Saturday, February 27, 2010

Philip Roth's "Indignation"

Spoiler alert:I am going to talk about Philip Roth's new novel, Indignation in some detail. If you have not read it, and if you have any interest in Roth and want to read it, you may want to skip this posting.

First, it's short; 233 pages that are only a little larger than the average paperback. The first 224 pages, titled "Under Morphine," are told in the first person by 19-year-old Marcus Messer who is either dead or on the verge of death. The next seven pages are an objective account of what happened to him—bayoneted and killed on a Korean hill late in the war—and the effect on his parents, and the irony of his being in Korea at all. The last two pages continue the history of Winesberg College, the small Ohio liberal arts school Marcus attended.

Marcus tell his own story: Growing up a good Jewish boy, son of a kosher butcher, in Newark, driven to leave his Newark college and home by his father's sudden and inexplicable terror that something will happen to his precious boy. Marcus is a straight-A student, is a non-practicing Jew (indeed, follows Bertrand Russell's atheism), is a virgin, and sees himself put-upon by his father, his roommate at Winesberg College, and by a well-meaning Dean of Students.

I found Marcus a young 19, stiff-necked, inflexible, self-justifying, with almost no insight into himself or other people. As a result I found myself regularly telling Marcus, "That's not a good idea...think of what you're doing...listen to what he/she is telling you." In fairness, Marcus himself realizes that there comes a point in his confrontations where he should shut his mouth—but he doesn't do it. He will not bend, and for his inflexibility, he ends up slaughtered pointlessly on a Korean hill.

But so what? I don't care. I suspect Marcus means a lot more to Philip Roth (who seems to share much of Marcus's early history) than to most readers, although you could probably say that about any writer's creations. The problem I find with the book is that, wonderfully well-written as it is (and it is), I am not moved in the least by Marcus and his struggle to find his way in the world.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Japan Living Arts

An acquaintance of mine, Steve Beimel, is writing an interesting blog, Japan Living Arts.

Steve, who is fluent in Japanese, founded Esprit Travel & Tours in the early 1990’s, as a U.S.-based tour company specializing in culturally focused tours to Japan and catering to enthusiasts of the arts. He and I jointly led a tour in Japan and I was dazzled by his knowledge of Japan and the culture. He has worked with a wide range of masters of traditional culture including art, crafts, architecture, gardens, music, theater, cuisine and religion. He now lives with his wife Ritsuko in the northern foothills of Kyoto.

His blog, which almost always includes wonderful pictures, focuses on contemporary arts and artists, including architecture, ceramics, textiles and more. I regularly check the site, and my only complaint is that Steve is not able to post more often than he does. But if you are interested in traditional Japanese art, I recommend a visit to the site. Even if you are not interested in Japanese art, Steve's blog gives a peek into a world few of us will ever be able to see.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Annie Proulx's character names

As I've said in earlier posts, I think that Annie Proulx's ear for dialogue and her ability to describe the natural world and the appearance of her characters in her novel That Old Ace in the Hole is amazing. I found the names she gave her characters disconcerting and unsettling. While I am willing to trust her descriptions of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle and willing to go along with her Candide-like main character as he looks for a place to site an agribusiness hog farm, almost every time she named a new character, my willing suspension of disbelief popped. Here's what I'm talking about:

Millrace Giddins...Ribeye Cluke...Tambourine Bapp...Wayne Redpoll...Marisa Berdstraw...Kevin Alk...Orlando Bunnel...Beryl Schwarm...High Dough...Dolly Cleat...Rohama Bustard...Jason Shrub...Tazzy Keister...Advance Slauter...Harry Howdiboy...LaVon Fronk...Rope Butt...Wally Ooly...Freda Beautyrooms...Parch Wilpin...Cy Frease...Charles Grapewine...Methiel Huff.

For all I know, Proulx paged through panhandle phone books, chose genuine first and second names, and then shuffled them to come up with these. My problem is that they don't sound real. I probably would have ridden along with her if she'd only used a few to establish a period and a place. When I name a character, I try to suggest a personality, social or ethnic background, geography, attitude, or events that occurred when the character was born. "Parch Wilpin" sounds to me like someone from Texas. "Ribeye Cluke," "Rope Butt," and "Freda Beautyrooms" do not sound like anything except random words mashed together.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Annie Proulx's descriptive powers

I am routinely dazzled by an author's ability to describe the physical world--the landscape and people. It is much easier to write about abstractions—ideas, thoughts, theories—than it is to paint a word picture, or at least I find it so. Which is why I am blown away by a paragraph like the following, from the first page of That Old Ace in the Hole:

"Gradually the ancient thrill of moving against the horizon into the great yellow distance heated him, for even fenced and cut with roads the overwhelming presence of grassland persisted, though nothing of the original prairie remained. It was all flat expanse and wide sky. Two coyotes looking for afterbirths trotted through a pasture to the east, moving through the fluid grass, the sun backlighting their fur in such a way that they appeared to have silver linings. Irrigated circles of winter wheat, dotted with stocker calves, grew on land as level as a runway. In other fields tractors lashed tails of dust. He noticed the habit of slower drivers to pull into the breakdown lane--here called the 'courtesy lane'--and wave him on."

We see the land, get a sense of the character's feeling about the land through what he observes, and learn something about the people on the land.

Proulx can also vividly show us a character:

"Sheriff Hugh Dough was forty years old, a small man, five feet five, 130 pounds, riddled with tics and bad habits, but nonetheless a true boss-hog sheriff. He had a sharp Aztec nose, fluffy black hair ands black eyes like those in a taxidermist's drawer. A line of rough pimples ran from the corner of his funnel mouth to his ear. His uniform was a leather jacket and a black string tie. He had been a bed wetter all his life and no longer cared that he couldn't stop. There was a rubber sheet on the bed and a washing machine in the adjacent bathroom. He never married because the thought of explaining the situation was unbearable. He was an obsessive nail biter. He counted everything, courthouse steps, telephone poles, buttons on felons' shirts, the specks of pepper on his morning eggs, the number of seconds it took to empty his bladder (when awake)." (page 49)

Every detail helps us see and understand something about this sheriff. We don't understand everything because we can never understand everything about another person. Heck, we don't understand everything about ourselves. But a bed-wetting sheriff who cannot marry because of it.... Wow.