Lark and Termite
JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
BONNIE JO CAMPBELL
Let the Great World Spin
Four days after the National Book Award fiction finalists were announced last month, the New York Times‘s Liesl Schillinger, like some literary eye in the sky, surveyed the authors’ global positioning — the countries where they were born, the places where they now live, what subcultures they write about, how literary preferences differ continent to continent. Useful mapping but predictably consistent with how books of fiction are usually categorized and how recent NBA winners have been chosen — for their political content. When I was a judge in 2005, four of the five finalists were explicitly political, and the award went to William Vollmann’s collection of stories about World War II, Europe Central. Since then winners have been Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, all public-minded books about, respectively, the environment, the Vietnam War, and Southern history.
I’m not complaining about past winners, but reading Ms. Schillinger’s overview I began to wonder, “What do these new novels and stories feel like?” Not how does a reviewer feel about them but how do the writers’ sentences feel in the eye and ear? “Not text, but texture,” Nabokov has a character in Pale Fire say, perhaps recognizing that, etymologically, texture preceded text. About texture Ms. Schillinger has nothing to say, so for literary locavores — readers who still shuffle word to word and savor noun to verb — below are passages from this year’s finalists, along with some context and commentary.
[Editor's Note: The 2009 National Book Awards will be announced on November 18.]
In Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite, the seventeen-year-old Lark is the primary caretaker of Termite, her hydrocephalic nine-year-old half-brother who cannot walk, speak intelligibly, or see clearly. The novel alternates between first-person narrations — Lark and her aunt — and the almost first-person discourse of Termite’s dead father and, here, Termite:
Lark names the flowers and he says the sounds but the sounds are not the flowers. The flower is the shape so close he sees it still enough to look, blue like that, long and tall, each flared tongue with its own dark eye. Then the shape moves and the flower is too close or too far. The shape becomes its colors but he feels Lark touch it to his face and lips like a weightless velvet scrap. The flower moves and blurs and smears, he looks away to stop it disappearing. Pictures that touch him move and change, they lift and turn, stutter their edges and blur into one another. Their colors fall apart and are never still long enough for him to see, but the pictures inside him hold still. Their gray shades are sharp and clear and let him see, flat as the pages of books Lark holds near his eyes. The books are colors that run and shine but the pictures inside him stay and never blur.
Termite’s father has similar eddies of consciousness as he lies dying in the Korean War, but Termite’s sections are the most unconventional of this novel — and of the other books. Lacking narrative or logical continuity, moving by association and repetition, Termite’s passages are almost all texture, words referencing and cross-referencing other words without clear connections to the world defamiliarized by Termite’s limited — but also loosened — cognition. Like Termite, Phillips knows words are not things, so she is free to string them together by their sounds. The very specific metaphors in this passage make it meta-textural, about the desire for tactile experience, and the blur-conscious Termite stands in for the author who runs together 1950 and 1959, Korea and West Virginia, dead and living, even text and Termite’s “pictures.” Each of the novel’s four parts is preceded by a photo (from different angles) of the railroad bridge in Korea where Termite’s father died as his son was being born. When the novel is, like the books Lark shows Termite, held “near [one's] eyes,” the weave and warp are new and often beautiful, but texture ultimately gives way to conventional plotting. During a natural disaster, family secrets are revealed, a girl comes of age, characters see ghosts, love conquers all, and an unlikely flight ensues. Lark and Termite is The Sound and the Fury without that novel’s final fury.
The eight stories in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders are about Pakistanis, the old rich and the new strivers in a once-stratified, now highly volatile society. In the following passage from “Provide, Provide,” a powerful politician tells a young supplicant about another powerful man’s preparations for his daughter’s wedding:
“Jam Sahib had his creatures and creations, as such men do — freshly minted princes of industry and millionaire bureaucrats from humble families — and these gentlemen were made to understand that luxury vehicles, customized Mercedes limousines or the very latest models of jeep, would be acceptable gifts. The vehicles duly paraded in on the new-laid roads and were parked in a special compound, for all to see. Then, the second day into the festivities, while presiding over a magnificent dinner, Jam Sahib suddenly fell to the ground in front of the whole assembly. A stroke had left him incapable of speech and paralyzed on one side. That night, under cover of darkness, a strange procession slipped out from the tent city. The vehicles that had been brought as gifts crept away, never to be seen again by Jam Sahib or his daughter.”
