Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ordinary ("The Color Master" by Aimee Bender)

There's something wonderfully comforting about Aimee Bender's fiction. Willful Creatures, her 2005 collection of stories, is one of the few books that I come back to over and over again, and for good reason:  each of the 15 short tales contained within its pages are strange outliers that exist far from all other forms of literature, like children who've exiled themselves from normal playground business so they can sit in a corner reading Franz Kafka. Her stories break the rules of how stories should be told, not just in style and structure but also content. A boy is born with fingers shaped like keys, and he spends his early years hunting down the doors they fit. A man and a woman, both with pumpkins for heads, conceive a child whose head is a clothes iron. A girl called Debbie is beaten up by motherless high-school bullies and, years later, memories of her begin to blur into one of the bullies' reality. Not all of the stories succeed, but even those small disappointments are warm and soothing. They are marks of an author who is willing to experiment, regardless of the outcome, for the sake of testing the waters and pushing literature into the dark forests where no one else dares wander.

And then there's "Dearth," tucked so casually in the collection's closing pages. I'm not sure if "Dearth" was my introduction to Bender, or if I'd sought it out after being handed a copy of "Ironhead," but eight years later it still holds a special place in my heart's library as a touchstone in my reading life. It's a simple story--a single woman finds potatoes in her kitchen one morning and raises them as her children. There is nothing unnatural about the arrangement, at least not to the woman--she doesn't harangue herself over the absurdity of mothering a brood of starchy vegetables, nor does she think of her situation as particularly strange, just irritating in the same way a dirty dish is irritating. When she tries to rid herself of them, she does so in ways you might expect--eating them, tossing them into the garbage--and then ways that are a bit extreme, like setting them in the road and mailing them to Ireland, "where potatoes belonged." Her duty to these spud-children are clear, even if the point of the story--a commentary on motherhood? on loneliness? on our ability-but-reluctance to love beyond what we understand?--isn't. And that's fine. Because even though Bender is throwing our expectations into the pit of snakes, we trust her to keep us safe. After all, one of the worst crimes an author can commit is to betray the trust of his or her readers.

Eight years after Willful Creatures first appeared, we now have The Color Master, Bender's third collection, and as before, Bender's flair for the surreal and experimental justifies the acclaim she's achieved, not to mention the loyalty of her readers. Sisters travel across the world so one can sew up torn tigers in the jungles of Malaysia. An old German man who's spent his life watching war films believes he's a Nazi deserving of punishment, even though he was little more than a child during the Holocaust. A family contends with "ghosts" who leave duplicates of objects they already own. It would be easy for readers to dismiss Bender as a writer of "weird" stories--that is, stories that are noteworthy only for their bizarreness--but if that were the case, she'd be a forgettable one-trick pony of a writer:  the literary version of a magician who does the same dozen tricks, does them well, but doesn't update them to make them his own and is therefore forgotten.

What makes Bender resistant to such dismissive monikers is her ability to find depth and humanity in curious situations. Throughout her stories, the primary tale hides a complicated understanding of the world in which her characters--and her readers--live, almost like a world parallel to ours in which our oddities and shortcomings are amplified to stunning degrees. In "Wordkeepers," a woman finds that her reliance on all things technological is weakening her grasp of language, and she's forced to point and grunt to make up for her loss; at the same time, a tech-resistant friend of hers remains lucid and intelligent. Similarly, in "The Red Ribbon," a wife's roleplay with her husband rekindles their marital passion while distorting the union itself until the fantasy becomes the only thing holding husband and wife together. As the story closes, the wife becomes obsessed with an old fairy tale about a wife whose head is kept on by a single red ribbon--the symbol of their union, broken when curiosity gets the better of her husband. The events depicted in Bender's stories spring from deeply human places--our fear of being alone, our need to love, our sense of justice--even though they're painted in odd, alien colors. "Tiger-Mending" ends with a failed hug between the sisters; "The Fake Nazi" ends with another old man crying, his eyes suddenly open the world; and "Americca" closes with one of the family's own in a room far away, eating curry paste and crying. Each instance--of embraces, of tears shed, of marriages ended--is a painfully real moment in the middle of a beautiful, uncomfortable hallucination.

