Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Adventure story meets Joseph Cornell Box (Books - The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen)

Reif Larsen's debut novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is a delightful hybrid of a child's adventure story and a Joseph Cornell box. In it, T. S., the 12-year-old son of a scientist (mother) and cowboy (father) living in Montana, comes of age as he compulsively maps everything from the structure of a goat's eye, to the positions of his hands when he fidgits, to the pattern of dinner conversation between his family before and after the death of his younger brother. Although the story is set today, he and his mother seem a throw-back to the 18 and 19th century polymathic scientist, who studied each thing in the natural world that piqued their curiosity, making copious notes and accurate diagramatic drawings in their notebooks. No phenomenon seems to skirt T.S.'s fascination, how his sister (the one fairly typical member of the family) shucks corn, the possible movements of a pair of hands playing cat's cradle, these drawing and their notes accompany the text as marginalia - in a handsome, large-format hardcover published by Penguin Press - but they probably occupy 30% of the book, and they are anything but thematically marginal.

The action of the story unfolds when T.S. receives a call from the Smithsonian Institute that he has received an award. His mentor, a college professor, has been submitting his maps and the Smithsonian is unaware that their honoree is 12-years-old. T.S. decides to hop a boxcar (another throw back) to Washington D.C. replete with his drafting equipment to accept his award. The book is at once adventure story, fantasy, and fictional biography. The terribly intelligent portrait of a unique young brain and an overly cute gimmick that, when push comes to shove, works because it is more than its gimmick. The story is really about finding one's way in the world after great loss. Arcana may seem to sidetrack the story, but they are really the means by which T. S. and his mother can pursue intellectual fasicnation and avoid the pain they feel after the death of their brother/son Layton (and the more general loneliness they experience as being outcast because of their tremendous intelligence). I feel that Larsen occasionally skips some essential details about Spivet's journey that bother me (like how on earth he goes to the bathroom over two days on a freight locomotive). We don't have to imagine any other details, so why this one? Prudishness? A lot of the time the loss of minutia wouldn't bother me, but in this case minutia is constantly the point, so it seems a serious omission. Larsen also relies too heavily on deus ex machinae to get him out of some narrative holes he has dug himself into, but the book's depth of feeling brings it all together. I can forgive some of the silliness because the character convinced me and his story moved me.

I make the Joseph Cornell parallel because, although Larsen uses words (and pictures) to tell his story, it is more the construction of elements I am aware of than his prose. One doesn't admire Cornell's draftsmanship or painting, it is his placement of ephemera in a box containing sub-compartments and drawers, that creates a poem out of ordinary postcards, clay pipes, and other kitsch. In our assembly of them, we have an experience and perhaps even arrive at some meaning their whole conveys. Larsen's book functions similarly. Although arrows direct you to each note from a specific place in the text, you decide if and when you read the note on Montana's water table. There is a hands-on, game-like quality to the reading of Larsen's book and its experience is an object which is rare in books today. Although a youngster could certainly read it with enjoyment, this strikes me more as as a grown-up adventure story about a 12-year-old. I can also see it having both computer game and film potential, so I am sure the publisher is delighted. All in all, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is an inventive, entertaining, and very touching debut novel. I look forward to Reif Larsen's next discovery.

Monday, March 29, 2010

To avoid life's questions or to court them? (Books - Nothing is Black by Deirdre Madden)

Deirdre Madden has become my Irish muse. Her humane, compact novels vibrate like lovingly crafted string instruments. Sometimes it is the solo voice we hear - with the idiosyncratic personality driven art of the singer - sometimes it is the more richly resonant overtones of several strings played at once. But the song is always infused with distinctive personality - a complex human song, sometimes one that doesn't even know it wants to be sung. Many of her characters are artists - writers, visual artists - who live their lives against the grain trying to both maintain their privacy so that they don't lose the thing about their vision that is singular, and also enrich themselves of humanity so that they may produce a thing that is authentic and useful in that it can speak to others.

Very often, these artists are coming into contact with people who don't produce art themselves, but who are beginning to feel the confines that normally define their lives press up against them. In Nothing is Black, Claire, a painter living in remote Donegal, hosts her afluent cousin, Nuala. Nuala has recently lost her mother and despite her professional success has encountered a crisis:
The waitress brought her coffee, and as Nuala stirred it, she notice the spoon, noticed how heavy and cool it was. she put it on the saucer, and continued to look at it as she drank. And then something quite extraordinary happened.

