Review Of Marina Julia Neary’s “Saved By The Bang”

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Saved By The Bang Marina Julia NearyA few weeks ago, I came across Marina Julia Neary’s Saved By The Bang, an interesting (albeit flawed) novel that takes what might very well have been a PC disaster- a family saga set during the Chernobyl meltdown- and manages to avoid the typical pitfalls one associates with such. Just think, for example, of the childlike way Octavia E. Butler once dealt with slavery, or Steven Spielberg’s twee, hamfisted treatment of the Holocaust, or the multitude of journals- poetry, prose, and everything in between- that opine on war and suffering and evil all the while excluding the art itself in favor of agitprop. Of course, it is quite easy to express fear or sadness or hopelessness, for these states are simply part of the human condition. They are built into us from so many access points that the smallest thing will tap into them. Yet it’s much harder to slip into their interstices, to get at things less obvious- more difficult to come by- which is why most ‘artists’ don’t really give a damn about their own craft, favoring, as they do, the fluff extraneous to it.

Saved By The Bang implicitly knows this, side-stepping the above dilemma by turning a drama into a kind of comedy, thus obviating any ‘need’ for bathos- the same sort of inversion, in fact, that helps polish and define Liev Schreiber’s wonderful Everything Is Illuminated (2005). But while the book has a number of strengths that easily put it in the top 5% of published writing today, it also lacks the sort of ‘highs’ that define the best works: it is more or less a solid book that has as many bad moments (3 or 4) as truly excellent ones (likewise 3 or 4), and an interim that merely floats well- for good or ill. In short, there are simply too few memorable passages or lines that work on the mind after the novel’s done, and while the characters’ lack of genuine depth might be unimportant, in some tales, the lack of highs- spoken by or narrated around these characters- keeps it from better company. Being a Chernobyl survivor, myself, I’ve long wanted to write a book about the incident, and I’d have surely done quite a few things differently. But that is neither here nor there. My desires and my way of doing things are and should be irrelevant to criticism, which needs to consider what a thing is rather than filtered through what’s always wished for. So let us focus, instead, on what the book does well, does not do well, and- I guess- does not quite do at all.

Saved By The Bang begins with a comic look at the Belarusian intelligentsia, starting at the height of an affair between the protagonist- Antonia- and a well-known tenor, a nice touch that avoids the oft-silly, moralizing, and clunky buildups towards such by immediately casting some doubts on the book’s (initial) lead. It then moves on to Antonia’s marital woes, … Continue reading →

When Google Met WikiLeaks: Julian Assange & The Making Of A Live-Long Pattern

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When Google Met WikiLeaks Julian Assange

Image via WikiLeaks.

Some time ago — oh, say, on the order of 40,000 years — a few tribesmen shored onto New Guinea, and were puzzled to find the place quite empty. Sun, highlands, and the moon’s egress, mid-day and night; things, all, no doubt, big things, even, but without the confluence of people to make it real. In short, the tribesmen were too used to activity, not quiet, analyzing others’ body language and being analyzed in turn, at every turn, for everything was violence and negotiation for as long as they could remember. Yet they were only a few families, still, with an immediate environment that was quite easy to control. So, they’d let the generations pass, until, one day, they woke up to clamor.

It wasn’t war, exactly. It was, in fact, mere over-crowdedness, and each person — not used to crowds after all these years of re-adapting — could no longer sense what the other was thinking. In time, something big will happen, something new, wherein people could finally organize themselves, find new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking, and open long-closed doors to productivity. Except there will be one problem: not everyone’s on board. And, whenever there are folks on the margins, there’s always the threat (or so the thinking goes) of a new and better, perhaps endless order.

No, I can’t know these things, as facts, but I know (or think I know) people, and the ruts they inevitably fall to. Thus, in reading Julian Assange’s When Google Met WikiLeaks, on Google’s Eric Schmidt’s meeting with Assange in 2011, I was reminded of the above precepts. They are not, to be sure, value judgments per se, but simply an admission that as the world grows more complex, the human tendency is fear, and that fear leads to paranoia, and paranoia leads to irrational and presumptive behavior — Assange’s real critique of government secrecy, both in the book and elsewhere, whether or not he realizes this, for the issue is not so much the desire to pry data, or hide bad behavior (human constants, all), but the particulars of this arrangement, and especially when the balance starts to favor the powerful.

