Archive for August, 2010

The Reading Life, Part Eight (and last?)

August 25, 2010

About fifteen years ago, when our kids were teenagers, we moved to the country.  I’ve known places more remote, but with two teens in need of social interaction, it seemed intolerable.  Looking back I recognize we were in a transitional stage on many fronts, thrown in high relief by the move.  It wasn’t all that bad, really.  We survived, stronger in some ways and weaker in others (sorry to be so vague but it would take too long to explain).

Anyway: in the cramped stacks of one of the small-town libraries we frequented, I happened upon what will probably be the last installment of my reading life series.  In the course of examining how certain books at certain times have shaped my education as a writer, I’ve talked about character, pathos, setting, transcendence, detail and texture, life.  The last element, strange as it may seem, is terror.

I’m not talking about blood and gore, or not necessarily.  Horror fiction is awash in gore, with a supernatural tingle added.  In horror fiction, the victim is innocent: think Rosemary’s Baby, or The Exorcist.  But in “terror fiction” (I may be defining a new genre), the protagonist willingly enters into the situation.  Though blood is often involved it’s not the essence.  The essence is a presence of something infinitely bigger, something that could annihilate personality, swallow up self.  It fell upon Abraham in Genesis 15:12, a “great and dreadful darkness.”  Terror is not the exclusive property of evil; it could also belong to a being infinitely good.  What characterizes terror is the sense of otherness, of something completely outside one’s own terrestrial experience, and it may be desired as fervently as it is abhorred.  In fact, at the heart of all true religion is the longing for terror as defined here: a longing for loss of self.

Jesus hallowed the desire: “However finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  As always, he baptized a primeval urge.  What he meant was not ecstatic dancing by firelight, but continual surrender by day, turning over to God the work of our hands as He conforms us–very slowly!–to the image of Christ.  This is boring.  Not only that, it’s hard. The many manifestations of New Age spirituality seem to offer a shortcut to fulfillment.  But some may fling themselves headlong into the thrill without considering the very real costs.  Two works of fiction opened my eyes not only to the appeal of terror, but also its cost.

The late Mary Renault is best known for her re-creation of the Hellenistic period of Alexander, but for The King Must Die she goes back much farther, to the barely-historic period between the decline of Minoan civilization and the earliest stirrings of Greek culture.  Her hero is Theseus, whose exploits in the labrynth, defeating the Minotaur and escaping with Princess Ariadne, are imagined as historical incidents that passed into legend.  Theseus is legendary stuff: magnetic, resourceful, promiscuous, and fearless, but above all pious.

His time is a turning point between the earthbound matriarchal deity of Crete and the sky-dwelling gods of the mainland.  The crucial difference between them is this: the Earth Mother receives sacrifice, while the Father offers sacrifice.  “The King must die” is the foundational rule for both; over and over in pagan theology, gods are said to die for the continuing life of their people.  Understanding himself as a shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep is the first step of Theseus’s destiny.  But he refuses to die on the Mother’s terms.  Her day of passive sacrifice is on the wane; the age of Zeus is rising, and at some distant future all the gods may well offer themselves: “all their power and glory will rise like smoke to a higher heaven, and pass into a great god.  That would be death into life, if such a thing could be.”

To Christians, such a thing could be and has been.  The near-Christian impulses of some ancient myths, that which C. S. Lewis called “Good dreams,” have come to a blinding fulfillment.  No more dreams, good or otherwise: God Himself has come and dwelt among us.  The transcendent has invaded the commonplace, and nothing can be the same again.  From now on, everything is real.

