Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2009

A listing of the best books I read this year, with traditional one-sentence commentary (for the most part!), and provided in order of merit.

10. Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart. A hilarious and inventive satire about the oafish son of a Russian mobster who travels from Brooklyn, NY to his home country of Absurdistan in order to clear his father’s name, only to find the former Soviet Republic in utter chaos, battered by war and the garish influences of Western culture.

9. The Ancient Ship, Zhang Wei. Epic novel first published in 1987 chronicles life in a small mill town in rural China over the second half of the 20th century, enduring seismic cultural shifts like Land Reform, the emergence of the Communist Party, and the Cultural Revolution – in scope and overall merit, it belongs on the shelf with better known works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children.

8. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s famous private eye, Philip Marlowe, attempts to unknot a confusion around a damaged war veteran, his sultry wife, rakish cops and a Mexican gangster; loaded with classic (and extremely witty) noir dialogue, wry insights, and deft plot manipulations.

7. The Tin Drum, Günter Grass. Sprawling, bizarre, but unforgettable bildungsroman concerning Oskar Matzerath, a dwarfish youth from the city of Danzig on the Polish-German border, whose uncommon proclivities include constant communiqués via a toy drum, a high-pitched singing voice that can shatter glass on demand, and an unusual ability to navigate unscathed through the nightmare of Nazi Germany.

6. Already Dead, Denis Johnson. One of the most unusual and daring novels I’ve read in years, this somewhat unruly but intoxicating “California gothic” is nearly impossible to accurately describe, but it features a junkie, a psychotic killer, a practicing witch, and a barren, desolate California landscape – all of which, in Johnson’s hands, forms a hypnotic chronicle of violence and beauty that seems to take on nothing less than the charting of the tortured human soul.

5. Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, Tori Amos and Ann Powers. Although I’m a big fan of Tori Amos as a musician and an artist in general, I took on this autobiographical work with low expectations, but Amos’ collaboration with and her openness to rock journalist Powers’ wide-ranging exploration of her personal history and creative process yielded what is for me one of the most interesting and instructive portraits of an artist at work that I have ever come across.

4. The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick. The first-ever young adult title to make one of my top ten lists, Brian Selznick’s beautiful and inspired novel has earned its way here; through spectacular black and white drawings and marvelously imaginative storytelling, it wonderfully combines the traditional and graphic novel formats, as well as a rich appreciation of the history of motion pictures, into an engrossing and uplifting story concerning an orphaned boy, an ornate Paris train station, and a mysterious synthetic man.

3. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe. Never having read this world-famous novel before, it is utterly impossible not to include it here despite how well-known it is: the powerful, magnificent story of the Nigerian warrior Okonkwo and his family living in a small village who come into direct conflict with the power and influence of white Christian missionaries, this novel is important for innumerable reasons, and also profoundly impressed me with its brevity and economy of language.

2. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson. Although Johnson topped my 2008 list (see below) AND appears already on this one, Jesus’ Son is a modern short fiction classic that, much like Things Fall Apart, I had neglected for too long; it is a searing series of very short vignettes concerning a drug-addicted protagonist, and it contains some of the most insightful, penetrating and unsettling language about the darkness within all human beings that the English language has ever born witness to – indispensible.

1. Look at Me, Jennifer Egan. Breaking my own tradition, I need more than one sentence to explain exactly how Jennifer Egan’s second novel found its way to the top of my list this year. I already respected Egan a great deal, having enjoyed her other novels, The Keep (see #8 below) and The Invisible Circus. I admire Egan also for her ferocious literary ambition and the discipline and fortitude it must have required to write her novels. She aims high in all of them. Like her other books, Look at Me takes on too much at once and doesn’t quite bring all of it off – but it’s the fearlessness of the attempt that captivates me. In this novel there is a fashion model whose face has been shattered in a car accident and is surgically repaired; when she recovers and attempts to make a comeback, nobody recognizes her. There is a lonely teenage girl who becomes entranced by a strange older man, leading her into extremely dangerous territory through which she has no capacity to navigate (one astute critic wrote that this portion of the novel was like “watching a second car crash”, but at a much slower speed). There is also a troubled, identity-shifting man who hails from the Middle East who immerses himself into American culture in order to prepare a massive strike against it. Even leaving aside the astounding fact that Egan was writing this in the late 90s and the novel was published only days after 9/11, proving an extraordinary awareness and insight on the part of the novelist, I will say here that there’s really only one reason it’s my favorite book of the year: I simply could not stop reading it. It was engrossing, totally intoxicating, ambitious and mysterious, and I loved the experience. Not everyone would, but it still gets my most enthusiastic recommendation.

2008 List:
10. Night Shift, Stephen King.
9. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, V.S. Pritchett.
8. The Keep, Jennifer Egan.
7. Exiles, Ron Hansen.
6. Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI.
5. On Beauty, Zadie Smith.
4. Man in the Dark, Paul Auster.
3. Say You’re One of Them, Uwem Akpan, S.J.
2. An Imaginary Life, David Malouf.
1. Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mutt Ploughman’s Annual Non-Scholarly Charles Dickens Essay

Some Thoughts on Hard Times, Hard Times, and the Ever-Growing Behemoth that is Dickensfest.

