Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart is a novel of loss and cultural contact. It tells the story of a west African village community some time around the turn of the last century, from the point of view of its prominent citizen, at an especially transitional time. The plot moves from the drama of local life to the drama of its disruption by British colonials and missionaries (evidently penetrating further up the Niger than the slave trade did). It's told from the African perspective in the vehicle of an English-language novel, which is an interesting contrast on its face. If it works as a window on traditions that are unfamiliar to most English speakers, that hardly seems to have been the intent. I don't believe for a second that it was written with the edification of the colonialist culture in mind, and Achebe's defense of writing in English includes his schooling and habits, and the fact that the native Igbo written form was drained of its lyricism when the Brits went and standardized it. The author himself grew up among the Igbo communities in Nigeria, but as a recognizably bright kid, quickly found himself moved into the European educational system. The novel could be a chronicle of his parents' or grandparents' generation.

It is a short, compact book. And while it's recognizable as a "novel," the happenings of the plot move on without a overburdening heap of western literary tradition. There's not much in the way of foreshadowing, for example, and no quasi-scientific psychological churnings, but the actions make sense both in the context of the setting, as well as in a broader human one. You can get a sense of an African storytelling tradition in there (or at least to the extent I've been exposed to it--this amounts to some folktales I read in grade school and since, and some writers who were enchanted by them), and the early characterization runs short and sweet like that, introducing the outlines of the characters, and then filling up the narrative with story elements that illustrate their traits. In that sense, the people often feel like archetypes, but if they are, they are not simple ones, and there is not a lack of depth to them. It is just revealed simply, which is a powerful thing to pull off.

The story is told in two broad parts. The first is the rise and fall of Okonkwo, the protagonist, within his own community. Okonkwo is a fairly complicated man with any number of uneasy conflicts at his core (that could certainly offer plenty of material for agonizing psychoanalysis were this a different kind of book). The product of a difficult childhood, he rebels by becoming ten times the man that he felt his father was, which brings him relentlessly close to tradition, and perpetually on the verge of violence. His anger, his work ethic, and his discipline conflict with his actual affections, and if he makes some progress toward reconciliation, it takes an arbitrary loss to bring him down the first time. I'd describe the first half of the novel as a tale about the costs of ambition and the fragility of success.

Against a cultural invasion that has grown in momentum (and force) during his exile, however, Okonkwo finds he is much less well prepared. Missing some expected literary tells, I didn't quite predict the dramatic arc, making the climax that much more unexpected, even as, looking back (starting with the title, so maybe there's one cue, duh), it seems inevitable. But until Okonkwo meets the new authorities, the culture shock is delivered in the second half of the book in small, relentless sparks. I was reminded suddenly at the end that Achebe had been gauging the story for its moral impact as well, and it hit me like a hammer.

The sometimes fable-like quality of the telling lends to that feeling of universality. Transporting the reader to a less modern setting seems like it can be a perilous exercise, one that can lurch into spectacle, judgement, piety, or insincerity, but Achebe avoids all this. Tribal life is different from mine, but it's given matter-of-factly, on its own terms, with obvious room for joy, loss, failure, decency, deceit, frustration, respect, and so on: all the range of human drama that we will find anywhere. The author doesn't really romanticize the culture left behind (there is surely sadness and fondness in the memory, but it's implicit) or brought in (there are good and bad missionaries too, also trending toward archetype), and although the mind and motives of the African characters is accessible, they don't betray modern thinking at moments convenient to the plot (like you might get in any number of mediocre speculative fiction novels).

