Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: The Forest, by Edward Rutherfurd

If nothing else, I want this to be a testament that I do, in fact, every once in a while, remember things and eventually get around to them. The Forest was a reading recommendation back four or five years ago, in a context I've forgotten, from one of the (unintentionally neglected) quiet friends, and it's one of those which has been hanging onto the back end of the list since that time. I do so appreciate reading suggestions, and a belated thanks for it.

England's New Forest is a patch of woods and towns on the southern shore of the island opposite the Isle of Wight, a boggy and largely open woodland falling off the southeastern edge of the Salisbury plain to the sea. The people living there today, picking up on Rutherfurd's subtext, exist in a kind of cheerful state of anachronism, protective of the natural beauty and remaining medieval spirit of the area, and just maybe laying it on a little extra for the tourists. In the novel, Rutherfurd traces that old spirit forward in a series of set stories, placed every couple hundred years starting shortly after the Norman invasion, following generations of a handful of families, and weaving their lives into historical events that took place in the area.

The New Forest itself was surprisingly hard for me to wrap my mind around. It's small for one thing, about 15 miles across it's longest diagonal, hardly a nip out of north central Massachusetts where I live, which has a similar density of people and trees, and smaller than the couple of national forests you'll find in New England. And Rutherfurd, really oddly to my mind, doesn't describe it as very forest-like. It's strange to me that he focuses most of his descriptive energy on the open spaces in the woods--the heaths and plains--sometimes on individual trees, sometimes on houses and towns and shores, but for a novel that's titled The Forest, I hardly ever get the feeling of being in the woods. I kind of expected the setting to be pulled up to the level a ubiquitous extra character, and I expected to encounter some lyricism in the description. As a dork who's devoured some quantity of fantasy, I've read a pretty good number of writers who really try to evoke this kind of primeval magic (it's exactly what they ever do well), and it's as if Rutherfurd doesn't know he's competing against them (aaand iiiit's... Tolkien! with yards to spare).

Instead it's character and plot that tend to sustain the thing. Family characteristics are preserved, but varied, across the years, and the substories are novella-length almost entirely self-contained. They are not especially deep and thoughtful stories, but he has a good ear for the sometimes everyday drama of human affairs--love, death, friendship, family--which, when they are put up against the bigger historical drama (the killing of William Rufus (son of the Conqueror), and especially the trial of Alice Lisle at the time of the Restoration) adds compelling dimension to these events. There are a couple of tokens that pass through the storylines, but it's not extensive, and it's unfortunately not subtle. (In fact, Rutherfurd has a way of occasionally stepping without warning from a contemporary point of view into a sort of modern narrator voiceover, which doesn't officially stray into anachronism, but is nonetheless a little jarring until you get used to it. And I didn't need him, for example, to put his hand on my back and explicitly remind me who carved that letter A. It was his more touching plot, not so long back. I remembered it.) With the small plots and subplots, the repeating character types, it all comes off strangely like a well-written TV miniseries, and although it's 750 pages long, it reads quite fast.

There is theme of permanence in the novel. The families' status and success drifts over the centuries, but we are following, basically, archetypal gentry, commoners, functionaries, and other sorts, all of fairly ancient origins. A considerable amount of text is given over to how the administration of the forest operates, relatively autonomously, as a system of inherited and variously bargained resource rights. It seems a very English notion of environmental preservation, the way in which roles and rights are designated by class, and accepted by them, where each is of equal worth, but clearly different status. If there's a little breeding and occasional friction between castes, we are still unable to imagine the barely domesticated Puckles, the lowest commoners, doing the kind of job the Albions do. They're every one of them slaves to their heredity, and I personally find the idea pretty damn unsavory. If America is hindered by the tatters of its 17th century vestments too, questions of heredity and class form the running argument of our own imported culture, an embattled rebuke to the English style, but one which, like the notions of rebellious children, doesn't actually stray as far from that set of ideas. We clearly abandoned the attendant notions of land sustainability though, and maybe it takes centuries of habit to find a stable equilibrium between culture and environment.  Harder to come by when both the trees and the old families on these lands get razed to the ground every once in a while.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Maybe it's just because I've paid attention to a few of them by now, but it seems that each presidential campaign ushers in levels of intellectual dissociation unimaginable even in the last unholy go-round.  I don't expect the truth exactly, but I suppose there's a piece of me that anticipates something like honest rationalizations.  Or if I'm being scammed, then I expect at least enough effort on their part to willingly suspend disbelief and let me participate in the process.  Veracity is a tall order, in other words, but for god's sake, verisimilitude doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Some brands of doublespeak we're used to.  I mean, it's not as if the war machine has slowed down under Barack Obama's tenure, and if it's horrifying that we're all so inured to the serial bombing approach to foreign policy that the president can riff comfortable Newspeak ("riffing Newspeak" is an oxymoron, of course, but in 1984, Orwell didn't really predict the American style of saying nothing) before the Nobel Peace committee.  And anyway, it's not as though the trust was founded by the Swedish defense contractor who invented dynamite or anything--wait, it was?--well at least we can claim that there's a consistent equilibrium of irony when it comes to matters of death and war. 

