Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The optics of poetry


Poetry is the art of saying two (or more) things at once and making them one. – Richard Wakefield, 'Poets display writing translucent and opaque', Seattle Times, 10 April 2005

In the opening chapter to his book Seven Types of Ambiguity William Empson states:

An ambiguity, in ordinary speech, means something very pronounced, and as a rule witty or deceitful. I propose to use the word in an extended sense, and shall think relevant to my subject any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.

Simply put then: Ambiguity is the quality of having more than one meaning. That seems clear enough, pun intended. What I think would surprise most of us is just how ambiguous most of what we say actually is, even when we think we’re being crystal clear in our meaning. We assume because our intent is to ‘tell the truth’ (an expression which is often confused with ‘report the facts’) we’re being transparent and open when what we’re forgetting is that everything we say is open to interpretation and much is lost in the translation.

In his book Empson then goes on to discuss the (seemingly) simple sentence, ‘The brown cat sat on the red mat,’ and what becomes apparent very quickly is how unclear that sentence actually is. He continues:

The fundamental situation, whether it deserves to be called ambiguous or not, is that a word or a grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once.

Any word. Any grammatical structure.

Lawyers go to great pains to leave nothing open to interpretation. There’s a formality to their style of writing which is peppered with specialised words and phrases, archaic vocabulary (herein, hereto, hereby, heretofore, herewith etc.), Latin expressions (habeas corpus, prima facie, inter alia etc.) and quotidian words which have different meanings in law like party which indicates a principal in a lawsuit as opposed to a convivial get-together, an oblique way to refer to drug taking or a euphemism for sexual congress. It can get confusing especially when the party of the first part parties at a party with certain parts of the party of the second part. But if you’ve ever spent even a few minutes reading a legal document you’ll realize just how unclear and open to interpretation these documents often are. There’s a lot of money to be made translating legalese into plain English.

There’s no money to be made in poetry whether in translation or not and yet many poets go out their way—or so it seems—to be as opaque as possible in their writing:

Opaque poems are written with such a sense of mystery, free association of thought, or private myth-making and symbolism that sometimes even the most astute readers have difficulty "taking in" the poem rationally. The beauty of these poems, or poetic lines, lies in the realm of the imaginative, the intuitive, the metaphysical. Stream of consciousness poems are in this category. Sometimes poems or poetic lines are best appreciated for the stream of ideas and the sound combinations rather than for the reader to come away with a logical, coherent, rational meaning. Carried to extremes, the reader may leave the poem feeling isolated from the poem's "meaning" and intent. – The Poem as Craft: Poetic Elements

Communication’s hard enough when people are trying to be understood. Why go out of our way to make our readers’ lives difficult?

BernsteinIn the fourth of his excellent, if a little long-winded, Norton lectures Leonard Bernstein gives another broader definition of ‘ambiguity’ and I think it’s important to distinguish between the two kinds of ambiguity he talks about:

“Ambiguity” is in itself an ambiguous word—that is it has more than one meaning. And I think before we go one step further into our enquiry we would do well to have a solid dictionary definition or two. Or two: That’s the problem. There are two distinct definitions arising from the dual meaning of the prefix ambi- which can signify “bothness” (that is being on two sides at once) and also signify “aroundness” (or being on all sides at once). The first connotation, bothness, yields such words as “ambidextrous” and “ambivalent”, which imply duality. Whereas the second connotation, aroundness, conditions such words as “ambience”, “ambit”, and so on, which relate to the general surround thus implying vagueness. Webster gives these two definitions of “ambiguous”: (1) “doubtful or uncertain” and (2) “capable of being understood in two or more possible senses”. – Leonard Bernstein, ‘The Delights & Dangers of Ambiguity’, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, pp.193,194

To my understanding all words naturally contain multiple meanings; they do not naturally have to be vague. On the other hand the seven types of ambiguity that Epson goes on to discuss in his book are:

  1. The first type of ambiguity is the metaphor, that is, when two things are said to be alike which have different properties. This concept is similar to that of metaphysical conceit.
  2. Two or more meanings are resolved into one. Empson characterizes this as using two different metaphors at once.
  3. Two ideas that are connected through context can be given in one word simultaneously.
  4. Two or more meanings that do not agree but combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author.
  5. When the author discovers his idea in the act of writing. Empson describes a simile that lies halfway between two statements made by the author.
  6. When a statement says nothing and the readers are forced to invent a statement of their own, most likely in conflict with that of the author.
  7. Two words that within context are opposites that expose a fundamental division in the author's mind.

I’m not going to discuss them all here but broadly speaking we have number 6 and all the rest. I refuse to believe that any poet sits down and deliberately writes nothing. I do believe that many poets expect too much from their readers. They don’t exactly expect them to read their minds but they do imagine that everyone thinks like they think and will make the same connections as they do and that is simply not the case. So the reader is forced to make something else of what’s before him.

Most people would regard me as a plain speaker. Especially in my poetry. I say what I have to say and get off the page. And yet a part of me is slightly offended by that presumption if I’m honest. I think my poems have a broader scope than is first apparent. Yes, most are immediately accessible and I think that’s a good thing but if you spend time with them (which so few people are willing to do—and not just with my poetry, any poetry) there’s more there. Life being the way it is I think we need to cater to people’s needs and present a surface meaning that people can get in a oner because at least they’re getting something from the poem. If I stood my ground and made them work they’d probably give up after a few lines, take nothing away from the poem and put even less effort into getting the next poem they come across. Their loss but my loss too. I have stuff to say. If I go to the bother or publishing a poem I want it to be read. I think what I have to say can make a difference to people’s lives and I’m willing to present what I have to say in such a way that what I have to say is at least partially communicated to my readers, the important bits at least.

Is there something to be gained from misdirecting our readers? You would think not.

Work in Progress

I have something important to say.
Please be patient.

I have the words right here, all the
words one could ever need to say
all the things that have to be said.
It won't be much of a problem.

It's just there are so many words.
It will take time to sort through them.
You can't just pick any old words.
when revealing important things.

Have you ever sat down and thought
about how many words there are?
And why it's always the small ones
cupthat appear to make the most sense?

A cup of coffee while you're waiting?
Or herbal tea?

3 April 2007

A poem’s supposed to be about something, yes? At the very least it’s supposed to say something. And yet what I’m saying here is: I don’t have the words to say what I need to say. Think about all the important things you’ve said in your life. I bet most of them were said in words of one or two syllables, words a five-year-old could grasp—‘I love you’, ‘I quit’, ‘It’s a boy/girl’, ‘Don’t stop’, ‘Stop!’, ‘No, your bum doesn’t look big in that’—and yet you take those same simple words, jiggle them about a bit and you end up with a poem called ‘Work in Progress’ that’s maybe not quite as obvious as it first looks. I’m not saying it’s the most complex poem ever written but it does require something from the reader to bring it to life. Who’s the narrator? Who’s he talking to? What’s this important thing he can’t find the words to say? A lot of readers assume when you use the first person pronoun the poem’s autobiographical. Problem here is that the tense is the present so that means the ‘you’ is you. And how the hell could I offer you a coffee or a tea when we’re separated in time and space by several years and a couple of hundred or even thousand miles? It doesn’t make sense. What’s the poem about?

