March 29, 2013

Good Friday

Good Friday is such a special day. In the Christian faith, it is the triumph of love and self-sacrifice, an affirmation that the basis of the universe is a God who loves us as completely as it's possible to be loved. In addition, the crucifixion is the culminating event of God's incarnation: we are never as corporeal, never more situated in our mortal bodies, as when we are in pain. It's an answer to the question, Does God know how suffering feels? Because if he did, he couldn't possibly allow it, could he?

The question has never been stated more poignantly than in this song by the Christian singer-songwriter Rich Mullins. Rich was killed in a car accident when he was in his early forties. He had already written a handful of Christian pop classics, and after his death, a demo tape was found in his belongings. It consisted of ten songs he had recorded by himself in a church nine days before he died. His friends published the songs in a two-album set. The first CD consisted of the rough demos recorded by Rich in the church. The second CD consisted of renditions of the songs recorded by his friends.

The demo version of "Hard to Get" is one of my all-time favorite songs, and it specifically references Good Friday (in the lines about friends falling asleep, as Jesus's disciples famously did as Jesus prayed and sweat blood the night before Good Friday). The song is available on Amazon, YouTube, etc.; just be sure that you get the demo version by Rich, and not the recorded version by his friends.


You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt

Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said

Still I'm so scared I'm holding my breath
While You're up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then

Did You ever know loneliness
Did You ever know need
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat

Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You're up there just playing hard to get?

And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can't see what's ahead
And we can not get free of what we've left behind

I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt blame and regret
I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get.

March 26, 2013

Act of the Imagination

The speculative novel is on fire: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, World War Z by Max Brooks, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Reamde by Neal Stephenson are just a few of the massive literary hits of the last few years. While there is plenty of traditional narrative out there, spun by great novelists like Jonathan Franzen and Marilynne Robinson, it's among these speculative novelists that the most vibrant work is being done. We've turned some sort of corner.

For decades great literature was defined by closely observed quotidian lives, battling ennui or inner demons. Protagonists were often middle-aged, divorced or estranged, searching for meaning at a time when their work lives were stagnating, sex was failing them, or drink was consuming them. These stories ended at worst with total Willy Loman-like  failure and at best with a small moment of grace that was as modest as it was fleeting: a Saul Bellow character stepping out into the sunlight, About Schmidt's lost retiree getting a letter from the African child he supported, reflections on a moment of youthful possibility in Olive Kitteridge.

But the themes of disappointment and melancholy that permeate classic works like A Fan's Notes and Revolutionary Road are fast becoming antiquated, their characters more Sad Sack than Antihero. For me, and I suspect others, any appreciation of the fine prose and reflection on life's limitations have been completely subsumed by a massive irritation at the haplessness and passivity of their characters.

Especially when juxtaposed with their new counterparts. In new fiction, internal turmoil has been almost entirely replaced with external conflict. Characters have their back stories, their disappointments, but these are not the center of their lives, nor the motor of the plot. Rather, they are consumed with rebellion against structures of power. In Cloud Atlas, for example, protagonists from six different time periods are pitted against the institutions of oppression of their time: tribal aggression, plantation slavery, corporate corruption, and so on. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is set against the dictatorship-cum-entertainment-colossus of the Capital. In World War Z and other zombie novels like Justin Cronin's The Passage, ordinary people defend their world from an totalitarian death horde. In The Road the father and son struggle for survival in a landscape denuded of life. And protagonists in Neal Stephenson's novels maneuver toward freedom through the twin pitfalls of oligarchy and anarchy: government bureaucracies, terrorist cells, and the all-encompassing reach of technology and surveillance.

What makes these stories great works of art is that, in all these cases, the protagonists are empowered by their capability and moral strength. They have skills. Cloud Atlas's Luisa Rey has her investigative smarts. Katniss has her bow. The zombie fighters have their jerry-rigged generators. Nearly any page of Reamde offers a tutorial on applying one's intelligence to the circumstances at hand. You can see the influence of genre fiction like thrillers here, as well as the influence of superheroes and comic books. And these works would remain in those categories but for the way their authors marry these features with great writing and a moral perspective. Their characters are saved not only by their skills but by their adherence to a moral code in difficult circumstances. Cloud Atlas's Adam Ewing saves a runaway slave at great personal risk. Katniss refuses to kill her friend. The nuclear sub commander of World War Z refuses to launch his missiles. We have moved way beyond the personal here, way beyond middle-age disappointment and the sorrow of old age. And yet these novels remain humane and important, because what's more personal than the way we act upon the world in the few years that we have here?