In fact, as I’ve argued elsewhere, far too much has been made of, say, the legality of Edward Snowden’s leaks, despite the fact that pure legalism is a rustic way of viewing far deeper ethical dilemmas. I mean, just think of it: Jim Crow was a legal fact once. So is Monsanto’s bio-piracy, and bank policies that — unless immediately curtailed — will lead to financial chaos once more. Such things are outside of the scope of ethics, however, for when they’re ensconced in mere legalese, as pundits and laypeople so often do, they refer strictly to contracts: what people agree to do or not do, NOT the immanent justice of such contracts, which is the deeper and more relevant discussion.

Eric Schmidt Julian Assange When Google Met WikiLeaks

Eric Schmidt: “‘If you have something that you

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Review: On The Now-Forgotten Poetry Of Robert Francis

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Robert Francis, an excellent poet once championed by Robert Frost. Image via UMass Amherst.

Robert Francis, an excellent poet once championed by Robert Frost. Image via UMass Amherst.

As with Hazel Hall before him, Robert Francis was a pretty good ‘classical’ poet who, although better known while still alive, is now mostly forgotten in favor of bad New Formalist writing that afflicts so much of the poetry world. Thus, he is usually known as the ‘other’ New England poet, having spent much of his life in Amherst, MA, and using Robert Frost as both a personal mentor and poetic model. It’s an interesting relationship because, while never quite hitting Robert Frost’s highs (think Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, the great dramatic poems), he didn’t share his lows, either, for even Robert Francis’s longer poems can’t be said to go on too long, with the best ones topping out at 20-30 lines, and many more under a dozen. This is because Robert Francis was a poet of moments as opposed to larger, over-arching ideas, and while this implies a ceiling that greater poets are unafflicted by, it also means that he is quite memorable, as individual lines tend to crop up in the mind long after a poem is read. No, he is not “better than John Berryman,” as the abysmal Donald Hall claims in the back matter to Francis’s Collected Poems, but this is irrelevant to the fact that he deserves a much wider readership, and the opportunity to influence younger writers.

Let us consider a few of his poems, and why they work so well on technical and intellectual grounds:

Cloud In Woodcut

Make a woodcut of a cloud.
Polish the wood. Point the knife.
But let your pointed knife be wise.
Let your wilful cloud retain
Evidence of woody grain.
Teach your knife to compromise.
Let your cloud be cloud — and wood.
Grained in the art let there be life.

This is the prototypical Robert Francis poem: short, cutting, and able to distill 1-2 ideas in a way that neither obfuscates, nor ever becomes prosaic. Just look at the first line: a well-musicked command that ‘hooks’ the reader right away, for it gives just enough to act as a spring-board for some deeper examination later. The next line refines the narrative but without really forcing the reader into a strong philosophical post just yet — an example of good pacing, which is usually seen as a way to give a reader ‘breathing space,’ but can be better defined as a way for the artist to build a little trust before doing whatever it is that he wants to do, merely by first lulling him into a sense of complacency. (Art is deceit, remember?) Line 3 finally brings the first deeper thrust: “But let your pointed knife be wise,” another hook, again, that implies this idea will be expanded upon, and subtly changing the meaning of the commands that came before. The next 2 lines mirror the poem’s first 2, yet deepens their meaning, while the next … Continue reading →

Review Of Gayl Jones’s “The Healing”

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Gayl Jones

Gayl Jones, via University Of Michigan

In brief, Gayl Jones’s The Healing is not a book of many faults. Rather, it’s a book of a few monstrous faults repeated ad nauseum on almost every page. I haven’t read Jones’s other novels such as the lauded Corregidora and Eva’s Man, so, to be fair, I won’t comment on her talent as a whole, but stick to the clichés, ill-wrought dialogue, bloated, pointless description, and intellectual dearth specific to the novel at hand.