To a postmodern consciousness, “real” (in the sense of commonplace) is often perceived as “dead.”  Witchcraft, Native American spirituality, shamanism, and drudism are attempts to recreate a world from which the gods have fled.  The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, tells how five gifted students at an ivy-league college in New England attempt to throw themselves back into ancient sensibility.  All five are known eccentrics, besotted with Homer, led astray by a brilliant teacher who won’t acknowledge the harmful effects of his teaching.  The five soon discover that shortcutting devices like drugs and alcohol won’t deliver what they seek.  The real thing eludes them until the missing element clicks into place: in order to invoke the gods, one must first believe in them.  Those who are able to cast themselves loose from the moorings of their American middle-class upbringing receive their reward: one night of total self-abandonment.  Then they come to, just before dawn, with blood on their hands and a mangled corpse at their feet.

Their leader explains, to the one member of the group who wasn’t there: “I wonder if you understand what sort of state we were in.  Scarcely an hour before, we’d all been really, truly, out of our minds.  And it may be a superhuman effort to lose oneself so completely, but that’s nothing compared to the effort of getting oneself back again.”  The night of Dionysian revelry becomes a year of Faustian tragedy, which works out an inevitable fate for all of them.

The Secret History, published in the early 90’s, was the literary sensation of the season.  I wasn’t aware of its reputation when I started reading, but, in spite of some sagging about the middle, I found it absolutely gripping.  It opened doors I could not enter–even if I wanted to–but could look through with profit.  It conveyed the sadness, the frustration of modern life without a center, where many feel their emptiness but don’t know how to fill it.

The allure of the gods may be lost on us today.  For ancient or primitive cultures, they gilded a harsh world with counterfeit glory–they rode the sky and hunted the moon and seeded the earth.  But their beauty was always tenuous, and now is utterly gone.  What remains is an illusion, “the madness without the oracle,” as Theseus perceived it in The King Must Die.  Even in his day, the end was always bloody, for the gods could only speak from year to year, and every planting demanded another sacrificial death.

That taste for the glory is alive and well, though.  Some seek it in extreme sports, drama, fantasy gaming, spirituality, self-help–very few in ecstatic rites, or not so far.  But paganism is rumored to be on the rise, and there’s a danger in it that moderns can’t appreciate.  That door has closed.  “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).  Primitive worship belongs to a primitive sensibility; we’re beyond that now, even if we refuse to recognize it.  Those who invoke gods today will get only demons–and ultimately, terror.

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The Reading Life, Part Seven

August 16, 2010

I grew up on the plains but didn’t appreciate them because of all the big buildings around.  I recall one great view on a clear night, though: the Dallas skyline, blazing up out of the low ridges against a gaudy Texas sunset.  I’ve moved around a lot since then and developed a taste for geography: longleaf pine forests, hardwood-covered hills, rocky beaches, rocky mountains.  Each place with its own character and air quality and angle of light–if I were blindfolded and magically transported to Vancouver, Washington, or Chama, New Mexico, or Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I’d probably be able to tell where I was by the smell alone.  Before dawn the other day I was lying in our southwest field looking up at the stars, and became aware of the earth under my back–ponderously turning, still summer-warm and reliably solid.  This chunk of rock is a wonderland, and I’ve been privileged to see a lot much of it.

“There are places I remember”–such as northwest Oregon at Christmas time.  Our little family used to go to the beach for a few days because it was practically deserted and lodging rates were cut to the bone.  And it was there, within the sound of the breakers, that I first cracked open Lonesome Dove.

For all its celebrated use of character–and that’s why readers love it–Lonesome Dove is all about place.  It’s named for a place: where the odyssey begins, and also where it ends.  Dust-deep and shade-shy, Lonesome Dove on the Texas/Mexico border is about as desolate a location as a novelist could dream up: a scattering of rickety frame buildings and lumpy adobe, where cattle outnumber folks about ten to one.  Day after day, a stubborn sun frowns down and the stubborn land glares back, an exchange that’s hospitable mostly for scorpions, centipedes, and rattlesnakes. 