But there's a hint--a slight, nagging suggestion--that perhaps her love of finding humanity in the unusual is beginning to wane. The longest story in this collection, "Bad Returns," is a thirty-page tale that starts off promisingly enough--an anti-war protest quietly devolves into a 100-person-strong campus orgy encouraged by its leader for the sake of thievery--but very quickly the plot shifts to incorporate an old man, his daughter, and a ring. Situated at the very center of this collection, "Bad Returns" almost feels like Bender flirting with Mainstream Fiction across a crowded bar, just to see how it feels. The otherworldly aspects of the story are slight and, perhaps more disturbingly, treated as the irregularities they are instead of being accepted as part of the characters' reality. Even more, there's an attempt at overt meaning, with the absurdity of the opening protest-orgy contrasted with the old man's suspect memory, which he may be inventing for ulterior motives. (After the narrator is told she's at an anti-war protest, another marcher says, "Most of us forget we're even at war at all." The narrator thinks about this, telling herself, "I could hardly hold the thought about forgetting in my head. It seemed destined to be forgotten.")

The Color Master is a wonderful collection, and at times it's even touching at a personal level, but the successes stand beside Bender's dalliances with the ordinary, and that's a shame. What makes Bender such a good author is her ability to fuse the abstract and dreamlike with the real, her fearlessness in testing the waters, all without her fiction becoming magic-shop gimmicks. But once you've decided to start dipping toes in Normal waters, you've committed yet another sin against your readers:  you've become boring. After all, nothing is more boring than normal.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Balance ("Snow Hunters" by Paul Yoon)

There's a John Updike story called "Delicate Wives" that I remember reading when I was 18 and obsessed with the idea of becoming a New Yorker-type writer. In the story, a wife on the cusp of her thirtieth birthday is stung by a bee and goes into anaphylactic shock; it is only because her husband rushes her to the local hospital that she survives. But the story doesn't concern her so much as the man with whom she'd had an affair the summer before--Les, who learns of the emergency through the gossiping of neighborhood wives and is struck by pangs of jealousy. Veronica is the woman's name, and he wonders what would've happened had she been stung during their affair, and if he would've been calm and knowledgeable enough to be her savior...or if the panic of the moment would've meant the end of her life. The story moves forward through the years, tracing both Veronica's inability to recover and Les' desire for a rekindled affair as parallels, until Les' wife finds a lump in her breast, and the story ends with him connecting both the bee sting and his wife's possible cancer in his mind. And in that one moment--a short, closing paragraph--Updike's story is fulfilled and, at the same time, falls apart. He has revealed the inner workings of his story like a magician telling us just how he performed the trick, and the story is suddenly meaningless and flat. We see through the mirrors and magic words and realize Updike has sold us a wooden box; the characters are cliched, the dialogue is poorly written, and even without the closing giveaway the attempts at complexity and dimension would still be lazy and shallow.

Most authors spend their entire careers trying to perfect what John Updike fails to do in "Delicate Wives":  balance an interesting and well-written story with deeper meaning. It's a balance that takes exceptional skill. If an author builds his literary house on the foundation of Deeper Meaning, the entire structure becomes a secondary consideration, something even the most naive and untrained of readers can take apart with a five-dollar hammer and reduce to nothing; all that remains is the foundation, a slab of perfectly poured concrete that is now little more than an altar to kindling.* At the same time, if an author eschews all meaning whatsoever and writes pure plot, they are deep-sea fishermen choosing to cast their nets across a wide and lifeless puddle. Yes, the story will be interesting, but a half-hour after its last words are read it will be forgotten--one more throwaway potboiler destined for its place along the 49-cent shelves at Goodwill.**

Every so often, though, an author manages to not only strike that balance but make it seem almost effortless. What strikes you first about Paul Yoon's Snow Hunters is its brevity:  in your hands, the novel is scant, almost like a children's book, and at less than 200 pages it's a quick read. (I finished the entire book in one ninety-minute sitting.) There is very little exposition, and most of the characters have proper names but are referred to--and remembered--by what they are:  sailors, the tailor, a boy and girl. There's also very little dialogue. The protagonist, for example, speaks no more than a dozen words throughout the entire novel, though his silence is understandable--he's a Korean refugee living in Brazil, and he isn't fluent in Portuguese. The man he lives with--a Japanese tailor--doesn't say much, either, though both men seem content with this arrangement. Later, we will learn that he's a survivor of Japanese internment, just asYohan, the silent protagonist, is a survivor of a POW camp. And in this relationship we begin to understand just how connected this shy, almost reclusive expatriate is to the strangers around him.