Well, I intended it to be about how hard it is to write a poem. When you read my poem you imagine—i.e. you pretend—I’m talking to you, you and you alone. That I have said or will say those exact words to some bloke in Cheyenne or a girl in Adelaide and a dozen other people scattered across the globe is neither here nor there. At this precise moment I’m talking to you, in the present even though I ‘said’ the words first way back in 2007. It’s still now. It will always be now. It has to be now for the poem to work. You need to imagine me standing—am I standing? maybe I’m kneeling—before you with something important to say and if it’s important then maybe it’s personal. Maybe I’m trying to tell you I love you; that’s pretty personal. Maybe I’m building up the courage to say how big your bum looks in what you’ve got on. Whatever I’m trying to get across, it’s obvious that it matters. It matters that I get it right. Any ol’ words won’t do. This is how I approach every poem I write. I spent time on these words. They may not be the fanciest of words. But they’re the right ones. Of course when I compose a poem my readers aren’t around like this apart from my wife and I never tell her when I’m writing a poem; she simply gets the thing handed to her to rubber stamp when I’m done. But what if you were here? Imagine the pressure.

Did you get all that from the poem? Or any of that? If you didn’t does that mean you didn’t get it? Does it matter if you didn’t get it? Am I a bad poet? Maybe you’re a bad reader. Maybe we’re just a bad fit. Tell you what, I won’t write you any more poems and you don’t read any more of my poems and we’ll both be happy. Or am overreacting?

You and I are not connected. Time, space, culture, life experience, age, gender possibly all create a gulf. My wife gets me. As much as any one person can get another person. She gets irritated by me and frustrated because I don’t always get her, so maybe I just think she gets me because I get me and I can’t see what’s so hard to get. Pretty straightforward guy, me. Although not the most communicative. I live in a wee world in my head and don’t let anyone in. I write poems as records. I actually don’t have a pressing need to communicate to anyone other than my future self. My poems are a diary, a codified diary, admittedly, but a diary nevertheless. The poems aren’t locks. The poems are keys. Take this poem:


we are not ready

go skinny-dipping

one another's souls.

29 August 1989

That poem unlocks a whole series of memories. It’s also the key to understanding this later poem:


(for Jeanette)

Being with you
is like

swimming in the sun
on a

warm Summer's day.

23 June 1996

Of course both poems work (IMHO) fairly well on their own. They’re not the greatest poems I’ve ever written but they mean a lot to me. I knew Jeanette when I wrote ‘Reflections’ but that poem’s not about her. It could be because at that time I wasn’t ready for our relationship to be more than it was; she was a casual friend and that was it. ‘Reflections’ is actually about someone else. Doesn’t matter who. On one level they’re the most opaque of poems, what my wife would call ‘decoder ring poems’. The need for some level of encoding is explained in this old poem:


Poems are near
naked thoughts: for

Adamwe will not take
off our clothes since

we are ashamed
of our bodies.

7 January 1979

We talk about naked truths but I don’t think we—or at least I (I can only really speak for myself)—am capable of complete honesty. I don’t have the words. As I wrote more recently:


Words drag
me down.
They are
out to
get me.

I look
them up
and there
are more
of them.

I look
those up
and there
are more

Each word
is an
to fall

where there
are no

11 August 2012

I don’t think any of the five poems above is a ‘difficult’ poem. I never set out to obfuscate. For starters I tend to shy away from words like ‘obfuscate’ although I do have a poem (which I will spare you) from my schooldays entitled ‘The Obfuscating Task of Writing a Poem’. I suppose what I aim for is translucency in poetry. Transparency is impossible. Let me make that last statement clearer: I don’t believe writing can be both poetic and transparent at the same time. It’s not in its nature. The following comes from a blog over at The Dish:

The preface to a recent translation of Greek Poet Kiki Dimoula‘s work addresses the issue of opacity in poetry. Dimoula seems to think that the question isn’t whether poetry should be opaque, but, rather, whether it can be poetry at all without being opaque. She offers a parable to illustrate:

Once, on the road to Alexandroupolis [in Thrace], long before I reached the city, I saw storks’ nests, high up, at the tops of a line of telegraph poles. Protruding from the poles, the bases of the nests were fluffy and shiny, like the fancy frills that decorate cradles, ready to welcome newborns. In the middle of each nest stood a stork, erect, immobile, on one leg, as if in this ascetic position, in this ciphered balance, it was protecting secrecy’s sacred hatchling. Already protected from above by the celestial cradle net. Poetry is like a nest to hide in. It is built on a pointed height so as to be inaccessible to the rapacious curiosity of anyone who wants to see too clearly what’s being hatched inside it. The most efficient way to safeguard concealment is by subtraction. Art is ever-vigilant, elliptical, balancing on one leg. When we write, we subtract.” (xv; emphasis added)

“When we write we subtract.” I think artists sometimes forget that simple fact because it’s true not merely for writers but composers and choreographers and visual artists. A poem is a starting point, not an end in itself. I’ve used the following quote commonly attributed to Paul Valéry before and it’s so well-known now that I suppose it’s veering on the clichéd but I still like it: “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.” (Actually this is a paraphrase of Valéry by Auden. Valéry actually said, “A poem is never finished; it's always an accident that puts a stop to it—i.e. gives it to the public.” And more fully, “A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.”)

I don’t think I abandon poems, deliberately or accidentally. I don’t like the verb; it has unpleasant connotations. If our poems are indeed our children we don’t—at least we shouldn’t—abandon them to the world but which one of us, no matter how good a parent we’ve been, sends out a child who’s prepared to face every eventuality? We do our best. There’s a lot of me in my daughter (poor thing) but somehow she makes it work and has blossomed (terrible word) despite that. She’s an interesting person.

In his book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry David Orr tries to make a point by referencing one of Karen Volkman's sonnets, which opens:

Blank bride of the hour, occluded thought
wed to waning like a sifting scent
of future flowers, retrograde intent

The sonnet, he points out, is “metrically regular, is composed of fourteen lines, uses real words, and has a traditional rhyme scheme—but it doesn't make sense and is grammatically incoherent.” We latch onto what we can. But here’s a curious perspective. Rather than trying to understand the poem Orr advises posing a simpler question to which everyone will have his or her own answer: “Is it this interesting?” If you can say yes, then, as Orr notes, “that is enough.” It’s a point of view but not one I myself can live with. Interesting is not enough in itself. When I find someone interesting I want to get to know them. I want to spend time with them. An interesting poem is a… mind tease.

