Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Second ("The American Vice Presidency" by Jules Witcover)

To be elected vice-president of the United States is to acquire a thankless and almost foreordained task. Of the 47 men who've held the office, only four have gone on to be elected president in their own right after their predecessors' term ended--and the results were decidedly mixed.* Nine more succeeded a president who died of natural causes, was assassinated, or--in the case of Richard Nixon--was forced to resign.** And, perhaps most tragically, when seven of these men died in office themselves, not a single one was replaced until the president himself faced reelection and was able--or perhaps forced--to fill the post, a testament to the office's historically low opinion among not only the majority of Americans, who didn't seem to notice the vacant posts, but also the nation's own federal government, which didn't seem to care. (The situation is even more tragic when you add to this total the number of vice presidents who passed away within a few years of leaving office, many of them having served their final months or years in declining health to no one's apparent alarm.)

In fact, of these 47 men, only one was able to achieve a level of true dignity, grace, and equality in his role as vice president. He did so on level footing with his president, based on an agreement reached amiably between the two men before their party's convention, while also avoiding any deep and lasting rifts between himself and the Oval Office. He presided over the Senate with skill, making sure his firsthand knowledge of the institution's ways didn't imbue him with either arrogance or deference, and he took on legislative and diplomatic responsibilities beyond the Senate without ever neglecting his Constitutional duties there. And yet, after spending four years as the nation's second-most-powerful public figure--only "a heartbeat away from the presidency," as they say--there are few if any Americans who would be able to identify Walter Mondale from this description. Such is the fate of those who choose to seek--or are foolish enough to accept--the office.

Today, the vice president is seen as less of a stand-by commander in chief--a person ready and able to take control in case of a presidential vacancy or national emergency--and more of a path to scoring political points and possibly influencing the outcome of an election. Barack Obama's selection of Joe Biden did much to reassure voters who were concerned over the freshman senator's inexperience with the culture of Washington, D.C. and the United States' near incomprehensible foreign policy, both of which Biden--a Senate veteran and chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations--offered in spades. Obama's opponent in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, chose as his running mate Paul Ryan, a nationally recognized congressman whose staunch conservative ideals overshadowed Romney's damaging record as a moderate. Four years earlier, John McCain chose Sarah Palin, the relatively unknown first-term governor of Alaska, as a way to counteract Obama's historical significance while also invigorating his campaign with some much-needed personality; unfortunately, the decision backfired, transforming the election into a referendum on Palin's preparedness and intelligence rather than a contest between candidates and their ideas.

Then again, Obama and his opponents were in good company:  very rarely has a president's running mate been chosen simply to guarantee a fluid transition should the nation's highest office be suddenly and unexpectedly vacated, as the Constitution prescribes. Instead, many of the nation's vice presidents were chosen to offset--or complement--the leading name on the ticket rather than to ensure the continuation of the federal government in times of crisis or tragedy. As might be expected, this often put our country at great risk. John Breckinridge, the vice president under James Buchanan, would later join the Confederacy during the Civil War, causing the Senate--which he had joined after leaving office--to declare him a traitor and unanimously expel him from its body. Had Breckinridge found himself president at any point, the fate of the entire country, not to mention the Civil War and the end of slavery, might have changed dramatically. There is also the more recent example of Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's vice president, who was forced to resign from office a full ten months before Nixon himself on charges of corruption, for which he plead "no contest." Had Agnew been able to hold onto his office for another year, he would have become the most powerful man in the world; instead, he is today considered one of--if not the--worst vice president in American history.

Unfortunately, in the long history of the American vice presidency--which, in the hands of Jules Witcover, comes in at just over 500 pages an in an abridged and heavily summarized form--not a single one of those 47 men could claim to have had a lasting influence on the nation while in office. Even the most bombastic, progressive, or controversial of these men--Walter Mondale, John Nance Garner, Dick Cheney--today recede into history only as footnotes rather than interesting chapters all their own. Most Americans, if not all but the most astute students of history, have little knowledge of any of the vice presidents who served outside of their own lifetimes. As our nation continues to grow older, that fact becomes increasingly true.

