester, which is an unusual sort of thing for her.

This is a serious problem, as far as I'm concerned, for a novelist who seems interested in dealing primarily with "human muck"* rather than, say, dazzling philosophical flights of fancy which may or may not be inspired by mind-altering drugs (yes, I am currently reading one of Murakami's "weird" books). If it's the muck you're interested in, Barker, it simply won't do for your pieces of muck to be so interchangeable and ultimately forgettable.

To engage with Wide Open specifically: It was, of course, very well written, but perhaps not quite as well written as the previous three on my Barker list. It was also rather obvious in its thesis statement, if you will. On page 5, we meet the novel's protagonists, Ronny and James, who have come together in the most Barkeresque of ways (James has been spending his time on an overpass waving at passing cars, and Ronny has been driving by him every day for 3 weeks; one day, James is not waving and Ronny pulls over to check if he's alright). Ronny considers James and notices some important details:
Ronny studied him. He seemed very young but his face was not a very young face. It was lined, vertically, and not in the places normal faces creased and wrinkled. It was as though he'd only just woken up from a hard sleep but his face hadn't shaken it, hadn't hurled off its sheets and its blankets yet to get on with the business of living.

He seemed ludicrously pliant and tractable, but singular. He seemed...Ronny shuddered at the thought...he seemed wide, wide open. But you couldn't survive that way. Not in this world. Not for long. Ronny knew it.

In fact he prided himself on being shut right up. Like an oyster. Like a tomb. Like a beach-hut in winter; all bolted, all boarded. Like the bright lips of an old wound. Resolutely sealed.
Aha! What we have as our unifying theme for the misfits we will meet in this novel is the ability, or lack thereof, to clam up and protect oneself and the consequences resulting therefrom. This would be more than fine if Barker, in the midst of all her really good writing, didn't throw in the exact phrase "wide open" every time something crucial occurred. I found this especially irksome because when her writing is obtuse it's not usually obtuse about the emotional repercussions of what's happening (it is, sometimes, obtuse about what is literally happening), so why such clarification would ever be required, I really can't think. Someone didn't trust us to get what she was doing; I hope it wasn't her.

All that said, I mostly really enjoyed Wide Open, but clearly, I need to wait at least a year before I read another of Barker's novels. You probably don't believe me so here's part of a section, seemingly rather innocuous and not related at all to the primary characters introduced above, but which I think may be the best moment in the novel. It's really good; it's excruciating. To me, it epitomizes what Barker can do; I can guarantee that I won't forget this scene, even if I am likely to forget the character who features in it. Why will I forget her? Because how she reacts her isn't a necessary result of everything else we know about her - because we know almost nothing about her.

Said character is Connie, a small sprightly woman who wades into the craziness fray; in this particular passage, she's trying to herd an obviously sick rabbit that's come into the kitchen back out into the yard, rather than either putting it out of its misery or taking it to a vet:
She dropped the fork, hating herself, and grabbed hold of a kitchen broom. She held just the end of it. Slowly, she edged her way around the table. She swept the bristles along, hoping that their approaching swish would comfort the rabbit and not seem too cruelly random when they eventually made contact with it. The rabbit didn't move. It remained close to the Aga, its nose twitching, its eyes bulging. The broom was soon merely a few feet distant, and then simply inches. Connie's hands began shaking. To prod it! And what if it ran towards her instead of away?

But it did not run. It did not jump. The broom touched it. Connie barely felt the weight of the rabbit before it was moving, and not voluntarily, it was swept along, all stiff and still lolling.

She felt ashamed. Past the table she swept it, past the chairs, the wicker basket, the lines of boots, the galoshes, up to the doorway. But she couldn't push it off the step and out into the darkness. No. There was a small metal rim at the lip of the doorway. The broom, the rabbit, came to a halt here.

"Get out," she said. "Get out."

She gave the broom a harder push. But the rabbit was stiff. It was lost in terror and in blackness. It would not move. All its places were terrible places. (p. 254)
What I've quoted reads as though this torturous refusal to help, in one way or another, a small injured beastie is going to go on forever - and the passage itself goes on for much longer than this quotation shows. Connie eventually lifts the rabbit out the door and closes it. She is small and cruel, yet Barker somehow makes it impossible to despise her because Connie knows she's pathetic, and is appalled by her fear and repugnance (at the rabbit, and then at herself for finding the rabbit repugnant), but still unable to respond differently.

I guess what it comes down to is that Barker is brilliant at creating moments, but not as adept at imaging what comes between those moments, which would allow them to make real and lasting sense. But I will still, eventually, read everything she's written because those moments are worth sifting through the fog for.

*David Mitchell mentioned his increasing interest in "human muck" at that talk I attended a few weeks ago, and cited Marilynne Robinson as one of its greatest devotees and practitioners. He did mention where he borrowed the phrase from but I honestly can't remember.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Nostalgia reading, part two: danger on every side

As I noted on Sunday, one of the dangers of reading backwards out of nostalgia is that a book you remember very fondly can turn out to be beyond horrible. Or merely lame. Lame and disappointing would be devastating enough. But here's a risk I hadn't anticipated: I've been thinking for the past few months of re-reading one of my favourite childhood/YA reads: Andre Norton and A.C. Crispin's Gryphon's Eyrie. In fact, I still have my original copy, which is a hardcover but has long being missing its dust jacket; it also displays my name and the date (May 12, 1988) inside the front cover, written in my angst-ridden, adolescent scrawl. As an artifact of my yout', I find it impossible to get rid of this book, so I may as well revisit it.

When I picked it up to consider reading it again (and I read it many, many times in the halcyon days of the late '80s, when my hair was tall and hard, my shoes pointy, and my arms concave) something about it (I can't recall what) suggested to me that I may have somehow failed to realize this was part of a series. I did a little interwebs research and discovered that not only is Gryphon's Eyrie part of a trilogy, it's the second book in the trilogy. Whatever OCD tendencies I may have simply wouldn't allow me to pretend I didn't know this; the only way to eventually re-read Gryphon's Eyrie was to read the first book first - which I have now done.

The Crystal Gryphon was penned in the early 1970s by Andre Norton only and apparently is a classic of high fantasy. It has a classic 1970s cover, in any case. I didn't care so much about that, obviously; what I cared about was finding out about Kerovan and Joisan before they're married and fleeing together through dangerous parts and making magics all over the place (book two). The narrative structure of Gryphon's Eyrie featured these characters telling the story in the first person, in alternating chapters, which I'd always believed was the result of two authors penning one novel together - it makes sense, in terms of divvying up the work. In fact, the first Norton-only installment has the same narrative structure, which surprised me, and which didn't always work (too much repetition of details at times); the similar structure, however, likely increased my reading pleasure in The Crystal Gryphon immeasurably since a significant part of what I liked as a kid about Gryphon's Eyrie was its constantly shifting viewpoint.