At its best, as Wallace Stevens says, poetry should "resist the intelligence / Almost successfully," meaning it shouldn't quite make sense, thereby expanding the reader's—and poet's—notion of sense a bit. I can live with that. But there’s resistance and there’s resistance. When you’re trying to give your wife or girlfriend a cuddle and she resists it might just be because she want you to persist. All good things are worth waiting for and worth fighting for after all. Just because a poem resists a little doesn’t mean it doesn’t want you to get to know it. It’ll let you in if you don’t give up. No one wants an ‘easy’ poem that gives away everything on first read. My poems respect themselves too much for that. I brought them up proper. They don’t wear see-through tops but they don’t mind showing a bit of leg.

The poem ‘Reflections’ is not about the relationship between the poet and his reader although it is about the relationship between a poet and a reader. But what if it was about me and you? It’s very important that the poem begins with a no. If there’s a no then something preceded it, an advance, a proposition, a question to which the answer is no. What might that question have been? What about: Can I understand you? The poem says no. Are you going to take no for an answer? Sometimes no means no and sometimes no means maybe. Try again. That’s a bit of my soul contained in those six lines. Taking off one’s clothes and being seen naked isn’t so hard even if your body’s not in the best of shape. But letting someone see you naked on the inside is another thing entirely. I’m not going to let strangers in without putting up some kind of resistance. If you’re worthy all will be revealed. And, of course, the revelation goes two ways because at that moment you’ll see yourself a little differently than you did before and there’s no going back:

WarningDo Not Read this Poem

You mustn't read this.
Turn the page, please.

You don't want to see
                  the home truth here.

Because when you peer
                  in this darkness

                  you'll discover a
                  side to yourself

                  you didn't want to.
Just like right now.

I do hope you think
                  it was worth it.

13 July 1997

People continually squabble about what a poem is nowadays. I’m more interested in what a poem does frankly. Only one person has seen ‘Do Not Read this Poem’ and not read it. My onetime boss’s daughter—who was about eight at the time I think—was flicking through by big red book of poems, came to this one and said something like, “Okay then,” and turned the page without reading. I was very impressed. The poem’s not about me. The poem’s all about you. It’s my equivalent of “Do not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden.” Sometimes no mean no. It’s a deliberately dissatisfying poem. That’s its point.

People use all kinds of metaphors to describe poetry. If such a thing could exist as transparent poetry then it would be like a sheet of glass; opaque poetry is more like a brick wall we bang our heads against. Continuing the optical metaphor, translucent poetry would fall somewhere in between, allowing some light through but not enough for the reader to clearly get it. Ideally, though, poetry should be opaque enough to reflect some aspect of yourself like a mirror. Let me leave you with this to reflect on:

Mirror, Mirror

Before we start, gentle reader
tell me what you're looking for;
it helps if I know beforehand.

(Because poems are whores;
they become what you want,
but there's always a price.)

mirrorOr we could just talk if you like.
What do you want to hear?
Surely not the truth?

Oh, I see: you like mirrors.
Well that's quite all right.
I have just the thing here.

All it takes is a little imagination.

19 August 1996

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

eggers novel
Diseases desperate grown,
By desperate alliances are relieved,
Or not at all.
Hamlet, IIII.ii.)

Books written solely in dialogue divide people so I wasn’t surprised to see a lot of one- and two-star reviews for this. I, personally, loved it to pieces. I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited and Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint; Aaron Petrovich’s The Session was good, if a little short, but Padgett Powell’s Me & You was simply wonderful. There are others I’ve still to get round to like Philip Roth’s Deception which I’ll probably have read by the time I get round to posting this.

The all-dialogue technique was pioneered first by Henry Green and later (and more famously) by William Gaddis, who, in 1975, published J R, a book where it is sometimes difficult to determine which character is speaking other than conversational context. I've written two novellas now. Exit Interview was the first and still has the feel of a play very much like The Sunset Limited but In the Beginning was the Word like Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Is pure dialogue. It's so refreshing actually to be able to forget about those boring descriptive passages and what’s going on inside people’s heads. I'm surprised I don't do more of it. I think Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is the best dialogue novel I’ve read yet.

In an interview over at McSweeney’s the author was asked the obvious question and his answer is illuminating:

When I started the book, I hadn’t planned on it being only dialogue. I knew it would be primarily a series of interviews, or interrogations, but I figured there would be some interstitial text of some kind. But then as I went along, I found ways to give direction and background, and even indications of the time of day and weather, without ever leaving the dialogue itself. So it became a kind of challenge and operating constraint that shaped the way I wrote the book. Constraints are often really helpful in keeping a piece of writing taut.

Within the first couple of pages I felt clued-in on where we were and what was happening. It really takes very little. A man called Thomas has somehow kidnapped an astronaut, driven with him to an abandoned military base and handcuffed him to what he decides to call “a holdback for a cannon”. His motive? To ask him a few questions after which he agrees to free him, unharmed. It sounds like a bizarre proposition but it’s not really. John Fowles conceived something similar back in 1963 with The Collector.

The base in question is Fort Ord in California:

Fort Ord is a former United States Army post on Monterey Bay of the Pacific Ocean coast in California, which closed in 1994. Most of the fort's land now makes up the Fort Ord National Monument, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as part of the National Landscape Conservation System.


While much of the old military buildings and infrastructure remain abandoned, many structures have been torn down for anticipated development. – Wikipedia

Fort Ord

If only I could talk to him/her. Then they would understand. Or then I’d know. How many people in this world would you like to sit down and have a conversation with? But not just a conversation, an honest exchange. Ten? Twenty? Fifty? But most of the people I’d like to have a chat with wouldn’t give me the time of day. Their security wouldn’t let me within an inch of them even though all I want to do is talk. Kidnapping them is always an option—people get abducted every day of the week—but when I start to consider the practicalities of successfully planning and executing a kidnapping I realise that there aren’t that many people I really want to talk to that much. That said I do have a lot of questions I’d like answers to. Most people in life do. What if those questions started to burn a hole in me? What then? Where would I start?

Thomas starts with a spaceman. He’s called Kev Paciorek. They were at college at the same time. Thomas was three years younger and Kev doesn’t remember him, but apparently they had at least one conversation where Kev revealed he wanted to fly the space shuttle. Thomas never forgot this; he looked up to Kev and followed his career with interest. And Kev does indeed succeed in becoming an astronaut. He does it by hard work and deserves to be admired. And then a year after he gets accepted by NASA the Shuttle is decommissioned. Thomas has done his research:

—You know too much about me.

