Friday, November 9, 2018

Reading Silko

            When I finally read Ceremony it was a disappointment. The book conveys the disorientation and mental anguish of Tayo, the Laguna Pueblo Indian at its center. He feels guilt because he reneged on two promises to his family—really to his uncle Josiah, since there is little love between him and the aunt, Josiah’s sister, who grudgingly took Tayo in to save the honor of the family when her sister was impregnated by a Mexican and she left the baby. Tayo promised his uncle he would take care of his cousin Rocky (the aunt’s son), but Rocky died on a forced march to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Earlier Tayo had promised his uncle to take care of his cattle, since it was always understood that Rocky would leave the reservation to excel in college and then make a success in the white world. But Tayo got talked into enlisting by Rocky.
            There are larger guilts in the air and earth and the past. The action takes place in the area where uranium was mined for the Manhattan Project and not far from where the first atom bomb was tested; Tayo’s grandmother saw the flash and never knew exactly what it was. The Japanese come off better than the Americans in Tayo’s experience: his fellow soldiers are order to shoot Japanese prisoners, and though Tayo cannot bring himself to participate, he sees his uncle Josiah among the doomed Japanese. On the other hand, though they death-march their captives to a POW camp, the Japanese do not shoot them.
            Tayo’s army experience is even more complex. Like the other reservation Indians in the war, he enjoys the respect and other perks accorded servicemen while they are in uniform. But they are fighting for a land that has already been stolen from them, and once out of uniform, they feel the same old bigotry as before. All this Silko conveys during the first part of the book, which is painful. I thought more than once about the fallacy of imitative form.
            In the ceremony part of the book the writing is better but the matter gets fantastic. The ceremony begins with the medicine man Betonie’s instruction of Tayo and continues as Tayo rounds up Josiah’s cattle, led by Betonie’s vague instructions about the Pleiades. Tayo also finds a beautiful woman, also somehow connected with the Pleiades, and an instant love bond is formed between them. Eventually Tayo completes the ceremony by resisting violence with other Indians he perceives as being agents of the witchery in the world. That witchery has been, according to the book’s origin stories, responsible for creating the Europeans and their invasion of America. I don’t believe in magic, but that’s not the real obstacle for me here, any more than it is in The Tempest or in Homer. The problem is the wish-fulfillment romance and its embarrassingly sentimental treatment.  

Friday, November 2, 2018

Reading White Noise

            My first Don DeLillo book is White Noise, which got him a National Book Award. It’s an album of popular culture and American materialism. Characters repeat the clichés used in newspaper and TV reports of murders, natural disasters, plane crashes, and other dire events. DeLillo inserts catalogues of product names in a parody of consumer culture that is as funny and also as grim as Heller’s parody of the idiocies of war and the army in Catch-22. The family whom we follow through the narration of Jack Gladney is a diorama of characters whose closest approach to any spiritual existence is their awe-struck spectating at sunsets caused by a chemical spill that evacuated their little Midwestern town and that may be slowly killing Jack.
            He runs a department at the local college devoted to Hitler studies, though he’s never learned German. His fifth wife (counting twice the one he divorced and later remarried), Babette, teaches a course in standing, sitting, and walking, and she also volunteers as a reader for a blind man; what she reads him are the tabloids from the local market checkout counter. Jack’s son Heinrich enjoys reminding his family and friends about all the disasters that can plague modern life. He also plays chess by mail with a condemned mass murderer in prison.
            In this world where all their physical needs are met and where they are pleased consumers, both Jack and Babette suffer from an overpowering fear of death. To allay it, Babette has been willing to sleep with the maker of a drug supposed to quiet that part of the brain where fear of death resides. Jack decides to find and kill this man—perhaps the killing itself will affirm Jack’s life and address his fear of death. He will also confiscate the man’s supply of his drug. Jack’s plan goes awry and he takes his victim to a hospital after they have injured each other. There, in a comic scene, they are nursed by a German nun who taunts Jack with his simpleminded conviction that she must be a believer because she is a nun.
            Jack and Babette’s life resumes. In the last chapter their youngest child, Wilder, miraculously rides his toy tricycle through many lanes of both directions of freeway traffic. This scene is not witnessed by Jack and, unlike the rest of the book, is not told from his viewpoint. The children, and especially Wilder, who never talks, are the only countervailing force to the numbing materialism of the book’s world. Jack and Babette like to have the children around, and Jack sometimes watches the younger ones sleeping for half an hour at a time. But no one ever articulates this idea of the sleeping or pre-vocal child being opposed to the usual aspect of their world, filled as it is with talk—media-driven, half-informed, pseudoscientific, academically pretentious, rife with advertising language.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Muscle Beach