I can't comment yet on book two, but like I said, this doesn't always work in book one, and not just because of some repetition. Rather, what struck me most and irritated me to no end was Norton's inconsistencies in describing Kerovan's appearance. In Gryphon's Eyrie, Kerovan has cloven hooves instead of feet and golden, animal-ish eyes and maybe pointy ears. He's an edgy sort of Mr. Tumnus-esque hotpants, in other words, and more crucially, his odd appearance results a great deal in his and Joisan's successes and failures on their journey. So, colour me shocked and irritated when in the first half of the book, Kerovan does have cloven hooves but this is, we are repeatedly told, the only thing that differentiates him externally from other men. This is so adamantly insisted upon that when Kerovan wears his specially made boots, he can "pass" with no difficulty whatsoever. In other words, it's not just that we're given insight into how naive Kerovan is about the lies people tell him - he experiences this difference to be located entirely in his pegs.

But then I was shocked and more irritated in the second half of the book when we're told, from Joisan's point of view (confirmed later from Kerovan's p.o.v.), that in fact Kerovan does have those crazy golden eyes, etc. And this isn't merely a fact of him coming from parts foreign to hers, for the emissaries his father sends to make their marriage contract while they're still children do not have such unusual features. He is the only one like this, a sexy monstrous birth resulting from his corrupt and witchy mother's deal with the dark elements of the Old Ones; of course, her witchery is a partial fail for she does not produce a baby with a correspondingly dark soul. Kerovan's a good guy, which made his deformity all the more attractive to me when I was a bleeding heart 13-year old; it seems to have appealed to Joisan as well.

In case you're wondering about the plot, I'm not saying much about it because it's in no way remarkable. This is a fantasy novel with all the desired elements of fantasy novels, save characterological consistency and if Norton's to blame so is her coked up and sleep-deprived editor for missing something so crucial. What I'm saying is, I kind of enjoyed this book but would have enjoyed it much more for what it was if it'd been better handled before it was out of the printing gate. And given this major lapse, I'm doubly nervous about re-reading Gryphon's Eyrie!

This, however, won't be my third book for Nostalgia Week; in fact, I'm still deciding on what that'll be. I would like to get back to Stephen King's It, actually, but not only do I not have a copy at hand, it's also far too long (1,000+ pages). I am considering my beloved Bambi (Felix Salten) but am not sure I feel like bawling copiously and loudly this week. Then I was thinking A Swiftly Tilting Planet because I'd like to recapture my devotion to Madeleine L'Engle but then re-reading A Wrinkle in Time wasn't a match at all for my memories of it...I continue to fear my endeavour here, but will persevere. Onward!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Nostalgia reading, part one

I've recently read two books with roots in my teen years - John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, which I read for my grade 10 English class, and Andre Norton's The Chrystal Gryphon, which I hadn't read before but whose characters I at one time felt I knew intimately. I'll discuss the Norton book later in the week; in fact, let's call this Nostalgia Week at Bookphilia; I'm sure I can come up with a third book to round it out.

The Chrysalids
It's been 20 years (!!!) since I read this novel and I've been haunted by the image of Sophie's 6-toed footprint on the rock by the river ever since. I've read a lot of dystopias in my day - indeed, high school English was defined almost entirely by dystopias such as this novel and The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, Animal Farm, 1984, Fahrenheit 451 (although I skipped this last one, for some reason; I have heard, however, that it's a pleasure to burn). Except for The Chrysalids, which affected me most, I've read all of them more than once.

It's dangerous to go back to childhood/youth favourites. Sometimes they don't stand up at all. Sometimes what seems scary and cool turns out to concludes with really embarrassing Hallmark schlock (A Wrinkle in Time), or is both racist and sexist (Goonies, dammit! and Barometer Rising), or is just plain annoying (Lord of the Flies). What I'm saying is, it's been 20 years since I last read The Chrysalids because I was nervous.

Well, the news is mixed. I enjoyed it and it turns out I'd actually forgotten 90% of it, so I spent a great deal of time being edgy and nervous about what would happen next. But it was so...pat in its ideological slant. Religion = bad and retrograde and cruel! Tribalism = stupidity. Never mind that the culture he represents here developed out of an attempt to survive! It's pedantic. I would suggest that most dystopias are but 1) I realize this is probably a result of tautological thinking. The Chrysalids read to me as though it were produced for high school students specifically, but given that it and other books like it defined my high school experience, how else could it read to me now? 2) The dystopic aspects of say, David Mitchell's books (especially "An Orison of Sonmi-451" in Cloud Atlas) or Yevgeny Zamyatin's We don't read "high school-ish" at all. These are sophisticated pieces, Mitchell's work especially, and thus terrifying to the more subtle and hopefully realistic sensibilities of the adult mind. The Chrysalids, well - what could resonate more with 15- and 16-year-olds than being harassed by adults because you're different, man?

That said, The Chrysalids is perhaps more complex than high school English teachers allow it to be for their students. David, Rosalind, and Petra have only one chance for survial once their telepathic powers are discovered - rescue at the hands of the "Sealanders" Petra is able to contact from the extreme distance of Labrador. They are rescued at the eleventh hour but their escape depends upon the Sealand woman and her crew killing everyone on the ground.

This is casually dismissed as a necessity based on an "If you're not with us, you're against us" mentality - one which I found equally disturbing in The Matrix for in both cases, the so-called enemies don't know they are trapped, that they are ignorant and are pawns in a larger ideological struggle leads to not one iota of sympathy, never mind a different sort of strategy. They think their perceptions are real; they are wrong, perhaps, but they aren't inherently malevolent. More importantly, the Sealanders take pains to distinguish themselves from the Old Ones who clearly brought on the earth's near destruction through their technological greed. Yet, the Sealanders' technologies are almost exact replicas of the world that would have been current when Wyndham was writing this novel (early to mid-1950s), and which are the source of this anxiety over impending nuclear holocuast - fuel-powered automobiles, electricity, and machines and chemicals for killing those who get in yer way. The only difference in the new world from the world of Old Ones is that many people can communicate without opening their mouths.

I don't think, in other words, that we're supposed to see David, Rosalind's, and Petra's rescue as an unqualified happy ending; at least, I hope we're not. They're going to a world in which the only difference between that which has made all these birth defects so rampant and the new world is the possibility of establishing a highly efficient hive-like culture through most being able to think together. In other words, Wyndham creates a world in which the mid-century possibility of nuclear disaster is just as real as it was before, and in which a sort of communism arising quite naturally out of this common and celebrated defect of telepathy is even more likely. In any case, history seems likely to be repeating itself in Wyndham's post-nuclear holocaust world.

