Monday, December 14, 2015

Interior Mystery & Meditation in The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing

What might be the most striking introspection in any book I've recently read is the way Doris Lessing in The Memoirs of a Survivor makes her character withdraw so far inward that a rich, mysterious, and meditative space opens up and becomes as much a reality for the reader and the protagonist as the dystopic reality on the streets.

In Memoirs, society has completely broken down, the few with money have left, and the rest of the population lives like squirrels in what's left of a big city, holed away in empty rooms and fearful of marauders and gangs looking for loot or to create clans to survive.

What is so striking is that Lessing never blows this up into melodramatic proportions--no zombies or futuristic, crazy technological controls or controllers--but rather she shows people trying to live as normally as possible, adapting, taking heart in the tiny securities and privacy left to them, while brooding insanity creeps just beyond the conscious borders of prolonged fear.

Because of her subtle craft, we can already imagine how easily our delicate society could unwind.
I sat waiting quietly in my living-room, knowing that she was asleep, exactly as one does with a small child. I did a little mending for her, washed and ironed her clothes. But mostly I sat and looked at that wall and waited. I could not help thinking that to have a child with me, just as the wall was beginning to open itself up, would be a nuisance , and in fact she and her animal were very much in the way (23-4).
Meditation and turning inward is not always easy, especially when forced to do it within the worsening climate on the physical plane. Lessing plumbs the psyche of her protagonist and dredges up the violence, the trauma that tucks itself away in the darkened crannies of our consciousness that most of us leave unexplored from birth to death.
It was about then I understood that the events on the pavements and what went on between me and Emily might have a connection with what I saw on my visits behind the wall.
Moving through the tall quiet white walls, as impermanent as theatre sets, knowing that the real inhabitant was there, always there just behind the next wall, to be glimpsed on the opening of the next door or the one beyond that, I came on a room--long, deep-ceilinged, once a beautiful room--which I recognised, which I knew (from where, though?), and it was in such disorder. I felt sick and was afraid. The place looked as if savages had been in it; as if soldiers had bivouacked there. The chairs and sofas had been deliberately slashed and jabbed with bayonets or knives, stuffing was spewing out everywhere, brocade curtains had been ripped off the brass rods and left in heaps. The room might have been used as a butcher's shop: there were feathers, blood, bits of offal. I began cleaning it. I laboured, used many buckets of hot water, scrubbed, mended. I opened tall windows to an eighteenth-century garden where plants grew in patters of squares among low hedges (40).
Behind the wall the other world calls our protagonist, and she explores the rooms, tidies them, and searches for the owner of the place. This is the one area she can control as the outside, real world spirals into further chaos and danger.

Lessing seems to be asking us, Is this the kind of catastrophe it takes to seek answers and inward 
credit: Elke Wetzig (elya)
healing? In a way, James Gould Cozzens shows us another side of this equation with his flabby protagonist securing as much material wealth as possible in the peculiar, apocalyptic novel, Castaway.

But Lessing's is much more ambitious in terms of dystopian novels because it seriously examines the deteriorating relationships and imagines society in a way we normally don't. Memoirs has been called "A visionary's extraordinary history of the future." Cozzens, equally entertaining and through-provoking, strikes a simpler chord by enclosing his character in the sprawling, empty shopping complex, leaving untouched the trickier aspects of maintaining an apocalyptic narrative.

The rapidly deteriorating situation seen out of our character's ground floor apartment window becomes even more frightening. Gangs of children camp on the street, light fires, and males stare down each other to gain prominence over the pack of stick-wielding kids. We worry for the child, Emily, and her pet beast, Hugo, as Emily wishes to join the kids.

Gerald, the leader of a large pack of wild kids, sets up an amazing system of collecting discarded goods from the old world, when society had order and structure, and to reassemble, or disassemble for their parts all the material goods that are no longer useful without electricity. What was for vanity, for desire, for want, becomes only important if it's needed to survive.
We sat on through the night quietly by our fire, waiting, listening. 
There was nothing to prevent one or all of us becoming victims at any moment. 
Nothing. Not the fact that Gerald, by himself or with a selection of the children, or even some of the children by themselves, might come down to visit us in the most normal way in the world. They brought us gifts. They brought flour and dried milk and eggs; sheets of polythene, cellotape, nails, tools of all kinds. They gave us fur rugs, coal, seeds, candles. They brought...the city around was almost empty, and all one had to do was to walk into unguarded buildings and warehouses and take what one fancied. But most of what was there were things no one would ever use again or want to: things about which, in a few years' time, if some survivor found them, he would have to ask, "What on earth could this have been for?" 
As these children did already. You would see them squatting down over a pile of greeting cards, a pink nylon fluted lampshade, a polystyrene garden dwarf, a book, or a record, turning them over and over: What was this for? What did they do with it? (208).
How easy it is to float along into the internal rooms beyond the wall, yet as the reader who carries none of the risk or burden of the actual scenario outside in the crumbled city often craves to get back to the action, to the terror that awaits a small old woman living out her days quietly in an apartment that has no security--a door that can be broken in, a ground floor window that can be smashed, and no real protectors or truly trustworthy people.