This new strain of literature may also be born out of our current understanding of morality. Several decades of liberal thinking has brought us an awareness of global impacts, an attention to the Other, and admonitions to Think Globally Act Locally. We understand that you can't be considered a good person if you're faithful to your wife but pollute the water source of an Indian village; if you donate to local charity but use military power recklessly; if you celebrate freedom but destroy the ozone. The stage upon which we act is so much larger than our homes and offices. That's why so many of these novels are global: the action takes place in China, or a Pacific island, or the Philippines, and the protagonists are global too. And it's not just a Western man acting on a global stage, but the global stage acting itself. When Briony, the young budding writer in Atonement first realizes that it may be "just as vivid" an experience to be her sister as it is to be herself, she's taken the first step in empathy: realizing that others' lives are just as real as one's own. This new literature takes that perspective global.

A third influence may be our realization that the world is changing, fast and in scary ways. We can see, maybe for the first time, that we are capable of really destroying our world. Not just a generation, as in World War I or II. Or a particular area, as in the Irish potato famine or the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s. We see glaciers literally falling apart before our eyes and hear that the beautiful city of Venice may disappear under the water within a century and begin to envision a disaster that is global and irreversible. Perhaps the apocalyptic novel is such a huge American phenomenon because we want desperately to believe we can McGyver our way out of it. These protagonists operate in hugely complex, risky worlds, but overcome through their persistence, intelligence, and creativity. It may be wishful thinking but only through these traits we can avoid the disasters in the first place. These novels feel like a challenge: get off your asses; stop moping; get to work.

March 10, 2013

E. B. White's Dilemma

E. B. White famously wrote, "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."

To plan a life too. And a politics. I thought about White's quote after a friend posted a link online to a short article in The Atlantic about wealth distribution. Among the people who responded to his post was a woman in a high-paying career. Here is what she wrote:

"You begin by recognizing that there has always been, and will always be, a 'wealthy' class. No matter how far we can go back in recorded history, this has been so. Why are we now preoccupied with redistribution of that wealth? It will never happen. The only thing that can happen is that the wealth is transferred, temporarily, inappropriately and/or coercively from one who does have it written in their 'Book of Life' to one who does not have it written there. To see the future, we have only to look at the past. The past has proven that the wealth always returns to the rightful heirs. May God help us all."

While you stop to deal with your rising nausea, let me home in on this part in particular: "No matter how far we can go back in recorded history, this has been so. Why are we now preoccupied with redistribution of that wealth?" I imagine this woman looking back at the stretch of recorded history, all those millennia during which the rich got up in the morning and enjoyed their wealth guilt-free. The Greek landowner who set his slaves to work each day and capped off the night with a banquet and courtesans. The Roman patrician who looted the European countryside and came home to his estate, library, and wine cellar. How lucky they were to have no troublesome wrinkles in the cloth of their consciences! To be so fully enfolded in their warm and reassuring culture of their peers!

Unfortunately for this woman, she has been cursed with living in an era in which concern for injustice is the central thrust of all serious intellectual and spiritual activity. Our titans of industry devote their billions to health care around the world. Our entertainers spend their off months walking the dusty camps of Darfur.  Our literary awards go to those who poke at the world with a stick, looking for those nooks and crannies where good is being attempted or evil can be exposed. And our daily lives, from the products we consume to the trash that we entomb, from the words we use and the assumptions we assume, are subjected to a continual ethical testing. Should we eat veal? Should we buy sweatshop clothes? Can we say "retard"? Should we say "bitch"?

It's annoying, really, the constant, hovering presence of conscience, and yet we have gotten off relatively easy thus far. Nothing in a middle-class American life compares to the moral demands of the past and those being made daily in other parts of the globe. The World War II era provides case studies. For example, the New York Times today carried a review of a new volume of the letters of P. G. Wodehouse. Reviewer Charles McGrath noted that Wodehouse was mostly interested in writing and spending time with his Pekingnese lapdogs. He writes:

"The evidence in the letters suggests that his political naïveté bordered on moral obtuseness. While the war was going on, Wodehouse made a deal with a German film company, for example, to develop his novel “Heavy Weather” into a movie. And in the letters he wrote from the Adlon Hotel—Berlin’s most luxurious—after his release from camp, he treats the war mostly as a personal inconvenience, with seemingly no awareness of Hitler’s genocide or of the thousands of lives being spent on both sides."

This review in turn made me think of the excellent documentary about Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker who socialized with Adolf Hitler and directed Triumph of the Will. The documentary, called The Rise and Fall of Leni Riefenstahl, describes her rising career as an actress and filmmaker and how she brushed aside her few quibbles about socializing and even collaborating with the Nazi establishment. Riefenstahl was not a monster. She was simply a woman who loved her life and found the moral challenges of her day not to her liking.  She preferred that history not interfere with her plans for a fabulous life.

No one can live a perfectly moral life, and agonizing over every action can lead only to madness. But it's a privilege to live in a time when we are alive to the reality of others, and an honor to be even a small part of the struggle for a more just world.