Which brings me to Cloud Atlas (again). When I re-read this novel recently, I noticed how much literary heritage is bound up in the telling of that story. Based on the 10% of The Chrysalids I remembered, I was certain that it was part of what went into the section "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After"; now that I've re-read The Chrysalids, I'm even more convinced. This section of Cloud Atlas is in no way derivative, though; rather, it reimagines the consequences of the Old Ones' choices in a much more subtle way - and of course, there is no possibility of rescue. The fairy tale fantasy of rescue is denied and what is doomed to recur, tragically, isn't necessarily nuclear devastation - rather, it's the forgetting, and the loss of humanity that entails, preceding such disaster that is doomed to repeat itself.

If you know of any recent and super-excellent dystopias - dystopias which aren't invariably steeped in outdated fears of nucelar war and commies, but like Mitchell's Sonmi speak to a contemporary threat (the corpocracy - my god, I find this idea terrifying!) - let me know! In the meantime, I'll be thinking of The Chrystal Gryphon and looking for another work for Nostalgia Week.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

As a matter of principle disbelieving in the existance of other people

I've read a fair number of Yukio Mishima's novels, but After the Banquet is the first, in my experience, to deal with something so quotidien and unwashed as politics. For this reason, it was a welcome surprise for while I am a committed and long-term Mishima fan, I do acknowledge that sometimes his books can be rather too similar to one another. That said, I think I prefer his frequent forays into the messy marriage of spiritual and sexual obsession to the mingling of half-hearted sexual interest with politics.

After the Banquet (1960; translated by Donald Keene) tells the story of the unlikely union of Kazu and Noguchi, a vibrant middle-aged proprietress of a restaurant frequented by politicians and an aging former ambassador who decides to run for election on the Radical ticket. There are no sweaty and fraught sexual encounters as the cover of this edition of the novel suggestions, and as often occur in Mishima's other novels; there couldn't be really. For while Kazu is bursting with energy, it isn't really a sexual energy; and Nogushi is somewhat of an ancient piece of parchment in this regard.

Nonetheless, in this rarefied atmosphere of political intrigue, what Mishima reveals about his characters suggested to me that together these two might well have been able to create a crackling political dynasty. Of Kazu we're told that
The proprietress of the Setsugoan was called Kazu Fukuzawa. A streak of rustic simplicity in Kazu’s plump, attractive figure, always bursting with energy and enthusiasm, made people with complicated motives who came to before her feel ashamed of their complexity. People with drooping spirits, when they saw Kazu, were either considerably heartened or else completely overpowered. Some curious blessing of heaven had joined in one body a man’s resolution with a woman’s reckless enthusiasm. This combination carried Kazu to heights no man could reach. (p. 4)
Kazu has energy and, much more importantly, guts - and in the attempt to revive and elevate to previously unknown heights Noguchi's political career, she shows not only that she will take enormous social risks, but also that she is savvy and creative about winning people over. She is the personality and jazz hands yin to Noguchi's propriety and thoughtfulness yang. The problem, perhaps, is that neither Kazu nor Noguchi ever realize how well they could be complementing one another in this political quest. Kazu is no doubt correct when she observes how similar are the tactics, aims, and appearances of the politician to the geisha:
Kazu had the utmost respect for her husband’s character, but it was hard for her to see wherein lay the difference between his politics and those she had seen and heard at the Setsugoan. Her glimpses of Conservative Party politicians at the Setsugoan had inculcated in Kazu a splendid notion of the nature of their work. Politics meant pretending to step out to the men’s room and then completely disappearing, forcing a man’s back to the wall while cheerfully sharing the same fire, making a show of laughter when one is angry or flying into a rage when one is not in the least upset, sitting for a long time without saying a word, quietly flicking specks of dust off one’s sleeve…in short, acting very much like a geisha. (p. 102)
However, no matter how well Kazu is able to use this observation to her advantage when she's out in the thick of political campaigning, she can't figure out how to place her extremely straightforward husband within her scheming and machinations in order to legitimate both. Indeed, all she can see is how his very existence contradicts what she correctly ascertains is the basic nature of political gamesmanship:
A world formed by the intellect and composed of exclusively intellectual elements lay outside her comprehension. Her common sense told her that everything must have its other side. But what continually amazed her in Noguchi was that he was one man without another side: he seemed to have no other face but the one he showed her. Kazu, of course, as a matter of principle disbelieved in the existence of such people. (p. 53)
Indeed, this failure to accept, comprehend, and integrate him into her larger political plans - which are ostensibly made and executed entirely on his behalf - results not only in political failure in the end but also marital failure. This is not to say that Noguchi is not complicit in his loss of the election or the disintegration of his marriage; on the contrary, both characters are equally incapable of seeing each other's differences in approach and philosophical outlook as anything but stumbling blocks to either success or any kind of contentment, never mind active happiness.

Indeed, Kazu and Noguchi are remarkably similar insofar as neither are truly capable of seeing other people as entirely real. Only their individual ambitions and motivations exist beyond the theoretical for either of them, and they are thus doomed, from the beginning, to end up precisely where they began - both literally and emotionally - in insulated worlds of their own creation and for their own comfort, lonely though they may be.

All the elements of a good Mishima-esque novelistic devastation of the mind and soul are here, but everything is curiously lacking in pathos and energy - often, even, when Kazu's energy is being described in detail. Ennui, rather, is the dominant mode not only of the characters' lives and choices but also of the narration itself; as the result, the entire tale comes off as curiously flat. In the end, After the Banquet is a fairly enjoyable novel but not a memorable one.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Bookphilia meets David Mitchell and lives to tell the tale

This past Wednesday, hubby and I went to see author David Mitchell give a talk & read at the Toronto Reference Library. We got there well early and grabbed good seats and enjoyed the air conditioning. Brook calmly read the Guy Gavriel Kay novel he had on the go (but which he abandoned the next day as it was so badly written); I tried to read my book, Gogol's short fiction, but simply couldn't concentrate even though it's very compelling. I felt, perhaps, like what crazed Michael Jackson fans used to feel at the prospect of going to one of the King of Pop's concerts. I am joking, but only a little.

If you've been reading Bookphilia for awhile, you'll know that Mitchell is my favourite writer, and Cloud Atlas my favourite novel. I love novels generally and many in particular, but for me nothing comes close to this one. I generally kick earnestness dead in the face here but find myself being earnest and even sometimes quite emotional about this book. It's totally illogical, as was my starstruck near-hyperventilating at the event on Wednesday, but knowing I was being/am irrational about Mitchell's work doesn't seem to enable me not to be so. I have seen many movie stars and met a few and they leave me cold; authors I really like make me go a little funny in the head it seems; several years ago, I met Rohinton Mistry and was totally tongue-tied.

