Euphoria, Lily King (2014)

“You’d seen the pattern before?”
“No, A different leaf pattern each time. But I can’t find the pattern to the patterns.”
“Age, sex, social status, mode of death, shape of the moon, position of the stars, birth order, role in the family.”
“No, they keep telling  me there is no pattern.”
“Perhaps there isn’t.”03bfa7184443f261149b777472e2ff8e 2

Novelist Lily King brings us three dialoging anthropologists in the Papua New Guinea bush circa 1930s as they endeavor to both understand what they are observing and each other.

King’s fictional anthropologists, Nell Stone, Andrew Bankson, and Schuyler Fenwick  are stand-ins for the ethnographic trailblazers Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Reo Fortune. In life as in fiction these three are as interested in the people they come to know and “write up” as they are in finding their ways separatedited001ely and together in danger and in love.  The love triangle’s complexity, and uncertainty, is ench79ab2b9bbf012161192edc37f6604065anted further by the distant powerful presence of Helen Benjamin as Ruth Benedict. The three are treated to an early draft for field review of her masterwork theorizing of  “cultural relativism”:  Arc of Culture as Patterns of Culture. Mind, body, and soul are stirred for Nell as her attraction to the slightly older, slightly more favored, other women of Franz Boas as Father Franz Boas of Columbia University— the “cultural determinist”— shapes the flavor of her memories, and what she will come to write about “her people.”

“I asked her if she believed you could ever truly understand another culture. I told her the longer I stayed, the more asinine the attempt seemed, and that what I’d become more interested  in is how we believed we could be objective in any way at all, we who each came in with our personal definitions of kindness, strength, masculinity, femininity, God, civilization, right and wrong.”

As I read Euphoria and appreciated the overlapping genre innovations of King’s fiction, history, memoir, adventure, travel, geography, more..  jacket blurb offers so much on the “love story” that my bright teen daughter said “this is not a book for you!” “Well,” I said to her, “I think that the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty lurks in the pre-war pacific jungles of Lily King’s mind! That’s exciting right?”

Ethnography may not pay off but is worth the effort. So is writing novels.  Rorty can speak for himself.  We need narratives that are “persuasive about” not “demonstrative of” truths about society.  “Re-descriptions” not “inferences” and “vocabularies” not “propositions” are these “units of persuasion.” Rorty famously concludes in “Contingency, Irony, Solidarity” that “novels and ethnographies not philosophical and religious treatises are the intellectual route to moral progress.” Continue reading

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, Thomas Mallon (2015)

Engrossing page-turner novel of contemporary political fiction allowing vivid insight to the critical sequence of recent history that unfolded on the world stage mid way through Reagan’s second term: Reykjavik, Gorbachev, Star Wars, Iran, Contras, AIDS, mid term electio23995211ns.  Ronny and Nancy and the movie stars by their sides, in their past, and in the astrologer’s sky. Sulking brilliant sideshow observations and manipulation by Richard Nixon. Terry Dolan and gay insiders of NCPAC, the NSA, the federal prison, and death by virus. Outsize roles, indeed part of Mallon’s method for character actors like Merv Griffin, Pamela Harriman, many many others. Christopher Hitchens.  Hitch— Mallon’s and our authorial muse here—he swaggered in wherever he pleased and got the story.  Who doesn’t remember following these events by his lights — “Minority Report” in The Nation every two weeks earning his pay in the “high two figures” for Victor Navasky and in the glossy rather more highly compensated scribing he did for Tina Brown every couple months for Vanity Fair , and other high brow mags in USA and UK.  Mallon’s earlier book Watergate (2012) offered the same kind of appealing human level, simplifying pitch on events that have had so much written, and so much will remain to be written. Mallon’s project is that of an imaginative synthesizer. One can see that his research and writing agenda was to spend days with his own memory and journalistic timeframe of 1985-86 and the stacks and stacks of the mostly pathetic, limited, haunted published memoirs of each of these many hundreds of characters.  Think of the related, but absolutely inferior, “real time” narratives that pass as and are sold in large number Continue reading

An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris (2013)

18007532 2

“What do you think your working on the Dreyfus Affair!”  My first boss in faculty union grievance work cleverly chastised me for taking such a long and detailed and anguished approach to what now, twenty-five years later, appears a very simple interpretive matter of fact and contract language.   Sid, union organizer and historian, was an Old Left Jew of a certain age— US Army junior officer stationed for the two years following D-Day in France as an interpreter with a medical and then displaced persons unit. He took a keen interest in my development as a union activist and a historian when, in those very early days of the 1990s, I was alone among the few dozen academic unionists in the room to belly laugh from his playfully distorted Thorstein Veblen reference to our frequent academic conferences  as “leisure for the theory class.”  Marx, Freud, and Marcuse, and their various probes into our worldly “determinations” were the stuff of his doctoral dissertation. Marx’s economy, Freud’s  subconscious, and Marcuse’s attention to totalizing aspects of post-war US culture made for many colorful and challenging conversations. He turned me on, along with the thousands of community college students he taught over many years, to Emile Zola’s Germinal, the unmatched, near elemental, nowR18848_RD_layout_NEW_stroke.indd epic, story of labor and capital in a French coal mining community.  We never talked of Zola’s public defense of Dreyfus J’accuse, or of Dreyfus at all. His reference to Dreyfus and many other dozens of content free popular and political and historico-chronological references to “Dreyfus” signify, in general, anti-semitism, Franco-Prussion antagonisms, republican legitimacy, and somehow Devil’s Island (and Papillion, incorrectly) remained abstract, and I uninformed. Until now.  Harris’s book is wonderful.  I’m certain that many other wide ranging readers like myself will be very pleased to take this account, historical fiction, indeed it is, and a novelist so clearly possessing the scruples of the craft, and the imagination to render the difficult tale so meaningfully.

A River In May, Edward Wilson (2002)

9162278Uniquely and powerfully done war novel.  Wilson delivers what is quite clearly an autobiographically informed Vietnam War novel.  Set apart from all the rest of the classic soldering narratives of the mud, the blood, the drugs— 13th Valley, Dispatches, other greats, joined more recently by Matterhorn.  Wilson anticipates the more recent literary renderings of confusion, espionage, and which side were you on in the jungle?— The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Lopez, our protagonist is a Mexican American Harvard grad, trained right up by the  Army, swiftly sent to unit leadership at a way north Khe-Sahn type “Hill.”  The wonder of the writing is how Wilson, keeps the point of view strictly through the eyes of Lopez. Seeing only what he— a self identified humanitarian moralist we are convinced,  sees and hears brings us along as he takes action, ultimately, against evil and in defense of innocents. Cooperation with NLF infiltrators in his unit to enable Viet Cong fighters, some how seems, in the end, a reasonable course of action for our hero.