Despite the kindness of Gerald's pack, there is no safety. Not even the illusion of safety.
But these visits, these gifts, did not mean that in another mood, on another occasion, they would not kill. And because of a whim, a fancy, an impulse (208).
That mysterious interior that Lessing opens up becomes a call for us, who still live in stable societies and have the luxury to do such inward exploring, to realize the impermanence of our superficial lifestyles and equip ourselves internally as much as materially.

As a narrative, what makes Memoirs stand out is the spiritual and psychological layers that give a companionable depth to what would be, without that, another dystopian novel. The internal element allows us space to breathe, to think, to fear while lending a subtlety to the story that is missing in so many others.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

In Descent of Man T.C. Boyle Shows Us What We've Ascended To

In T. Coraghessan Boyle's Descent of Man, the dominant theme of modern day folly lurks throughout every story. The collection seems to be asking, we've come all this way for...this? For what?

To fall below the IQ level of precocious apes? To destroy the only home that gives us life? To instill animosity between genders? To collect useless items in our homes, and waste precious money and time to get our hands on goods and artifacts that have nothing to do with enhancing our lives? To be considered champions of consumption, with the greatest champs being cheered on by everyone else? To sink mercilessly into sentimental entertainment again and again?

If all of that seems overwrought and overdone, it never feels preachy. Rather, it's quite the opposite. If you've read enough doom and gloom in the newspapers, and been made to feel like a guilty associate of our postindustrial society's environmental catastrophe, you'll be reinvigorated by Descent of Man's energy.

Boyle's language rises to meet the darkly humorous, satirical premises of his stories. If it didn't, the collection would fall flat in many places, and would risk dropping into the gutter of fiction serving as panic pieces.

Some, such as That Inscrutable Thing, have accused this collection of stories that "read more like writing exercises than stories--experimental pieces of fiction in which the young Boyle is only attempting to explore a particular concept, story idea, or literary form." I think that's fair, and I hadn't thought of it quite that way until I read it. There is a writing exercise feel to Desecent of Man. 

I'm more partial to Max Apple's take. He characterized Boyle's stories as, "A certain restlessness, a temporary energy takes over, a singing in the brain that is too intense to live with for the duration of a novel. That energy roams the lines of the story looking for a way out. James Joyce called that way out an epiphany, but in our time it is more like the quick release of passion than the stately illumination of the intellect."

Maybe the most surreal, yet most serious story in Descent is "Bloodfall". A group of young people who all live in the same house barely notice one evening when the rain they hear on the windowpanes turns out to be bright red.
In that brief silence between songs, I heard it--looked up at the window and saw the first red droplets huddled there, more falling between them. Gesh and Scott and Isabelle were watching TV with the sound off, digging the music, lighting the cigarettes, tapping fingers and feet, laughing. On the low table were cheese, oranges, wine, shiny paperbacks, a hash pipe. Incense smoked from a pendant urn (47).
At least the dogs like it when they're let outside. They lap it up and come back in covered with it. It's blood, and it smells like a butcher's shop outside.

The dread is passed off. Maybe it's a plague. Maybe it's pollution. You know, humans desperate to go back to the pleasant, comforting entertainment of their evenings without having to really give a second thought to the carnage going on outside their homes. Boyle displays that urge, that complacence in us.
Amy howled from the basement. "Hey you guys, guess what? The stuff is ankle-deep down here and it's ruining everything. Our croquet set, our camping equipment, our dollhouse!" The announcement depressed us all, even Gesh. "Let's blow a bowl of hash and forget about it," he suggested. 
"Anyhow," said Walt, "it'll be good for the trees." And he started a bass riff with a deep throbbing note--the hum of it hung in the air even after the lights went out and the rest of his run had attenuated to a thin metallic whisper (52).
As they lose the lights, the electricity, the warmth, the smell of blood is apparent. There's no question of keeping it out.