 Muscle Beach: Where the Best Bodies in the World Started a Fitness Revolution, by Marla Matzer Rose (St. Martin’s, 2001), tells how the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles sparked local interest in gymnastics. Paul Brewer, a student at Santa Monica High School, was frustrated when the construction of his school’s planned gym was delayed on account of the 1933 earthquake, so he and his friends began to exercise on playground equipment on the beach, near the base of Santa Monica Pier, four blocks away from the high school. Local adults helped the kids add a tumbling carpet, parallel bars, and high rings. Over the next few years the area became very popular as a place to practice and show off not only ordinary gymnastics, but also group acrobatic routines involving young men and women doing handstands, making human pyramids and towers, and tossing and catching each other. It was a young bunch, attractive and also muscular, since strength training was required for some of these stunts. The people and their activity soon began to be noticed by the beach goers, who flocked to this section—by the end of the decade it was known as Muscle Beach—on the weekends.       Some of the young people who were regulars began to open their own gyms; others designed and distributed gym equipment that hadn’t been available before. Rose argues that participants in Muscle Beach activities, including Jack LaLanne, Vic Tanny, Joe Gold, George Eiferman and a dozen others who opened commercial gyms starting in 1936 were responsible for the American fitness trend, which accelerated when servicemen returned from the war in 1945 and has been steadily building since. At intervals over the years, the trend got an additional boost from good publicity. Muscle Beach regulars Buster Crabbe and Steve Reeves had movie careers, while Jane Russell was an occasional visitor to the beach athletic scene. Arnold Schwarzenegger, already a bodybuilder in his native Austria, was an import to a later manifestation of Muscle Beach up the coast in Venice, California after the original Santa Monica Muscle Beach was closed.      That closure came about at least in part because of a movement from strength and fitness training to an exaggerated emphasis on muscle development. According to Rose’s account, there was an intense effort at the weight-lifting aspect of gym activity early in the 1950s, leading to the triumph of the US Olympic weight-lifting team in 1952. This increased interest in weight training was reflected at Muscle Beach. The original athletic group at the beach, whose interest in weight training had been subservient to overall health and acrobatic prowess, gradually dispersed—a lot of them were working hard running their own newly-founded gyms—in favor of men who were exclusively weight lifters and body builders. And they were all men, since women’s body building had not yet acquired its later appeal. Not so many people came to Muscle Beach when muscles were all it had to offer. Watching biceps, pecs, and lats grow to what became, especially after the coming of anabolic steroids, exaggerated and even grotesque size turned out to be without the same appeal as watching well-but-normally-muscled men and women having a good time and entertaining the crowds at the same time. Eventually the Santa Monica conservatives, who were more than a little suspicious of the morality of hugely-muscled and nearly naked men walking around and flexing for each other, prevailed, and Muscle Beach was shut down.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Thoughts on Tradition in the 20th-century Brit Novel

     When I look at the men writing novels in the U.K. in the twentieth century, I see many great performances but nothing like a tradition. Not so with the women. Joyce and Orwell and Lawrence and Forster, Green and Greene and Waugh, the Amises, Burgess, Lowry, Golding, Fowles, and Ishiguro all seem to be working separate lodes. With the women there seems more continuity, more obvious signs that they noticed, if not emulated, each other. And absorption from the men, whom they do not ignore. When Woolf writes in the first version of her “Modern Fiction” essay about the “incessant shower” of impressions “composing in their sum what we might venture to call life itself” and asks whether that isn’t what novelists need to convey, she also gives Joyce credit for trying. Woolf has read Joyce and Proust carefully, and it shows, but she also has read Sylvia Townsend Warner and Vita Sackville-West. These three in their turn are read by Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor, and all are read by Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym and A. S. Byatt. These women after Woolf are not experimental writers, but neither are they anti-experimental; they all try to get down the incessant shower of impressions that we call life itself, though they might not make fireworks out of the shower.