—Of course I know about you! We all did. You became an astronaut! You actually did it. You didn’t know how much people were paying attention, did you, Kev? That little college we went to, with what, five thousand people, most of them idiots except you and me? And you end up going to MIT, get your master’s in aerospace engineering, and you’re in the Navy, too? I mean, you were my fucking hero, man. Everything you said you were going to do, you did. It was incredible. You were the one fulfilled promise I’ve ever known in this life. You know how rarely a promise is kept? A kept promise is like a white whale, man! But when you became an astronaut you kept a promise, a big fucking promise, and I felt like from there any promise could be kept. That all promises could be kept—should be kept.

—I’m glad you feel that way.

—But then they pulled the Shuttle from you. And I thought, Ah, there it is again. The bait and switch. The inevitable collapse of anything seeming solid. The breaking of every last goddamned promise on Earth. But for a while there you were a god. You promised you’d become an astronaut and you became one.

Now Kev’s waiting on his turn on the International Space Station. And he’s accepted his fate. But Thomas feels cheated on his behalf. Why can the Russians afford their space shuttle when the Americans can’t? Kev tells Thomas:

—They’ve prioritized differently.

—They’ve prioritized correctly.

—What do you want me to say?

—I want you to be pissed.

—I can’t do anything about it. And I’m not about to trash NASA for you, chained up like this.

—I don’t expect you to trash NASA. But look at us, on this vast land worth a billion dollars. You can’t see it, but the views here are incredible. This is thirty thousand acres on the Pacific coast. You sell some of this land and we could pay for a lunar colony.

—You couldn’t buy an outhouse on the moon.

—But you could get a start.

The problem is Kev really doesn’t have all the answers Thomas is looking for. He answers his questions, grudgingly at first, and then with increasing candour but it becomes obvious that he’s only a small cog in the machine. Thomas realises he needs to talk to a bigger cog and excuses himself.

—I have an idea. Hold on a sec. Actually, you’ll have to hold on a while. Maybe seven hours or so. I think I can do this. And here’s some food. It’s all I brought. And some milk. You like milk?

—Where are you going?

—I know you like milk. You drank it in class. You remember? Jesus, you were so pure, like some fucking unicorn.

—Where are you going?

—I have an idea. You gave me an idea.

The action then shifts from Building 52 where he’s holding the astronaut to Building 53 where Thomas has chained up Congressman Dickinson. And he has a few questions for him.

Of course having glanced at the chapter headings at the start of the book I then realised then where this was heading. There were chapters for Buildings 52, 53, 54, 55, 57, 60 and 48. No one can seem to answer the question Thomas really needs to be answered and part of the problem is he’s asking the wrong people the wrong questions but it’s a process and only once he’s gone though it does he—and we—get to see what’s really going on with this guy.

As a flight of fancy goes this is a wonderful premise. I’m not sure than any of us would get the answers we’d expect or want but Thomas does learn some truths. Like what really happened to his friend Don Banh. As the book progresses and Don’s name keeps cropping up we start to realise what the trigger was that set this whole thing in motion. But the really big questions, the meaning of life questions, no, he doesn’t find the answers he’s looking for. And I would’ve been as impressed as hell if Eggers had managed to pull that one off.

Ultimately the issue here is broken promises. Thomas feels that the promises made to him—or at least the promises he believes have been made to him—as a son but especially as an American have been broken. The astronaut was supposed to be his hero but Kev let him down and ultimately everyone’s managed to disappoint him: his parents, his teachers, women, the whole goddam system from the president down to the cops on the beat. Why aren’t the leaders leading the people? Why are thirty thousand acres of prime real-estate lying unused? The politician tries to put things in perspective for Thomas:

—Thomas, nothing you say is unprecedented. There are others like you. Millions of men like you. Some women, too. And I think this is a result of you being prepared for a life that does not exist. You were built for a different world. Like a predator without prey.

—So why not find a place for us?

—What’s that?

—Find a place for us.

—Who should?

—You, the government. You of all people should have known that we needed a plan. You should have sent us all somewhere and given us a task.

—But not to war.

—No, I guess not.

—So what then?

—Maybe build a canal.

—You want to build a canal?

—I don’t know.

—No, I don’t get the impression you do.

—You’ve got to put this energy to use, though. It’s pent up in me and it’s pent up in millions like me.

Thomas isn’t a bad guy. He’s just a guy who can’t live with not understanding why life is as unfair as it tends to be to most people. And he takes matters into his own hands, stupidly, but not more so than the man who walks into the bank that’s repossessed his house and holds them up for the exact amount to settle his debts. chiefHe’s a smart and volatile man, an angry young man, but then young men have been raging against the machine—what Chief Bromden would later call “the Combine”—since the fifties and probably a long time before that thinking about student riots as early as 1918 in Argentina.

I completely bought into this and loved its execution. The characters were believable, especially Thomas. If I was to nit-pick—one can always nit-pick—I’d like to know just how Thomas manages to subdue so many people with such ease since most of them are picked up off the cuff without more than a few hours planning and also I was a little disappointed when the cop (who he chooses at random because he “looked more like a dentist”) just happens to be one who was involved in the incident concerning Don Banh. Since Marview is a fictional town, of course, there’s no way to tell how large a police force is has so maybe it’s not that much of a stretch. These really are minor gripes. Some have criticised what they see as sermonising. It’s a fair point. Just watch two or three episodes of Harry’s Law with its current events driven storylines and you’ll realise just how much is wrong with the USA—and not only the States but to be fair this book is a tad Americocentric—and how little good sermons actually do. Actions speak louder than words. Thomas has tried talking—“I’ve written letters to the department and never got an answer. I asked to talk to anyone and no one could bother.”—so now the only thing left is to take matters into his own hands. Desperate times call for desperate measures.


22IYER-articleInlineDave Eggers was born in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, an affluent town near Chicago. When Eggers was 21, both of his parents died of cancer within a year of one another, leaving Eggers to care for his 8-year-old brother, Toph. Eggers put his journalism studies at the University of Illinois on hold and moved to Berkeley, California where he raised Toph, supporting them by working odd jobs. In the early 1990s, he worked with several friends to found Might, a literary magazine based out of San Francisco. The publication gained notoriety when it ran a hoax article describing the death of Adam Rich, a former child actor. Despite the acclaim, the magazine attracted only a limited readership and folded in 1997. In 1998, Eggers founded publishing house McSweeney's, taking on editorial duties of literary journal Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.

In 2000, Eggers published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a memoir about raising Toph and working for Might. The book garnered a slew of critical plaudits, became a bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and launched Eggers into literary stardom. For the next five years, Eggers split his time between fiction and charitable projects.