She realized that she wanted the spoon. No matter that the name of the hotel was stamped upon it; no matter that she had at home a splendid canteen of silver cutlery, a wedding present she had never used; no matter that she had access to any amount of spoons and forks in the restaurant. No, it was that spoon and no other she wanted, and she had never wanted anything so much since she had been a child...
And from that point Nuala's life ceases to resemble the comforting thing she had aspired to. That grain that Madden's artists live against - here it is. Nuala's grief and uncertainty must be lived out away from the eyes of her usual audience, so that they are not too disturbed by the way her urges rub up against the confines of propriety. It is this departure of an ordinary person from their everyday seeking out the richly uncertain realm of the artist that is Madden's specialty.

The cousins Claire and Nuala from an interesting counterpoint of the ways humans can try to understand the mystery of living inside of our bodies and our lives as sentient beings.
No, she didn't understand life. She knew how it operated, but she didn't understand it. Did anyone, though?

Kevin and Nuala had finished their meal, and signaled to the waitress to bring them their bill. After they'd gone, she moved to clear the table, They'd left her the biggest tip she'd had all season. She wonder if this was to make up for the fact that they'd taken the pepper pot with them. No, she'd never understand what went on in people's heads, not if she lived to be a hundred.

'Daddy, why have some birds got blue eggs and some speckledy eggs? How many colours are there in the whole world? Is there a word for the colour a shadow is? shy is grass green? Is white really a colour?'

Her parents both agreed that she would keep a nation going.

She liked the words for the colours: yellow, green, red. Then she learnt new words. Turquoise, vermilion, aquamarine. Ochre, crimson, puce. This love of colour did not diminish as she grew up. The questions never ended, they became more complex, the only difference was that she stopped going to her father for answers to them. She was sitting in the studio reading Frida Kahlo's notes on colour.

Brown: colour of mole, of the leaf that goes. Earth.

Yellow: madness, sickness, fear. Part of the sun and of joy.

Cobalt blue: electricity and purity. Love.

Black: nothing is black, really, nothing.

'Daddy,' she'd said when she was eight, 'why do people keep saying the sky is blue, when it almost never is?' He'd laughed aloud at that.
These seem to be emblematic of Nuala and Claire's experience of the world. The first based in rules of cause and effect - if one thing occurs then another occurs as a balancing force. Whereas Claire's world is more immediately experiential, less rule bound. One seems to be an exercise in avoiding questions, the other in courting them. The interior struggles of her characters' lives are the action of Madden's novels. It would be cliched to say she that she crafts her prose simply or directly. Because simplicity and directness in prose about elusive subjects in anything but simple and is more than likely arrived at through effort. But her prose seems simple and direct, which is its art. And its intensely human complexity is its beauty. If you have not yet sampled Deirdre Madden's thoughtful, singular body of work, I urge you to get started. Here are my thoughts on Molly Fox's Birthday, One by One in the Darkness, Hidden Symptoms, The Birds of the Innocent Wood, Remembering Light and Stone, and Authenticity. I am growing sad now because I think I have read every one of Madden's novels. I guess that just means I will have to read some of them again.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The outcast's vision (Books - Thursday's Child by Sonya Hartnett)

What a dark and yet loving universe Sonya Hartnett has created in Thursday's Child. It reads almost as a hybrid of Walker Evans's dust bowl depression photographs crossed with a great novel looking back on hard childhood, say, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I offer up a photograph as a comparison with a novel because not only does Hartnett create a compelling retrospective voice in her narrator Harper Flute - at once naive in her child self and observant in her adult self looking back. She also creates several scenes that sear themselves on the memory as stark images. Abject poverty and loss haunt the Flute family. Loss of children, of means, and finally of dignity.
For a moment everything was strange. And then it was awful, and it hasn't stopped being that way. Sometimes I can hardly breath; I can't fill my lungs. I can hear him crying and he won't go quiet...
But deep beneath the earth lives a character who is at once a wild creature and also a member of the Flute family. It is his interaction with them that form the spine of this novel. This combination of fantasy and hard realism is my favorite aspect of Thursday's Child. Harnett also includes what I have come to recognize as her signature theme - the childhood experience of being the outcast. Not only does she tell of the pain of its exclusion, but also of the unique perspective it affords one. The place of exile often is a room with a view, and allows its inhabitant to develop powers of observation. I'll leave you with one of them, a portrait of behavior during the depression:
"But I'll tell you what I think's the worst thing, and it's to do with the ladies. Some of them, the only way they can hold their heads high when they've got nothing, no money, no milk for the baby, no husband worth having - the only way they can show the neighbors that they're still respectable people is to keep the house clean. The idea being, I suppose, that decent folk live in decent homes. And there's women going demented trying to make the house spotless, women who start to see dirt everywhere, as if it's got in under their eyes, women going slowly mad. The lucky ones get sent to the hospital but most of them aren't lucky. Most of them die jabbering on the kitchen floor, killing themselves to show they're upstanding. Dying for dirt in a dirty old world. It's funny, in a way: something went askew on the other side of the globe and now our mothers are losing their minds."