The chief citizens of this burg have spent their best years dashing across the plains in pursuit of outlaws and Comanches.  Their names–Augustus McRae and Captain Woodrow Call–have shimmered into legend while the men themselves have outlived their usefulness and settled into subsistence ranching.  Their future looks like a seasonal round of stealing cattle from their rival across the Rio Grande, who obligingly steals them back, when a former companero arrives with tales about Montana–acres of rich pasture and bracing breezes to be had for a song.  Captain Call feels the pull of one last adventure, and puts legs on the idea.  Thousands of legs, to go hundreds of miles, right through the middle of this great country.

That’s the story: an epic cattle drive, and the adventures had along the way.  It’s no easy task in the best of times and the worst times are often horrible.  Life on the plains whittles too many men down to their evil core, and it’s hard to police a space so huge.  Lawlessness often runs amok.  “Texas is heaven for men and horses, hell for women and pigs,” and the saying extends to Kansas, Nebraska, and the Nation (Oklahoma) too.  The gore gets rather deep sometimes, though probably not unrealistic for the time and place.  Larry McMurtry’s portrayal of women tends to strike one note, though to be fair, the milieu on which he writes is overbalanced with prostitutes.  Clara, Gus’s one-time sweetheart, is strong enough to make up for a host of brazen women, though Lorena as the chief feminine foil doesn’t quite fill the space marked out for her.  Much is made, and rightly, of the partnership of the two main characters, but as they travel north, eating the miles, it’s the land itself that sets the pace.     

Setting is an element of fiction that doesn’t always get its due.  Contemporary life with all its blinking lights distracts us from what’s directly under our feet or right in front of our eyes.  But in historical fiction it shouldn’t be slighted; we don’t appreciate how much a person’s surroundings seep into his character.  In Lonesome Dove, cattlemen, lawmen, and criminals are whipped up out of the same elements.  Space either fills them out to larger than life size–or it crushes them.  The story is full of characters who stride and stomp and crawl and stumble, matching their inborn stuff, right or wrong, to the great rolling plains.  There are rivers to cross and outsized weather to contend with: shimmering days and choking dust and drenching rains and blue lightning that crackles across the tossing long horns.  Every great scene has its backdrop, and there are lots of great scenes.  In one, Gus is running from a band of Indians across prairie so open there’s no place to hide.  Knowing his horse is on its last legs, he races to the one spot of relatively high ground, leaps off the horse, seizes the reins and cuts the animal’s throat, knowing that the smell of fresh blood will probably repel the mounts of his pursuers.  And so it does, buying him just enough time to fort up behind the carcass and make a defense. 

As they travel north the land rises and the air thins until their goal is within sight: the blue wind-whipped mountains of Montana.  It’s the kind of view that makes a man let down the traces and gallop hell-for-leather toward the peaks, which is exactly what Gus does.  The next minute, as devotees of the miniseries knows, he’s galloping madly back, pursued by a band of hostiles.  The arrow they plant in his leg proves to be his undoing, and the last few chapters are devoted to his partner Woodrow Call taking his friend’s body all the way back to Texas for burial.  It’s like Pilgrim’s Progress in reverse, stopping in at the some of the same haunts, checking up on characters left behind, tying up loose ends.  The story ends where it began: Lonesome Dove, where the glory has long since departed.  Good-bye, frontier; so long, old west.  The reality may never have quite lived up to the legend, but the earth beats on.  ‘It’s a fine world, Gus says, only hours before leaving it, “though rich in hardship at times.”

You can take me out of Texas, but you’ll never take Texas out of me.  I don’t really want to move back–it’s too hot (“Heat makes you tough,” says my sister, who still lives there).  But I’ll always be a Texan.  Though the terrain doesn’t tell the whole story, it tells a lot of it: the splashy sunsets, the subtle, eye-bulging contours, the sheer size and magnanimity.  It probably has something to do with why Friday Night Lights is my favorite TV show.  There’s a scene in the next-to-last season when the troubled youth Tim Riggins catches sight of a real-estate sign at the edge of a piece of rolling pasturage.  A river runs in the distance and mesquite trees bristle on the rise.  Emerging from his pickup to gaze in awe, he discovers the first thing in his life that he really wants.  (Besides Lila, whom he can’t have.)   “That’s really great,” he whispers.  “Texas forever.” 

