April 15, 2013

Mainly Men + Toni Morrison + Shulamith Firestone

In this selection of my reading, three of four authors and four of four protagonists are men. (And I finish with a radical feminist.) The woman writer is Toni Morrison. Her novel Home Is about Vietnam War vet Frank Money, who goes in search of his sister, who has been working for—and experimented on—by a white doctor. It’s grim on all fronts but not without hope in the end. The home of the title is a place where you can get looked after, probably without sentiment or even affection, and could well be the place you ran away from as soon as you could. Toni Morrison is a great writer and I am glad to have read this book.

 It’s not hard to pick that David Vann’s Dirt is not going to be a barrel of laughs. Galen wants to be enlightened and sees his nightmare family as preventing him. He’s tragically self-absorbed. Everyone—mother, aunt, cousin, Galen—seems mad, except perhaps the grandmother.

"His grandmother, unable to remember anything, was definitely on pause. Someone taking a break from the game. Then there was the big question of what the game was about. Why were we all trying to learn lessons? Galen knew it was so we’d finally be without attachment , but why did attachments ever have to exist in the first place?" (page 69)

I liked reading this bleak book, too.

I wrote in an earlier post about Vladimir Nabokov’s tragic/ comic Pnin. His Pale Fire is tricksier, just as hilarious in places, and compelling, but there is no character to equal Professor Pnin. The protagonist, KInbote, is the most unreliable of narrators. Most of the novel takes place as his deluded commentary on the poem Pale Fire by murdered poet John Shade, footnotes included. Having read these two books I don’t understand why Nabokov’s fame rests on Lolita; it’s not nearly as good as either of these. Pale Fire has been described somewhere as a precursor to David Foster Wallace’s  Infinite Jest. Apart from the footnotes, I don’t see it.

New Zealand poet Glenn Colquhoun has published a collection of prose writings plus some poems, Jumping Ship and Other Essays. He gets a lot right. Take this:
“Engaging with Maori does not mean assimilating them. It does not mean being assimilated by them. There are two ways of doing things in this country that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.”
The understated style and humour are endearing, sometimes veering towards sentimental maybe, but always perceptive.  And the humour is good. For example, in writing of a man who had worked mining sulphur: “If he went to hell for lying he would at least be used to the smell.”

I just read an article in the New Yorker (15 March 2013) by Susan Faludi, about Shulamith Firestone. I knew Firestone had died last year, sick and poor, but I didn’t know the extent of the tragedy that was her life. (I doubt she would like being included in a post mainly about men.) She was an icon, a firebrand, a passionate, uncompromising fighter, the author of The Dialectics of Sex, a radical feminist  theory of politics where she argued that gender inequality was the result of a patriarchy that structured society by defining women through their biology. For her the biological family was a tyranny imposed on women. I remember being shocked by her ideas at the same time as admiring her for putting them out there. She was an icon, an example of a fearlessness that many of us lacked. Is it foolish, I wonder, to wish she had had a better subsequent life?