Friday, September 30, 2016

Lionel Shriver is the Donald Trump of literature

It's three weeks later, and I haven't had time to write a full-throated denunciation of author Lionel Shriver and her deeply reactionary September 8 speech at a Brisbane, Australia, writers' festival, but tardy as this is and brief though it's got to be, I've decided to post a note now, just for the record.

For the record, then: Lionel Shriver is the Donald Trump of literature. Ignorant, shallow, insecure, defensive, and offensive. Deeply, viciously offensive. A know-nothing candidate of racist reaction--a candidate for the crown of world champion of know-nothing, backward white writers like herself who are threatened by the rising tide of writers of color, queer writers, writers whose experience, perspective, literary concerns are different than hers, writers who are opening up the world of fiction to new narratives, fresh and exciting and oh so badly needed narratives telling truths that will soon overtake the tired, timeworn fiction constructed of the lies of the imperialist overlords.

Shriver's target in her Brisbane speech was that ever-reliable nemesis of defenders of the old guard: political correctness. In this case, politically correct fiction or a consciously politically correct approach to literature. Just in case her words didn't do the trick, she wore a sombrero to provide a visual cue, an ever so simple, direct and expressive Fuck You to Latinos in particular and progressive, conscious anti-racist writers and readers in general.

Ah yes. Political correctness. The bane of the politically incorrect--the racist, the anti-LGBTQ, the sexist, the pro-imperialist anti-liberation crowd--who for nigh on 40 years now have been whining about how their worldwide reign is dwindling to its inevitable end. I wrote about this phenomenon five years ago on Read Red, that post occasioned by events at an AWP conference and the thrillingly brilliant response by the thrillingly brilliant Claudia Rankine. Short version: politically correct writing, or for that matter a p.c. approach to anything, means sensitivity to and awareness of oppression and commitment to actions and language that do not perpetuate oppression. By definition, then, to be opposed to political correctness is to be affirmatively, aggressively, proudly racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ. It is to align with the forces of oppression, reaction, the colonizers, the killers, the invaders, occupiers, destroyers, the thieves and exploiters.

This, then, is Lionel Shriver. Partisan of the ruling class and its system. Enemy of the working class and oppressed. You've made your point. We see you. You're on the wrong side. Good on yuh, as the Australians would say. Stay there behind Trump's great wall desperately defending your doomed allies. You and your cohort will soon be a bad memory. Shriver's cohort, by the way, includes the celebrated writers' organization PEN, which I've written about several times, including here and here and here. A pro-U.S.-imperialist literary-world equivalent of Human Rights Watch led by a veteran of the State Department whose specialty has long been fronting for invasion and occupation, PEN rarely misses an opportunity to side with the free expression of racist reaction, as in fact it did once again this week. Ah, ye stalwart defenders of the status quo. We'll not miss you after the revolution.

In the meantime, here is the most excellent retort to Shriver from Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the courageous writer who stood up and walked out as the sombrero-topped reactionary delivered her screed.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The invention of Nikola Tesla

Years after its publication, I finally got around to reading The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt, and now I'd like to take a time machine back to 2009 and tell myself, jeez, what are you waiting for, read this book! Because this is a beautiful novel. Wondrous good. Poignant and powerful and purely original. This is a novel about love and grief, loneliness and longing, and even, no kidding, bonus points here, about capitalism and how it wrecks everything, blocks human possibility. Above all, it seems to me, this is a stunningly wrought consideration of creativity.

Skimming reader reviews on Amazon left me shaking my head at what seems to me to be a sad misread of Hunt's novel and thinking, as a novelist myself, about how you just never know what book a reader is going to fashion in her/his own mind and how it might be not at all the novel you thought you wrote. OK, I say this with the perhaps unsupportable belief that I, unlike those many Amazon readers, understand Hunt's intent. Who knows, but it seems to me that what she's up to with this novel is something much more delicate and profound than what many of those readers seem to have gleaned. What they, many anyway, assert is that Invention is a work of magical realism. Surreal, some label it. And other variations on this theme.

But, unless I've lost my readerly mind, The Invention of Everything Else is neither a surreal nor a magical-realist fiction. Rather, it is a deep dive into the creative consciousness. It is a study of the imagination--imagination as a powerful creative force that drives both the main and several of the minor characters and that leaves them ultimately adrift in a society that squelches imagination at every turn or, as in Tesla's case, appropriates it for corporate profit.

I loved how, especially in the early sections of the book, we experience Tesla's creative consciousness in all its expansiveness. There's a sense of wonder here that we are more used to associating with artists rather than scientists; Hunt had me reeling and gasping at the playful leaps of imagination she conjures in Tesla's mind. It's a daring and, it seems to me, mostly successful effort, which made me regard Tesla as a sort of artist himself, a being of the ether rather than a mere materialist.

But while we see him here as a person of soaring ideas, possessor of a mind that broke free of earthly bounds, he was of course, as every true scientist must be, a materialist through and through, and Hunt depicts this beautifully too. There are many places where she has him spin grand and ever grander ideas for inventions, and he is at pains to point out how every one, no matter how grandiose or implausible, is rooted in reality, in atoms and molecules, energy, electricity. I love this. Because science--a materialist perspective on the world--is or ought to be a soaring, limitless endeavor. A great scientist, a truly great one with an unbound mind, is a kind of artist, and must be a dreamer. As Hunt shows here so well.

