Monday, May 23, 2011

Silver Sparrow

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I'm a fan of novelist Tayari Jones. I read and raved about her first two novels, Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling. I follow her blog ardently. I admire her, not only as an author but as someone who makes it her business to encourage and mentor young writers, particularly people of color, women, LGBT folks, working-class writers, everyone, in other words, who doesn't get much encouragement from the literary establishment. I have it on good authority that she's a great teacher, too, tough as all get-out in that way great teachers have of dragging the best out of you, not letting you settle for less, and then when the best emerges giving you all the strokes you deserve.

Back to her writing. It's superb. However, from my vantage point, as I belabor constantly hereabouts, that's not enough. I require something more from fiction, something beyond beautifully crafted sentences. I require engagement, some meaningful level of grappling with social and political issues, with reality, and I mean more substantial reality than kitchen-table talk or interpersonal angst. Tayari Jones' work engages with the world. I don't know if she thinks of herself as a political writer, and most reviews of her work don't characterize her that way, and that's cool, in my book you don't have to be a Political Writer to be a political writer, see what I mean? You have to contend in some way with the realities of life in this society (or whatever society you're writing about), and she does so with great skill and insight.

So yay! She's got a new novel out! Silver Sparrow, just released by Algonquin.

And yay--I'm going to the book launch Wednesday night at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. Reading, Signing, Frolicking, as it's described on the author's website, where you can find the other dates in her book tour. I'm bringing some friends, and we're going to try to get there in time to find seats, which might be hard because I have a feeling it'll be a full house. No matter. I'll be glad to stand.

In fact, I'll be sitting much of the next day, on a plane as Teresa and I fly to Texas to spend an extended holiday weekend with her family. Which means this is probably the last post for at least a week, probably more. I probably won't get to read Silver Sparrow until some time after we return--I don't think I'll take it on the trip because I don't want to start it on the plane only to be ripped away from it for the better part of a week visiting with family--but I'll be happy knowing it's waiting for me back home in Queens.

Update: I attended and maximally enjoyed the book launch on May 25. It was packed, it was exciting, and Tayari was incredibly thrilling. She's not only a great writer but a great reader, and so smart, and so funny, and the only reason I'm not mentioning that she's also gorgeous and charming and charismatic is because that would be against my principles since all that should matter is the art...anyway, it was a great, I'm so glad I went, and I'm looking forward to reading her book very soon.

Now I'm back from six days in Texas, or rather inside the air conditioning of Texas, since it was way too hot to step outside. It was a lovely time. But I ate way too much, and especially way too much meat--yep, when in Texas--so now it's back to being sensible. And to work. I'll return with new lit talk as soon as I can.

Friday, May 20, 2011

You're right if you think I'm no fan of Philip Roth

but grossed out as I am by the big literary award he won this week, that's not why I haven't been blogging. There's no particular reason, actually, except that I haven't had a chance, am working on other things, and haven't had anything pressing to say. As I predicted would happen at the start of this year, I've been posting here much less often, and that'll probably continue. I'm not giving up on this fun little outlet quite yet, though, so do keep checking in now and then.

In the meantime, take it away, Mr. Sulu.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The un-Stieg Larsson

