Sunday, December 24, 2017

Apathic, and Not

Katie Kitamura, A Separation

Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language

Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power

I realize that it is banal to think such a thing, but those indelible lines from Yeats's "The Second Coming" have been bouncing around my brain all week, in particular the line about the best lacking all conviction (and the worst, well, you know how it goes). As I say, not an original thought, but the great insight that flows through much of the poetry of Yeats is that more often than not courage isn't equal to desire, and that the age in which we live (the one in which he lived), prefers conformity to conviction. What was once thought of as honesty and plain speaking is now the worse form of gaucherie; what was known (long ago) as having convictions or being passionate is now seen as stridency. My circle of the world is diminutive, and I have no doubt these generalizations are faulty, but the evidence that something has given way, that a consensus has been achieved among liberal persons that moral neutrality spares one the sorts of collisions that we now prefer to avoid.  Many of the brightest people I know are cynical or apathetic. Even irony feels like a commitment to a point of view. And, the truth is, with the current regime in power, we've moved past satire and irony, into a darker realm. Perhaps the Second Coming is at hand--not the Gnostic ascent into higher wisdom of which Yeats dreamed, but an epiphany more akin to Dante's--to the Circles of Fraud, Duplicity, and Violence.  Or perhaps we must go about numbed, our feelings shot through with Novocaine.

 Katie Kitamura's strange, disaffecting little tale of a marriage on the rocks, while domestic to the point of claustrophobia, embodies this ἀπάθεια--in Greek "without passion," a Stoic notion, and a positive characteristic for those yearning to rise above the tribulations of this world. Apathy has come to describe slackers, burn-outs, compulsive gamers, the apolitical and the narcissistic.  But Ms. Kitamura does something far more interesting in her novel than merely describe (yet another!) thirty-something, educated white woman who has been burned in love and is in danger of self-immolation. (To be fair, there are plenty of educated white males in the same boat). 

The unnamed narrator receives a phone call from her mother-in-law, a preemptive demand that the (presumed) wife travel to Greece, to the tiny fishing village of Gerolimenas, to find her husband who has been uncharacteristically out of touch. What Isabella, the mother-in-law, doesn't know is that the narrator and her son have been separated for six months; there's no reason for the wife to seek out her philanderer of a husband, and yet she agrees, travels to Greece, and begins a half-hearted search for clues as to her husband's whereabouts.  

There were plenty of echoes of Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky in A Separation--cynics abroad, the anti-Jamesian view of no-longer-innocent Americans mucking about the poorer precincts of the globe--the Greek landscape has been decimated by fires; everything is covered in gray-black ash, and the Greeks themselves, though formally hospitable, appear to the narrator to radiate a kind of menace, as if they knew something about Christopher's disappearance that they weren't disclosing. In fact, one of the female members of the hotel staff has had a fling with Christopher, at least she claims that she has done so, though in this and in much else we are left in the dark.  So much ambiguity surrounds the story that one isn't certain if there is any truth to be found, or if the narrator's mission isn't merely to confirm her own ambivalence. All we know for certain is that days pass in a desultory pursuit of a missing husband about whom we know practically nothing (he is found, spoiler alert, but I will withhold the details).

Kitamura's flat, uninflected style reminded me of an essay I read recently by James Wood on Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  McCarthy's novel is, of course, much, much darker than Kitamura's, but in I think The Road and A Separation share certain stylistic traits: Wood writes: "Minimalism can be very good for the life of fiction: description, thrown back onto its essentials, flourishes as it justifies its own existence. Worlds are returned to their original function as names." Like McCarthy, Kitamura's prose is stripped to the bone. She runs her narrator's ruminative sentences together, but the descriptive language is anything but lyrical--clinical is more like it, strangely precise yet resolutely ambiguous. 

The narrator of Kitamura's strange tale--a novel without a hero, a story without a plot--observes the world as if through the lens of a camera, with both sincerity and detachment. Here's Kitamura's narrator as voyeur, telling us her impressions of the (presumed) meaning of an interaction between a Greek cab driver and the hotel concierge who may or may not have been Christopher's lover: 

"The contempt [the concierge] felt for the [Stefano, the cab driver] man who held her in his arms! And yet there were plenty of women who would have been only too delighted to love the driver, he was handsome and not without charm, and evidently he was capable of loyalty. There was of course the problem of his temper, but women could be surprisingly accommodating, as well as optimistic, one could live in the hope that his anger would subside, especially once he was loved in return, it was not impossible. Yes, it would have been better if she let him go--if she told him that she would never loved him, that they had no future together."

Such a strange passage! The galloping parataxis, the presumptions ("evidently," "there were plenty of women," "it would have been better"). Naturally one assumes that the narrator wants the cab driver for herself, but there's little more than innuendo to support this supposition. What is striking is that Kitamura maintains this curious judgemental detachment throughout the novel. That her husband has cheated on her, that her mother-in-law demands that she travel to Greece to search for Christopher, that the concierge boasts of sleeping with her husband, that there is something both attractive and frightening about the cab driver--none of these facts do more than pique the narrator's curiosity and her penchant for what can only be called philosophical analysis: 

"She spoke with enthusiasm, nonetheless I was aware that her words did not make much sense, these things that were not true and about which I did not know (how could I have known about them, if they were not true, what there have been to know about? Or did she only mean that I did not have the same false suspicions, had not heard the false rumors?)