If it seems a little sacrilegious to compare it to sf, please bear with me: it is the genre with which I usually associate stories of first contact and (you might blame Tolkien for this one) decline of an older, more firmly rooted culture. It's full of writers that try very hard to represent the subversion of different societies, with wildly mixed results. It's enough to get a sense for just how bloody hard it is to develop an understanding that is both accessible to a wide audience and which comes off as authentic. I found myself brewing up similar comments for this review, for example, as I did about Mission Child, also impressed at the skill it took to present an intimate portrait from the point of view of the invaded, but someone like McHugh has exceptional works like this one in her canon to draw from. Achebe's not inventing the world he writes about, and is instead portraying directly his own experiences of two cultures, living in one, and remembering the other with humanity and regret.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Down With Disease

I want to defend--in a completely irrelevant context, pointlessly after the fact, and to a totally different audience--something I said recently. After a little nudge in this direction, I've been trying over the past few months to expand my musical horizons a little (comically, maybe, at my age), and I've been asking around here and there. I have been soliciting, more than usual, stuff that will feed a taste that I usually describe to people as "upbeat, but pissed off." Mysteriously, I caught mytself putting a Phish song in that category, and although it's a ludicrous description on its face, I think I must stand by it.

For the minimal effort of keeping my conversations separate-ish and my blog posts less redundant, I am not going to back up here too much. Suffice to say that one of the great things about music is its ability to play off of expectations, to establish them by virtue of tradition, even-numbered tempos, or harmonics, and then to delay or reward that expectation at will. That it's so effective is still pretty much magic to me (in other news, goddamn you talented people anyway), much as I like to pretend to puzzle it out* (boring whoever will listen). And when it comes together it's indelible. I've needed other moods served too, but my favorite is still something that takes frustrated energy and gives it any kind of positive conduit. And if it gets me to sing along or run in double-time, then it's very special indeed. The blues is the legendary embodiment of this kind of thing, except that in my preference, I'm not so much about channeling misery into a perverted joy. Or maybe it's better to call it a different kind of misery that I need to channel, something that's keyed in the middle ground between defiance and defeat, a little closer to the brand that I am forced to live in, or that I create prodigiously my own damn self.

There are about three or four Phish songs on my forever playlist that evolved only slowly since the Napster days. If Down With Disease** had an ancient cameo on this-here blog once, that's because my eternal rotation only contains forty-two tunes. I can't help it. I fall into music like friendship, and I have a difficult time with casual acquaintance.

Me and Phish never did quite became BFFs (er, BPhPhs), but I've always gotten along with them well enough. They are a band that defies my rule of thumb that good recording artists tend to be terrible live ones, but then I understand that their live shows, with their lengthy and tight jams, really eclipse the experience of popping in a CD and getting caught up wondering if the lyrics mean anything at all. And I'll get to find that out for myself next month. My brother has supplied me with about 4,032 continuous hours of concert bootlegs in preparation, and hopefully by the time the damn hippies get to Worcester, I'll be properly brainwashed. (My hair is still long, so at least there's that.) They do sound great live, and I'm looking forward to the show. Upbeat? Sure, it's delightful. But I've never heard anything less pissed off in my life. Phish, of all bands, has none of this negativity going on. They find a groove, and just stay happily there, making it look effortless. I think they've been in the same one for almost 30 years. It's like if the Grateful Dead were happier, and did funky jazz.

But I can find something in Down With Disease. It's a little pissed off. It's explicitly about being pulled off your game (by these demons in your head), about being held down when you want to move on. It ain't deep by any means, and Wikipedia tells me that it was, just like it sounds, the writer's (and non-band-member Tom Marshall's) ode to the joys of mononucleosis. The fact that it's performed with those zippy riffs and silly chants makes for an odd juxtaposition, but here, it doesn't amount to nonsense. It captures the giddiness of being feverish in an entertaining way.

But if you want to map it to deeper frustrations you can, and by a fingernail, that's what grabbed me. There's a fuck-you solidly embedded in the joyous sentiment, looking forward to a perfunctory goodbye. It's delivered with an open smile, mind you, and the smile's as sincere as the irritation is temporary. But somewhere in this unlikely song too, in that weird dichotomy, is a secret that I can only find those rare times when I'm actually on my game: how to channel that churning internal conflict into a positive life-affirming force. How, in a strange way, they're both the same thing. I do my best to write that way, or write about that kind of subject, and do a lot less well to live it, but at the end of the day, it's still alchemy to me, and I struggle to even spot the thousand barefoot children that I know are out there.

*Been at it for some time, speaking, as I was, of my own underwritten schtick. The CD I was listening to with my daughter when she was nine, by the way, was The Cult's Sonic Temple, which is still awesome. And yes, I did manage to warp her. We used to groove to this Phish song too.