If you have yet to discover Sonya Hartnett, I recommend her novels highly. Here's my other post on this one as well as my posts on Surrender and What the Birds See.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The pause that refreshes or a deathly silence?

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Do you take breaks while reading a book? Or read it straight through? (And, by breaks, I don’t mean sleeping, eating and going to work; I mean putting it aside for a time while you read something else.

As someone who generally reads more than one book at a time, as well as having a fair bit of reading for school, it is the natural state of things to take breaks. Reading one book straight through is the exception, not the rule, although the length of the break could suggest that I have lost interest. Usually I switch between two or three books at a time as the interest strikes me; I'm not methodical about it. Sometimes a book will grab me by the horns as this one did lately, and this one, and then I will answer its call and read away until it's done. Sometimes, a book-in-progress sits for months atop the pile before I dive in again, reading 100-page chunks at a time. Middlemarch is like that for me. I know I will finish it. I'm just not in the right mood to read it through. With others though, that long pause is a death knell, the sure sign that I've moved on to another book, even if I can't quite admit it yet.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The past brought richly into the present (Books - Thursday's Child by Sonya Hartnett)

I so enjoyed Sonya Hartnett's Surrender and What the Birds See that I have come back for more. Thursday's Child displays some of the qualities I am beginning to think of as her trademarks - it is a sophisticated narrative written in a retrospective voice yet specifically for young readers, it takes on serious subjects such as death, poverty, the experience of the outcast, and childbirth unstintingly without lecturing or romanticizing them, it does not produce caricatures in the place of characters.

Let me say why I find the retrospective voice she opts for here so richly complex. This point-of-view always is because it takes on one human being from two time periods, creating perspective as one is innocent of the events before them and the other is knowledgeable. Furthermore, we generally know who a present-tense voice is by what they do, or what an omniscient narrator tells us about them. Here, we steadily build our knowledge of who the 7-year-old Harper is through her actions and her dialogue, however we have the mystery of the contemporary and much older Harper - who is she? What are the intervening events between this story we are hearing of her childhood and her telling of it? What occasioned her telling us this story? Is she 'the writer' or someone else? And Harnett believes that young readers can and wish to handle a story with those elements in it. Kudos to her.

In this story, set during hard times, Harper's younger brother Tin undergoes a transformative experience. I won't tell you what it is because, although only 20 pages from the book's opening, I found it very suspenseful. This leads him to burrow underground, literally to dig himself further and further beneath the house in which Harper and the rest of her family live. What a active image for a writer to choose, what stark circumstances she writes of, although she does so with warmth, insight, and even humor sometimes, and what a strong premise on which to base a novel. I am not through the story yet, so I will leave you with the opening of Hartnett's Thursday's Child:
Now I would like to tell you about my brother, Tin. James Augustin Barnabas Flute, he was, born on a Thursday and so fated to his wanderings, but we called him Tin for short. He wasn't my youngest brother, because it's right to count in Caffy, but I never saw Tin an old man or even a young one, so he stays just a boy in my mind. Tin's bound up in childhood forever, as far as my recollection goes, although the last time I saw him he was wizened and looking ancient as the hills. Memory is eccentric, how it stalls when it wants to. The dogs that we owned - I don't remember a single one of them ever being a puppy. they were born antiquated and rickety, those hounds, whelped under the veranda with their prime well and truly past them...
Immediately I hear that voice in my head. I'm not reading print, I'm hearing a speaker, and if I think about it, she has a specific age, a hair color, a vague face is even beginning to form. Writing that lives.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Consciousness as the ultimate baseline (Books - i of the vortex - Llinas)

When I last wrote of Rodolfo Llinas's 2001 i of the vortex - a grand plan to explain the concept of self as a product of the brain cells that create it - he had made a case for describing 'self' as the centralizer of the brain states out of which predictions about the world emerge and 'mind' as the internalization of potential movement. If the first half of the book proposes what these two constructs are in the language of the brain, the second half of the book fleshes out how they are accomplished given the evolution of the nervous system from single-celled creatures.

