Posts Tagged 'philip roth'

Inevitable Trump hangover reflections.

I spent most of election day writing. Two posts in one day! I guess I was keyed up. The internet was emotional – I assume it still is – I’ve been rationing my media exposure since Donald Trump’s victory speech. Even when I don’t share the public’s passions, even when I’m unable to fully understand them, mere proximity can be exhausting.

There’s an incident in Philip Roth’s memoir The Facts that resonates for me. After the release of his first book Goodbye, Columbus in 1960, Roth – who of course is Jewish – was accused by some critics of having portrayed Jews in an unflattering light, of reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes, even of being himself an anti-Semite. Roth rejected these criticisms completely. As he saw it, even setting aside his writerly obligation to accurately observe, it was more sympathetic to portray Jews as fully realized human beings – flawed, complex, often ridiculous – than as wooden icons of persecuted dignity.

He describes a symposium at New York’s Yeshiva University where he was questioned over the supposedly dangerous content of his stories. The moderator set the tone: “Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?” It only got worse from there:

Thirty minutes later, I was still being grilled. No response I gave was satisfactory and, when the audience was allowed to take up the challenge, I realized that I was not just opposed but hated. I’ve never forgotten my reaction: an undertow of bodily fatigue took hold and began sweeping me away from that auditorium even as I tried to reply coherently to one denunciation after another (for we had by then proceeded beyond interrogation to anathema). My combative instinct, which was not undeveloped, simply withered away and I had actually to suppress a desire to close my eyes and, in my chair at the panelists’ table, with an open microphone only inches from my perspiring face, drift into unconsciousness.

That’s how I feel whenever I’m exposed to online invective. Not just when it’s directed at me – which luckily hasn’t often happened, as no-one cares enough to abuse me – but when I see it anywhere. It makes me feel heavy and tired. I slept a lot today.

***

There was a revealing election-day story in the Vancouver Sun. A reporter went to a downtown bar where a crowd of expatriate Americans and sympathetic Canadians had gathered to watch the returns. After interviewing one Clinton supporter after another, the reporter was reduced to yelling, “Are there any Trump fans in here?” The response was laughter and jeers. Someone suggested she’d have a better chance if she headed out to the Fraser Valley – i.e., to the boondocks where the rubes and rednecks dwell.

I’d guess there were one or two Trump supporters in that bar who decided it would be best for their social standing – maybe even for their personal safety – to stay quiet.

I watched the results streaming online on NBC. Usually election night coverage will include, along with the panel of supposedly unbiased analysts, a representative or two from the competing camps. And although I didn’t recognize most of the faces, it was clear from their conversation that NBC had dutifully drafted a couple Republicans to fill out their bench. But the Republicans weren’t triumphant: the spectrum of opinion ranged from apocalyptic to merely despairing to, at the rightmost fringe, willingness to indulge a faint hope that doom might be avoided.

At one point the now-elderly Tom Brokaw repeated (while running through the litany of groups the president-elect had insulted) the story that Trump had mocked a reporter for his disability. And yet that story is far from clear-cut. (Short version: Trump frequently uses an arms-flailing gesture when he imitates dummies who oppose him. It’s only when you deceptively freeze-frame the clip of him mid-arm-flail that it appears he’s imitating the reporter’s withered arm specifically.) Brokaw didn’t seem to be aware of this – and why would he? Who was there to challenge him? His network couldn’t dredge up a single unapologetic Trump supporter to sit on their election night panel.

Half the American electorate – and they couldn’t find one.

(For reference, here’s Ann Coulter’s refutation of the reporter-mocking story and the Washington Post‘s refutation of her refutation.)

It’s hard to convince people of the intellectual dangers of ideological cocooning. They don’t seem like dangers if you’re convinced you’ve found the correct cocoon. But at least we could reduce our stress levels if we paid a little more attention to transmissions from neighbouring cocoons. We might be setting our hair afire unnecessarily – the opposing candidate might be, while still terrible, not quite as irredeemably terrible as we’ve been led to believe. (And yes, I’d be making the exact same point, with different illustrations, if it were Clinton who’d been elected.)