Come on, Texans, can’t you hear the strains of Giant rising in the background?

The Reading Life, Part Six

August 9, 2010

I picked it out the remainder bin at a store somewhere around the intersection of Brainerd and East Brainerd Roads in Chattanooga–funny, I can remember the streets but not the store.  It was a standard size novel, about 350 pages long, marked down to $1.99 which on that particular day I could afford.  Black cover, bearing a blurred image of a slight, fair, elegant man of indeterminate age.  The title: World of Wonders, which purports to tell of the inauspicious beginnings and amazing career of the world- famous magician known as Magnus Eisingrim.

I don’t remember the season for sure, but think it was late fall or early winter: shorter days and sooner darkness, more reading time.  I realized from the jacket copy that the volume was the third in a trilogy–usually not a good place to start reading, but for two bucks I decided to take a chance.  The first chapter picked up with characters I was supposed to know in a conversation already in progress.  But I was more patient with slow starts back then, and it’s a good thing.  Because by the time I was about one-quarter of the way through, I clearly remember glancing up at my husband on the other end of the black vinyl sofa and remarking with some amazement, “This is really good.”

World of Wonders was the “eagerly awaited” completion of the Deptford Trilogy, a series of novels by Canadian writer Robertson Davies.  By the time I encountered him, Davies was considered the Grand Old Man of Canadian letters–should I say there’s not a lot of competition? Nah–largely on the basis of Deptford alone.  I didn’t get around to reading the first and second volumes until over two years later, when we were in Springfield, Missouri.  It seems odd now–World of Wonders should have whetted my appetite enough that I couldn’t wait.  But it was oddly satisfying in itself; I read it at least once more before turning to the others, and by then was absolutely enthralled to see the people and incidents barely referenced in the third installment, fully fleshed out and animated in the first and second.  The first book, Fifth Business,  begins with the scene that haunts all the rest:

A reddish band of wintry twilight broods over the Canadian prairie as two boys make their way home from an afternoon of sledding.  One of the boys is teasing the other, punctuating his remarks with snowballs.  They come suddenly upon their town, its streets nearly empty, its steely air tinged with wood smoke, stable sod, and dozens of evening meals–smells both earthy and ethereal.  Just ahead, the local Baptist pastor strolls the deserted street with his pregnant wife.  The taunting boy packs his last snowball around a chunk of pink granite the size of a hen’s egg.  He hurls the overcharged missile; his target ducks.  The snowball strikes the pregnant woman on the back of her head, and the lives of five people are changed forever.

The town is Deptford, Ontario; the snowball hurler is Percy Boyd Staunton; the snowball ducker is Dunstan Ramsey, and the pregnant minister’s wife will soon give birth prematurely to Paul Dempster, later known as Magnus Eisingrim.  The premise of the entire trilogy is how one impulsive act altered the destinies of three men, each detailed in a separate volume: Ramsey in Fifth Business, Staunton in The Manticore, and Eisingrim, where I joined them, In World of Wonders.

Eisingrim-alias-Paul Dempster’s story could have been a nightmare under the pen of someone like, say, Margaret Atwood.  He grows up in extremely narrow circumstances with an embittered father and a slightly demented mother.  At the age of ten he is raped and abducted by the magician in a traveling show.  The abduction is an afterthought; having despoiled the little boy, Willard the Wizard can’t think of any way to keep him from talking but to take him along.  So Paul becomes an apprentice to a second-rate sleight-of-hand artist in a seedy itinerant carnival, as well as the operating insides of a card-playing automaton called Abdullah. 