At a few points in the book, Hunt's Tesla makes a nice little jab against religion, with a nifty little point that resonates. He takes to task those who would reduce all the myriad wonders of the natural world to a single simple magical all-powerful being in control of everything. How unimaginative, Tesla remarks. And how unexciting, when the universe offers up its endlessly complex mysteries for human examination, the thrilling project of a lifetime, his lifetime, endless lifetimes if they were available. So much to learn. So much to investigate. So much to think up. To create. So much room for improvement. Ever expanding vistas.

This is the Tesla Hunt offers up, hero perhaps, martyr, victim, human being with an unbound mind and a broken heart from almost the start. I'm so taken with him, with her version of him, that while I'm interested enough in learning more to think about reading a biography now, on the other hand I'm touched enough by this book, content enough, at the end, to live with this Tesla, fictional though he is, as the definitive version. There's literary magic here, and I think it's where I'll let him dwell.

I haven't mentioned the other main character, Louisa, whose life intersects Tesla's in his last days, but with her too Hunt has crafted a fine character. I found her a lovely creation, and her story an effective counterpoint to Tesla's highlighting the same themes of imagination, love, loss, grief, hope. The ache of life. All in all, as affecting and satisfying a novel as I've read in quite a while.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Juliet Takes a Breath

Gabby Rivera makes it look easy.

Which is the hardest thing a writer can do.

With her debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath, Rivera sucks the reader in on the first page and there's no escape until the final sentence from a headlong plunge into the life, loves, longings, the rages, thrills, confusions, epiphanies, the utterly original and thoroughly convincing consciousness of first-person protagonist Juliet Milagros Palante. This is one winning sweetheart of a character--but real, honest, multi-faceted, beautifully crafted, not saccharine or fake.This novel is one humdinger of a contribution to queer literature. And this is one fine writer, Gabby Rivera, whose narrative skill and literary art announce her as a bright new star on the LGBT lit scene.
If Juliet Takes a Breath is not a finalist for next year's Lambda Literary Award I'll be shocked. And mad!

I used the word humdinger a few sentences back. Which marks me as old. Which I am. I'm of the generation that came of age and came out of the closet in the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall Rebellion. Much has changed since then, including the language of our movement, of our communities, and one of the things I love about Rivera's novel is how it's a headlong plunge into all that. It takes up hot topics. It takes on tough questions about words and their import, community and its challenges, division and unity. Racism. Solidarity. It does all this without sacrificing story. Contrary to the reactionary rules promulgated by the literary establishment in this country, you can indeed portray characters grappling with these vital issues, you can indeed write dialogue that directly engages with these issues, this is indeed what real people are doing in their real lives and a really good writer can convey this all organically within the flow of the characters' story and plot development. That is exactly what Rivera has done, for which I admire her a great deal. 

Oh, and I forgot to mention: this book is damned funny too! The depictions of the Portland scene are scathing and hilarious.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Fun Home on Broadway

Yesterday, one week before the Broadway run closes for good, and thanks to the sweet generosity of a dear friend, I saw the musical Fun Home at Circle in the Square. It. Blew. Me. Away. By which I mean, to be more specific, it left me a sodden soggy wrung-out distraught overwrought wreck. How great is that? This is what art ought to do. Shake us. Make us think.

I'd of course read Alison Bechdel's acclaimed book Fun Home soon after it was published in 2007. Strangely, though I liked it I didn't love it. It's strange because I never did manage to put my finger on what I didn't-love about it when just about the whole world was loving on it so hard, and when I've always loved, adored, her long-running series Dykes to Watch Out For, read and loved every installment, every collection, since DTWOF first started running in the 1980s. I still can't account for why I was relatively unmoved by Fun Home the book; I'd even say I've felt vaguely ashamed of myself for what must be a readerly failure on my part.
Well, never mind all that. I was swept away by Fun Home the innovative, exquisite, gut-wrenching masterpiece of musical theater. It is at once a very fine piece of political art--deeply relevant social commentary of the sort you rarely see in the theater anymore, certainly not on Broadway where the big-money profit-takers' lock on things is now pretty much complete--and a powerhouse of a tragic, gut-wrenching personal story. All presented by a brilliantly talented cast performing a stunningly written book and score by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori.

Tesori was also the composer for another breathtakingly creative, howlingly painful, and cracklingly political Broadway musical, Caroline, or Change, which had a criminally short run on Broadway in 2004. I lucked into free tickets for this show and can never forget its devastating impact, or that of its unbelievable powerhouse of a star, Tonya Pinkins. As it did for Caroline whose book and lyrics were by Tony Kushner, Tesori's music for Fun Home meshes soaringly with the sometimes startling, sometimes funny, sometimes sardonic, mostly searing, profoundly affecting lyrics. You know I'm a words gal, but even more than that I'm a sucker for words when they're sung straight into my heart. Caroline, or Change's did that, shatteringly. Now Fun Home's have too.