Charles Dickens, or “Chuck D” as I like to call him, wrote the 1854 novel Hard Times as a critique of the effects of the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century on rural Britain. Bruce Springsteen, New Jersey songwriter and rock music legend, performed a song called “Hard Times (Come Again No More)” on most of the shows in his 2009 tour, as a somewhat backhanded critique on our own society, at least in the pre-Barack Obama era. Turns out the original song was written by Stephen Foster in the same year that Dickens’ novel was published – 1854.

Chuck D and Bruce have a few things in common. Both were born into humble, working-class circumstances with families under financial hardship. Both were graced with an uncommon talent to portray their own times and the people they grew up with in majestic artistic statements – Dickens in his mighty and unforgettable catalogue of large novels; Springsteen with his classic, colorful and penetrating albums such as Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A. Both rose out of meager beginnings to become superstars of their time, garnering critical and popular success over decades of creative output. Neither, in spite of all this, ever took their eye off of their origins; neither ever managed to forget their fellow man, no matter how successful they personally became.

How strange that both of these indisputably great artists have brought the phrase “hard times” to my mind this year, in their own ways; how ironic that when both of these men have riffed on the very notion of hard times, neither of them was actually living through anything of the kind. But they remembered what living under those circumstances was like, and they could speak to it legitimately, no matter how much wealth they had accumulated. Success was earned by both artists.

What does that phrase, “hard times” even mean? I am fairly certain that it means something to me in this long year, 2009, that is not particularly the same idea being expressed either in Springsteen’s rendition of the Stephen Foster song or in Chuck D’s novel. Yet it’s one of those phrases that probably means something different to just about everyone coming across it. Is the early 21st century a period of “hard times”? For many of us it probably is. Was the mid-19th century? It seems that way when you read Dickens’ novel. Will tomorrow be even harder? Who can say?

Whatever that phrase may imply to my own ear, which is not the purpose of this reflection, I think in both Dickens’ novel and in Bruce’s recent performances, the use of it seems reflective of a change or a transformation of society that appears to be in progress – something definitely underway, but not yet complete. In a word, it denotes uncertainty.

What happens to a society as it transforms? It seems as though the pains and struggles communities and nations experience as the ages morph from one into another results in casualties, and those casualties are the little people, the masses, the forgotten ones who don’t enact the decisions that cause the transformation in the first place. Those people have always had a champion in Charles Dickens, whose artistic statements on their behalf transcend the gaps between generations. Just as Dickens spoke for the forgotten ones in his novels of the 19th century, so too does he speak for the forgotten ones of the 21st century, because his sharp eye and attentive ear were always fixated on the central humanity of his characters. Today he probably would be called a “populist” and a “liberal”, much like Springsteen, but Dickens expressed his liberalism in a way one can always respect and appreciate, because he made it clear that his true concern was for human beings and not political ones.

Hard Times seems to be one of Dickens’ most overtly political novels, and, as G.K. Chesterton and others have noted, it’s one of his hardest-hitting. It’s also by far the shortest Dickens novel I’ve read so far, my version clocking in at a spry 312 pages. For Dickens, this is basically a short story, or at least that’s how it felt to read it relative to the experience I normally have with Dickensfest! I really enjoyed this novel; I thought it moved at a rapid pace, was plotted smartly if not as intricately as other more famous works, and presented scenes and characters that were as memorable as those encountered in his larger novels. If Dickens went full-bore at his idealistic adversaries in Hard Times, it did not seem to me to be out of step with his general method; one comes to expect that Dickens will point out injustices and travesties, and find interesting and entertaining ways to expose them. That’s half the reason he’s still read as much as he is.

This novel was a mid-career offering, and although it was ostensibly written as a way to increase lagging sales of his journal, Household Words, and is not generally recognized as one of his finest works, it still contains most of the hallmarks of Dickens’ fiction – colorful and vivid descriptions, humorous use of hyperbole, well-named and memorable characters, pitch-perfect dialect, and unexpected twists of plot. You find all of these things in Hard Times, in a smaller space than Dickens normally operated in, and that alone lends the novel merit.

Again, as I’ve observed before, to enter a Dickens novel is to be immersed in the world of mid-19th century Britain. Here in particular, a small village with factories and the hanging smog of industrialization comes vividly and not entirely pleasantly to life in your imagination. A limited but picturesque cast of characters is introduced, and although the moments are fewer because of the novel’s brevity, Dickens still offers glimpses at each face that indicate his own remarkable knowledge of the character, inside and out. Consider this description of a side character in the story, an old woman who serves as a live-in attendant to a blustery and pompous banker:

‘Her eyes, like a couple of lighthouses on an iron-bound coast, might have warned all prudent mariners from that bold rock her Roman nose and the dark and craggy region in its neighborhood, but for the placidity of her manner.’