In fact, if Yoon's novel has one discernible foundation--a Deeper Meaning--it's the idea that no matter how far from home we may be, no matter the hells through which we've crossed and the languages we speak, there are still those with whom we can connect. Throughout the novel, we're offered flashbacks of Yohan's time in Korea, when he and a friend named Peng lose touch and then, in the middle of war, find one another again; even after Peng goes blind, they stay together and survive for as long as possible. In Brazil, Yohan finds a connection first in the Japanese tailor who takes him in--they're both quiet survivors who are skilled with the needle and thread--and later when the young girl grows up and returns to town. She is, after all, a poor and homeless wanderer--a member of the small community who live along the shore and survive on fish and the charity of the townspeople. She herself once had a companion of her own--a boy who was not in any way related to her--until the boy left town not long after the tailor passes away.

Normally, novels concerning refugees or immigrants are wide-sweeping in their scope:  the poor shivering individual arrives and is swallowed up whole by his or her new home, dwarfed by the tall buildings and pulsing crowds used as ultimate contrasts by the author. In these stories, the outsider is small and vulnerable, but they have promise--some day, they will be as tall as those buildings and as alive as the crowds. In Yoon's novel, we find the opposite:  an immigrant who does not belong and cannot assimilate easily but doesn't have to. The small Brazilian town absorbs him as though he were always a part of their community; there are no moments of xenophobia or raised noses, and at no time does Yohan collapse in sadness or longing, his thoughts anchoring him to home. Instead, the land to which Yohan arrives is just like the land from which he left, and the connections he forges are as strong and important to him as the ones he had in Korea.

Even without this foundation, Snow Hunters manages to be a beautiful story. Minimalistic in its style, it nevertheless show us the vast world we solitary creatures call home. Yohan--quiet, scarred, alone--survives a war, crosses half the globe, makes friends with sailors, becomes a professional tailor, picnics along the beautiful Brazilian countryside, falls in love, and goes fishing in the ocean. We understand the pains he has felt, his empathy for the old man who mentors him, the simple ecstasy of sitting on a rooftop at twilight, the apprehension that gives way to calm when he dances for the first time. It is a world of balance, where the loss of one companion opens the door to another, where the tragedies of the past are matched by the pleasures of the present, and where someone can find themselves on the other side of the world and still be home.

*See:  Don DeLillo, William Golding, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen, and so on.

**See:  James Patterson, Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, and so on.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Election ("Collision 2012" by Dan Balz)

I was a college freshman during the 2004 presidential election, and part of being in a college town--and one in a swing state, no less--during an election year is hosting an unending number of politicians hoping to sway your vote. Always a lover of politics, not to mention someone who appreciates the historical flare of elections, some friends and I decided to attend an early-morning rally for John Kerry at our campus sports facility, a rundown and embarrassing structure only 200 feet or so from our dorm rooms. We got up early--6:30, if I remember correctly, which is pretty early for college students--and walked across the empty parking lot, half-awake but excited to see the man we hoped would be our future president. We were wanded by security, marched through metal detectors, and then seated in folding chairs. The rally was scheduled to begin around 8, a time that came just as quickly as it went. No candidate appeared. A man in the crowd began a chant of "Ker-ry! Ker-ry!" which rose to a thunderous roar before dying out when Kerry, again, didn't appear. One of the women sitting on the dais rose and gave a speech in support of the candidate--a sure sign, we thought, that finally the rally was about to begin. We gave her a thunderous applause, continuing it longer than it should have in the belief that she had just introduced the man himself.

But once again, no candidate appeared. The woman returned to her seat, and the gymnasium once again fell into a deafening silence.