What keeps the story (and the reader) from despair is perhaps the author’s strongest trait and the main lesson I learned from him: a consuming interest in the texture of life, recreated on the page with such loving attention to detail you can almost smell it.  In fact, Davies pays particular attention to smell, more than any author I’ve ever encountered.  For example: Happy Hannah, the carnival fat lady, is a copious sweater and has to be powdered down with cornstarch in between shows, to the extent that the whole carnival tent sometimes smells “like a giant nursery pudding” by evening.  The card-playing automaton was once operated by an alcoholic dwarf.  When Paul takes up residence there, the cabinet still bears a “whiff of hot dwarf,” (Once the words are read, the reader can almost swear he knows that smell!), soon to be replaced by Paul’s own unwashed odor.  Characters are given their full due, in all their banality, hypocrisy, malevolence and occasional good will, to the extent you can hear their voices calling hoarsely across the tent under the naked light bulbs of a summer night on the Canadian plains.  And if you think it must be a fairly simple matter to make a carnival crowd “colorful” (though it’s really not), the London theater company that Paul later joins as a young man flaunts its own glorious, gaudy plumage. 

“Don’t despise things,” advises a character in one of Davies’ later novels.  “Every thing has a soul that speaks to our soul.”  I wouldn’t say soul; I would say character and distinctiveness.  A pony whip deployed in a mother’s rage, a nickel-plated wood stove standing foursquare against the brutal Canadian winter, a lacquered chest splashed with cheap gold paint where Paul serves his apprenticeship: things become the matrix in which the story is told.  Davies had a style that blended 19th-century materialism with 20th-century introspection–a Dickensian observation of his characters with a Jungian understanding of what made them work.  His fiction, though not always disciplined in structure, is exuberant in detail.  whether drawing shadows on an actor’s face with a lead spoon, or creating the effect of snow on stage with lightly sprinkled fuller’s earth–he takes you there.  And once there, you know exactly what it’s like.

The Reading Life, Part Five

August 2, 2010

Perelandra is another book twice-read, and much more powerful the second time.  I haven’t said much about the physical surroundings of each of these readings, but I probably should, because how a book affects you depends on where you are: spiritually, emotionally, but also physically. 

It was the summer of 1981.  I was in Chattanooga, with a husband and two small children, ages 5 and 3.  We lived in a house that faced backwards–really.  That’s how it was built, with the back of the house facing the street and the front porch turned towards a vacant lot; I have no idea why.  The advantage, I suppose, was that you could do your front porch livin’ in privacy, though that defeats the neighborhood purpose of a front porch.  Anyway, I reread Perelandra in proper order–that is, after reading the first book in the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet.

I remember a square paneled room we used as the den–homemade bookshelf in one corner, yellow piano in the other (we didn’t paint it; it came that way), a black vinyl couch that somebody gave us and a platform rocker in which I weaned my little boy.  A noisy window air-conditioner that we tried not to use much, even though Tennessee summers are notoriously sultry.  That was the summer of visiting churches.  Like many Christians, our life was occasionally peripatetic as we outgrew a denomination.  That summer we visited a succession of Baptists, Christian, and Disciples churches, and one Methodist that was close enough to walk to.  A few we visited twice.  The revolving-door effect was so pronounced that one Tuesday the visitation team from Forty-ninth Baptist was leaving just as the couple from God’s Family Christian arrived.  The Baptist pastor was philosophical.  “You’ll enjoy these folks,” he told the Christians, gesturing to us.  “They’re neat folks.”

We ended up at the last place we would have expected: First Presbyterian (PCA): big, wealthy, old, and fiercely evangelistic.  The traditional services were televised, and the sermons were probably the purest expressions of the gospel I’d heard up to then: man’s need, God’s provision.  Presbyterianism I’d been taught to avoid (they baptize babies!!!) but we landed there by providential intervention, following signs I don’t have time to relate.  (I’m still Presbyterian.)