At the very least, I know Gayl Jones’s other novels are very different stylistically, which means, if she does lack quality, she might still have some diversity across her work. Thus, it’s probably not so much that Jones is talentless as she is lazy. And perhaps that’s the worst misdeed writers commit. A lack of talent is nobody’s fault and making fun of well-meaning passion is a bit cruel, even if accurate. Pure laziness, however, disrespects both writer and reader – I don’t want, for example, an artist to think me stupid enough to assume there is a reason behind every little miscalculation, the demesne and crutch of bad writers who use bad philosophy to justify bad art. Consider, for instance, the specifics of the plot. Harlan Eagleton, a folk healer, manages a minor but respected rock star named Joan Savage, travels all over the world, has affairs, and offers small observations about pretty much everything imaginable. She is eventually stabbed for “betrayal” by her former rock star. In a way, then, its peculiarities of detail and structure are similar to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, but while that book often makes good use of dialogue, irony, humor, and juxtaposition to talk about a familiar subject, the holocaust, in a unique way, The Healing simply drowns in details neither deep nor evocative. I suppose, then, the philosophical justification for such pap is the postmodern obsession with “multiple perspectives,” as Jones, in a way, does just that. She discusses, sometimes for pages on end, every little thing a character says or comes across, but reveals nothing in the process, not in the substance, and not in the construction. In fact, it’s the most obvious fault of the book – its utter pointlessness not only from page to page, but how little it actually says as a whole.

A couple of examples will suffice. The first paragraph, a bit over a page, sets the tone:

I open a tin of Spirit of Scandinavia sardines, floating in mustard sauce. The woman on the bus beside me grunts and leans toward the aisle. She’s a smallish, youngish, short-haired woman, small Gypsy earrings in her ears, looks kinda familiar. I offer her some of them sardines, but she grunts and leans farther toward the aisle. I nibble the sardines with one of those small plastic forks and stare out the window. The sun hitting the window makes a rainbow across a field of straw pyramids. There’s a few horses and … Continue reading →

No More Ghettos: On The Death Of James Emanuel, Poet

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James Emanuel, (c) SAMBG MYA Photography, via Entree to Black Paris

James Emanuel, (c) SAMBG MYA Photography, via Entree to Black Paris

In Confucian philosophy, there is a passage called Ta Tung, or “The Great Harmony,” which describes the ideal relation between things: that the best leaders are elected, wealth is shared and not left idle, and every man, woman, and child belongs to each other — and to itself. On my way to work, I often stop by a large statue of Confucius off the Bowery, in which this passage is emblazoned. There, one finds a multitude of trees growing up from stone, and flowers in the spring and green all summer. Yet not once did I ever see a Chinese person stand beside me and gaze at the man, much less read the inscription, for to the Chinese, he has become a kind of furniture, and the Chinese (at least here) live in a ghetto of their own construct.

The poet James A. Emanuel died on September 28th, 2013. The last few days, I’ve stopped at this statue a bit more often than usual. I’ve read the inscription carefully; I’ve tried to feel what it means to not regard oneself as “merely” oneself — as the words seem to exhort — but as part of something extraneous to it, something unnecessary, unimportant. Perhaps this is because I’ve been having trouble at my job and needed to stabilize. Or perhaps it is because, with James Emanuel more and more on my mind, now, I’ve realized that the content of those words was actually the content of his own life’s work: to keep the world from getting stuck on itself — that is, in its own skin, its own ghetto — and to bring it out of the enclosure.

Like many young writers, I’d first discovered James Emanuel’s poetry through Cosmoetica, and this essay, in particular. In reading his Whole Grain: Collected Poems, Emanuel — a black American poet and academic most recently living in Paris — immediately struck me as an artist of immense talent, even as his work (despite its strong identity) did not seem to “mark” him as a black writer, or as any “kind” of writer, at all, except one of talent and breadth that went beyond questions of race, and into deeper ideational concerns. Of course, he is not unique, here, for other black writers have routinely bemoaned their forced ghettoization into purely (and, even worse, stereotypically) black concerns: Charles Johnson, a Buddhist who wonders why blacks are so little concerned with “deeper” questions, even now; Claude McKay, who had his popularity stripped for his refusal to toe a political line; Ralph Ellison, who fictionalized these kind of subtly racist interactions; and James Baldwin, likely the richest of all black philosophical thinkers, and who — atheist, gay, and critical of everyone around him — did not ever comfortably fit into any school or methodology, save that of honesty and the striving for excellence, which have their own methods, separate … Continue reading →