The binding together of events in the external world and internally generated representations of them is accomplished when brain cells are able to fire together. This requires some sort of device that creates a common metric, but not in the sense that a conductor leads the members of the orchestra. This metric is self-generated - like Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - who play without a conductor. Llinas offers his candidate for such a brain process and structure.

Llinas's persuasive argument is a trajectory from a description of fixed action patterns (FAPs) - fixed repertoires of muscle movement that always occur together - to emotions, qualia (the subjective experience of something), to consciousness. Rather than the brain executing separate steps that coordinate millions of neurons and 100s of tendons and muscles to run or lift food to the mouth, they are grouped as a single unit, an FAP, to help the brain economize its efforts - think of macros on your computer. This is an adaptive mechanism because it is not practical to have to plan out how to run from an oncoming car. Llinas proposes that emotions too are a kind communicative FAP - a given state, say fear - elicits emotions and with it, dozens of facial muscles conform in such a way to communicate to any member of our species that a given plan of action is necessary. As Llinas puts it:
The reduction of all possible choices to a useful set of the most probable solutions for the particular situation is a necessary prerequisite to effective behavior. The strategy of reducing choice by picking any solution, regardless of its potential feasibility just to save time, is counterproductive, so natural selection has weeded it out. Another example: what if the control panel of a modern fighter jet had, instead of all those complicated instruments, a little face that tells you how everything is, at that moment, by its expression? You are in heated battle; there is no way that you would be able to look at every instrument and gauge under such conditions. So you have a face - if the face is smiling it means "Do what you must! Don't worry about the condition of the plane, you don't have time!" You need an apparatus that can direct one to focus and choose - and that is consciousness. The face is transforming all the incoming information into one coherent event. Because operating from a single event is always easier, it is far more powerful than continuously having to take into consideration an ever changing set of variables within an ever changing point of governance. That is why there is but one seat of prediction.
Llinas then extends this argument with a leap that describes qualia (subjective experience) as internalized FAPs. If I understand him correctly, he posits consciousness as an experiential baseline against which other qualia can be measured, which makes sense to me since perception is accomplished by the nervous system measuring change and change must always be measured against something.

Llinas then offers two more chapters about the evolution of language and the notion of collective states of mind which, in my opinion, he would have been better off leaving on the cutting-room floor. These chapters are far less well reasoned than the rest of the book. They rely on solipsism and a little too much hand waving and leave the end of an otherwise tight and learned book feeling a little amateurish. He never distinguishes languages from other forms of communication, and the book devolves from a well reasoned thesis to loose musings that make it seem as if Llinas will only be happy if he can write a book that offers a grand theory of absolutely everything instead of a clear argument about the evolution of the nervous system in accomplishing those constructs we call 'self' and 'consciousness.' Minus the final two chapters, Llinas offers a clearly drawn argument, much of which should be accessible to the ambitious lay reader (except for the chapter on neurophysiology). He does so in an almost chattily friendly tone that keeps his narrative moving and offers vivid and pleasurable examples that range from Schumann etudes to Dante's Inferno and the art of Kiki Smith.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Form emerges from the meeting of artist and content

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Which do you prefer? Lurid, fruity prose, awash in imagery and sensuous textures and colors? Or straight-forward, clean, simple prose?

Form should emerge from the meeting of artist and content. I am not drawn to one or another kind of prose in the abstract. Most experienced writers' voices are distinctive, and likely they are drawn to particular kinds of stories and at particular times I find myself drawn to them. Perhaps to echo some feeling or rhythm I have brewing inside me but can't put the words to, or perhaps to counter it. But I wouldn't want Hemmingway to write Margaret Drabble's stories, nor would I want her to have written about Scout and Atticus, and to ask William Maxwell to write Shakespeare's plays would be ludicrous. Prose is an artform. It has a place for both decorative beauty and utility, obfuscation and clarity. Bring it on and keep it various.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Angels and demons meets William Faulkner (Books - Surrrender by Sonya Hartnett)