The anecdote is pedagogical: shift happens, comeuppance occurs. The style initially seems to be spoken straight talk with some ironic inflections, but by the end the prose has a folk-tale quality: the personified vehicles “crept away.” The slightly bookish phrase “never to be seen again” supplies a proverbial tinge. And now “creatures and creations” in the first sentence may have an allegorical echo, just as the title has literary feedback from Frost’s poem. Like this retold story, Mueenuddin’s mostly third-person fictions are more subtly textured than Phillips’s novel, but his situations are simpler. Like Jam Sahib, people are unlucky, astonished by a robber or ambushed by a poisonous snake; characters’ whims reward some and exile others; fortunes bob and sink. In “Provide, Provide,” for example, a rich man, dying of cancer, suddenly disavows the lower-class love of his life who can say only, “And they didn’t even offer me a cup of tea.” Although most of the characters are secular, many believe in “fate,” a word that appears in several stories. Henry James said the house of fiction has many rooms. Recurring families give Mueenuddin’s book a solid foundation, and most of the individual stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders are spacious. They are full of surprises but not wondrous. Like the rather smug narrator of the quoted passage, the author can seem satisfied with instructing readers in the “otherness” he was fated to know.
Bonnie Jo Campbell’s fourteen stories in American Salvage are as All-American as meth addiction, Carhart coats, snow in Michigan, and ownership of firearms. At the end of “King Cole’s American Salvage,” a once proud but now debilitated tow-truck driver is addressed by his nephew and employee:
“Please King, just tow the damned Jap scrap back to me. Guys are coming in here all the time asking for parts we don’t got. Something’s got to change around here.”
After a long pause, King said, almost without slurring, “Sure. No big deal.”
King did not get right into his truck. He stood watching while Johnny hoisted up the Lincoln’s front end and hacked away at the pipe on both ends of the catalytic converter, practically brand new. Johnny twisted it free and tossed it across the yard. Both he and King watched the cylinder arc ten feet in the air and momentarily capture the cold sunlight. It landed with a resounding clang on the pile of catalytic converters — mostly they were dirty and rusted from the slush and mud and road salt, but each of their bodies contained a core of platinum.
Campbell is the most unobtrusively literary of the five finalists. Like the catalytic converters, her sentences and narratives just kind of pile up, one damned thing after another, some functional dialogue, some naming of objects, almost nothing “brand new.” In her world of work, “Jap scrap” is poetic. “King Cole” might be a nursery rhyme allusion, but it would be lost on the character whose given name, for whatever reason, is “King.” And you’d need to read a lot of Campbell’s stories to get the deep texture of her closing line, to recognize that many of her characters have within their bodies a small human core they try to salvage from junk — the drugs they shoot and smoke but also their abusive pasts, dumb marital choices, no-exit poverty, freak accidents, and just plain inescapable whatnot. King Cole’s story is one of the more hopeful: King is back in his truck after a serious beating, Johnny is taking command despite having set up his uncle for a robbery and assault. Though Campbell writes about Raymond Carver’s folks, even the shortest of her stories aren’t minimalist. They’re loaded up with mundane facts and gossip and minor irritants from which minimally educated characters just can’t salvage much sense. One character does know what fractals are, but that knowledge does him no good. Two others are foolishly obsessed with saving themselves or others as Y2K approaches. Though probably more realistic than Americans would like to think, American Salvage is somewhat constrained by Campbell’s narrow band of subjects and her usual third-person narration that puts characters at a distance despite the author’s well-meaning illusion of artlessness in telling their stories.
In Marcel Theroux’s post-apocalyptic novel, Far North, American Quaker colonies in Siberia have been destroyed by desperate “incomers” fleeing southern heat, leaving Makepeace Hatfield to survive with her pioneering skills. In the following passage, she’s hunting caribou:
They weren’t skittish, as you’d expect. In fact when I held out my bare hand and yelled “Makh, makh,” as though I had brought salt for them to lick, they came nosing up to find it. I knew from this they’d belonged to someone once. It seemed to me the best thing of all would be to bring them back alive.
Though they came up close, they soon dropped back when they learned there was no salt to be had, and they were leery of being roped. I could have chased around all day and not caught a one of them, so I decided to work a little sideways.
I dropped my pants and crouched down, shuffling a little in my boots, to spread the piss around in the snow. You can’t keep caribou away from fresh piss. The heat and the salt in it is [sic] like apple pie to them. And while they were jostling each other to get to the freshest patches, I pulled up my pants and roped six of them.
