The lovers are kept apart in their youth by parents and counselors, all of them people with agendas. When they are older and have settled into their separate world views, they are kept apart by their mutual incomprehension and learned distrust. When in the final scenes, they come together, their totems—a magical tree, a powerful social network—merge, saving the world.
Carson McCullers is interested in the feelings and the states of understanding of adolescents and other marginal people who are on the cusp of self discovery or transformation. She also writes in slow motion, capturing their subtle emotional variations and incremental changes in perception. She sets the tiniest stages of a thought in sharp relief. As a result, following her narration of a scene takes patience.
McCullers’s novel made me conscious of how—during important periods of my life, yes, but also in ordinary days and boring weeks, in conversations with others but also when I’m alone—my feelings operate as a process and develop through variation. Yet in memory, the process isn’t retained. I remember my feelings as nouns rather than verbs. McCullers’s novel reminded me of the busy work of feeling that I continue to forget and restored (at least for a moment) the complexity and significance of that work to my sense of the fleeting moments of daily life. (Aciman’s in Call Me by Your Name reminded me of this as well.)
Frankie, the novel’s young protagonist, is difficult and cantankerous. Yet everything about her bristles with life and enthusiasm: she is alive to herself and is working as hard as she can within her limited means to make the materials of her childhood into a Self. She’s fierce, takes risks and is playing for stakes, yet she remains open to being touched by others as she struggles to be different, elsewhere and better, three terms that to her are largely synonymous. How can you not be charmed by that?
Finally, it’s worth saying that McCullers’s diction here is a feat of strength. Without resorting to odd neologisms or showy deep-dives into the OED, she describes subtle difference of emotion and of setting while maintaining a consistent register of lanugage. If this novel were a painting it would be richly monochromatic. The effect is so seductive that, by the end, I found myself nostalgic for a Georgia summer heat I’d fled years ago because her description of it convinced me that I’d somehow missed its beauty. I hadn’t—I’m sure of that—but if you’ve ever endured that heat without air conditioning for any length of time, you can appreciate what a powerful spell McCullers must weave in order to make me think I had.
This is the Antebellum West, the Civil War and Reconstruction viewed through the eyes of a gender fluid gay soldier who cares less about history than the soldier he loves and who loves him back. Because he’s the narrator, the book follows his lead, never questioning the nature of their affections and presenting the physicality of their relationship bluntly from the outset.
The result is dream-like and utopic and is disturbed only occasionally by outsiders. For example, after meeting with the couple on official business and saying nothing about the narrator wearing a dress, a military official later writes to schedule a second meeting and requests that the narrator come dressed as a man.
Yet however idealized the narrator’s relationship, the world he lives in and the wars he participates in are brutal and cruel. The book draws a great deal of its energy from the narrator’s casual disengagement from this bloody (and often genocidal) violence. I couldn’t sort out the tone of this distance.
Eventually though I began to wonder whether the other people caught up in the violence—especially the Native Americans—were simply wind0w-dressing and whether this was symptomatic of the author’s outside position vis-a-vis the American conquest of the West. Could it be that he set out to write a western, and from across the Atlantic, the detailed historical backdrop appears to serve primarily as a generic (but literary) setting? I don’t know, and find this aspect of the book troubling.
This book is populated by characters that became real to me as I watched them live for forty years or so in New York. They aren’t interesting in any extraordinary or flashy way—which makes the title odd—but I cared about them and became involved enough in their lives to lose track of the fact that the book would end.
Now that it has, I feel torn up and sad the way you do when you lose people.
Update: That last bit surely sounds exaggerated, but it’s not. I miss Ethan, Ash, Jonah, Jules and Denis. There’s no other way to say it, and I’ve been in a funk all day from their story being done.
I can say without reservation that these stories are (almost without exception) marvelous. Funny and allegorical, they are a lot like bones: let them simmer slowly over a steady heat and they give up riches. Yet my students, who I thought would be sucked in by the fantastic elements and young adult protagonists, were put off and confused by them. They asked things like “Do the goggles really let them see ghosts?” and “Are the girls werewolves?”—which is fine but only if you’re willing to accept that the answer is “Yes. But maybe not.” And then to think about how “yes” changes your sense of the story, and then how “no” and “maybe” do. For reasons I don’t really understand, my class wouldn’t go there and got hung up on the ambiguity generated by the conceits.
