Sunday, January 29, 2017

Antigone by Sophocles

The unwritten law of the gods versus manmade decrees

Antigone has two brothers – one attacks their home city of Thebes, the other defends it. Both men die in combat. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, decrees that the brother who defended the city shall be buried, the other shall lie unburied, food for wild beasts. Whoever attempts to bury the traitor’s body will be executed. Antigone is the only one to obey the ancient edict from the gods that bodies cannot be unburied and sprinkles ceremonial dust on the rotting corpse. Creon cannot believe she defied him and condemns her to be walled up in a cave. The crowd is afraid to dissent. The blind prophet Tiresias chastises him, tells him he has left the dead unburied and buried the living. Creon repents, but not before tragedy strikes.

I love the stark simplicity of these plays. The direct dialogue between opposing point of view. And the themes which resonate today. Are there universal laws which must be obeyed, above any other? We have all met an Antigone, we have all met a Creon. (Probably more Creons than Antigones.) I love that Antigone doesn’t sneak around to bury her brother, she does it and eloquently defends herself. She won’t back down from Creon who is the voice of reason, of what’s best for the city. The viewer sympathizes with both of them.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

You Too Can Have a Body LIke Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

A woman can't find herself in America’s consumerist culture

A is roommates with B. The two roommates, slight young women with long dark hair, closely resemble each other. Their apartment is located in a completely normal suburban neighborhood, complete with a Wally’s Superstore.  There the workers walk around wearing giant Wally’s heads. A’s boyfriend is C, a borderline abusive guy who loves watching tv and spending quality time with his porn videos. Meanwhile, in America, dads are disappearing. Across the street from A and B’s apartment, a nuclear family "ghosts" - sheets over their head, abandoning their house. A is fascinated by the many inventive commercials for Kandy Kakes, a particularly artificial kind of pastry. B seems to have an eating disorder. She likes popsicles and oranges; she likes stealing A’s makeup. It turns out that, behind the Wally superstore, behind the Kandy Kakes, there lurks a cult, a cult bent on reducing the corporeal body and concentrating on the spirit. This is done by eating Kandy Kakes, twinning with another supplicant, and closely observing your body as it wastes away. Our narrator joins the cult.

This novel was skillfully constructed. Three clearly delineated sections with imaginative themes that repeat. Kandy Kakes, Wally Superstores, “ghosting”, eating disorders. I also love the way that, little by little, the boyfriend is painted is a sadist. My problem was: what does it all mean? This idea would have worked well as a short story, but felt bloated and repetitive as a novel. About three fourths of the way through, I seriously considered giving up on the book. And I was on a plane. This novel reminded me very much of The Flame Alphabet. The stakes are supposed to be life or death, but the stakes to the reader dribble away. The Columbia MFA produces a lot of fabulist type writing which leaves me cold.

Got it –America is weird and corporate and obsessed by appearances and sugar. A and B – Who’s who? The situation in the roommate with the apartment extends into the new cult, in which a candidate is twinned with another slight dark haired girl, Anna, to help her on the spiritual journey. I loved the turn the story took towards the metaphysical, however, I wish the talent evidenced in this novel had been put in the service of a story with more tension.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Ajax by Sophocles

A man will not accept the indignity of being laughed at

Ajax, second greatest warrior in the Greek Army, fails to be awarded the dead Achilles’ armor. Apparently valuing brain over brawn, his compatriots felt wily Odysseus deserved the honor. Humiliated, and helped along with a spell of madness doled out by cranky Athena, Ajax kills a herd of cattle, the spoils of war, thinking them humans, thinking them his Greek oppressors. He tortures a ram in his tent, believing it Odysseus. Ajax’s concubine, Tecmessa, is frantic and does not know how to help him. Once Ajax regains his sanity, and realizes he not only has failed to achieve his revenge, but has in fact made himself a fool, he decides to commit suicide. He seems to let Tecmessa talk him out of it, but instead goes to a remote location and falls on his sword. The remainder of the play is occupied with the question of whether such a person as Ajax should be buried. Ajax’s half brother Teucer declares he will be buried; Agamemnon declares he won’t. In the end wise Odysseus advises that, even though Ajax was his enemy, such a noble warrior should be buried. Because if such a horrible thing happened to Ajax, it could happen to anyone.

