Winesburg, Ohio is not a work of fiction. It is more like a strange distant cousin of fiction, one who shows up at the yearly reunion, arm in arm with Villanelle and Allegory. Each chapter is a few pages devoted to one of the townspeople of Winesburg. They are arranged like snapshots in a collage, with the occasional overlaps and redundancies. Because these characters rarely resolve anything in a meaningful way in the short space they are given, the chapters are nothing more than poetic sketches of their lives.
This layout is what really prevented me from enjoying Winesburg, Ohio. Reading it feels like participating in a speed dating event. There are lots of names, lots of places and job titles and descriptions, etc. And as soon as you get an understanding of one person, you move on to the next. George Willard and Helen White are the exceptions to this pace.
Anderson has all the sensibilities of a poet, and it is his sensitivity, and his talent for description and the image that are the bright points of the book. There are some great and playful ideas, such as Joe Welling’s musings:
“This sidewalk here and this feed store, the trees down the street there- they’re all on fire. They’re burning up. Decay you see is always going on. It don’t stop. Water and paint can’t stop it. If a thing is iron, then what- it rusts, you see. That’s fire too. The world is on fire.”
But this passage also illustrates what I didn’t like about this book. Much of the dialogue is very long-winded, one-sided, frankly, not much of a dialogue at all. Also, these types of images are much better handled by poetry. In fact, Robert Frost does a beautiful job with this exact concept in one of my favorite poems of his, “The Wood-Pile,” which was published several years prior to Winesburg, Ohio:
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight…
I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could… leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
Mmm. Much more satisfying. That last line is a hundred-megaton killer.
Anderon’s descriptions are wonderful though. I enjoyed this one, of a merchant’s shop window (probably because i am a junkavore):
“The honey had stood in the store window for six months. It was for sale as were also the coat hangers, patent suspender buttons, cans of roof paint, bottles of rheumatism cure, and a substitute for coffee that companioned the honey in its patient willingness to serve the public.”
so simply it moves full circle from honey to honey. it would be nice to see the best parts of this book carved out and polished into poems. lovely poems they would make, but instead, they are lost amongst all the filler. Anderson’s best passages are like hand-picked cucumbers from his garden, which have rested in canning jars in the pantry for months and after reaching crunchy bitter perfection, he has diced them up and tossed them into a potato salad so thick with mayonnaise that it overwhelms the eater and quickly spoils.
A much more cohesive book with a better plot arc and the same small town atmospherics; Carson MacCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is far superior. And for a clever contemporary handling of a large cast of characters, Harry Matthews’s Cigarettes will make your head spin. But Winesburg, Ohio just did not work for me.
The Tallest Tree
“Mary! Who is that boy?”
“It’s your grandson, Clyde, Grace’s eldest.”
“Did he come to see the tallest tree in Pakistan?”
My grandmother waves me into the sitting room,
where the Scrabble board is set upon the sewing table,
and the wax plants make do with
windowlight through a membrane of dust.
She wins the draw for first play,
and picks one by one the tiles off the rack,
Her 82 points are begrudgingly scrawled;
a good woman, a good hostess never wins.
Stranded with vowels,
brow furrowed as a compensatory act,
I countered with “pie.”
I see her rely on tally marks
to note my score.
I glance at the old wigs
atop featureless heads on the piano,
to the eagle-clawed feet of the playing stool.
As a pupil, they were a refuge
for shame-heavy eyes,
after my fingers failed to navigate
a scattergraph of troublesome notes
above the treble C.
“Do you want to see the tallest tree in Pakistan?”
I overhear her gently scolding.
Even in the front room, I smell her infamous dinners:
chicken crop-dusted with cumin and pan-fried,
served with peas and yams.
skim milk an awkward blue in her favorite glasses,
with etchings of northern birds.
A painting of a Kansas farmhouse hangs in the hallway,
with portentous crows rushing from the dust devils,
next to a black and white photograph of her,
unmistakably a mother:
looking resolute in a plaid dress and head scarf,
clutching the armpits of a naked baby above
the soapy well of the kitchen sink.
Grandfather laughs at the sight of me,
and retrieves his cane from atop the
stacks of newspapers, post-it’s,
perhaps a geology textbook,
and clipboards, and Reader’s Digests,
which have congealed upon the coffee table.
The backyard is thick with birdseed,
and an earthenware dish full of water
sits at the base of an old pine,
the center pip of his planting pattern,
inspired by a five point domino.