***

Reason‘s Robby Soave quotes from Trump’s victory speech:

“For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help, so that we can work together and unify our great country,” he said.

It’s a small thing, but it illustrates something I’ve observed throughout the campaign. The line might more helpfully have been transcribed this way:

For those who have chosen not to support me in the past – of which there were [pause, shrug] a few people – I’m reaching out to you…[etc.]

It was a self-deprecating ad-lib that got a knowing laugh from his crowd. But if you read it without the stage directions, it might easily come off as arrogant – as though Trump were unaware or dismissive of the fact that more than a few people have – to put it mildly – chosen not to support him.

I don’t watch much TV, so most of my Trump exposure has come via quotes like this in the written media. On the few occasions I’ve clicked through to the video, it’s been conspicuous to me how much less crazy he seems when you see him actually delivering his “crazy” lines. The media – used to campaigns like Clinton’s that have pre-sifted her every quip for particles of potential offense – gravely take down Trump’s tics and mouth-farts as if they were policy pronouncements. I wonder if the older demographic that still gets its news from TV was inclined to be a bit more forgiving, while younger voters were more easily incited by decontextualized snippets on Twitter.

Not that even the most forgiving interpretation of Trump’s campaign can make all the outrageous stuff go away. I don’t blame people for feeling panicky. But the victory speech, at least, was reassuring. I’m going with measured optimism.

M.

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The Terror (Dan Simmons).

Often I’ll read a book and think, Damn, I wish I could force my friends to read this. Does everyone feel this way? It’s not simply an innocent wish to have someone with whom to discuss the book. It’s also a braggart’s need to manifest my awesomeness to my friends. See how I have discovered this awesome thing! Read it and admire its, and consequently my, awesomeness!

The problem with my book club is that it doesn’t permit me to propose books that I’ve already read. We have agreed that the books we choose will be fresh to everyone in the group. This rule has proved frustrating. I wish I could force the other book club members to read Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, Richard Price’s Clockers, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I’m pretty sure they’d all fall down on their knees and worship me. Instead I must suggest books whose awesomeness I’m fairly confident of before reading them.

This has never quite worked out. I love Philip Roth, but his The Plot Against America was probably not the best way to introduce my fellow book clubbers to his canon. Much of the fun (if that’s the right word) of that novel was encountering the themes and tableaux of Roth’s Newark boyhood, familiar from forty-odd years of thinly-disguised Rothobiographies, juxtaposed against an unfamiliar alternate-history backdrop.

Having already read Lethem’s back catalogue, I tried starting my friends out on his latest novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet. It was enjoyable, but too flimsy to justify my enthusiastic pre-endorsement. Nor was The Third Man the ideal book to kindle a love of Graham Greene in my fellow readers. (I should have started with Brighton Rock.)

So it was probably unrealistic of me to have such high hopes for The Terror, by Dan Simmons, an author I’d never read before. But the reviews were great and the premise was unbeatable. What really happened to the crew of John Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror on their 1847 expedition to find the Northwest Passage? Did they really die on the ice from starvation and scurvy? Or were they…stalked and devoured by a demon from the snowy wastes?

All the elements are present for a great horror story. Priggish officers. Salty sea dogs. Howling winds. A mysterious Eskimo with her tongue torn out. Cannibalism. A little buggery. Why doesn’t it work?

The problem is that Simmons isn’t content to write a taut little period thriller. The Terror is a sweeping historical epic that takes in the entire history of polar exploration, British mores in the mid-19th century, and Eskimo mythology, with a side trip to colonial Tasmania and cameo appearances by prominent contemporaries:

“Charles Babbage?” said Peglar. “The fellow who tinkers up so many odd things including some sort of computing engine?”