Much of Eggers's later writing has taken a socially conscious bent, building upon his journalism background. In 2006, he published What is the What, the 'fictional autobiography' of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. All proceeds from the book were donated to charity, and in 2007, Eggers did the same with the proceeds from Zeitoun, his nonfictional account of a Syrian-American imprisoned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to his ongoing literary and charitable work, Eggers co-wrote the screenplays for two films: Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and, with his wife Vendela Vida, Sam Mendes’s Away We Go.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

You & Me

You & Me

HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something?

CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!

-- Endgame, Samuel Beckett

It is tempting—and numerous esteemed and not so estimable reviewers have been unable to resist—so let’s get it out of the road: If you’re aware of the existence of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot then the first thing that will jump to your mind when you begin reading You & Me [You&I here in the UK] is: This feels an awful lot like Waiting for Godot. Which it does. Now whether it was intended to is another matter but there are plenty of examples in literature (and film especially) of couples who natter away like this. All we know for certain is this:

Somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida—we think spiritually nearer the former and geographically nearer the latter—two weirdly agreeable dudes are on a porch in a not upscale neighbourhood, apparently within walking distance of a liquor store, talking a lot. It’s all they have. Things disturb them. Some things do not.

You&IWe never learn their names—one talks, the other responds but we don’t know who’s who nor does it matter—or their ages but if we accept that at least some of what comes out of their mouths is true then they’re probably in their seventies and have been friends for most, but not all, of their lives. This could been set in the deep South—imagine two rednecks in rocking chairs on a porch overlooking a swamp—or these two could be a couple of Jews perched on a bench in New York’s Central Park kvetching about life; they could just as easily be a pair of yokels leaning over a fence staring out over some field in East Anglia chewing on a piece of straw or even two teuchters sheltering under a tree ruminating on how many words the Scots have for rain. There’s universality to these two. We recognise them immediately. What sets these two apart from most old men is their marked lack of grumpiness. There’s a surprising—indeed refreshing—cheerfulness to these two; they actually moan very little although it would be too much to ask them not to moan at all and they do seem genuinely content with their lot—not that it is a lot—in life.

I first saw Godot when I was nineteen. I got up at the crack of dawn to watch an Open University programme knowing little about the play other than it was one of those things I would likely benefit from viewing. The next morning when it was repeated I insisted my wife and my best friend’s girlfriend who was staying with us at the time get up at the same ungodly hour to watch it again with me and I was frankly puzzled why they weren’t as excited as I was to have discovered this little gem. Had I read You & Me when I was nineteen I’d’ve been buying up copies to post to friends and family for birthdays and Christmases and been genuinely mystified when effusive letters of thanks and phone calls didn’t follow within a few days of receipt. I’m fifty-five now and know better. But I’m nineteen on the inside and it’s been a while since anything’s delighted me quite as much as this. Withnail and I did it. Lars Iyer’s Spurious did it. Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited did it. Sartre’s No Exit did it. The first time I saw Abbott and Costello do their ‘Who’s on First’ routine—that did it. I love banter. Beckett does it well but he’s far from being the only one.

These two aren’t even waiting for anything. There is no Godot equivalent. I thought “the codgers” who get mentioned in the opening few exchanges—you really can’t call them chapters—might be some people who were talked about but who never turned up to defend themselves but, no, that was never the case. No one turns up. No one’s expected. But it’s not awful. Of course ultimately they’re going to die but then we’re all going to shuffle off this mortal coil sometime it’s just that some of us have started to realise we’ve significantly less time than most and towards the end of the book I did wonder if Powell might not actually bump them off. This is, of course, assuming that they’re not already dead and this is some “antechamber to heaven” they’re in that Powell mentions in his quote from Barthelme at the start of the book and in the body of the text. It doesn’t matter. Wherever they are they’re enjoying themselves.

They have more props than Didi and Gogo ever had. And they do talk as if they’ve done things in between their confabs but it’s academic. Mostly they don’t talk much sense anyway. But it’s not all nonsense either, far from it:

    There is a fine line between humour and stupidity.
      The line is finer all the time.

They’ve lived a long time and have opinions—often not especially flattering opinions—on most things from film stars to politicians. They stand outside all of that so feel free to have their say. In an interview with Lee Griffith Powell talks a little about the conception of these two:

I had no visualisation. As characters, these two boys are not really distinguished from one another. They don’t have names for a reason. They’re just convenient position takers, taking somewhat oppositional positions in order to keep talking—more or less in the way that friends do. I tend to call this book a monologue as opposed to a dialogue because their positions are so suspiciously and conveniently similar. It is one mind having a little argument. [1]

And that’s effusive by Powell’s standards from what I can see of him and interviewers but then Beckett was not one for explaining his works either if one does insist (it’s fun to, let’s put it that way) we keep trying to compare the two. I’ve heard similar said about Didi and Gogo, that they’re “two sides of the same existential coin”[2] and the play should not be taken literally. So why should You & Me? At the end of the day what we have is nothing more complicated than an author talking to himself and writing that down for his own—and hopefully others’—entertainment. And I was fine with that. After much digging I did find this response from Powell:

The issue of Godot has certainly come up in America. They want to put that on the jacket but is it fair to say that this is reminiscent to a specific Beckett play when at best it might be called Becketty? Aren’t there other plays of Beckett in which two people talk for a long time? It’s a label and handy enough, but probably injurious in the long run.[3]

When I first watched Waiting for Godot at whatever unearthly hour it was all those years ago I didn’t get it. I didn’t get a fraction of it but I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Thirty-six years later having watched the play performed several times and studied it at length I can now see why it’s such a great play. Assuming I survive another thirty six years—55 + 36 = 91, so unlikely—I doubt I’ll be saying the same about You & Me because although this is a fun book—and it is great fun—that doesn’t mean it’s great-with-a-capital-g unless it’s hiding its greatness under a bushel. If I might illustrate:

      Is it better to have continuity of no content or discontinuous content?
      What is “content”?
      I use it as an irritatingly vague substitute for seriousness of purpose or meaningfulness in living, or something similarly perhaps as irritating as “content”—
      I get the drift. I would say it is better to have content without the continuity if the alternative is smooth unbroken vapidness such as the sort we practice in these dialogues every day.
      I’ll mark you down in the intellectual column. I am not surprised. I’m pencilling you in right beside Bertrand Russell.
      I’ll take it. One might be pencilled in beside, say, Jerry Lewis.
      Listen, I’d rather not talk today. I want to go watch old tennis players be displaced by young tennis players and the crowd weep as they retire and then start cheering for the new cocky-bastard upstarts who have sent them to pasture. This I want to do today, and nothing else. I want a cool soda water in my hand and a hat on my head and to not be overweight myself watching the elderly depart. I can from this position think gently of my own death.
      You almost got some content going on.
      I got it going on.
      You’ll look like a tennis groupie but you’ll have secret ponderment.
      No one will know.
      You’ll be a subversive in the stands, a thought arsonist. You’ll be like a Frenchman.