Like a defective vacuole,
his right eyelid struggles to close
around the empty socket.
He no longer wears his false eye.
My grandmother’s talks with him about convention
have taught me more than any aphorism.
His gaze ascends the trunk…
For words, his mind refers to Urdu,
and I know that he is there.
And that his tree’s peak skewers the clouds,
miles above the lead feet of my youthful vision.
I had the best day on tuesday.
My morning job is tedious and physical, and listening to music completely saves me. BUT, for the last few weeks, my headphones have been cutting out in one ear. i found a way to sort of wrap a portion of the cord around my phone and put it in my pocket, and it would stop the problem. but over time, even this make-shiftery failed me. if i got some good luck, and everything was working properly, i walked around the place like a robot, fearing that a bend in the leg or a stretch might upset this delicate cord situation. so this has been happening for weeks, and every time it cuts out, i only hear half of the song. sometimes just the vocals and the drum beat, or sometimes a lone keyboard (kind of surreal really).
there’s a reason why this problem has persisted. i’m a very frugal person. my laptop was stolen a few years ago and i never replaced it because i couldn’t justify making the same expense twice. so i’m still using the laptop that my father gave me as a graduation present in 2005 (one which has undergone many replacement part surgeries). a first world problem, i know, but it is unusual and more than occasionally frustrating trying to use an 8 year old computer.
then tuesday happened.
on tuesday, i decided that i simply could not live with the irritation of a crackling short wire, or a single ear audio experience. i’m a human being, god dammit!
on tuesday, i went to radio shack, and for $4.79, i purchased a replacement plug.
on tuesday night, i repaired the very headphones which were generating so much negative energy in my day. i cut off a portion of the cord which i diagnosed as the source of the wire short, and soldered the wires to the new plug. and it worked! great god in boots!
which brings me to the word, “repair.” a word which was sadly neglected by the EPA when they created the “reduce, reuse, recycle” campaign. repair is efficient. repair is economical. repair is anti-waste. repair is empowering. so let us celebrate the sewing needle, the soldering iron and the screwdriver.
everybody: repair your stuff!
as time moves forward, the universe expands. the expansion creates more space between stars and galaxies, this relationship being a basic principle of cosmology. for the time being, scientists cannot prove whether the universe will continue to expand indefinitely, reach a happy medium, or collapse upon itself. but the fate of the universe is not our concern on this blog. i’m only bringing this up because it’s a nice model, one which illustrates a useless and self-indulgent notion that struck me while driving to work today.
this graph shows us three possible outcomes for the universe’s expansion: open, flat, and closed. there is a point on the graph, just as there is a point in a life, where it cannot be determined which of these outcomes will become reality. For uncertain astronomers, that point is right now. In terms of eccentricity, that point is somewhere between one’s teenage years and the end of their twenties.
Let us say that our state of eccentricity is like this line in our “fate of the universe” graph. the trajectory of our deviation from the norm depends on the force in our own initial big bang. just as the universe began in a brilliant explosion of heat and force, our birth and childhood propel us forward in time with pre-ordained amounts of eccentricity potential. cities like san francisco or new orleans provide strong foundational launchpads, and a suburban nonsecular upbringing can occasionally misfire with huge megatons of eccentric force.
Of course, there are anomalies: citizens of Alabama and day traders do not generate any graphable eccentricity, and the malformed curve of the white rastafarian is a subject of frequent study for sociologists. There are also those whose eccentricity has only a vestigial significance like a tailbone. The thrust of a Mormon childhood is typically graphed as a small burst of quirkiness (severe caffeine limitation), which stabilizes into a classically flat starch and checkbook existence.
Just like the universe in the graph, if one’s eccentricity is unchecked, the individual will be flung away from others irretrievably. But if an individual fails to develop enough momentum, they will be crunched to mundane nothingness. The ideal state of eccentricity rests somewhere between collapse and unlimited expansion, between investment banking (a closed universe), and collecting decorative toilet seats (expanding too rapidly for society).
Por Qué Estoy en Silencio
I wrote that poetry was a “ladder to a window”,
that translation was a forbidden view.
I envisioned these lines (so clever) in my Translator’s Note.
The Rory W. Channington Prize for New Translation.
My name ensconsed in genius laurels henceforth.