There is also in a healthy portion Dickens’ penchant for hyperbolic humor, which he used to his advantage in a number of ways, and which, in my opinion, makes his novels more enjoyable. It’s doubtful that anyone would publish a writer who made such use of over-inflated language to describe his or her characters today, but that’s part of what made Charles Dickens who he was. I think of past examples like the crippled old man in either Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend – I’m having trouble remembering which now – who was in a perpetual state of combat with his wife, but was too feeble to do anything more than launch whatever object was closest at hand in her direction every time she opened her mouth to speak. Or the description of David Copperfield in the novel that bears his name, falling in love with the childish Dora, that goes on and on and seems so overblown that you can do nothing but laugh.

In Hard Times, the hot-winded Mr Bounderby, a banker who has risen to some prominence at least within the confines of the small village of Coketown, is so impressed with his own history of rising up from what he describes in great detail as the most humble of origins that he takes absolutely every opportunity available to remind whoever is listening that he was given nothing as a child and had no social connection to anyone of importance. Dickens’ Bounderby has to be the original model for all those characters to follow who would say things like, ‘When I was a child I had to walk to school ten miles both ways without any shoes.’ And each iteration of the general speech seems to draw a bleaker and bleaker description of his past until it’s not possible to see it as the truth.

Or right at the beginning of the novel there is a description of children being ‘educated’ in the local grammar school, which is run by Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, a blowhard whose entire life philosophy is to limit himself only to the ‘facts’. He teaches his charges and raises his two children to appreciate factual information only, and to suppress and eliminate entirely anything having to do with whimsy, entertainment or emotion. Dickens describes him in one early passage, while standing in front of a class of small children, as ‘a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.’

But for all the artistic flourishes and moments of humor in this satiric portrait of life in an English village, this remains one of Dickens’ most harrowing stories. It spares little in its acidic portrayal of the novel’s villainous characters, from Bounderby and Thomas Gradgrind, to the almost literally devilish James Harthouse, a stranger who attempts to take advantage of Gradgrind’s daughter, to Thomas Gradgrind the younger, a misguided and confused youth whose way of improving his own situation is to commit a crime and pin it on an innocent and uneducated factory worker. It is this last plot strand in which the reader sees how harsh this story really is compared to lighter Dickens works, when the innocent victim of the scheme is made to suffer physically and spiritually in an unexpected ordeal, and yet still finds a way to see through his own disadvantaged life and circumstances to grasp a brighter and more enduring truth. It’s a painful, gut-wrenching sequence.

The longer my experiment known as Dickensfest carries on, the more I seem to look forward to it each year, and I think the reasons for this are simple, especially when considered in the light of the current literary moment. I doubt if I am expert enough to comment on that ‘moment’ with any authority, but it seems very clear to me that there’s no possible way any writer working today could get away with what Dickens seemed to do on a routine basis.

You can’t over-draw your characters; the critics will kill you for being superfluous and ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. You can’t wax on politics or moralize in your stories; the reader may take offense, and you should, above all else, not offend the general reader. You can’t write flowery descriptions or lay it on too thick when it comes to writing about things like love, anger, evil, or violence; readers are too sophisticated. Rather, give them the minimum of words and let them draw out any meaning for themselves; or, give them a confusing mish-mash of language and imagery and let them take from it whatever they will, or nothing at all.

Is it possible though that for all the jockeying for originality that goes on, in the mad rush to slice everything away that is not in direct service of the plot or in the service of the idea of writing as clearly and as clinically as possible, we have lost what it means to tell stories, and to have them told to us? Why did so many people love Dickens in his day, and why do so many people still love him now? Because he took our hand, bellowed out some fanciful introductory words in a flourish, and swept us up wholesale into the world of his stories. He went at his stories head over heels, tossed everything he could come up with into them, and carried us along in epic journeys that were funny, violent, bleak, colorful, madcap, sinister, and dramatic all between two covers.

I see my annual plunge into the legendary pool of writing Charles Dickens produced over his remarkable 63 years as a necessary but joyful return to the hearth of the storyteller’s charge and duty. It’s like part literary conference and part dreamlike holiday homecoming. You travel hard through the winds and snows back to the one place where you always have a seat at the grand table, where you can gather there in a huge hall with everyone else since the 19th century who has ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard in the attempt to try to tell a story. There you warm your chilled soul before blazing fires, slapping the backs of your brothers in the literary arms with whom you have carried the load, kissing long-lost sisters in the quest to create beautiful works of art, maybe partaking in a few bowls of hearty stew and hoisting a few foaming mugs of mead –

And then all of you, as one eager and rapt collective, sit back with bellies full and minds afire, and devote all attention to the front of the room, where the master takes to his feet, his eyes gleaming, stroking his beard as the words congregate, about to rush forth in one more great story.