Old and new friends.
This Friday’s Trinity Forum conversation looks interesting:
Friday, May 21 | Reading Jane Austen: A Novel Approach to Virtue
with Karen Swallow Prior
“Dignity? How can there be dignity if we care so little for the dignity of others?”
In December 1983, it was a common thing to speculate about how similar (and different) the world was from that anticipated (proposed?) by George Orwell’s classic dystopia, 1984.
A few days ago I picked up P.D. James’ 1992 novel for the first time in 15 or 20 years and was surprised to rediscover that the first entry in Theo’s diary was for this coming Friday:
Friday 1 January 2021 Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days. . . .
I had forgotten that in The Children of Men (1992) the events all occur in 2021. The premise (no spoilers if you haven’t read it) is that human fertility declines so that no one is born after 1995. The implications are frightening, as the aging population comes to trade freedom for security (in the normal way) as it faces the coming disintegration of the social order.
Boris Johnson is not the Warden of England, and the disaster James speculated about is not upon us, but the cautions James weaves into this “hopeful dystopia” are ones we may benefit from in this, the age of the latest pandemic.
*I have no opinion about the 2006 movie, which (in any case) is set in 2027, not 2021.
One of the great benefits of reading, particularly novels and memoirs, is its ability to promote the kind of empathy Atticus Finch describes to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I am currently reading John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down (2006) [amazon] [link to Rabbit Room Reading Group] and Tony Evans, Oneness Embraced (2015) [amazon], but here are several more books which may help you inhabit the skins of others:
Albert Woodfox, Solitary (2019) [amazon] is the memoir of a black man in prison who spent nearly all of his life in prison in Louisiana for a murder he could not have committeed. I wrote a review and also posted some quotations from the book. [review] [post].
Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (2018) [amazon] is the biography of Eunice Hunton Carter, Stephen Carter’s grandmother, who Amazon describes as “a woman and a prosecutor, a graduate of Smith College and the granddaughter of slaves, as dazzlingly unlikely a combination as one could imagine in New York of the 1930s.”
Between the World and Me (2015) is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ heartbreaking memoir for his son about what it means to grow up as a black man in white America. Not an easy read. I’ve read this book several times and wrote a couple of posts. [post] [post]
Extraordinary, Ordinary People (2010) [amazon] is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s fascinating (and touching) memoir of her parents, as she grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in Birmingham.
Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines (2016) [amazon] is an excellent dystopian novel about race and control.
Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself (1861) [amazon] is an astounding autobiography of a woman raised in slavery, who escaped her bondage.
And of course, don’t forget Harper Lee’s incomparable To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) [amazon], which you were supposed to read in junior high! Sissy Spacek does a beautiful reading of the book. [audible]
Christopher Beha, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Tin House Books 2020).
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the total number of hits batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.
Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003).
Baseball, math, crime, and faith in New York City! What could go wrong? Beha follows his two earlier novels with a beautifully written narrative about a wealthy family and those who intersect their lives.
Frank Doyle is a baseball writer turned political columnist turned pariah whose career may be jump started by a magazine profile written by Sam Waxworth, wunderkind baseball statistician turned political prognosticator turned writer about all things that succumb to numerical analysis. Frank’s wife, Kit, is on the back end of a lucrative career in investment banking. Their adult children (Eddie and Margot) are largely directionless, but in interesting ways. Eddie has wandered into and out of the military, Margot has wandered into and out of graduate school in poetry. There is a rich collection of secondary characters who alternately stress and soothe the Doyles and Waxworth.
Beha’s characters have to deal with the central question of the novel: “What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?” For some of them the question is prospective—”What choices do I have going forward?” For some of them the question is retrospective—”What can I change about the choices I have made in the past?”
For all, like pitchers, they grapple with their tendency to self-destructive acts.
Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020).*
No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven 106 (2014).
Emily St. John Mandel made our wait pay off, as she has matched her brilliant 2014 fourth novel with an equally brilliant 2020 followup. Although The Glass Hotel is superficially different than the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, the two novels clearly come from the same pen.