I could endure the inconvenience,
having my personal effects on display at the university,
really- I’m a man who requires very little.
But that was before the preterit imperfect tense.
That was before the minefield of unfixed prepositions
spread out before barefooted me.
For hours I suffered the noshing of language into cud.
After the final line was deciphered,
I walked downstairs,
to the take-a-book-leave-a-book shelf
with which I have made such sinful transactions,
and unburdened myself of Spanish poetry forever.
“horses of sadness similar to my soul,”
was how I concluded my alchemy with words.
No gold was made.
I guess I’m not much of a poet either.
In the 1960′s, Edward Abbey worked as a park ranger at Los Arches National Monument. During this time, he kept a journal of experiences, nature writing and outlaw philosophy which eventually became Desert Solitaire. This nonfiction work was a hit when it was first published in 1968, and brought ol’ Ed his first critical success.
The publication coincided with a very eventful few years for U.S. national parks. “Mission ’66,” the brainchild of N.P.S. Program Director Conrad L. Wirth, was an initiative to upgrade facilities and staffing, intended to be completed by 1966. Congress appropriated over a billion dollars for this ten year program. Abbey is skeptical, and he makes his opinion of the proposals as clear as a dart fired at a portrait of Wirth. In an early, lengthy chapter of the book, Abbey shares his own grand vision for National Park reform. Suffice it to say, his own project’s budget is zero dollars, and he can’t be troubled even to offer a single good god damn.
Although many of his ideas are intended to irritate and amuse, he is very serious about limiting accessibility to national parks. This caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I can understand his perspective. Instead of driving to and inside the park, he advocates that parkgoers ride bicycles, horses, or simply walk to see the sights.
Although the 21st century eye might see this as an argument against increasing carbon footprint, for Abbey it is one of authenticity. While working as a park ranger, he was delighted that outdoors enthusiasts stayed away from the park,
“because of the unpaved entrance road, the unflushable toilets in the campgrounds, and the fact that most of them have never even heard of Arches National Monument. (Could there be a more genuine testimonial to its beauty and integrity?)”
I hate the fact that I love this last bit, and I tend to agree with Abbey. He believes that cars and cameras prevent people from having an authentic experience in nature. For him, the only way to experience the wilderness is with reverence and rugged individualism. As for those with limited capacity, such as children, seniors and the handicapped, he has little sympathy. His views have been criticized as exclusionary, but I find his focus on the authentic admirable. It is hard not to imagine him as an old crank who wants to peaceably enjoy his ration of beer and bacon.
Abbey’s views are paternalistic. He assumes to know what’s best for the average person who attends a national park, and wants the recreational aspect of national parks to be structured with natural immersion in mind. And this is not a bad thing. By increasing traffic to the parks (and revenue), we often damage the ecosystem. We leave trash, graffiti and other signs that we were present, and add creature comforts and imprints of capitalism like soda machines and bathrooms, which detract from the beauty of an untouched landscape. Abbey does not see this as a fair trade, and he wants the wilderness to stay wild, even if that means it’s inacccessible to many.
Abbey is clearly an impassioned dude, which is endearing, even if some of his ideas are basically cruel. When we are passionate about something, we all tend to act like custodians of its value. We barricade ourselves within the space of a passion, hoping that it remains undiscovered. When others find out about our thing, and it becomes more popular, we feel our space has been invaded. We feel its value diminishing, whether in reality or psychologically. When that neighborhood restaurant is packed every night, we talk about the good old days when the food was better and the service more personal. What one sees in Desert Solitaire is a very masculine relationship with a beloved. Abbey’s protectiveness has him verbally brandishing a kitchen knife or a frying pan (read: whatever is in arm’s reach) against those that would devalue the object of his passion. And although this posture can be unflattering, it should not be discounted.
We find something to be pure the more it remains undiscovered. Abbey’s wilderness has this purity, but it also has something else: its gifts have to be earned and worked for. He takes the time to learn about the landscape through careful observation and study. He acknowledges the patterns of life and sun and vegetation and tries to integrate himself. He invests his time in a way that’s almost unheard of today, when the modern working American can barely be diverted from the office, the internet, or the television.
His defensiveness is easy to misinterpret. When he jokes that he better enjoy the view now before a chairlift is built for the disabled, I understand why it causes readers to bristle. It’s mean. It sounds like a conservative talk show host. But if one keeps in mind the sacredness of his wilderness, as he often employs the wilderness-as-church-or-holy-site analogy, it is a defensible irriation. No one would be thrilled to hear that the French government installed an expensive high speed elevator inside the Notre Dame cathedral.