No one can tell me that exchange isn’t fun because it is but is it anything else? The mention of tennis inevitably reminds me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Is there great meaning in Stoppard’s exchange? Isolated like that it doesn’t sound like it. It just looks as if they’re having fun with words and much of the time you could say the same about Powell’s argy-bargying pair but when you consider all the other references to questions in Stoppard’s play you start to realise that this might be a part of a bigger picture. I’ve only read the book the once but I’m not sure a similar search of You & Me would be as rewarding; I’ve tried but would be pleased to be proved wrong. I think for the most part Powell is simply having fun with words and he could just as easily have been influenced by Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal because in a 2006 interview[4]—so six years before You & Me was published—he himself cited this exchange from the Mailer, Vidal and Janet Flanner interview on The Dick Cavett Show:

MAILER: I would not hit anyone here, you’re all too small.

CAVETT: Smaller?

MAILER: Intellectually smaller.

CAVETT: Perhaps you’d like another chair to help contain your giant intellect.

MAILER: I’ll accept the chair if you’ll accept fingerbowls.

CAVETT: Fingerbowls? Fingerbowls. I don’t get that. Does anyone on our team [Vidal and Janet Flanner] want that one?

MAILER: Think about it.

CAVETT: Fingerbowls.

MAILER: Why don’t you just read another question off your list, Cavett?

CAVETT: Why don’t you just fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?

But let’s not be too quick to trivialise Powell’s book. In a more recent interview[5] following the publication of You & Me Royal Young gets Powell talking about the lost art of the conversation:

POWELL: Conversations are the most direct way to connect with people. There's conversations and violence. There's a lot of phones; but I'm out of that field. They make me feel like a prisoner of war; there's not going to be any texting for me. The pre-paid phone is the frontier of my technological advance. I already had one voided by AT&T, cause I didn't pay as I went.

YOUNG: They want you to keep talking.

POWELL: They do. It's hard to say conversation has become a minimal thing, because look at the rise of mobile communications in the last 10 years. It used to be only the President had a mobile phone. Now everyone on earth, even if they have nothing else, they have a cell phone. It's a larger anthropological shift in my mind than even the tattoo age in the United States.

We live in a world where conversation exists as a thing in its own right. You & Me could easily be chat log. For the most part you can’t tell they’re in the same place. Nor does it matter. So although on the surface You & Me feels old fashioned it’s also one of the most contemporary books out there and I’m a big fan of its bare bones approach to communicating a message. Calling it postmodern only does it a disservice.

Much of the time there is no great message:

      Why do we talk?
      Why would we not?
      I suspect that is why we talk: what would we do if we did not talk?
      Precious little else, darlin’.
      My point.
      Your point is that we do nothing but talk . . .
      And that if we cease, we do nothing, are nothing.
      Well, given how little we talk about, we are next to nothing already.
      I dispute you not.
      You brought this up, suggesting you might dispute it—I’m sorry, here I am talking inaccurately, doing the next-to-nothing thing we do sloppily. I mean to say: your bringing this up might suggest you are concerned with how little or nothing we are.
      No, I am content to be nothing.

but again there’s more here than meets the eye because what we are talking about—who is doing the talking—are old men who are working their way towards being nothing. There’s no indication that either of these men is demented but they freely admit to being senile:

      God I feel small and dumb.
      Anything happen?
      No, the usual small and dumb.
      When, what I want to know, did we feel otherwise?
      When we were five.
      When we were small and dumb.
      Yes, then we did not feel small and dumb.
      Were we large and smart?

You & Me rambles; it’s not in a great rush to get anywhere. Our two curmudgeons lose the thread, pick it up a day or two later or forget about it completely. The “old codgers” vanish after about thirty pages never to reappear whoever they were. Towards the end the conversations do veer towards fears—or at least concerns—about death:

      I’ve about had it.
      Me too.
      I’m done.
      The battle is over.
      Not lost, or won, but over.
      Amen. Take me to funky town.

The review in The Metro says, “'Powell … holds a mirror up to what we have become and what we have lost, giving voice to a yearning that avoids sentimentality.” It’s a cracked mirror to be sure but within its fragmented images it does indeed paint a picture of modern society and not always a pretty one but there’s no point crying about it. It holds your attention more than a nice, clean, polished, full length, frameless wall mirror from Argos ever will.

Not everyone’s loved this book. Thomas Mallon in The New York Times Book Review wrote, “[S]scattershot aperçus do not make a novel. Any number of this book’s offhand insights and hypotheses could be developed into full-blown stories that move instead of meander, that do more than click their way from one YouTube morsel to the next,” and Dwight Garner in The New York Times said that the sound the book “mostly makes is that of a writer not hitting a dead end, exactly, but of a writer not appearing to try very hard. This short book, with its short chapters each topped by an ampersand, is mostly winding filler, talk that doesn’t seem quite worthy of the name.” They are, of course, entitled to their opinions. All I have to say in answer is: Remember the early responses to Godot.

In 2009 Dan Halpern interviewed Powell following the publication of his previous book, The Interrogative Mood. The book consists of 192 pages of nothing but questions and, as one might imagine, was also not well received by all. At the end of the interview Halpern makes this comment which I expect stands well today:

During my visit, Powell had been loath to defend himself from any criticisms, mostly happy to confess that if the stories had broken no hearts it was probably their own fault — that he’d just failed. But now, back from fishing, having caught no mullet and gearing up, finally, to shoot the raccoon, whose carcass he’d promised to the fisherman with the worm in his mouth, Powell said: “If you do what you mean to, if you ever can, that will come out on the page. But if you go around saying anything that seems preposterous is bad, that anything that doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to look is false and heartless — well, I think, I think — I think you do lose something.”[6]

You can read extracts from the book here and here.


Padgett-Powell-author-photo-credit-Gately-WIlliams1Padgett Powell has taught writing at the University of Florida since 1984. He has published six novels and two collections of short stories. His debut novel, Edisto (1984), was nominated for the American Book Award . His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Paris Review, Grand Street, Esquire, The New York Times Book Review and Magazine among others. Powell has won the Prix de Rome, the Whiting Writers Award, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the UK’s oldest literary prize.