He read, we listened
Now, while I was feeling really quite shockingly illogical and weird even before he came in, I don't think I made an irredeemable fool of myself when I eventually met him and talked with him for a few moments. But before that happened, Mitchell read a few pages from new the book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and they were entirely engaging - in part because they were written by David Mitchell, but also because of the way he kept interrupting himself to tell amusing anecdotes or give a little background on something the characters say or, in one notable example of his increasingly famous and charming humility, he criticized some of his word choices ("guard" and "garden" being in too close proximity in one passage) and then jokingly lamented how there'd have to be a global recall of the book so he could fix that.

He talked with someone on stage, we continued to listen
Next, Mitchell treated the crowd to a conversation with a local novelist and professor whose name I can't recall. Most of the interviewer's questions were about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which makes sense but he didn't try hard enough not to give away plot spoilers so I felt a little like punching him in the neck. His questions were good though, and Mitchell's answers, of course, great - by now it'd become clear that his reputation for being charming and funny and seemingly very nice was well earned and it was all extremely entertaining and comfortable.

People asked questions, he answered
I'm afraid I couldn't gather the scattered bits of my brain sufficiently to come up with anything to ask him although I did, of course, think of something later; I wish I'd had the wherewithal to ask him which part of Cloud Atlas was "born" first in his brain and how everything else grew out of it. There were the usual questions about how to write, but a few interesting ones including what he thought of creative writing programs (way to put someone on the spot!) and what his future writing plans are.

The latter question invoked a very interesting and thoughtful meditation on why great writers seem to reach their peak in middle age and then degrade until the end of their careers; I confess I couldn't think of an exception to this, only examples that confirmed it (Gabriel Garcia Marquez being the example that jumped out most in my brain). His theory was basically a better articulated and more deeply considered version of what I've historically called The Haruki Murakami Syndrome, the result of which is the degradation described above and the causes being: 1) Re-writing the same book over and over again*; 2) Believing the hype about yourself and ceasing to try hard enough to write really good stuff; 3) Having one's editor also get complacent and not taking the hatchet to the new stuff, knowing that it'll sell based on the author's name and fame alone. Mitchell had clearly thought a great deal about this; that this is so gives me hope that he won't fall into the same trap.

I think one of the things that likely makes him such a good writer, and so thoughtful about his writing future, is that he is a really good reader. I've been to a number of author talks in my lifetime but I've never heard an author talk so much about what he reads and crucially, about the emotional, gut-level importance it has to him. Perhaps because he's such an incorrigible bibliophile he'll be able to maintain enough readerly perspective on his own work enough to not start allowing shit with his name on it to get out there.

He signed books, while I and many others stood in line and waited
The line-up took forever because Mitchell took the time to talk to every single person, which I think was a very fine thing to do. In the meantime, hubby and I inched forward slowly and eavesdropped on this loud-ish pair behind us. The following hilarious anecdote was dropped not for our secret edification. I can't do it justice; suffice to say that I was laughing so hard that I was crying in an effort to keep from roaring very loudly with the laughs in a Roddy Doyle-esque way.
"So, we're driving along in New Brunswick and I saw the sign for the Potato Museum and totally made my friend pull off the highway so we could go. But when we got there, it was like TEN BUCKS to get in...just to see, like, a frigging plow in a field! So I didn't go in. I bought an apple juice and sat in the cafeteria and drank it. But I kind of wish I'd gone in after all because I heard later that you get fries at the end."
I mean, what? These two kept us quite entertained until it was our turn to get our books signed and then I blurted out questions all over the place, about what he's reading now (A Confederacy of Dunces - awesome!), what he thinks of Hilary Mantel (he loves her work, good man), and I forget what else but he graciously said yes when I asked if I could get a photo of us for this here bloggy. So here it is:

I know, my smile looks fake and crazy but by this point, I was no longer feeling weird; it just takes our cheap digital camera approximately half a lifetime to take photos, so I was trying not to blink or otherwise make myself look like a gimp. Mitchell handled it with much more style and verve than I did, clearly.

As for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I've decided to wait till Fall to read it. It's really much too hot and horrible for such a title right now.

AND I just found video of the event on the YouTube. The interviewer's name is Randy Boyagoda, which amusingly keeps showing up on screen in front of...David Mitchell. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.

*I think only two writers have been able entirely to get away with this - Shakespeare and Wodehouse. Shakespeare, obviously, because his language was so very compelling on its own and Wodehouse because he's for fun and mental frolicking and not for deep thoughts. Frolicking is often more frolicsome when it's a repeat frolic rather than a new one; why else would people go to Cuba every year, year after year, or watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show ad infinitum? Frolicking at its best bears repeating and no one frolics on the page like Wodehouse does; but more on that anon.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Sarazens head without New-gate: hellish hot heat and horror edition

If you spent your days in a shop that not only doesn't have air conditioning, but is also actually hotter inside than outside because it is so poorly insulated; if you spent your days with a long and constant stream of sweat running down your back and a temper getting shorter by the second as dehydration set in; if you spent these sweaty, wilting days aching to leave so you could go somewhere cooler, do you think you'd find yourself working there in the middle of the night when you should be sleeping? No? Right you are.

Except here I am. It's 12:29 ayem and I am cataloging books. I can't sleep because even with the air conditioner on in our room, it's still too hot to sleep. Also, my mind is racing in mostly unpleasant ways. I've been trying all day to come up with something, anything, to say about Yukio Mishima's novel After the Banquet. I keep mentally approaching ideas and then they slip away. The novel in retrospect seems so unreal to me, it's almost like I haven't read it.

And I'm thinking about my trip to Kingston next weekend, which I am terribly excited about because there will be newborn kittens at my friend Vee's house and also it won't be Toronto, where I saw a dead body on the road today - the second dead body I've seen here, on the road, in the last two weeks. Yes, that's right. I am feeling selfishly grateful that I wasn't the first to see these bodies; the official works were in motion, i.e. cops on the way, when I stumbled into the chaos. I found - and was the first to find - a body that had clearly been dumped when I was in Seoul 10 years ago. That didn't bother me as much because these hometown corpses were lying in such unnatural ways. God, the angle of this guy's head this morning. Gah.

I'm sorry to horrify you, to make you share my queasiness but this is a book blog and I'm extremely awake and something I read this week is making this so much worse in my memory! I picked up my Gogol short stories again and just perused one called Viy; Viy is a horrifying gnome of sorts with eyes that go all the way to the ground, but that's not the problem with this story as he doesn't show up till the end, and besides gnomes? Gnomes aren't scary. No, it's the corpse of the witch in the church and its propensity for getting out of its coffin and roaring and moving its head in unnatural ways while trying to grab a certain philosopher doomed to read from the Bible for three nights in a row while locked in a church with her. I found the story to be terrifying before I saw this guy and his neck this morning. God damn.