It’s probably become clear that I don’t have much to contribute in terms of politics, but I felt the need to defend Abbey from those who would see him as a macho asshole. I like his passion. Sometimes I feel like I don’t see enough passion in people.
But I digress. Loved the book. Desert Solitaire is a classic book of masculine self-exploration. Working hard, building things, sweating, climbing, swimming, being naked, using and celebrating the human body: Abbey grapples with his primitive nature and learns something about himself and the world by virtue of it. Humans have bodies for a reason, and they participate in a physical world. In order to achieve balance, the mind and body should be awakened, and I really enjoyed this book’s particular focus on the nonemotional aspects of self-actualization.
I’m currently reading the Everyman edition of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, translated by Michael Glenny. The experience has been bittersweet, like sitting at the bar with a well-traveled old drunk who’s begun to slur his words. You know the guy has got some stories, maybe some twists on tired jokes, but his tongue is like a boxing glove in his mouth. This is how it feels to read this particular translation of the original Russian. I’m enjoying the story, and there’s some great humor, but I can’t get past the uninspired writing. I’ve never had to shelf a book because of the translation before, and in a way it makes me a little proud. It’s like the first time you recognize an unusual flavor or the melody to an instrumental piece of elevator music. But I guess my failure to be immersed in Bulgakov might be a pretentious self-delusion, and not the the sign of a developing palate. After all, I know nothing of the writer’s life, or his style, and I cannot read Russian. Perhaps it’s overconfidence that leads me to assume he’s being mishandled by his translator. But I’ll let you be the judge:
“If next day someone had said to Stepa Likhodeyev ‘Stepa! If you don’t get up this minute you’re going to be shot,’ he would have replied in a faint, languid voice: ‘All right, shoot me. Do what you like to me, but I’m not getting up!’
The worst of it was that he could not open his eyes, because when he did so there would be a flash of lightning and his head would shiver to fragments. A great bell was tolling in his head, brown spots with livid green edges were swimming around somewhere between his eyeballs and closed lids. To cap it all he felt sick and the nausea was somehow connected with the sound of a gramophone.” (pg. 81, The Master and Margarita)
These two paragraphs introduce to the reader a new character, Stepa. Introducing a new character is pretty crucial, more than 80 pages into a story. At this point, the reader is looking for a way to get some kind of footing after being torn abruptly away from the preceeding events, and they’re given these two paragraphs. And they are terrible. This is the literary equivalent of having a coffee stain on your shirt when you go in for a job interview.
So, to the paragraphs. There are a lot of prepositions here, and the tense is very awkward. Check out that first sentence. Past perfect tense for the opening sentence? And that’s no typo either: “If next day someone had said to Stepa…”
“If next day?”
I hate typos. They simply should not ever occur in a book. They should not happen. They are FILTH. They are not charming like wolf notes, or stray hairs, or asymmetry, or that single penny you always find when you pull a big appliance from the wall. They are just shitty distracting oversights. And the present perfect tense or future hypothetical tense or what have you: that is not helping. After reading this a couple of times, I’m realizing that “next day” has no significance in that sentence. Why is it there? This almost seems like a variation on one of those hoaky opening sentence templates that movies have made cliche with voice-over narration, like “if somebody had told me I would end up in a New Jersey prison by the end of the day, I never would have believed them.” And off we go with another exciting tale of misdeeds and wrongful sentencing.
And the next sentence:
“The worst of it was that he could not open his eyes, because when he did so there would be a flash of lightning and his head would shiver to fragments.”
In this sentence, you can almost feel the original Russian struggling as if bound in a strait jacket. It’s just too wordy. The last half of the sentence has a strong and unusual action verb (shiver) and a decent description in “flash of lightning,” but before that it’s just too over-wrought to be helpful narration. It’s painfully clear that you’re reading somebody trying to describe somebody else’s stream of consciousness. “Like a rickshaw getting pulled around by another rickshaw.” Hooray Modest Mouse.
I think these two reworkings would scan better:
“The worst of it was that he could not open his eyes, otherwise his head would flash with lightning and shiver to fragments.”
And with more liberal alterations:
“Worst of all, when he opened his eyes, his head flashed with lightning and shivered apart.”