That's how I think of Cara Hoffman after reading her very good and deeply provocative debut novel So Much Pretty. I was going to head this post "the thinking woman's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" or something along those lines as a shorthand for what I think this novel accomplishes in earnest compared to what Larsson's by some accounts purports but by my read fails to. I didn't use such a heading because I don't want to offend the many people, including friends of mine, who not only like Larsson's novel and its two trilogy followers but think they are anti-sexist works of fiction. I respect those who think that. I myself, however, didn't react that way to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and have no interest in reading the other two). I found it a run-of-the-mill thriller/murder mystery, terribly clunkily written, not particularly interesting politically or in any other way. The lists of ghastly statistics about violence against women that precede each chapter seemed to me a lazy throwaway that I guess could be charitably interpreted to have been meant but completely failed to substitute for any meaningful exploration of this issue in the text itself. Writing about a misogynistic crime is hardly in and of itself any sort of contribution to the struggle against male supremacy. Sheesh, books and movies that feature awful acts against women are a mainstay of this culture, violence against women is in fact frequently offered up for misogynist titillation and, sadly, in Dragon Tattoo, can certainly be read that way. Especially when folded into a plot replete with the whole gamut of hot-sexy-crazed-babe-fucking-brooding-misunderstood-deeply-decent-male-hero cliches as they are, Larsson's depictions of crimes against women can be read as deeply offensive, exploitive and sexist (not to mention trite) business as usual in the thriller genre. Sorry, but, again, by my lights lists of statistics can't and don't substitute for substance, and unless something deeper is offered simply recounting gruesome anti-woman crimes is at best fatuous, at worst itself sexist and offensive.

OK, so how do you write about violence against women in a way that takes the reader on a much more profound journey? That makes the reader feel the horror and the ubiquity of this society's utter, definitive even, misogyny? That forces the reader to feel this—the woman reader to, shuddering, feel everything she's already felt and known, the male reader, I'd imagine, to gain a new level of understanding–and to think about it and about what can or might or should or must be done about it? That does all this without providing any graphic depiction of the disturbing, disgusting crime against a young woman that is central to the story—that is, without offering any opportunity for depraved titillation? That on the contrary builds real empathy for the victim as a person, a human being in all her fullness before the crime? That takes us inside her consciousness only for fleeting moments of the agonizingly long months of her ordeal, and yet in this brief passage contributes more to the case that a society-wide upheaval is needed to end violence against women than any of Larsson's lists ever could?

You do it the way Cara Hoffman does in So Much Pretty. I'm not talking about the plot, although that is well handled. [SPOILER ALERT STARTS HERE.] I knew what the crux of this story would be—the two basic thrusts of the plot, which are the abduction, repeated gang rape and eventual murder of a young woman, Wendy, and the shockingly violent retribution of another young woman, Alice—fairly early on, certainly by about halfway through the book. Hoffman certainly crafts the plot skillfully, but this is a novel whose underlying questions carry the real weight. Questions like: what kind of society does what this society does to women? and how can it be stopped? and what is or is not a moral or ethical or otherwise justifiable response?

For me, as a communist, the answers to the latter questions have to do with issues of consciousness and education, and with mass organizing and community control. For the teenager who ultimately takes matters into her own hands to mete out what she sees as justice to the young men who she believes are the culprits and who, she knows, are unlikely ever to be brought to any other kind of justice, no options except unilateral individual action seem viable. I'd trace this, at least in part, to the tacit lesson she took from her parents, doctors who left New York City and a life of community medical work and moved to a rural, depressed town in upstate New York—who opted out, in other words, removed themselves from any direct social engagement, any directed effort together with others to help or fix or change anything. This is me now, not the author, it's me saying united collective action rather than individual is the way forward. But Hoffman does weave in enough stuff to chew on, via the parent characters and some others, their friends, about their various choices and conflicts and thoughts and ideas and arguments, to indicate that it's just these issues, or at least that it's partly these issues, that she's posing as challenges we need to take up. The bottom line is that this is a successful novel, a disturbing, truthful work.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

'The organization of which you are an exploitee'

After reading a quite serious novel, which I will blog about soon but which was unsettling enough to first require some space, some head-clearing, I turned to and quickly devoured a wild little book of subversive mayhem: The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec. Perec was a mid-20th-century French writer of experimental literature. I first heard of him a few years back when a new English edition of his book A Void was released. That one's an entire novel written without using the letter E. While something like that could easily be mere gimmickry, and while in my opinion there's nothing inherently interesting or meaningful politically about a project like that (unless there is of course, I mean unless the content takes on the class struggle in some way), still it piqued my interest and has been on my to-read list for a while. Because I do have a weakness for sly hilarity, and A Void sounds like that might be on offer.