The reader can imagine the gore being attributed to any number of human atrocities--the blood of
credit: Martin Prechelmacher
those slaughtered in Vietnam, Iraq, and other helpless millions assaulted by the military might of the West. Or the blood of the masses being drained to support a cozy lifestyle for a small section of the planet. Or the lifeblood of the earth, from the chopped trees and slashed mountainsides mined for metals.

One day, it'll seep back to us, fall from the sky, rise up from the ground, and we won't be able to smoke it away, entertain it back into the ground, or sleep through it (which is ultimately what they try to do when the rain does not cease).

Most of the other stories are more playful in tone, even if they have dark underpinnings. One of Boyle's most pleasant techniques is how he bluntly begins, and anchors the story, in absurdity. From "A Women's Restaurant":
It is a women's restaurant. Men are not permitted. Women go there to be in the company of other women, to sit in the tasteful rooms beneath the ancient revolving fans and the cool green of spilling plants, to cross or uncross their legs as they like, to chat, sip liqueurs, eat. At the door, the first time they enter, they are asked to donate twenty-five cents and they are issued a lifetime membership card. Thus the women's restaurant has the legal appearance of a private club, and its proprietors, Grace and Rubie, avoid running afoul of the antidiscrimination laws. A women's restaurant. What goes on there, precisely, no man knows. I am a man. I am burning to find out (83-4).
Boyle sets up each story with care, almost like a circus carefully builds the foundations and tracks for its rides, so that once attached, the participant can be flung along on the wild, colorful ride with confidence that the whole absurd contraption will hang together and not defy its own laws of physics.

There is plenty of mockery in these stories, and the best example is "Heart of a Champion", a story featuring Lassie. A dog more handy than a human, more loyal than any dog on the planet, until she meets a scraggly coyote and lets down her guard over the boy she always protected.

Just as if we're watching a TV show, Boyle uses the omniscient plural to hover over the action, zoom in when necessary, and switch scenes instantly. We cut to Timmy: eyes closed, hair plastered, his left arm looking as though it should be wrapped in butcher's paper. How? we wonder. How will they ever get him out of this? (45). That perspective also gives the author clearance to mock the smoothly audience's reaction and heart levels while in the heat of the drama, as we'll see below.

Little Timmy can't seem to help falling into extremely dangerous situations on a daily basis. One day he falls into a river and is drowning while being swept along by a river rushing toward a gigantic waterfall. Will the dog be able to save him? This is where T.C. Boyle shines by asking us, Do you really enjoy the garbage you people call entertainment? How far can TV take this sentimentality and absurdity and pass it off as heartfelt entertainment?
Then she's in the air, the foaming yellow water. Her paws churning like pistons, whiskers chuffing with the exertion--oh the roar!--and there, she's got him, her sure jaws clamping down on the shirt collar, her eyes fixed on the slip of rock at the falls' edge. Our blood races, organs palpitate. The black brink of the falls, the white paws digging at the rock--and then they're safe. The collie sniffs at Tommy's inert little form, nudges his side until she manages to roll over him. Then clears his tongue and begins mouth-to-mouth (39).
Ultimately, the status of these stories depends on what the reader is searching for. Quirky, darkly humorous, jagged jaunts of the imagination dominate Descent of Man and you won't find even-keeled, slowly unfolding plots. These stories are bursts, like flares, that light up quickly and hit their peak. Not all of the stories succeed, but they are short enough and intriguing enough not to wear out their welcome.

Boyle's first collection is innovative enough to shake the reader or writer out of a rut and goad a frantic cleverness and humor out of a stale or tired mind.

T. Coraghessan Boyle. Descent of Man. Penguin. 1987. 219 pages.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Fair Thought About Consumption in Steppenwolf

Sometimes a writer nails an idea so well you just have to share it with somebody. In Saul Bellow's Herzog I highlighted just such a paragraph that seemed to encapsulate the entire thrumming pulse of that novel.

Such is the following example from Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf:
It is remarkable, all that men can swallow. For a good ten minutes I read a newspaper. I allowed the spirit of an irresponsible man who chews and munches another's words in his mouth, and gives them out again undigested, to enter into me through my eyes. I absorbed a whole column of it. And then I devoured a large piece cut from the liver of a slaughtered calf (34).
The varied shades of consumption reflect back until they spin around each other, each granting more meaning to the other.