[1] ‘An Improbable Business: PW Talks with Padgett Powell’, Publishers Weekly, 20 April 2012

[2] John L. Kundert-Gibbs, No-thing is Left to Tell: Zen/Chaos Theory in the Dramatic Art of Samuel Beckett, p.80

[3] Quoted in ‘Padgett Powell, author of You & I – interview, The List, 18 October 2011

[4] Interview with Brian J. Barr in The Believer, September 2006

[5] ‘Padgett Powell by Royal Young’, Interview Magazine

[6] ‘Southern Discomfort’, The New York Times, 16 October 2009

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Wall


The crows have risen, and circle screeching over the forest. When they are out of sight I shall go to the clearing and feed the white crow. It will already be waiting for me. – Marlen Haushofer, The Wall

I read this book shortly after watching the first season of the television adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome and it’s impossible not to compare the two although really the only thing they have in common is that an invisible and seemingly impenetrable barrier mysteriously appears one day imprisoning (or protecting, depending on your point of view) those within. In King’s case it’s the town of Chester’s Mill in Maine; in Haushofer’s it’s a number of chalets and hunting lodges in a corner of the Salzkammergut in Upper Austria. The dimensions of King’s dome are assessed quickly enough but the woman who narrates The Wall never learns the exact size or shape of whatever it is that’s surrounding her. Because of where she’s located it’s not impossible that there are others somewhere in the mountains but pretty soon she starts to realise that the likelihood of anyone else having been trapped inside the wall is virtually nil and she, in very practical fashion, gets down to the day-to-day business of survival. The idea of rescue is also a possibility but she doesn’t rest on her laurels or allow herself time to feel sorry for herself (or mourn the death of her family); she assumes it’s going to take a long time if, indeed, anyone does come.

On the surface then her story is not so dissimilar a story to Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away; she has to work with what she’s got. Luckily her cousin's husband, Hugo—whose hunting lodge she’s been staying in—had been a bit of a hoarder and a hypochondriac so she has an excess of some very helpful things like medicines but there are also perishables she’s going to run out of quickly like food. Her luckiest find is a cow, which she names Bella, but there are pros and cons of having a cow and the main problem is the milking which has to be done daily and so restricts how far she can travel. This is partially why she never manages to map the wall but this isn’t something that really seems to bother her.

Film_poster_for_The_Wall_(2012_film)If I had one problem with the book (although, of course, my problem is with the character of the book’s narrator) it’s how little time she spends investigating the wall. One of the questions posed very early on in Under the Dome was whether rain would be able to penetrate the dome but the woman never wonders about how high the wall might be and, indeed, when the rains come I got no sense of relief. Let’s face it, it might’ve been eight feet tall and she could’ve clambered over it. I’m being facetious when I say that but, in the book at least, she does give in to being trapped a little too readily. In the film adaptation (which I watched the day after finishing the book) there are more encounters with the wall, including crashing a Mercedes Benz into it (which wasn’t in the novel but gave the special effects guys something to do), but even there I couldn’t stop myself thinking that a part of her was relieved to be trapped, that she wasn’t so much trapped as freed from a life she really wasn’t revelling in much. She does talk about her life before but she doesn’t pine after it. Significantly she never reveals the names of her husband or children.

She does talk about trying to dig under the wall at some future time. In fact she talks about digging a tunnel under it big enough to allow large animals to escape. Why she doesn’t try sooner is that she realises she’s protected within the wall. Outside the only person she can see is a man frozen; death must’ve come very quickly indeed. There are no birds, except dead ones on the ground, and no animals and no signs of human life for as far as she can see through her binoculars. Whether the danger has passed she can’t be certain. (Again I had to wonder about the birds within the wall and why they didn’t fly over it and why she didn’t wonder why they didn’t fly over it.)

We do know she survives two and a half years. Because of a tragedy (the deaths of her bull—it turned out the cow was pregnant—and Hugo’s dog, a Bavarian bloodhound called Lynx) at this point in time she sits down to write a report, not that she expects anyone to ever read it, but everything in the book is leading up to these losses which she’s struggling to come to terms with. Not that these are the only deaths in the book—she loses two cats along the way—and we know these deaths are coming because she talks about them in the past tense even though in her narrative they’re still future. She has enough matches to last another couple of years, her crops have been more of a success than she could’ve hoped, the deer are plentiful and there are fish in the stream (although how the water penetrates the wall is another unexplored puzzle): her life may not be an easy one (and in this respect the film brought home to me just how hard some of the things she was describing must have been without the aid of machinery) and she’s far from happy but she does note that, for the first time in her life, she is calm.

The book is keen in its blurb to suggest that multiple readings of The Wall are possible and an obvious bandwagon to jump on is the feminist one but really this is no feminist manifesto. It may well be a world without men but it’s also a world without other women. Although, of course, there is a male in the book, Lynx the dog, who is the woman’s support, protector and becomes, in her words, her “best friend”. Sure there’s no sex involved and I’m stretching a point but quite often I see points stretched in order to provide feminist readings of books that are just books. I’m not a feminist but then neither am I a masculinist; there’s both room (and a need) for both sexes so I guess that makes me a humanist (without the capital h) although I’ve never really thought about it until now. Who reads Robinson Crusoe as a masculinist novel just because there’re no women in it? It could be said that one of the things that drives the woman to keep surviving is the mother in her who refuses to leave her animals, the cow especially, to their own devices but as a man with pets to care for I don’t see that as an especially feminine perspective. It’s in our DNA to take care of things. And I think this desire is amplified when we’re isolated—look at the Birdman of Alcatraz, for example.

One review said she didn’t think men would like this book. And Doris Lessing wrote:

It is not often that you can say only a woman could have written this book, but women in particular will understand the heroine’s loving devotion to the details of making and keeping life, every day felt as a victory.

I’m not sure I agree with either of them.

Of course this is also, strictly speaking, a work of speculative fiction and there are loads of last-man-on-earth-who-turns-out-not-be-the-last-man-on-earth stories to pick from although I can think of a few where we only have a cast of one. Not so many lThe Quier Earthast-woman-on-earth stories whether or not she proves to be the only person. In that respect this book is exceptional but the problems she faces aren’t unique to women. She mostly, for example, enjoys the solitude but still gets lonely from time to time, especially after the death of the dog, and I suspect it’s that overbearing loneliness that has driven her to write, to talk to an anonymous future reader. As post-apocalyptic tales go this is no The Road although like The Road we are kept in complete ignorance about what’s happened or who’s to blame. In that respect the book also reminded me a little of The Quiet Earth which investigates what happens after an attempt to establish a worldwide electrical grid leads to the mysterious disappearance of most of the earth's population; it’s also a bloodless, silent apocalypse.

Human beings had played their own games, and in almost every case they had ended badly. And how could I complain? I was one of them and couldn’t judge them, because I understood them so well. […] The great game of the sun, moon and stars seemed to be working out, and that hadn’t been invented by humans. But it wasn’t completed yet, and might bear the seeds of failure within it. I was only an attentive and enchanted onlooker; my whole life would be too short to grasp even the tiniest stage of the game. I’d spent most of my life struggling with daily human concerns. Now that I had barely anything left, I could sit in peace on the bench and watch the stars dancing against the black firmament.