Not having any academic or theoretical literary training, I know very little about experimental writing. I know it excites some folks, often younger folks who are fed up with conventional fiction, who seek work that breaks away from established standards and norms. I sympathize with that yearning. Yet I haven't read anything that convinces me that experimental fiction is by virtue of its formal departures revolutionary or contributes in any way to the revolutionary struggle. I have in fact read interesting counter-arguments, that such work is, thanks to its inaccessibility to most people, irrelevant at best and at worst just a less stodgy contribution to bourgeois culture. Myself, the few times I've dipped my toes in ex-lit waters, I found it arid or impenetrable or boring or irrelevant.
Not this time. I loved The Art of Asking Your Boss for a  Raise. I don't care at all about its genesis--experiments with computer programs, as outlined in the translator's introduction--in fact, I wish I hadn't read the introduction, for I'd never have imagined any remotely mechanistic origin for this witty gritty little spew of a book. No matter, for however the idea evolved the story's crazily revolving locutions could only have been cooked up in the labyrinth of Perec's evidently wonderfully skewed, demented mind. And it is a story. A story about an office worker trying to ask his boss for a raise. Told without sentence or paragraph breaks, without punctuation or capital letters. Without pause or breath. A breathless endless and endlessly futile quest as the worker in his heart of heart well knows, telling himself at one point
do not lose heart after all you make a decent living do you really need a raise if you cut out the unnecessaries heating clothing transport if you have lunch in the canteen every day and dine on boiled lettuce you should be able to make both ends meet in any case it's a well known fact that boiled lettuce sharpens the mind
Lots of commentary about work and big business sneaks into what at first glance might seem like an impossibly repetitive, minute, circular narrative about a guy going to his boss's office to ask for a raise, along with lots of comic detail about fish bones and bad eggs and measles and circumperambulation. So yes, there is social satire built in, yes the sum of this small gem is more than its kooky parts. And yes, I thoroughly enjoyed whizzing along on the ride. Fun! Everyone deserves some!

Friday, May 6, 2011

The ultra-reactionary chokehold

Playwright Tony Kushner has done some good work. His most famous plays, the Angels in America cycle, were some of the first mainstream drama to draw attention to how the AIDS crisis was devastating the gay community in this country. His musical Caroline, or Change, which I saw in 2004 during its all too brief Broadway run starring the soaring, searing Tonya Pinkins and the incandescent Anika Noni Rose, is an honest, tough-minded yet tender treatment of race, racism, and Black-Jewish relations in the 1960s South. Kushner is not a radical. He is thoroughly at home in the mainstream. Basically he is a left social democrat, a devotee of what he sees as the potential of bourgeois democracy while acknowledging its shortcomings, and also aware of other possibilities and even of the ubiquitousness of anti-communism in this country and how it has damaged and distorted culture. This brief take on his political sensibilities, based on having read a number of his pieces and interviews with him over the years, is offered to lead in to commenting on the current dust-up drawing much notice here in New York.

At its meeting this past Monday, the board of trustees of the City University of New York voted to cancel the honorary degree that John Jay College had planned to bestow on Tony Kushner at this month's graduation ceremony. The reason: the playwright is not sufficiently rabidly racistly violently Zionist.

He is a Zionist. A left-liberal Zionist, the sort who says "I love Israel" and expresses his "strong support for Israel's right to exist," but does oppose the occupation and criticize what he sees as its worst extremes in the treatment of the indigenous Palestinian population. Kushner has acknowledged at least some of the crimes committed during the creation of the state of Israel. Yet "the occupation" that he opposes is the post-1967 occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, not the larger occupation—that is, the theft of the entire land of Palestine, on which is imposed the Zionist state, a state that is by definition racist, exclusionist and illegitimate.