Mandel again weaves chronology and biography to form a pattern which does not become quite distinct until the last pages. This time the fragile narrative winds through the lives of at least ten major and perhaps another thirty minor characters, but with fewer chronological jump-shifts. (Two characters even reappear from Station Eleven, though the two novels cannot quite share the same timeline.) These characters range from the owner and employees of the Hotel Caiette; to the staff and executives of a Wall Street investment company; to the executives and crew of a shipping concern. There are more than a few musicians, artists and addicts.
No spoilers, here, but the many characters glide into and out of “the kingdom of money,” in which the subjects carry themselves with “with the tedious confidence of all people with money, the breezy assumption that no serious harm could come” to them. P. 44. In the kingdom of money, it becomes all too possible for the servants to become invisible. (“[F]or him coffee appearing out of thin air was so commonplace an occurrence it didn’t merit acknowledgement.” P. 70.)
But for Vincent no one ever becomes invisible, and she enters and exits the kingdom with a high degree of intentionality and clarity, even when her decisions may later prove wrong. At one point she thinks I’m paying a price for this life, . . . but the price is reasonable. P. 65. She may have miscalculated, but she was not naïve.
Other characters are not so self-aware, and Mandel describes their predicaments with her typical crystalline prose:
A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative. (p. 95)
It’s possible to both know and not know something,” he said later [and] he spoke for several of us, actually, several who’d been thinking a great deal about that doubleness, that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad. (p. 168).
“If we are to be honest with ourselves,” [he] said, “who among us has never made a mistake?” But this was an error, [she] saw that immediately. . . . Could [he] see the error, too? Impossible to tell. . . . He’d made a mistake but he pressed on with the story, like a boy following a dwindling trail into the woods at nightfall. . . . (pp. 216-17)
Mandel’s characters don’t always live in reality, or they flinch from reality’s glare, and so delude themselves to survive.
This is not a perfect book, and Mandel, a Canadian, stumbles over some minor technical American legal points (FBI investigators are “agents” not “detectives”; the attorneys in the trial she describes would have been federal, not state prosecutors), but her sense of the relevant psychology is perfectly lucid—the lines crossed are evident to her characters only on reflection:
He left the office in a daze, but by the time he reached the corner, he realized he couldn’t pretend to be shocked, . . . , because he was already complicit, he was already on the inside, and had been for some time. “You already knew this.,” he heard himself murmuring, speaking aloud. “There are no surprises here. You know what you are.” (p. 192)
Mandel, like Vincent, plays with light and shadows, creating a precise recording of necessarily imprecise subjects—victims who are perpetrators, innocents who choose guilty actions, insightful people who are blind. In the end, the ghosts are all real, but the dreams are nothing but delusions.
*This review originally appeared online in The Englewood Review of Books [link].
Some interesting thoughts from Ross Douthat, prompted by reading Watership Down to his daughters:
One of the virtues of reading a narrative aloud, to children or indeed to anyone, is the way that vocalizing a story clarifies its power, especially in the quavering passion that you try to keep from your voice (because you don’t want your kids to think their dear dad is too emotional) but that bleeds through in spite of everything.
Ross Douthat,”Watership Down and the Crisis of Liberalism,” The New York Times (Oct. 22, 2019) [link]. The whole article is worth reading, though perhaps too optimistic in the end.
The best takeaway? You should read aloud to your children the books that move you.
Alan Jacobs is doing something fun on Snakes and Ladders:
Unscoured (July 1) [link]
Chapter 43 (July 2) [link]
this sickness is not unto death (July 5) [link]
Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood is a fascinating historical piece on eugenics and abortion. The opinion is available in full at the always well-curated SCOTUSblog (through casetext.com) [link] and is edited to look like a free-standing essay in First Things [link].
I was saddened to hear that Herman Wouk died last week, just 10 days short of his 104th birthday.