Bill and Melinda Gates working on vaccinations in Africa

George Clooney in Africa, working with his foundation Not On Our Watch

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,
winner of the National Book Award

March 5, 2013

My Booky Wook, by Russell Brand


I picked up this book recently because it got good reviews and who can resist the subtitle "A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up"? It ended up being one of my all-time favorite memoirs.

Its first virtue is that Brand is a great writer. This shouldn't be a surprise since he's a creative type, a comedian who writes his own material. He uses all the weapons in his arsenal: word play ("I still feel myself within the same vessel—my flesh a rocket of which I am the captain and chief cosmo-naughty"); metaphors (of a nice neighborhood man who was a possible father figure but whom he alienated as a boy: "I never spoke to that old man again. I closed down that account which could have been quite rewarding"); and brilliant imagery ("Toddlers can't move properly in winter coats; they're like little trussed-up Hannibal Lecters scanning the world with their eyes").

Best of all is his mix of high-brow and low-brow, which comes out just right. Of his gerbils, who began breeding out of control and eating their young, he writes: "The second generation stuck rigidly to the Old Testament model and ballsed Eden right up." And being a young teenager in gym class: "I hated them showers and that cold thigh-slap bonhomie, me trudging about all pudgy and unloved on some hard pitch, while other kids excelled, brilliantly occupying their newly masculine bodies."

A second virtue is that Brand is a thoughtful observer, and the care he takes with writing means that his observations are memorably rendered. I like this passage early on: "We all need something to help us unwind at the end of the day. You might have a glass of wine, or a joint, or a big delicious blob of heroin to silence your silly brainbox of its witterings, but there has to be some form of punctuation, or life just seems utterly relentless." I love every word of this passage. "Witterings" is made up but we know exactly what he means. "Punctuation" is the perfect term for those little rituals that create some sense of rhythm to our days. And he makes a really truthful and surprisingly painful observation with "life just seems utterly relentless."

It's this combination he pulls together—the lightheartedness of "silly brainbox" and the heavyheartedness of "relentless"—that is so powerful. In another passage he reminds us that the French describe orgasm as a "little death" and says that's what it is for him: "a little holiday from my head." This passage touches on his sexual appetites, which are usually a topic of sport or humor, but then throws in "holiday from my head," which most of us can relate to as the serious issue that it is. And he concludes with a funny: "I hope death is like a big French orgasm."

A third virtue is that Brand is (now, at least) a man of essentially good will. Of all the many, many people he discusses in the book, he has harsh words for very few of them. He has a generous disposition toward others. And because he's creative, he's not clichéd in his thinking any more than in his writing: "I didn't want to go to that treatment center, but all the do-gooders—and I mean that literally, as they did generally do good (I've never really understood why people employ the term pejoratively)—they all insisted, and I sort of, kind of agreed." This is his essential creative mind coming out: rehabilitating the term "do-gooder" is a much more radical act of unconformity than, say, taking heroin.

The trickiest part of a memoir is getting the tone right, especially toward your parents and your child self. He's brilliant at this: He puts you right in the mind of the inexplicable little shit that he was, making you feel how he did: that he wasn't trying to be bad or mean (who ever is?) but sometimes he couldn't help himself. He didn't even understand it himself. As adult after adult becomes disgusted with him (and later as woman after woman becomes disgusted with him), he recalls their reactions with equanimity and understanding, even while reserving some sympathy for his child self.

As for his parents, he notes his absent father's faults but also his strengths. And his mother he loves to pieces. Writing about when he was learning to talk, he writes, "My childhood can't have been that bad if someone loved me enough to document my first words."

I could go on and on, but I'll just say: Whether or not you like Russell Brand (or even know who he is), if you like language, this is the book for you.

March 4, 2013

Our Coming Chinese Overloads

Have you noticed how often comics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert make jokes about this? It's become a thing, and people laugh every time. But even as I'm laughing, I'm thinking, "Why am I laughing??" Do we think it's so preposterous that it's funny? No, that's not it. . . . It's more like we're congratulating ourselves for knowing what's coming and being all mature about it. 

The China anxiety comes through in literature too. Neal Stephenson writes about a future in which China is at the center of the world in The Diamond Age, and there are lots of other novels that give China and its people a place in their imaginative worlds that is prominent and equally significant as the Western world (Cloud Atlas, Reamde).  These writers are taking us into the future to show us a world in which we aren't the stars, in which our culture is marginal, and a big old Other is where the action is. Even Reamde, which takes place in the kind-of present, shows us a China that is as vibrant, whose people are as individual and psychologically rich, as we are. It's a good thing, but it does strike me as a nice little lullaby: "There, there, see . . .  they're not monsters . . . they're just like us. Everything will be fine."

The apocalyptic novel has arguably been the most vibrant form of fiction for the last ten years or so. Maybe people like me feel a sense of vulnerability about our country that was completely missing from the time of my childhood. But novels like The Road, The Passage, and World War Z strike me as psychological trial runs for a scary future.