Never forget this: Tony Kushner, or I, or any U.S. Jew, can move to Israel at any time and get automatic citizenship. Simply because we're Jews (and, by the way, regardless of religious practice, smart move since most Jews are atheists). By contrast, no Palestinian-American—not a young person whose parent or grandparent was forced out of the family home, nor an elder who was herself/himself driven out of the house by the terrorist thugs whose murderous ethnic cleansing campaigns were crucial to the creation of a Jewish state—not a single Palestinian is permitted to return home to live. Think about that. I, someone with no tie whatsoever to "Israel," someone whose ancestry goes back to Eastern Europe for hundreds of years and to Spain for hundreds of years before that, could pack up and move there tomorrow. And be welcomed as an automatic citizen. But my Palestinian sister whose parents still keep the key to their stolen home in a precious box, who still yearn for home, who still grieve over their forcible expulsion from the land their people had lived on for untold generations—she is barred from returning. (Here I'll point again, for any who have not yet read it, to Susan Abulhawa's wonderful novel Mornings in Jenin, which conveys this reality in a gripping literary tour de force.)

So. Here's a famous playwright who despite all that proclaims his love for Israel. Who says he is "moved and excited by its culture, its meaning in Jewish history" (which is to my way of thinking a reprehensible sentiment since its meaning in Jewish history is a blot, a shame, a stain, a crime against humanity, a turning away from a tradition of righteous struggle and solidarity against oppression). Who does criticize some of its crimes, as indeed do many Israelis, but does not at all part ways with Zionism itself, or with a fundamental support for the Zionist state's right to exist. Who, furthermore, explicitly does not support the BDS—Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions—movement, an international effort to bring pressure on Israel to end the 1967 occupation even though that in itself is a moderate demand and the BDS tactic a time-honored one honed during the struggle against that earlier apartheid state, South Africa; but no, even so, Kushner opposes BDS. Here, in other words, is a friend to Israel. But in the landscape of U.S. culture, where the ultra-right has an ever tighter grip on consciousness and culture, even that is not good enough.

And so CUNY pulls his honor. And Kushner cries foul. In his letter to the board expressing his dismay at the action, he asserts his "strong statement of support for Israel's right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so." He decries the BDS movement, explaining: "I have never supported a boycott of the state of Israel. I don't believe it will accomplish anything positive in terms of resolving the crisis. I believe that the call for a boycott is predicated on an equation of this crisis with other situations, contemporary and historical, that is fundamentally false, the consequence of a failure of political understanding of a full and compassionate engagement with Jewish history and Jewish existence." You can read his whole letter here. I've included these several sentences, with which I could not disagree more—and the latter of which seems to me to smack shockingly of a Jewish exceptionalism that objectively aligns with the base racism of the Zionist ideology rather than conveying any meaningful point about the history of European persecution of the Jews to which he's obviously referring and to which Zionism was and remains a backward, reactionary response; his view, apparently, is that apartheid in Israel cannot be compared to apartheid in South Africa because those imposing apartheid in Israel had terrible things happen to their grandparents in Europe—I include his own words expressing his unfortunate views to show how far from anti-Israel Kushner is. As he indeed took pains to show. Which underscores how extreme is the chokehold of reaction in every realm of this culture.

Now Facebook groups spring up. PEN, that bastion of anti-communist bourgeois liberalism, enters the fray. No one asks why reactionary investment bankers and bosses sit in control over CUNY, the college of New York's working class funded by the workers' taxes; why the majority of the board is white when most students are people of color; why tuition is no longer free and is in fact about to go up drastically again, making college an unreachable dream for more young workers.

CUNY should belong to the people of New York City. Militant students are right now organizing to take it back, fighting alongside staff and teachers against the vicious funding cuts and layoffs dictated by the banks. This will be a long, hard struggle, but it can be won. When it is, when CUNY is in the hands of the working class, I'll love to see who that new improved CUNY chooses to receive its honorary degrees.