So many things in this play felt familiar. The terror of searching for the lost mentally ill family member, and then the sad discovery. I’m not sure a modern audience is capable of understanding Tecmessa - a slave, but it also seems like she has some sway over Ajax, like a wife – someone whom he cares for. In this play, Odysseus comes off as truly wise, moving away from emotional revenge (where Ajax most definitely is) towards more nuanced view of things. The language throughout is beautiful and evocative.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Selected Stories by Andre Dubus

Men come to terms with justice

This collection features stories written throughout Andre Dubus’s long career. A theme is the stoicism of working class men. Another is the vulnerability of women and what these stoic men are supposed to do about it. Virtually all the stories take place in the industrial towns north of Boston. They are mostly about men, but always about families. “Rose” is about a guy in bar talking to an older woman who has quite a story to tell. A sad story he can do nothing about, putting him in mind of another sad story. “A Father’s Story” is about a decent man, who, with the quiet support of those close to him, takes a matter of extreme injustice into his own hands. “Voices from the Moon” is a novella about a family with an unusual problem.

Some of the stories were very good and some not so good. The good ones, with their simple sentences and skillful juxtapositions of two apparently jarring images work well and demonstrate a mastery of the well timed emotional effect. For the most part, the descriptions are beautiful and meditative. There's a somewhat creepy fascination with young women – wanting to protect them or wanting to control them. Cuckoldry and its pleasures and pains.

In “The Pretty Girl,” Dubus lulls the reader into the homey rhythm. Then he inserts words like “rape” and “pistol.” The surprise of violence in the middle of the mundane.  “Voices from the Moon” is a novella that combines Dubus’s obsessions with a straight faced silliness. That one seemed to take forever to get through.  At times the bad stories were unintentionally funny, like a bad Hemingway imitation. The ritualistic drinking of the tequila, for example, made me laugh.

Often the stories often felt like they were written in another era- because they were. The unquestioned gulf between the roles of the sexes. The vanishing of the shoe factories and local bars where the characters worked. Also, the surveillance camera society of today would render most of these plots irrelevant.The stories felt quaint and a little dated, then along came “Killing,” which had me on the edge of my seat.

Monday, January 2, 2017

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

A young woman mourns her dead father, trains a goshawk and meditates on the repressed life of novelist T.H. White

Helen Macdonald, a young history scholar at Cambridge, is shocked when her photographer father, in the middle of an assignment, falls dead on the streets of London. The stark weeks and months that follow, however, bring her no relief. In fact, she starts to believe she is losing her mind. Already an expert on hawks, those wild alien hunters, an idea presses on her: she will train a young goshawk. She is emulating another young intellectual at his wit’s end: T.H. White, the English novelist who wrote The Once and Future King, a magical story about King Arthur. The story is how stricken Helen trains the baby goshawk Mabel into a playful completely inhuman killing machine. What becomes apparent is that Helen was successful in training her goshawk (and has the scars to show for it), while T.H. White was not. At the end of the year of training, Mabel is an accomplished killer, Helen is enjoying life again, and T.H. White’s life remains sad and possibly unfulfilled.

For me, the book started slowly and I thought the prose was too pretty and too repressed. I didn’t understand how the book became a bestseller. However, after about 50 pages, I started to get into the story between the obsessive woman with nothing in her life and the completely wild animal she sets out to mold to her will. Interspersed with the structured story of how to train a goshawk, is the sad story of T.H. White, who could not fit himself to his time and perhaps could never fit himself to any time. What he really struggled with was not the goshawk and his contrary method of training her, but his own fears. The lesson Helen learned is that she is not an invulnerable raptor, but a softhearted human, not a hunting bird.

This felt like a book Helen Macdonald was born to write, like a million to one shot.  I'm not sure if she will be able to write another one.