His novel The Caine Mutiny (1955) has long been one of my favorites, and I have had opportunity to teach it to several high school classes. I was disappointed to read a recent piece by Professor Joseph Bottum* which seems a modern example of “damning with faint praise,” suggesting that Wouk was a good “middlebrow” writer, whose work (some of it, anyway) has stood the test of time better than others in his . . . league(?).
I think, that if Bottum were pressed, he would say that he was praising Wouk, just not “over-praising him.” But when Bottum says “In general, . . . he could be counted on to write a readable book with some serious ideas in it. Or, perhaps better, a readable book with some serious ideas on it, like figures embroidered on a tapestry,” it is hard not to hear that as a snide, uncharitable comment.**
In my view, The Caine Mutiny succeeds as a novel because it draws us in to care about a handful of deeply flawed people who actually grow in self awareness. Willy gains maturity, of course, but so do Maryk and Keefer — and May. The fact that Wouk does this in a long, believable, narrative, with deft humor and across many sub genres,*** is really quite impressive.
I hope that Bottum’s review does not dissuade a single person from reading (at least) The Caine Mutiny. Wouk’s accomplishment should not be disparaged for being accessible. That seems fair, doesn’t it?
*Joseph Bottum, “Herman Wouk, 1915-2019: Remembering a master of middlebrow,” The Washington Free Beacon (May 25, 2019) [link].
**Not convinced? How about this: “No doubt, [Captain Queeg] is wonderfully drawn as a character: memorable in every way, beginning with his name. But an author doesn’t get to give us a Dickensian type, and then reverse field just to flatter readers that they’ve just had a deep thought. All they’ve had is the picture of a thought, a simulacrum of ideas, unearned by the prose. Which is perfectly fine for a certain kind of fiction. This might almost be the definition, the archetype, of the middlebrow.”
***By which I mean, non-technically, that The Caine Mutiny is a war novel, a romance (modern sense), a comic novel, an adventure story, a legal thriller, and (yes) a morality tale neatly woven into one narrative.
If you haven’t picked up any of Peter Heller’s novels,* you are missing out on some excellent fiction writing.
I have a review of his latest (The River) at the Englewood Review of Books [link].
*The Dog Stars, 2012; The Painter 2014; Celine, 2017; The River, 2019.
Lore Ferguson Wilbert reviews a new book for the Gospel Coalition that sounds like it would be an excellent read for a married+single church study:
Allberry argues that although sex is part of intimacy in marriage, it isn’t as foundational to intimacy as friendship—and friendship is available to the unmarried as well as the married. This concept, if truly believed and adopted, would free many unmarried Christians who worry they’re missing out on intimacy because of their singleness. And, if God does give the gift of marriage, this understanding of foundational intimate friendship could help address the complications many marriages have around sex.
The NYTMag describes a newly discovered Rembrandt in Russell Shorto, “Rembrandt in the Blood: An Obsessive Aristocrat, Rediscovered Paintings and an Art-World Feud,” The New York Times Magazine (Feb. 27, 2019) [link]. Very interesting! (Thanks, GLBH.)
I am unclear why First Things is publishing a review of a poor novel from the 1980s, but I have an idea, and the review is worth reading, even if the book is not.
I think Justin Lee properly discounts a certain kind of Protestant literature, and correctly critiques Frank Peretti’s novels:
Peretti’s art fails, and it does so for the simple reason that his representations of angels and demons are not strange enough. His novels just aren’t scary because they fail to be true to the irreducible particularity of human life, which means we don’t see the dangers as real. In the end, readers are left only with what propositional meanings can be gleaned from the surface.
Justin Lee, “The Art of Spiritual Warfare,” First Things (March 2019) [link].
This article really doesn’t do what one expects from a book review, which is to direct the review reader to an interesting book (or warn her off a book not worth her time) or (in the case of a current book) to identify strengths and weaknesses.
I think this is not really a book review, though, but a too-brief attempt to answer the really difficult question “Why can’t Protestants and Evangelicals produce great novels like Catholics and Anglicans?” For that it is worth reading.