I'm not intending to be centrist here.  There's a political party in this country that habitually speaks within the allowed contradictions (which is the definition of "conservative," but surprise, it's the other party), and then there are the sick fucks who want to take it all up--actually, take it back--to a more impoverished (intellectually and otherwise) level.  The former can be caught rationalizing for good intentions and consistency, but the other spews nothing but bullshit--the difference, as has been noted, is that with bullshit, the truth simply doesn't matter.  Nothing is believed by these guys.  You can pull apart the Romney campaign and try and piece together what the dude's convictions are, but, once you get past "wealth is good," the rest is merely expedient.  And even that is something he can't quite hold onto.  I mean, I don't fucking like politics, and yet some things crystallize with such bizarre bipolar clarity, it's impossible not to appreciate the absurd perfection of it.

I saw on the morning news the other day a regrettably earnest analysis of the claims made by a new group called Swiftboat Veterans for Truth  Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund Inc., accusing president Obama of not killing Public Enemy Number One all by himself, as he would totally prefer you to believe.  Here's a news source, but all I only saw clips of the video itself, which I won't link to.  It had an (alleged) Navy SEAL growling (with Batman-like menace), "the work that the American military has done killed Osama bin Laden. You did not."   "You did not kill Osama bin Laden.  America did."  I mean yeah, we can spot the hypocrisy of this by imagining how Deadeye George would have handled things if it happened on his watch, and lots of bloggers have done that by now, but even that falls short of the contradictory perfection of the charge.

Mr. Smith, folks, is championing the Labor Theory of Value.  It (a) proposes that the "producers" are the people who actually do the work, supposing that the worth of any object or service correlates directly to the amount and quality of labor, the efforts of the people that had their hands on the hammers, and (b) explicitly downplays (or at least coughs up apologies for) the role of deciders and funders in that estimation.  It struggles to justify, you know, capitalists--Karl Marx was all over this--and it undermines hiearchies, such as the military (not that history's commies had a tough time with that particular contradiction, however).  This video, meanwhile, features soldiers who are disowning their commander in chief, and supporting a presidential campaign that is headed by one guy who's an Ayn-Rand-loving capitalist true-believer, and another guy who's Mitt friggin' Romney.  You have to admire the churchbell-sized opppositeness of it all. 

I mean yeah, Mitt, let's run with this.  You didn't create all that wealth, it was the workers who did.  Maybe you should have paid them instead.  Holy fuck, do they have any idea what they're inciting?

One thing I like to observe from time to time is that even if you're sold on various market theories as accurate descriptions of economic dynamics, people still use social measurements to estimate the success of one strategy or another.  The selling point of unregulated capitalism is that it's supposed to make people live longer and happier lives, permit societies to reach greater heights of achievement, use resources most efficiently, and so forth.  These are the kinds of things that the military's alleged to protect as well.  And of course, by 2012, the body of evidence for the American model is a tad inconvenient for those beliefs, and it's down at this point to the integrity of the brand itself, the consistency of the argument.  That the modern Republican party of the last 30 or 40 years could embrace some form of populism was always a shade ironic, but outright pulling for labor over management is a new feat of disingenuousness.  Despite myself, I'm impressed.

UPDATE:  I guess there have been some problems with the captcha thingie in the comments.  I obviously have no control over how it works, and I've just turned it off for the time being.  It's kind of fortunate, because it gave me a chance to soften my crimes against scholarship and the English language in the above post!