I would much rather be discussing the amazing time I had seeing David Mitchell read and talk at the Toronto Reference Library this past Wednesday but there's a photo of us together (er, "squee!," as the kids say) but I can't find the cord to link the camera to the computer to download it, and also I'm all scattered because of the bodies everywhere, dammit. What I'm saying is, I'd liked to be both less disturbed and more organized before I write about Mitchell because I want to do the experience justice including, and maybe especially, the hilarious conversation I overheard, while I was standing in line to get my books signed, about a guy trying to go to the potato museum in New Brunswick.

So, all this is why I am cataloging books in the middle of the night, in the hellish hot heat, and not reading and not writing a book review or a fan-girl post about David Mitchell. So, let's focus on that for a moment, yes? Here are some of the books I'm pricing:
  • The Farewell Chronicles: How We Really Respond to Death, Anneli Rufus (why did this have to be the first book I picked up tonight/this morning? Sigh.)
  • Open Heart, A.B. Yehoshua (I've been meaning to read this author; thoughts?)
  • Slam, Nick Hornby (I hated How to Be Good but loved the film version of About A Boy - and am afraid to read the book in case it ruins the film for me.)
  • The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman (love all around)
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (this is annoying because someone asked for this around 4 pm today and I didn't have a copy, and then hubby came home with it and the rest of this pile at 6; this happens much too often. Also, I thought this book was lame; good idea, but while reading it, I found myself wishing constantly that someone more talented had written it, and that I hadn't correctly guessed the shocking truth on the very first page. Double sigh.)
  • The Dreamer Awakes, Alice Kane (not sure what this one is about yet but I do know that my husband used to own this exact copy and our bunnies ate it.)
I wish I could just be reading right now. In the last year or so of my PhD, I barely slept but I read a lot of really good books in the middle of the night; I'm thinking back particularly fondly to South of the Border, West of the Sun. And realizing there's nothing that perfectly strange yet simple sitting in my library right now, which is also part of why I'm cataloging books in the middle of the night. Sometimes only a short, weird Murakami novel will do, and I don't have a one on me now.

Alright, 20 books cataloged and a blog post written - back to the suffocating apartment for some deliciously suffocating non-sleep!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The terrible intimacy of history

I recently read Marguerite Duras’s The War: A Memoir (translated from the French by Barbara Bray). To say I enjoyed it would be to gloss over just how disturbing this book is. It comprises a diary (written sometime after the actual events it describes) and several short pieces which appear to become increasingly fictional as the book progresses. “Truth” and “fiction” are words which seem almost entirely meaningless in relation to this particular text; even at its most clearly fictional, Duras reminds us that this book was borne entirely out of her experience of waiting in Paris, in the final days of World War II, for her husband to return – or to learn that he wouldn’t be returning.

This is a book, then, about the horrific nature of not knowing but needing to know the unknowable; of being desperate to discover that which can’t be borne. It is also about what it means to be a professional writer in a world in which reading and writing books become hideous reminders of a normalcy long subsumed in the terrible facts of war, both its quotidian deprivations and its varieties of genocide.

Duras begins the book by articulating a struggle with being who she is in a world that’s gone crazy, and as a result producing a book which is horrifying both for what it records and for the absences and losses it articulates:
    I found this diary in a couple of exercise books in the blue cupboards at Neauphle-le-Château.
    I have no recollection of having written it.
    I know I did, I know it was I who wrote it. I recognize my own handwriting and the details of the story. I can see the place, the Gare d’Orsay, and the various comings and goings. But I can’t see myself writing the diary. When would I have done so, in what year, at what times of day, in what house? I can’t remember.
    One thing is certain: it is inconceivable to me that I could have written it while I was actually awaiting Robert L.’s return.
    How could I have written this thing I still can’t put a name to, and that appalls me when I reread it? And how could I have left if lying for years in a house in the country that’s regularly flooded in winter?
    The first time I thought about it was when the magazine Sorcières asked me for a text I’d written when I was young.
    The War is one of the most important things in my life. It can’t really be called “writing.” I found myself looking at pages regularly filled with small, calm, extraordinarily even handwriting. I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed. (pp. 3-4)
The deliberation and intellectual engagement involved in novel-writing and publishing are absent from The War; it as though history was writing itself through Duras, and not only did she barely notice it happening, but she also can only partially recognize the work, the words, as her own. It is only the physical evidence that confirms for her that she produced these pages.

In spite of this authorial alienation, The War is painfully intimate. Waiting for her missing husband, Duras invokes his body’s absence so closely as to make it seem more real than it probably could if he were present:
Suddenly it bursts in on me, the obvious: he’s been dead for a fortnight. Fourteen days, fourteen nights, abandoned in a ditch. The soles of his feet exposed. With the rain, the sun, the dust of the victorious armies all falling on him. His hands are open. Each hand dearer than my life. Known to me. Known like that to me alone. (pp. 9-10)
And, indeed, after Robert L., quite improbably and on death’s door, does return to Paris, Duras becomes increasingly distant from him until she finally tells him she’s going to leave him.

I’ve never read a book so profoundly, desperately, and despairingly emotional. I’ve never encountered writing so horrifyingly energetic, writing that made me think that it could either distract one from committing murder or suicide – or inspire them. That Duras can experience such close intimacy only with her husband when is not there is in the end not surprising, for the war has effectively skinned such relationships alive. As someone surviving and waiting and being kept company more by ghosts than by real people, the experience of living in a terrible moment in history becomes the most real relationship possible:
I think of the German mother of the little sixteen-year-old soldier who lay dying on August 17, 1944, alone on a heap of stones of the quai des Arts; she’s still waiting for her son. Now that de Gaulle’s in power, now that he’s become the man who for four years saved our honor, now that he’s to be seen in broad daylight grudging the people their praise, there’s something terrifying about him, awful. “So long as I’m there the firm will carry on,” he says. He’s not waiting now for anything but the peace; we’re the only ones who are still waiting, in a suspense as old as time, that of women always, everywhere, waiting for the men to come home from the war. We belong to the part of the world where the dead pile up hugger-mugger in charnel houses. It’s in Europe that this happens. That they burn Jews by the million. That they mourn them. America watches in amazement as the smoke rises from the crematoriums of Europe. I can’t help thinking of the gray-haired woman who’ll be suffering and waiting for news of the son who died so alone, at sixteen, on the quai des Arts. Perhaps someone will have seen mine, the one I’m waiting for, just as I saw him, in a ditch, when his hands were making their last appeal and his eyes no longer could see. Someone who will never know what that man was to me; someone whose name I’ll never know. We belong to Europe: it’s here, in Europe, that we’re shut up together confronting the rest of the world. Around us are the same oceans, the same invasions, the same wars. We are of the same race as those who were burned in the crematoriums, those who were gassed at Maïdenek; and we’re also of the same race as the Nazis. They’re great levelers, the crematoriums at Buchenwald, hunger, the common graves at Bergen-Belsen. We have a share in those graves; those strangely identical skeletons belong to one European family …. The Americans say: “There isn’t a single American now, not one barber in Chicago or farmer in Kentucky, who doesn’t know what happened in the German concentration camps.” The Americans mean to show us how well the American war machine works, how they’ve set at rest the misgivings of the farmer and the barber, who weren’t sure before why their sons had been taken away from them to fight on the European front. When they’re told about how Mussolini was executed and hung on butcher’s hooks, they’ll stop understanding and be shocked. (pp. 46-47)
Guilt, victimhood, incomprehension, isolation, hopeless waiting – these may be shared only with unknown people somewhere else, and with an historical moment almost tangibly alive with its own lurid and vicious concerns. Personal intimacy has gone the way of national or racial innocence, with the ability to feel safe in the world, with the ability to feel safe with oneself. All that’s left is a history that will eat you alive and writing that is so painful to produce that its author can’t even remember doing so.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Myths for growing girls