I don't remember exactly how long we waited for Kerry, but it was well over an hour and a half, and by the time he did any enthusiasm I had had that morning was gone. I looked around the gymnasium--the outdated banners, the wooden bleachers befitting a small-town high school, the fluorescent lights drowning us all in a dim sleepy fog--and felt myself becoming disillusioned with not only the man but everything his campaign was doing. I thought of all the Bush rallies I'd seen on television--large, celebratory events choreographed more like rock concerts than campaign events--and marveled at how much better they seemed compared to this one. It was one of those moments when, on top of discovering that your choice for emperor has no clothes, you realize the other emperor has no intention of giving up his.

I don't remember a single thing John Kerry said that day, though I do know he spoke for some time. What I do remember, however, is his spit:  big, powerful clouds of saliva propelled across the stage as he spoke and caught like diamonds in the lighting. When the speech was done, I lined up alongside everyone else and stretched out my hand to shake his. What followed was the one other incontrovertible fact I remember from that day:  John Kerry had the smoothest hands of any person I'd ever met.

When a voter looks back on their candidate's campaign and can only remember spit and smooth hands--instead of, say, powerful rhetoric, an engaging personal narrative, or a platform of progressive goals--it is nothing more than a mark of failure for that campaign. George W. Bush was a vulnerable and stumbling incumbent when he ran for reelection in 2004, and the Democrats had a chance--a narrow one, to be sure, but narrow chances are better than no chances--to oust him from office and undo at least some of the damage caused by his presidency. So much of what Bush had accomplished over the previous term was unpopular and, some would argue, unconstitutional, and on top of those weaknesses Bush was in charge of an administration populated by controversial figures. And when the Democratic Party and its voters looked out across the wide swathe of possible candidates to run again Bush, it settled on John Kerry--a rich, out-of-touch flip-flopper from deep-blue Massachusetts whose speaking skills ranked alongside those of a goat. To those few who were clear-eyed enough to see through partisan emotions, it was one big disaster of a choice. Eight years later, however, it would be--ironically, hilariously--the very same roadmap used by Republicans to fight Barack Obama, and anyone with a sense of history could see how it was going to end.

When the ramp-up to the 2012 presidential elections began, more than a few politicos were writing off Obama's chances to win reelection. The unemployment rate was above eight percent--the mark of death, they reassured us, citing Franklin Roosevelt as the last Democrat to defy such economic odds--and he was responsible for the widely controversial Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), which Republicans and the 24-hour news cycle had successfully spun into the pinnacle of socialism and the downfall of our constitutional liberties. His administration featured controversial figures--Timothy Geithner, Eric Holder, Larry Summers, the outspoken Joe Biden--and was being sucked down further and further into the quagmire of a do-nothing Congress, precisely the kind of politicking he had promised to change. The Republican Party had a shot at retaking the White House--a narrow one, to be sure, but again, narrow chances are better than none--and, much like the Democrats in 2004, chose a rich, out-of-touch flip-flopper from liberal Massachusetts, former governor Mitt Romney, to take on the incumbent.

However, eight years is a long time in American politics, and there were two major differences between 2004 and 2012--both of them to Obama's benefit. The first was that, unlike the Democrats in 2004, the Republicans of 2012 had become so polarized by Obama's presidency--thanks in part to the demagoguery of cable news, as well as the comforts of gerrymandered districts--that anyone hoping to capture the nomination faced a gauntlet of enraged Tea Party conservatives who wanted someone who was not only certifiably anti-Obama but also rabidly anti-government, and they refused to vote for anyone who diverged even slightly from this criteria. This meant that even reliably conservative Republicans found themselves swinging to the far right on almost every issue--abortion, immigration, taxes, health care, foreign policy, welfare--or facing jeers when they didn't. (When Rick Perry advocated compassion towards the children of immigrants born in the United States--a decision made squarely by their parents--and said those who didn't had no heart, he was famously booed.) Before 2012, there had always been a sort of rhythm to campaigning--speak to the fringe during the primary, move back to the center for the general election--but never had it been this pronounced, and with so many televised debates for the Republicans to do, each swing towards the fringe was logged, repeated, and dissected ad nauseum.