As for the book being “a philosophical parable of human isolation” that it is, too. I’m always wary of words like ‘parable’ because they have a tendency to reduce people to cardboard cut-outs and there are moments in this book when, and this isn’t helped by the fact we never know her name, we find ourselves thinking of the narrator as simply ‘the woman’ and not a person with wants and desires and perhaps this is partly because she is reduced to an automaton going through the motions necessary to maintain her world and keep herself and her animals alive. She gets depressed, naturally. She gets sick. She contemplates—although not very seriously—ending her life. What she doesn’t seem to do is grieve. Clearly she hasn’t left much of a life behind her. What she finds herself missing are practical things, things that would make her work easier—in the novel she doesn’t have keys to the car for example—and treats like sugar and even bread although it’s hard to imagine thinking of bread as a treat but then I’ve never had to live without it. She doesn’t miss a man and by that I mean she doesn’t miss sex; the subject is never broached and I very much doubt this is due to any special sensitivity on the author’s behalf looking at her other work. Had the woman been older I might not struggle with that but she’s only in her forties. There is something a little old-fashioned about her though, the way she talks about the animals when they’re in season:

From all I’ve seen, being in love can’t be a pleasant state for an animal. They can’t know, after all, that it’s a temporary thing; as far as they’re concerned every moment is as eternity. Bella’s gloomy calls, the laments of the old cat and Tiger’s despair, nowhere a trace of happiness. And afterwards exhaustion, dull coats and cadaverous sleep.

(It’s interesting that I’ve just read The Millstone which was written about the same time, another novel that gets labelled ‘feminist’ and which really isn’t, and which also focuses on an essentially sexless woman.)

In a very literal sense this is a utopian novel. Bear in mind that the literal translation of utopia is “no place”; the real world is outside the wall. Inside is populated by innocents. Death is only a part of the natural order here as a result of old age, ill health, accident or a predator and what one needs to bear in mind about predatory behaviour is that it’s not bad or evil. The only living creature within the wall capable of moral judgement is the interloper, the woman. The rest are governed by the instinct to survive. And even she finds the temptation to abandon civilised behaviour (hard not to think of Lord of the Flies here) not entirely unattractive. Utopian fiction is also escapist fiction. Odd then that so much dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction is being churned out at the moment when the escapist culture of the American Depression revolved around finding inexpensive forms of entertainment that diverted attention from life's hardships. I suppose all we can glean from what’s coming out at the moment is: Things could be worse. Haushofer’s novel is no Herland, however. It is also not a dream from which she can expect to wake up any day now.

In my dreams I bring children into the world, and they aren’t only human children; there are cats among them, dogs, calves, bears and quite peculiar furry creatures. But they emerge from me, and there is nothing about them that could frighten or repel me.

The Year of the HareWe can read the novel, too, as an anti-rat-race novel like The Year of the Hare but the difference there is that Vatanen voluntarily—albeit on the spur of the moment—chooses to walk out of his old life and opt for a simpler way of doing things. So, no, the woman didn’t opt to abandon her family but when the opportunity arose she didn’t object much either: Oh there’s an invisible wall. What a shame. I’ll just have to make a new life for myself here. Luckily, unlike me (I’d last about a month and a half on my own), she’s a practical sort. Some of the books she comes across are helpful but it’s not as if she has access to the Internet and can just look up how to get a calf out of a cow when it’s stuck.

You could even read the novel allegorically if you so choose. The woman is a writer. She was a housewife, as was Haushofer and as are many women novelists. Haushofer complained about lacking space to write and so here she provides her proxy with Woolf’s “room of one’s own” and an imaginary world to explore, one protected from all outside influences by a glass wall, the book’s working title. How many writers, too, slog away day after day working on books that no one will ever read?

Of course the book could simply be about what it’s like to be an outcast. Why else would the woman feel such empathy for the white crow ostracised by the rest of the flock?

On the whole this isn’t an exciting book, indeed it can actually be a bit boring at times, but then the woman’s life is boring. There is only one surprise near the end. We know her bull and dog die and she hints that they’re killed but we don’t learn the details until the moment’s right on us and it all happens so quickly that within a page or two it’s over. It does, however, change her life because she does mourn the loss of her dog and even imagines his ghost tagging along with her:

At times now, when I walk alone in the wintery forest, I talk to Lynx as I did before. I have no idea I’m doing it until something startles me and I fall silent. I turn my head and catch the gleam of a reddish-brown coat. But the path is empty: bare bushes and wet stones. I’m not surprised that I still hear the dry branches cracking under the light tread of his feet. Where else would this little dog’s soul go haunting, if not on my trail? He’s a friendly ghost, and I’m not afraid of him. Lynx, beautiful, good dog, my dog…

The unanswered question concerning the death of her animals reflects the book’s bigger question, also unanswered, regarding the fate of humanity: Why? She—we—will never know. It’s tempting to think a man pressed the proverbial button and maybe one did. Or maybe it was a woman. Now that would raise some interesting questions.

I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the film adaptation, too, and, as always, was puzzled by what was left out (although little was changed to give the screenwriter his due). Why the frozen old man needed a frozen old wife I have no idea; it didn’t hurt but I did expect them to revisit the scene as happens in the book, but maybe they blew the special effects budget on the car crash. As films of books go it’s definitely one of the better ones—it took three years to complete—and what was especially nice for non-German speakers is that Martina Gedeck (who at times looked disconcertingly like a dishevelled and slightly-older Davina McCall) redid her voiceover in English for the DVD so no subtitles if you don’t want them. Actual dialogue within the film is virtually non-existent. I would recommend both and I definitely felt the film enhanced my reading of the novel. You can read a considered review of the film here.

What is particularly impressive about the book is how it hasn’t dated. It could’ve been written last week. How you read the book is entirely up to you. There’s no right way although if you approach it with an agenda you’ll likely be disappointed but that’s the case with most things.


Marlen HaushoferMarlen Haushofer was born in Frauenstein in Austria in 1920. She studied German in Vienna and Graz, subsequently settling in Steyr. In 1941 she married Manfred Haushofer, a dentist. She later divorced then remarried her husband, and had two sons. Haushofer published her first novel, A Handful of Life, in 1955. In 1958, We Murder Stella was published. The Wall came out in 1963, and The Loft, her final novel, appeared in 1969. Haushofer received the Grand Austrian State Prize for literature in 1968. She died of cancer in Vienna in 1970.



Laura Kapelari, Feminist Utopia and Dystopia: Marlen Haushofer’s Die Wand

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