Such a remarkable passage.  Direct discourse punctuated with parenthetical clarifications; the aside, worthy of J. L. Austin, that one can't know anything about something that isn't true; the almost wistful "or did she only mean," regretful of a lost chance for clarity now that Maria is no longer available for questioning? I image that if Wittgenstein had read novels he'd have enjoyed A Separation.

Most of all, I was left with the impression that what Kitamura had achieved was the perfect novel of apathy--not of indifference or disengagement, but of detached and philosophical observation (perhaps the Greek setting evokes such stoicism).  Many sentences begin with conditionals--"I suppose," "perhaps," "and yet," "on the other hand," "at the same time." Most of the direct discourse is offered as a preliminary to understanding, propositions that may later be falsified, tentative conclusions awaiting further evidence: "...Perhaps all deaths were unjust, but some were more so...." and then "No, it was almost certainly as it had appeared" and the ending which drops a dark curtain of ambiguity over the entire novel: "I could only say that I was sorry, and that I agreed--although what we were waiting for, what exactly it was, neither of us could say." 


The feud between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates has caught me up short since I am an admirer of both men, and, in ordinary times, I would have thought them to be natural allies. I must admit that I was disappointed when I read We Were Eight Years in Power for Coates has overlooked all of the less savory aspects of the Obama presidency--the drone wars, the unfulfilled promises (to close Guantanamo for example), the alliance with Wall Street that has allowed the perpetration of the conditions that brought down the world economy under Bush/Cheney. There is no doubt that Obama's election was a significant event, a moment that should have made all Americans proud. But an honest accounting of Obama's achievements must move beyond symbolism to governing.  Cornel West, never one to tread lightly, savaged Coates in an article published in the Guardian, accusing Coates of being a neoliberal (not a good thing to be these days), of betraying the struggle for social justice, and other crimes. While Coates leaves out too much, West probably goes too far--there's no clear middle ground in their debate; perhaps this reflects the overall erosion of constructive political discourse. Still, it pains me to see these two men so at odds when what is needed now are strong agreements and a way forward.


On a lighter note, I've just finished Laurent Binet's The Seventh Function of Language, an utterly engaging quasi-detective novel set in the hothouse of French intellectual history circa 1980.  The plot revolves around the investigation of the infamous laundry truck accident that eventually killed Roland Barthes. A hapless assistant professor, Simon Herzog and a humorless French police investigator, Jacques Bayard, interview such intellectual luminaries as Michel Foucault (in a bathhouse), Julia Kristeva, Bernard-Henri Levy, Gilles Deleuze, and a dozen other famous and notorious figures. Binet's heady mix of intellectual history, detective-mystery tropes (parsing obscure clues, Bayard can't refrain from mocking the pointlessness of academic culture; I kept thinking of Jim Rockford and Columbo). Yes, there are games galore, word-play and oodles of literary references--from Saul Bellow to William Empson.  Binet's is the best kind of literary entertainment--witty and provocative.  A wonderful end-of-the-year read for any talented reader. 

Happy Holidays and Good Reading in the New Year.

George Ovitt (Christmas Eve, 2017)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Indian Macabre

In the southern Indian city of Bangalore where this short novel is set, the nonsense expression ghachar ghochar translates roughly—in the private parlance of one particular family—as “tangled beyond repair”. The fact that Bangalore is the setting of this novel about the trials and vicissitudes of contemporary middle class Indian life is anything but arbitrary. As India’s second fastest-growing metropolis, Bangalore, once known primarily as the Garden City of India, is now known internationally as the Silicon Valley of India, home to IT companies like Infosys and Wipro, as well as to such varied multinational corporations as Bosch, Boeing, GM, Google, Microsoft, and Mercedes-Benz. What this has meant for the local population is a new, greater, often violently disorienting social mobility, so that virtually overnight literally thousands of Indians have moved from lives of grim subsistence to ones of solidly middle class conventions, fears, and dreams.  

Ghachar Ghochar is the story of just such a family, in this case a poor family made suddenly prosperous by the profits of a spice company they founded. Not surprisingly the members are not entirely at ease in this new role of theirs, wrestling daily with the many challenges and responsibilities that accompany this radical change of fortune. Told in a spare, restrained, often finely distilled prose, a cleanly wry style reminiscent of R.K. Narayan, the novel, this parody really, is first and foremost that of the unnamed narrator, the son in the family, who surveys the swiftly unraveling scene around him with a cool, sardonic eye. Perhaps only at the very end does one of his eyelids twitch! Best read in a single day. Enjoy.

Ghachar Ghochar was translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur.

Peter Adam Nash