Excellent news, fellow book-readers: Not only does my reading block seem to have been defeated, but I've also finished the book it forced me to put down so much against my will: Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. I'm happy to report that this book was extremely enjoyable from beginning to end.

That said, I'm rather disappointed about the book's gender politics. In true fairy tale fashion, we are presented with a misunderstood wizard (Howl), a skittish and reserved young lady (Sophie) who is cursed in life-changing fashion by a sexually dominant witch (the Witch of the Waste). Specifically, Sophie is transformed into a shrivelled old lady from the lovely young woman she doesn't realize she is. Having been thus translated, Sophie hies her crickety bones hence and begins wandering the land to try to figure out how to reverse the spell. She ends up as Howl's cleaner in his moving castle.

Many unique and incredibly fun adventures ensue as the well-written story moves towards its inevitable climax, in which Howl and the Witch engage in a battle to the death. Now, where Jones takes a somewhat different tack from the usual fairy tale clap trap is that Sophie turns out to be a witch of not inconsiderable power. It is Howl who defeats the Witch of the Waste and her fire demon, but if Sophie hadn't kept her fire demon at bay while Howl was unconscious and, literally, given him back his heart after freeing it from his fire demon, he wouldn't have lived to do so.

She's got power but she doesn't win the day. Which is fine, I suppose; she is afflicted with a rather debilitating case of family of origin anxiety. My problem is that she doesn't realize she has witchy powers at all until she's told, and she can't figure out how to use them effectively until Howl gives her some pointed advice - and even then, things are going wrong and can only be righted when Howl wakes up. Jones then seems to take a glance at the fairy tale ending by having Howl's suggestion to the newly un-cursed Sophie that they "live happily ever after" followed directly by both of them acknowledging that by "happy ending" they mean something like "extremely bumpy and fractious ride".

It could be a send-up - or, it could be Sophie settling for a wizard she may very well have been magicked into falling in love with in the first place. Hmmm. Meanwhile, Sophie's sister Lettie - pushy, confident, and also talented in witchy ways - is finding out that the milksop she thought she was in love with is actually a recently un-cursed wizard with powers far superior to her own - and whose aggressive last words to her are that he'll be happy to accept her as a student! In the end, Jones's story reiterates many of the fairy tale ideologies surrounding gender she seemed at points like she might be questioning, for the only really powerful female character, The Witch of the Waste, is dead - at Howl's hands. And, of course, the other potentially powerful female characters are gathered safely back into the fold of dominant male authority.

Now, I'm not saying that I enjoyed this book less because of its ultimately very traditional gender values. I am noting that the possibility of female power (such an over-used and increasingly meaningless phrase; I wish I were less buffleheaded from the hellish hot heat so I could think of something new and better) in fantasy fiction, YA or otherwise, seems 99% of the time to end up this way. If this weren't so common, Terry Pratchett wouldn't have had so much to so easily make fun of in Equal Rites. I wonder why this continues to happen and when I try to think of exceptions, all I can come up with are Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (but then, Lyra is a bit too young for such things to really be issues yet) and Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy, in which Sabriel is truly the hero; when she and Touchstone marry, they are made to appear as though they have a marriage that really is based in equality.

This is also one of the reasons why I liked Y.S. Lee's first novel, The Agency: A Spy in the House, so much: Mary Quinn and James Easton have sexual chemistry, in spades, but Mary is not overwhelmed by it. Indeed, she is aware that to choose to succumb to it means losing other opportunities in life she mightn't want to lose - the point is, she contemplates the consequences of acting on this particular desire. Fairy tale females, including Sophie Hatter, do not contemplate such consequences - and this is what I find annoying - even when they are presented as being able to contemplate the consequences of every other action they consider taking. Saying yes to the sexually compelling man is too often presented as a question that doesn't even need to be asked.

This brings me to something I've been thinking about since the weekend, in relation to YA fiction geared specifically towards girls. Hubby and I had dinner with some friends on Saturday and we had some discussion about Twilight, which one half of the couple forced her book club to read. It was theorized by someone in the book club that one of the reasons girls like these books so much is that Bella is just a normal, kind of weak, kid; she is in no way special, and this is compelling because girls don't want to have to feel that they need to be at all strong or in any way special.

If this is true, I must say I find it extremely disheartening but in no way surprising for this is what's really at the heart of fairy tale gender politics: in the end, it's the sexually compelling male who one doesn't even need to consider saying no to, that makes the girl exceptional; she is made exceptional precisely by the exceptional male who chooses her. In Bella's case, a beautiful, sparkly vampire AND a REALLY sexually compelling in a deliciously animalistic but restrained werewolf add meaning to a life seemingly without hope of...well, much of anything; for Sophie and Lettie, two powerful wizards both confirm and contain their magical powers. In Cinderella's case, the wealthy infinitum.

Like all fiction, YA fiction and fairy tales fall firmly within the category of the imaginative, the fantastical. But these things do not ipso facto preclude the insertion of problematic ideologies into narrative and plot; indeed, as scholars of children's lit may suggest, fantastical narrative details may make such inclusions harder to detect. I don't know if I would like to insist YA authors think harder about this or not; too often, authors who decide to be polemical in their fiction writing produce literarily disappointing works, which can only make the polemic less effective anyway. At the same time, one wishes for a book world in which Pratchett's parodying of such conventions weren't so effortless and the results so recognizably apt.