Here’s my dream though: they have read the thing and someday, they are going to be at a cocktail party, trying their best to fit in and to impress but failing and when they leave and become self-hating and say to themselves (or to their significant other) something along the lines of “I’m like an animal and am not fit to attend these things and I don’t understand why anyone would invite me to wander loose among the humans like that,” they’ll remember this book and think “oh, wait, I get it now…”
I know most of the writers here quite well, and yet the resulting portraits turned out to be fascinating. A biography presents a life, but how someone fits the thing it is that they do into that life operates like a windows onto their personality and their sense of who they are.
The first is that, in an effort to get things right on a large scale by pulling disparate events together and identifying patterns, Harari is willing to risk being wrong by going out on a limb. The cruel irony of higher education is that it teaches most people to play it safe. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, but you’ve studied dammit and you want to be right about what they’re right about. So listening to or reading informed academics talk is a bit like watching rabbits chew lettuce: it’s all little bites with eyes on horizon, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. Harari isn’t like that at all. He goes out on limbs, sometimes in areas I know a fair bit about. Sometimes I questioned what he was saying in those areas. But in general, I liked those moments of the book the best because they made a claim and trusted I’d take the time to think about it.
The second thing that impressed me was the clarity with which his book demonstrated what anthropology offers as an academic field. I studied history as an undergraduate and continue to read it as an amateur. Somewhere along the line, I’d foolishly decided that anthropology was the historical study of people living without writing (and of cavemen and of the liberal arts version of evolution). Harari’s book makes me realize that this conception of the field is ignorant enough to approach idiocy. Anthropology is a study of Culture and conceptualizes the term with enough sophistication and breadth to make the “Cultural Studies” I’m familiar with seem parochial. This reassessment of the field is the most significant thing I took away from the book.
This history of the Antebellum period is complex and breathtaking. The country changed so much in these years that Polk’s administration feels like a different world than Buchanan’s. There are lots of ways to track that change. One of the best I’ve read is actually a novel: James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird.
This history couldn’t be more different from that book. Whereas the novel watched the world from ground level and from a marginal space imagined within central events of the period, this history leaps into the political center without shying away from the details of committee conferences, vote counts, and the back-and-forth of parliamentary procedures. This is a story of power struggles played out in halls of government and across the western territories. Yet, the whole is handled with such a sure hand that the details enliven rather than obscure the developing events.
This book fits nicely across the joint connecting What Hath God Wrought? and Battle Cry of Freedom. Perhaps more unsettling is the way it seems to offer insight into the resentments and risks the States are muddling through today.
I also really like that nothing here is a revamping of Germanic or Nordic mythology and that this isn’t a world of wise, white men helping young white men discover themselves and save the world. That’s a shift from the norm and it feels right.
Narratively, this book takes all kinds of risks with point-of-view and plotting. Yet somehow, by the end it pulls everything together. It’s a feat of strength and makes the book extremely satisfying.
I stumbled across the name of this book and its author in the opening anecdote of a magazine article a couple months ago. I’d never heard of either, but the odd context of the reference made me curious. So I stopped by Indigo the next time I was downtown and, after some confusion over which name was used to file the book—Cixin or Liu—found a copy.
The book was wildly disorienting because I know nothing about Chinese history that can’t be captured in the broadest of strokes. The footnotes saved me in this regard. By the same token, character interactions are clearly stylized here but they are done in a manner different from what I’m used to. The differences weren’t enormous and I adapted, but they were enough initially to make it quite hard to peg characters down. I don’t know enough to say what precisely these differences amount to. I am conscious of difference, but is it a product of a) my cultural distance, b) an unexpected generic variation, c) a purposeful narrative choice, d) the translation, or e) some combination of these? I don’t know.
What I do know is that the book is tightly constructed. Without generating much tension or suspense and without giving the impression of holding back secrets, the plot slowly, methodically unfolds piece-by-piece until in the end everything is backwards and inside out compared to what it was on page one, and this despite the fact that in fundamental ways, nothing has changed except the state of my understanding. I’ve learned what happened before page one—like in a mystery—and that knowledge makes all the difference. It’s an impressive feat of storytelling.