“The same,” said Bridgens. “Charles tells me that all these years Mr. Darwin has been working on a quite interesting volume discussing the mechanisms of organic evolution. Apparently it draws in information from comparative anatomy, embryology, and paleontology…”

And on in that manner. The novel sprawls to nearly 800 pages. Halfway through, when the surviving expedition commander, Captain Crozier, makes a mental tally of his men upon abandoning their frozen-in ships for a camp on a nearby island, Simmons takes us through a full roll call:

Of his primary officers, Crozier had lost his first mate, Fred Hornby, to the beast during the Carnivale debacle, Second Master Giles MacBean to the thing during a sledge trip the previous September, and both his surgeons, Peddie and McDonald …

Of Terror’s twenty-one petty officers – mates, quartermasters, fo’c’sle, hold, maintop, and foretop captains, coxswains, stewards, caulkers, and stokers – Crozier had lost only one man …

Terror had lost two of its rated sailors …

On down the list, recounting the names and ranks of all the crewmen whose deaths Simmons has already described as they occurred in the narrative. This continues for five full pages (pp 427-432).

A few months later, with the crew encamped on the southern shore of the island, having failed to escape across the ice to the mainland, Simmons has Crozier plod through the roll again:

Of the thirteen original officers on HMS Erebus, nine were dead: Sir John, Commander Fitzjames, Lt. Graham Gore, Lt. H.T.D. Le Vesconte, Lt. Fairholme, First Mate Sergeant, Second Master Collins, Ice Master Reid, and Chief Surgeon Stanley. The surviving officers consisted of …

This time the list drags on for a mere three pages (pp 613-615).

One has to admire Simmons’ attention to detail. Although it’s been awhile since I’ve read a non-fictional account of the Franklin expedition – Berton’s The Arctic Grail is the one I’m familiar with from Simmons’ list of acknowledgements – I’m quite confident that in his story he has accounted for the final disposition of every skeleton, brass button, and rusty tin can that has ever been discovered in the vicinity of King William Island. There’s no doubt that the author did his research. I just wish he’d done the research and then left a lot more of it out of the damn book.

When it’s not testing your patience, The Terror can be pretty fun. I sped through the last 400 pages or so in a single Saturday afternoon reading session. Still, I find myself looking forward to the movie adaptation, which should chuck out a lot of the superfluous backstory and concentrate on the good stuff. Cold so intense that to touch a brass telescope barehanded is to lose all the skin on your hand. A fight to the death in the rigging of an icebound ship. A frequently naked Eskimo girl. A lottery to decide who eats and who gets eaten. A hundred scurvy sailors manhauling all their food and supplies on wooden sledges across a windswept desolation of frozen gravel, with something following in the fog behind…

***

At one point in the tale, Captain Crozier has a prophetic dream in which he sees the future of the doomed expedition and its aftermath. (This is one of those passages that tests the patience.) The dream sequence includes the following familiar scene:

He sees a boy with black hair and greenish skin curled up in a fetal position against a brick-tile wall the colour of urine. Crozier knows that the boy is an epileptic in an asylum, in some bedlam somewhere. The boy shows no movement except for his dark eyes, which constantly flicker back and forth like a reptile’s. That shape am I.

As soon as he thinks this, Crozier knows that this is not his fear. It is some other man’s nightmare.

Having recently seen it quoted in an essay by Graham Greene, I recognised this as a vision suffered by William James, described in his Aspects of Religious Experience. But I was perplexed by its inclusion here. The asylum nightmare isn’t really contemporary with the Franklin expedition – the vision occurred about twenty years later – and there seems to be no reason for Simmons to drag William James into his mess of a novel along with Babbage and Darwin and the rest.

My best guess is that Simmons was thinking of William James’ bear:

In 1884, James published a seminal paper titled What is An Emotion in the philosophy journal Mind (there were no psychology journals around then). In this paper, he reasoned that human emotion followed a sequence of events beginning with an arousing stimulus … which then triggered the corresponding emotion. In other words, do we run from a bear because we are afraid or are we afraid because we are running from the bear? While the commonplace assumption is that the bear is the source of our fear, James argued that this commonsense interpretation is wrong. It was James’ contention that bodily changes result from the perception of the “exciting fact” which in term leads to the psychological sensation called emotion.

In writing a novel concerned with polar bear attacks, among other terrors, I suspect Simmons was eager to work in William James and his terrifying bear any way that he could. The bear wouldn’t fit – but with a little rending and stretching of the story, James’ famous green-skinned asylum child could be jammed in.

Find yourself a more ruthless editor, Dan Simmons.

Sincerely,

M.