Also, that so many girls would apparently rather be placated than inspired depresses the hell out me.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Eagleton and Pullman

I have a theory which may explain why Philip Pullman’s latest offering, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, is so disappointing – it was written in defensive response to a short (but incredibly damning) section of Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.

The passage in question begins with Eagleton’s thoughts on Thomas Aquinas’s view of God’s relationship with humans, refers briefly to D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, and then drops this bomb:
God “has created us in his own image and likeness, since he himself is pure liberty. It follows that he is also the ground of our ability to reject him – which is to say that in a splendidly big-hearted gesture, he is the source of atheism as well as faith. He is not a censorious power which prevents us from being good middle-class liberals and thinking for ourselves. This is simply the primitive, Philip Pullman-like view of those who cannot wean themselves off the idea of God as Big Daddy. The poet William Blake would have had nothing but scorn for this naïve misconception. What writers like Pullman do not see is that the liberal doctrine of freedom derives among other sources from the Christian notion of free will, rather as the liberal belief in progress has a distant resonance of Christian ideas of Providence.” (p. 17)
I find it frankly shocking that someone as capable of very close reading as Eagleton clearly is would make such a shocking interpretive mis-step about Pullman’s views on religion, which are generally understood to be laid out in His Dark Materials trilogy. In fact, if Pullman attacks anything in these books, it’s most certainly and, I think, obviously organized religion, not God, he’s after. After all, God figures in the third novel only, and only very briefly at that – as a very frail and tired old man kept caged for the horrid purposes of ruthless bureaucrats like Metatron.  The countless threats of death and damnation over the years, not to mention, of course, his excommunication from the Catholic church, don’t arise from Pullman’s take on God so much as on his apparent evisceration of religion.

Eagleton certainly defends religion but he does so in a balanced way, being as willing to acknowledge both its current and historical failings as he is to insist upon how it may be used differently, and to better purpose. Given that His Dark Materials is a reworking of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem to which Eagleton several times makes approving reference in Reason, Faith, and Revolution, this misunderstanding is doubly surprising. I can only conclude that it’s neither Pullman’s notion of God, nor his virulent rejection of a thinly veiled Christianity that really get Eagleton’s goat here. Rather, I would suggest that it’s Pullman’s creation of a world in which neither are necessary which offends him. Hitchens and Dawkins also claim that neither are necessary but as Eagleton has shown, and which I discuss in my previous post, they do so without a clear enough understanding of the things against which they inveigh.

Pullman is a different beast all together. Pullman not only has a very solid grounding in Christian theology but also in its most famous literary critique, Paradise Lost. Pullman doesn’t offer pat liberal-intellectual credos in opposition to being set spiritually adrift; his novels insist throughout, but particularly at the climax, that humans are so inherently spiritual as to require no guidance whatsoever. This is a radical notion that goes well beyond Eagleton’s claim that Jesus loves us just as we are; it insists this isn’t actually required, for we are sufficient, entirely, in both our beauties and our imperfections.

Eagleton appears to want his opponents to be formidable but when one is, he fails to engage in much the same way he takes the “Ditchkins” to task for. Eagleton may find such an accusation intellectually discomfiting, and he should. What I find most shocking is Pullman even bothering to respond to such scathe. Again, I’m just speculating that Pullman has read and responded to Eagleton’s book (2009) with his own (2010); I’m comfortable suggesting, however, that if Pullman has not read Eagleton’s book specifically, he has read something similar and apparently too galling to bear. The question is, why, after all this time, is the pressure finally getting to Pullman? His Dark Materials are some of the finest literary fantasy ever produced; that they rankled so widely and deeply is evidence, to me, of just how radical and I think compelling, his alternative view of our inner lives really is.

Pullman’s work iterates Teilhard de Chardin’s (1881-1955) observation that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Eagleton, in spite of all his apparently comfortable truck with the mystical, clearly believes that humans must be induced in some way to have spiritual experiences; Pullman’s His Dark Materials, on the other hand, sits firmly within the tradition of Blake’s mystical poetry, in which the spiritual is as inescapable as the air itself.

I can only conclude that central to Eagleton’s misconceptions about Pullman’s trilogy is that he hasn’t considered just how much genre matters. His Dark Materials is a capital-F Fantasy trilogy. It prominently features witches on broomsticks, talking bears who fashion their own armour, and a number of other elements which more than clearly enough indicate that whatever ideologies may lie beneath the story, it is still in fact a STORY and is meant to be read first and foremost as such. No wonder Pullman felt the need to paste this message so loudly on the back cover of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; he doesn’t fear religion backlash per se, he fears militant, readerly incomprehension.

Fiction is not the same as polemic, essay, or dissertation, even if some of its ideas are polemical, etc. Fiction, it seems to me, generally ought to allow its authors some distance from what they write and indeed, it generally does. No one tends to believe that all of an author’s characters are damningly autobiographical – unless, of course, religion plays a central role. Then, somehow, this distance is allowed – or made – to disappear and authors are called to task for beliefs they may not actually hold.

People shouldn’t be getting worked up because His Dark Materials presents a fictional re-imagining of a 17th-century poem that fictionally re-imagines Christian history. People should be getting worked up because Pullman’s latest fictional outing is too polemical and worried about what such paranoid, nervous Nellies – including, sadly, Terry Eagleton – are getting worked up about.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Keeping your friends close and your enemies closer

Early on in Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, author Terry Eagleton writes this pithy and extremely quotable snippet:
There is a document that records God’s endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible. God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it. (p. 8)
Both in and out of context, this passage seems unforgivably unoriginal or embarrassingly Pollyanna; at the very least, it would initially seem to mark Eagleton’s book as a mystical rather than an intellectual document, and therefore geared towards directly contradicting the works of the most famous of those writers known as the New Atheists, Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion). It would seem that Eagleton has seen these authors’ dichotomization of science and religion and is confirming it, but from the other side of the divide.

In fact, I believe this passage, is actually a rather cagey example of what is known as a straw man. It may be that Eagleton believes that God’s creations are lovingly created works of art, but that’s beside the point. Appearing to set up a clear distinction between reason and faith, it is reason and its formal applications (particularly in academic and/or highly specialized scientific arenas) that are apparently being disparaged. Yet, Eagleton also slyly ridicule formal religion, leaving only a God who strikes one as surprisingly sensitive and decidedly New Age.

What remains, in other words, is a confident pseudo-mystical assertion that follows claims about the inadmissibility of all assertions made with any sort of confidence. Why do this? First and foremost, I suspect, in order to set up the focus of his prolonged critique of the methods of the New Atheists; he is engaging, for a brief and maddening moment, in the sort of self-satisfied but half-formed sort of argumentation for which he takes Hitchens and Dawkins so thoroughly to task in the remainder of the book. He is showing just how sloppy their unfinished and unreflective rejections of religion look like from the other side; based on the quotations from their books he provides here, however, Eagleton does so with a great deal more rhetorical finesse. This is not a book which focuses primarily on addressing yes or no questions in relation to religion versus science; it is a book about raising the stakes and modes of this debate.