The second difference between 2004 and 2012--and the second of Obama's major benefits--was that the president's campaign adapted and became, for lack of a better description, the most efficient campaigning machine in American history. Lauded for their groundbreaking use of technology in 2008, a time when simply using Facebook and YouTube was considered revolutionary, the Obama campaign amped up their organization into a massive, data-mining system that could delineate the difference between certain kinds of voters--those who were reliable, those who chose a side but needed reminders, those who were undecided--and disperse volunteers accordingly. If a voter had chosen Obama or was a reliable supporter, they no longer received calls, visits, or mailings--a valuable decision that, in the long run, saved them time, money, and the energy of their volunteers. If they'd sent away for an absentee ballot, the campaign knew if and when it was returned; if the ballot wasn't, the voter received reminders, sometimes through phone calls and sometimes in person. On an individual scale, this seems trivial, but seen as one cog in a country-wide machine, its benefits become obvious. And while the Obama campaign was using this information to reach out, Mitt Romney was still wading through the primary and, later, following the same disorganized pattern made familiar in pre-tech campaigns. It was comparable to one man campaigning on television while the other did so from the back of a train--a disparity that spelled certain doom for Romney's candidacy, regardless of the economy.

The subtitle of Collision 2012, Dan Balz's book on the titular presidential election, is "Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America." And true to his subtitle, Balz balances his examination of the election's chronology and content with a look at what this one election means for the changing face of American politics. Obama's campaign strategies--of advanced data and technological resources balanced with a strong and organized network of volunteers on the ground--will mark a future in which presidential campaigns are personalized to the point of over-familiarity. Candidates of the future will tailor their messages not only to specific voting blocs--soccer moms, hockey dads, Evangelicals, activists, moderates, the fringe--but to specific people, each delineated in a database based on online purchasing activity, education levels, income, family makeup, voting turnout, activity on social networks, and so on. They will know as much about us as we know about them, depending on where they're visiting any given week, and elections that used to bother us digitally--TV, radio, emails--will now intrude physically, as well, until they're as common-place in our lives as the mailman, the supermarket cashier, or the power company coming to check our meter.

And, based on Balz's observations from 2012, it's becoming increasingly clear that this is a change the Democratic Party has not only embraced, as is obvious from the last election, but is already using to its benefit. Where smaller races--state legislatures, the House of Representatives--are determined primarily by gerrymandering, state-wide races will be guided by computers, and the Republicans are already years behind. Of the three sections making up Collision 2012, the largest by far is devoted to the Republicans, who wasted valuable time and resources choosing a nominee--possibly the strangest, most entertaining primary in the last fifty years--and then conducted a campaign stuck in 2004. Balz discusses their lack of focus--too much time on fringe-pleasing social issues, not enough emphasis on the economy--and their inability to expand their base beyond older, uneducated white people, both of which will continue to hurt the party in the elections to come.

Collision 2012 is not a rehash of the election, day by tiring day, and we're better for it--those books will come later, warts and all. Instead, Balz has written the first of what will be many dissections of what the election means and what we--the voters, the candidates, their campaigns--should learn going forward. Already, not ten months after Obama won reelection, there is chatter about 2016--who will run, what states will be in play, which way the parties will move. This impatience a disturbing trend in American politics, one of many, and these desperate cries for more are a clear indicator that any lessons offered up by Obama's victory--or, if you prefer, Romney's defeat--will go unheeded, at least for a few more years.

In 2008--the year before I graduated from college--I attended a rally for Barack Obama. Much had changed since the Kerry rally--the media bombardment was even more constant, the scrutiny even more intense. And on a more personal level, the Obama rally was held in our campus' brand new athletic complex--bright, clean, expensive, a source of pride--which stood on the very ground where parts of the old, embarrassing building once stood. (Even today, parts of the old building remain in tact and are worthy of avoidance.) Looking back, that one change was a grand metaphor all its own--a new and better structure standing in the shadow of an old and failed one, just as that young, refreshing candidate stood in the shadow of an old, embarrassing one. What no one in that room understood was that the very thing we'd come to see that day wouldn't end when the seats and stage emptied. Instead, that campaign would continue in one way or another almost non-stop for the next four years, if not longer.