All this, I’m sure, has a bearing on how Perelandra affected me.  I started reading it in the fall, after we’d settled at First Pres but I hadn’t quite come down from the floatiness of summer.  I’d long been a Lewis fan, though I’ve come to agree (not quite as fervently) with Larry Woiwode that Lewis was not a master of fiction.  Lewis himself once mentioned editors needing to tame his “expository demon,” but they didn’t always do a thorough job.  Still, his great gift to me, coming when I needed it in my early twenties, was to baptize my imagination by showing me the great drama of redemption.  It’s not a system of brownie points or theological correctness: it’s a transfer from darkness into marvelous light, an invisible kingdom sprung from the stuff of every day, where we follow bloody footprints to a cross and perceive glowing footsteps beyond it. 

That’s why I relate to Lewis’s own experience, described in Surprised by Joy.  The baptizer of his imagination was George McDonald (an author I’ve never been able to get into), a Christian writer of fantasy.  Encountering McDonald’s work for the first time as a young teenager, with a lot of conversion yet to go, Lewis was struck by how the consciousness raised by McDonald’s invention seemed to point homeward: “I found the light shining on those woods and cottages, and then on my own past life, and on the quiet room where I sat and on my old teacher where he nodded above his little Tacita. . . . Or more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”

So Lewis did for me, more than once: rather than fomenting dissatisfaction with the world, he revealed the enchantment of the world.  In Perelandra, he writes of a Miltonic struggle and a question whose answer would settle the fate of a glorious species for all time.  But the deciding act belongs to an ordinary man who wins his final victory with a rock and a prayer: “‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost here goes–I mean, amen.”  The great compliment our Creator pays us is allowing us to participate in the divine nature (II Peter 1:4) and in the divine drama.  If that doesn’t put a spring in our step . . . .

Well, such is our clay-like nature that it usually doesn’t, but I recall a definite spring upon this reading.  The story opens with Lewis himself (the only time he wrote himself into a novel) making his way to the wayside cottage of Dr. Elvin Ransom, an academic colleague who has confided to a few close friends his strange adventures on the planet Mars.  On the way, through a dusky wood saturated with ambiance, Lewis suffers an attack of doubt and dismay which is later revealed to be the work of demons (foreshadowing what will later befall the protagonist).  At Ransom’s cottage, groping for a light, he encounters an unexpected piece of furniture which further exploration reveals to be a kind of coffin, made of an indescribable white substance.  Then, a spirit of another sort: one of the heavenly Eldila, or angels, seen only as a being of light, in a color no man can name, at an angle so definite and straight it seems to set the natural world cock-eyed.  (Expressing the inexpressible is Lewis’s great challenge in this story.)  Soon Ransom appears and explains all: he’s been called to an undisclosed mission on another planet and needs Lewis’s help to seal his mode of transportation, the coffin.  His destination is Venus, which the Eldila call Perelandra.

Of Ransom’s arrival there, the shimmering beauty of this planet where creation is new, his first encounter with a “green lady” who is the half of that creation’s crown, and the harrowing appearance of his nemesis Dr. Weston, Lewis probably takes too long to tell.  It gives nothing away to say that Dr. Weston has been possessed by Satan, who is using him to accomplish a temptation and fall similar to what happened on earth.  Will he succeed?  And what is Ransom’s mission?–merely to witness, or to persuade, or . . . could it be that he, a puny figure of flesh and blood, was sent to defeat Satan?  Like, physically, with his physical body?  At first rejecting that last possibility, Ransom at last accepts it, knowing that if he doesn’t, God will have to supply an atonement even more terrible than the cross.

Knowing all this, as I did upon that second reading, did not diminish the impact at all.  I was caught up in the story, as the victorious Ransom was in the end caught up in divine glory, both exalted and humbled, emptied and filled.  Like our house, I was turned around in perception, facing another direction altogether.  It made communication a little awkward for a few days.  Shortly after finishing the book I received a visitation team from First Pres, who had noticed we’d been attending for a month or so.  The team was modeled on Evangelism Explosion, a new technique for evangelism based on two questions, the first being: “Suppose you died tomorrow and appeared before the throne of God, and He asked you, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven?’  What would your answer be?”  I was still glowing, awash in Perelandra light.  “Because I love you,” was my answer. 

Then I had a little explaining to do.