Makepeace never liked school and was once called a “savage,” so her mostly simple sentences are plainspoken and vulgar. One is ungrammatical. She uses a native word and, like someone across the campfire, addresses her audience. When she goes “sideways,” she sounds like that clever dropout Huck Finn, who once pretended to be a girl. When convenient, Makepeace, whose face was scarred by lye, pretends to be a man, and there’s a cowboy quality to “I pulled up my pants and roped six of them.” She’s fast to draw her gun on anyone who threatens her and quick to tell her tales. Her landscape is barren, but her story is thin in texture because Theroux rushes his plot from one horror to another. After her Ma and Pa and brother die, Makepeace loses two found companions, leaves her abandoned town, is forced into slavery by a religious fanatic, endures a long march across Siberia, spends years in prison, escapes through pluck and luck into a contaminated city, exacts revenge, and more. If these actions created a thick texture of future life (or the reasons for a ripped social fabric), the stripped, faux-naif style would be more congenial. But the alien setting, the tough-but-sensitive female lead, and the melodrama of Far North make it a more appropriate candidate for the National Screenwriting Award — if there wasn’t already a movie with the same title about an Arctic woman struggling to survive.
The central setting of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin is New York City on the August day in 1974 when Phillipe Petit walked on a cable between the Trade Towers. The novel has thirteen sections — three about Petit, the others about or narrated by a diverse group of characters, including an ascetic Irish immigrant, a Bronx prostitute, a Manhattan judge, a Guatemalan nurse, and a fourteen-year-old boy named Fernando who wants to do graffiti:
What he liked most were the big freestyle wraparounds. When the train went past he froze them tight in his head, and pulled them around in his mind all day long, followed the lines, the curves, the dots.
He has never once tagged a thing himself, but if he ever got a clear chance, no consequences, no stepfathersmack, no lockdown, he’d invent a whole new style, draw a little black in the blackness, a little white on deep white, or stir it up with some red, white, and blue, screw with the color scheme, put in some ‘Rican, some black, go wild and stump them, that’s what it was all about-make them scratch their heads, sit up and take notice. He could do that. Genius, they called it. But it was only genius if you thought of it first. A teacher told him that. Genius is lonely.
The passage itself is “freestyle”: the portmanteau “stepfathersmack,” the colloquial “‘Rican” and “tag,” the clichés of oral discourse, the alternation of stacked clauses and short sentences, the combination of low (“screw with”) and high style (the extended metaphor from literal train to train of thought), the abstract conclusion that “Genius is lonely.” Fernando calls himself an “Imagist” without knowing the word’s history. Here McCann incorporates images — particularly “lines” and “curves” — that establish chapter-to-chapter texture and that refer to the novel’s characters, the blacks and whites and Hispanics blended by the plot. Although Petit’s “reckless” performance gets the city’s attention, it’s a “miniscule swerve” on the FDR highway that kills two, the Irish “monk” and a young prostitute, and connects otherwise isolated persons — a painter in the swerving car, the Irishman’s surviving brother, the mother of the other victim, an Upper East Side matron, and an African-American woman who lost three sons in Vietnam. Petit is a public master of balance. Lower beings’ private worlds spin out of control, and they spin stories to fathom their losses — and their gains. Is McCann’s “wraparound” literary graffiti genius? According to Fernando’s teacher, one has to do it first. A character cites Whitman. In fiction, Don DeLillo did something very similar and on a larger scale in Underworld. Still, McCann’s use of the “ubermensch” Petit, his intimate knowledge of the underclass, and his freestyle ventriloquisms make Let the Great World Spin a novel of tower-high emotional and artistic intelligence.
Given global politics and the literary politics of each committee, I wouldn’t dare predict a winner. As in international relations, the judges will consider trade-offs (“If we’re split on our first choice, can we give the award to the third choice we all agree on?”), kiss-offs (“I just couldn’t read that one.”) and maybe pay-offs (one 2005 judge wanted to give the award to a long-time family friend). If I were a judge this year, my vote would go to the Irish native McCann and Let the Great World Spin for its mix-mastering textures and small “c” catholic politics. But you should know that one of my grandmothers came from Ireland, that I live in New York City, and that I’m a sucker for high-wire acts and high-fidelity jabber in the tradition of Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, NBA winners all.