Laid up with a champion case of bronchitis, I've been alternating my school work with Thomas Mann's TB sanitorium antics in The Magic Mountain (appropriately enough) and I thought, I could use something a bit less... phlegmatic. Little did I suspect that Sonya Hartnett's Surrender would also feature one of two narrators with a disease resembling TB, but the book is so good that I wasn't discouraged from finishing it. I read her What the Birds See last year. She is an Australian author writing for and about children who find they don't fit the molds life provides for them. She does so with lyricism and imagination instead of the ridiculously pedantic messages I so often see in books for young people about how they should behave. Surrender is a literate novel told by two alternating first-person narrators - Gabriel the angel and Finnegan the wild demon - at least one of them, we are warned, is not necessarily trustworthy.
I am Gabriel, the messenger, the teller of astonishing truths. Now I am dying, my temperature soaring, my hands and memory tremoring: perhaps I should not be held accountable for everything I say.
As Gabriel lies in bed dying, he and Finnegan remember the events of their relationship that lead up to the heavily veiled circumstances that are the book's substance. We don't know precisely where we are or what has lead up to our being here. This creates in Hartnett's hands suspense rather than confusion - suspense that pulled this reader through the twin narratives like a strong magnet. Again her subject is a young person who is painfully alienated from everyone around him. She tells his story of isolation in elegiac strains that most evoked for me William Faulkner or the poet James Wright:
Breathing is an undertaking: it takes minutes to sigh. My rib cage is the hull of a wrecked and submerged ship. My arms, thin as adders, are leaden as dropped boughs. The mattress, my closest friend, has been carved by the knots of my unfleshed bones into a landscape of dents. The soul might rise, but the body pulls down, accepting the inevitable, returning to where it began.
Harnett's angel isn't necessarily always good nor is her demon all bad. This refusal to render black and white judgments on her characters has real purpose and is a strength of the novel. It asks the reader to revel in their ambiguity. Characters who are complex souls, not caricatures or walking illustrations of moral points-of-view, an unreliable narrator, nearly metric prose, place and situation not immediately explained - I know adult readers who would probably find Surrender challenging. But I commend Harnett for writing sophisticated literature for young people that shows them that someone believes that they can read with discernment. Surrender is tight, mysterious, lyrical and tragic - a gorgeous novel for a reader of any age.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mind and brain - partners in movement (Books - i of the vortex by Rodolfo Llinas)

Rodolfo Llinas's 2001 book, i of the vortex attempts to bridge our knowledge about the concepts of mind and self and our knowledge about brain cells. Somehow when our brain receives sensory stimuli from some source in the world (say a little red car driving down the street) - light acts upon the retina, waves of compressed air act upon the ear's basilar membrane - if that information is to be used, its gets recreated as an image represented in the language of the brain. If we aspire to own such a car, our interest will perceive the its meaning as the object we are saving to buy. If we are in the middle of the street and the car is driving towards us at 80 miles per hour, we will perceive its meaning as a heavy piece of metal with potential to do us harm and a good reason to move our legs and get out of the way. The pieces of information are reassembled in such a way that they are relevant to given states. An image is made of 'car' in one context or another and yet, if we opened the brain and looked at the tissue that made that image, we would see nothing that looks like a car. The car doesn't drive onto ones retina, and resemble a car as it makes its journey from our eye to our thalamus to our cortex. What goes in does not come out, but is an image translated into the language of electrical changes spoken by our neurons and generated according to a context that gives the image potential use. Mind, according to Llinas, is the present internal state that determines the creation of that image relative to its use given that state. Relative to predictions it makes about the events occurring around us, the brain plans movement, executing the command to carry out such movement if it is necessary.
The central generation of movement and the generation of mindness are deeply related; they are in fact different parts of the same process. In my view, from its very evolutionary inception mindness is the internalization of movement.
However, different states are concurrently overlapping and vying for primacy in each of us at any one moment. In the example above, our red car could be not only our heart's desire but also a potentially lethal projectile at the same time. Yet, if our brain is to make its predictions useful, there must be some arbiter of these concurrent states.
Self is the centralization of prediction.
Llinas then relates how potential movement may have determined the evolution of the brain as its looks today and how the brain's cells carry out the twin functions of creation of states and prediction of future needs, given what we know about their properties. Which has taken me to the half-way point.

Llinas's writing is cogent and quickly paced. This book is really philosophy married with neuroscience and Llinas is skilled at describing abstract concepts, attaching them to the structural and electrical facts of neurons, without losing either thread. Some ability to walk around in the language of contemporary neuroscience is necessary to get through the chapter on neurons. It is written at a graduate text book level, but having only one chapter to spend on these intricacies he writes an effective summary. I don't know if that will make it easier for the first-time reader or more difficult. I will know better when I reach the end of his argument if one could skim this chapter and still get the gist of the integration Llinas is trying to build between brain and mind. His is a grandiose plan - the flip side of Buzsaki's more narrowly focused and longer work on the brain's oscillatory properties. Llinas seems to want to devise the integrated theory of absolutely everything - mind, brain, self, consciousness - we have all the information we need, the premise seems to say, all that's left is for me to tie it all together. I'm glad to report that so far, he builds his story methodically and makes his connections modestly.