(I should note here that not only have I not read either Hitchens’s or Dawkins’s books, but also that I will likely never do so. This is not a topic in which I am, in fact, at all interested. I’ve read Eagleton’s book for two reasons completely removed from either its perspective or the perspectives of Eagleton’s opponents: 1) It was gifted to me from my brother, who is extremely interested in this topic; and 2) In spite of my the reader’s block I was suffering from when the book arrived in the mail, a glance at the first two pages hooked and cured me simultaneously, and solely because Eagleton is so clearly as hilarious as he is erudite and linguistically gifted.)

Straw men comprise a large part of what Eagleton writes against in Reason, Faith, and Revolution. While he does in many instances take on specific aspects of Dawkins’s and Hitchens’s arguments, his concern is primarily with what he perceives as a dangerously pervasive laziness with regards to research, argumentation, and self-reflection underpinning their now famous works:
This straw-targeting of Christianity is now drearily commonplace among academics and intellectuals – that is to say, among those who would not allow a first-year student to get away with the vulgar criticisms in which they themselves indulge with such insouciance. Ditchkins on theology is rather like someone who lays claim to the title of literary criticism by commenting that there are some nice bits in the novel and some scary bits as well, and it’s all very sad at the end. He thinks, for example, that all Christians are fideists, holding that reason is irrelevant to faith, which is rather like believing that all Scots are stingy. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, incidentally, had the rare distinction of being a fideist without being a believer.) Hitchens’s God Is Not Great is littered with elementary theological howlers. We learn that the God of the Old Testament never speaks of solidarity and compassion; that Christ has no human nature; and that the doctrine of the resurrection means that he did not die. In a passage of surreally potted history, Hitchens seems to hold the obscure Jewish sect of the second-century BC known as the Maccabees responsible not only for the emergence of Christianity but also for the advent of Islam. It is surprising that he does not pin Stalinism on them as well. For his part, Dawkins seems to believe that Paul was the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, and that to say that Jesus was the son of God means that he was omniscient. The sagacious advice to know your enemy is cavalierly set aside. (pp. 52-53)
Here is the key both to Eagleton’s approach and to his arguments: “The sagacious advice to know your enemy is cavalierly set aside.” Reason, Faith, and Revolution both displays Eagleton’s clear knowledge of his enemies, Dawkins and Hitchens, who both appear to lack a clear lack of such understanding of their enemies – their enemies including both religion itself, as well as those who come out in favour of it. (And lumping all who come out in favour of it, from murderous fundamentalists to highly educated theologians and everyone in between, appears to be only one aspect of this failure to look closely at what they rail so virulently against.)

Eagleton’s rhetorical advantage is thus threefold. Not only does his book reveal how well he knows his “enemies” by highlighting the outrageous extent to which they do not know theirs, but it does so in part by showing where Dawkins and Hitchens actually get things right – a generosity of fight and rhetoric neither of them appear to offer at all. If Eagleton “wins” (a term I don’t think he would feel comfortable with, even though he does invoke, albeit somewhat ironically, that very primal notion of “enemy”), it’s not simply because he is a better writer and thinker than they are, but also because he enacts some of the generosity he insists lies at the heart of any meaningful manifestation of Christianity, which is really, even if only in its ideal rather than actual state, all about how people interact with one another.*

For the most part**, Eagleton focuses on being, if not polite to his opponents, at least respectful enough of their projects and claims to address rather than simply dismiss them out of hand, with a scornful flick of the rhetorical wrist. Indeed, what is both most laudable about Eagleton’s critique of New Atheism is that unlike Dawkins, he is more than happy to admit that it’s precisely because of his enemies that he has this work to do in the first place: “Without God, Dawkins would be out of a job. It is thus particularly churlish of him to call the existence of his employer into question” (p. 9).

Of course, Eagleton is being somewhat flip here but he also, quite seriously, never lets go his rhetorical advantage. At the very point at which he acknowledges his indebtedness to Dawkins and Hitchens he reminds us, once again, of exactly the sorts of blunders they repeatedly make – that is, to fail to engage fully with those against whom they inveigh:
One of the more agreeable aspects of Christopher Hitchens’s polemic against religion is that he is properly unafraid to declare that he thinks it poisonous and disgusting. Perhaps he finds it mildly embarrassing in his new post-Marxist persona that “Religion is poison” was the slogan under which Mao launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet. But he is right to stick to his guns even so. Beliefs are not to be rejected just because they are beliefs. Societies in which any kind of abrasive criticism constitutes “abuse” clearly have a problem. “Abuse” is one of the latest American buzzwords, including as it does such unpardonable offenses as conducting a heated argument with someone, or recounting unpalatable political facts which another person would prefer not to hear. (pp. 147-48)
How well this book refutes Dawkins’s and Hitchens’s arguments I can’t truly assess for as I’ve noted, I haven’t read their books; further, if Eagleton’s assessments of their research is correct, I have a better understanding of Christian history than they do (a terrifying notion, for I haven’t read the Bible in its entirety, much less studied the religion in any depth whatsoever)! This, however, doesn’t mean that I know enough to be sure that Eagleton himself isn’t making any theological blunders. I can say, that as a model of argumentative vigor and integrity, as well as surprisingly enjoyable read which manages, quite unusually I think, to convey complex ideas in readily comprehensible language, it is a fine specimen.

*“The non-God or anti-God of Scripture, who hates burnt offerings and acts of smug self-righteousness, is the enemy of idols, fetishes, and graven images of all kinds – gods, churches, ritual sacrifice, the Stars and Stripes, nations, sex, success, ideologies, and the like. You shall know him for who he is when you see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away. Salvation, rather bathetically, turns out to be not a matter of cult, law, and ritual, of special observances and conformity to a moral code, of slaughtering animals for sacrifice or even of being splendidly virtuous. It is a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants, visiting the sick, and protecting the poor, orphaned and widowed from the violence of the rich. Astonishingly, we are saved not by a special apparatus known as religion, but by the quality of our everyday relations with one another. It was Christianity, not the French intelligentsia, which invented the concept of everyday life.” (pp. 18-19)

**The only point at which I feel Eagleton fails in this regard is in his constant referral to Dawkins and Hitchens as the hideous, double-headed Hydra he terms the “Ditchkins”. This is amusing, yes, but not only does it not add anything to his argument but to me it also shows that Eagleton is not as immune to the temptation to taunt his subjects as he ought to be, if he wants to ensure that his narrative transcends theirs in terms of both moral tone and maturity.