**Evidently the only video they ever made, for painfully obvious reasons. Back in 1994, they forced you to.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon

Manhood for Amateurs is a collection of essays on fatherhood and masculinity from Michael Chabon. I'd come across it originally when August (he among the quiet friends) had quoted some select bits, and years later, I had the presence of mind to snatch it up from the bargain bin when I saw it there. It wasn't, as things turned out, the ideal time for me to read this book, although it's not because it failed speak to me easily. It did. It was great in its way. In fact, Chabon's humor is familiar, his self-effacement is similarly backhanded, and his values, while not quite identical, readily map to mine. I've gone so far as to write, not only on the same themes, but on some of the very same subjects as he does in this collection (Legos, for just one instance). Nope, my mild peckishness comes from a couple places: (1) Chabon's a zillion times a better writer than I am, and it's not a whole lot of fun reading a worlds-better version of your own schtick, which, I'll add, in Mike's case has also got him gainfully employed and all kinds of attention; and (2) I've been turning the corner a bit too often lately from ironic bemusement into a fairly devastating self-analysis.

I'll dwell on the second point a bit longer. Chabon often finds himself comically awkward and ineffectual, but let's not pretend he's not also charmed by this, that he doesn't likewise expect others to find it charming. He's managed to forgive his own faults, for the most part, or at least make peace with them, and he is generally a whole lot more sensitive to his younger self than I've been lately to mine. In one essay, he describes the failure of his first marriage, in the context of discovering the not-very-deep limits to his misery. Even his bitterness, as he tells it, comes with a certain ironic detachment. In one of the opening bits, he goes on about the low expectations and over-praising that fathers who pay minimal attention to their children tend to receive, and okay, it's a good bit, and true. It goes on to suck up, however, just a little bit, to the women who deal with these things as stoically as society expects them to, and while that doesn't seem so out of place in that essay, by that point, somewhere in there, I'm noticing that his family is successful and wealthy, his (current) marriage preternaturally respectful and sustaining, that he lives in an absurdly supportive liberal community (Berkeley CA), and the burdens placed historically on women aren't much shared by any of the group. Somewhere in there, and throughout the book, is the acceptance of male and female roles as they currently are. It's an unsettled and questioning acceptance to be sure, and it's happy how far they've evolved from his parents' day, but there you are.

Or maybe I can define this by contrast, citing an essay that really worked for me. A later one reveals his younger self as enamored with the role of a Henry James style affable cad, and how, while working with capable women, he was forced to identify and outgrow, with some chagrin, that brand of misogynistic little-shitness. We men often start out with all kinds of affirmation of that little-shit behavior, he observes, and indeed it's a bizarre sort of tragedy that learning how completely unwarranted it is, remains an optional exercise. That thought seemed to come from a more sincere place than remembering everything that dear old Mom went through. Or again, maybe it's just a reflection of where I'm at these days.

I wasn't in a mood to read a cautious celebration of nuclear fatherhood either (I don't feel like a failure at it, but I'm royally sick of the all the sitcom conventions that pervade our conceptions of the job) but lots of these thoughts got right to me. One of his early essays managed to win me by the second sentence: "Almost every day, at least one of my four children comes home with art... And almost every bit of it ends up in the trash." It seems to me that faking our way through fatherhood, uncomfortable with our own authority, is a nobler and more selfless struggle than trying to figure out girls, and I'm glad that Chabon is uncomfortable with the romance of it too. Here, his slightly childlike enjoyment of relationships and culture shines more brightly, and fits into place more snugly. With kids, a mild and jokey push against authority is just the level you want. (And I did think a lot of my own father while reading these sections).

And Chabon is funny in a comfortably self-mocking way. That goes on here in spades. He's got a sense of the bittersweet that I can't help but share. Thematically, it offers a powerful message that we always muddle by in an odd juxtaposition of youth and age, men and women, past and present, expectations and reality, memory and hope. It's never a wholly bad exercise to get yourself caught up in the heartbreaking beauty of now.