The subtitle of Witcover's book is "From Irrelevance to Power," and the most striking example of this shift is Dick Cheney, George W. Bush's vice president, who seemed at times to be the more influential of the two men. And while Cheney's legacy will be debated for decades, at least until there is enough distance from the emotions of the moment, just as all presidents and vice presidents are judged, he seems to have been the driving force behind Witcover's lengthy and largely impartial--if not entirely exhaustive--study of the office and the men who have held it. As the next presidential election approaches, one in which we will see two new nominees choosing two more candidates for the vice presidency, we must remind ourselves that the vice presidency has a greater role to play in our lives and government than any of us recognize. After all, it's been forty years since a vice president was forced to succeed a president; the youngest voters at that time of Gerald Ford's swearing in would now be fast approaching retirement age. As history demonstrates, fate has little interest in what we choose to remember from the past and what we choose to forget, and our actions--not to mention the actions of the next president, his party, and his supporters--can determine the entire future of the country in unexpected and irreversible ways.

*John Adams succeeded George Washington and was a failure, whereas Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams and was a success. Martin Van Buren followed his president, Andrew Jackson, into the White House but only served one term, just as George H.W. Bush followed Ronal Reagan in 1988 and was voted out four years later, and for almost the same exact reason--a tumultuous economy.

**These nine men were John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald Ford. Surprisingly, the forty years since Ford ascended to the presidency marks the second-longest span of time in which there has been no presidential vacancies, second only to the fifty-two years between George Washington's inauguration and William Henry Harrison's tragic--but entirely avoidable--death one month into his first term.

Friday, October 24, 2014

On Percy Jackson: A Response to Rebecca Mead

Earlier this year, Ruth Graham of Slate Magazine denounced young adult literature--and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars in particular--for offering what she saw as substandard material, a criticism that was couched in a greater denunciation of the adults who actively read YA books over other, more "literary" offerings by writers like John Updike and Willa Cather. Now, a few months later, another prominent magazine--this time the New Yorker, perhaps the nation's most renowned venue for literature and criticism--has published an article on YA literature, only this time the object of criticism is Rick Riordan, and the writer bases much of her opinion on firsthand observations of her son, a Riordan fanatic. Thankfully, Mead's article does not embrace the same arrogant tone that so feverishly dripped from Graham's, and much of what Mead has to say seems derived from a deep and honest belief in the importance of literature for young children and teenagers. In fact, her article devotes its opening paragraphs to a summary of two opposing camps--those who believe children benefit from reading anything, and those who believe that learning can only come from through the reading of more "literary" fare--but as she continues, Mead quickly embraces Graham's close-minded attitude towards the former, and her reasoning devolve into arrogance.

As someone who spends much of his day surrounded by both teenagers and books, not to mention teenagers reading--or refusing to read--said books, I feel compelled to offer my own insight into this argument over the works of Rick Riordan and, to a lesser extent, young adult literature in general. As a high school English teacher, I've had more than a few opportunities to become acquainted with not only the works of Mr. Riordan but the original myths upon which his novels are based; last year, I even forced myself to read one of Riordan's myth-based books, though not the Percy Jackson volumes Mead focuses on. Instead, it was The Red Pyramid, 540-page work based on Egyptian mythology rather than Greek or Roman, but nonetheless consistent with the focus of Mead's complaints.

I'll be honest, I didn't finish the book. I got halfway through it--I can't even remember what most of it was about--and had to set it aside for good. Riordan may sell a lot of books, and he may have a rabid fanbase, but his ability to craft a fluid and engaging narrative wasn't strong enough for me. The chances of me picking up anything else written by Riordan are pretty slim, though I suppose I could be convinced. But what separates me from Mead in this area is that, unlike her, I recognize that my interests cannot--and should not--have any bearing over what other people read, especially when it's something they want to read. If my students, many of whom like Riordan's books, read him with the same level of passion and focus that I have when reading, say, the newest Cormac McCarthy or Stephen King, then any opinion I have about his skills should be left unexpressed on my part. If a student ever asked for my reaction to his books, I'd be honest and tell them exactly what I've just written here--that I tried once, a while back, didn't enjoy it, stopped halfway through, and moved on--but I would never go so far as to try and dissuade them from reading him. I'd encourage their reading, even tell them I hoped they would enjoy the book, and end by saying I looked forward to hearing about it at an SSR conference later that quarter. Which--and I'm not lying here--would be the complete and honest truth.

Where Mead and I also differ--and this is perhaps Mead's biggest problem--is on the book she recommends in place of the Percy Jackson series, which is D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. Written by a husband-and-wife team and published more than 50 years ago, the D'Aulaires' collection takes its readers through the most famous and important myths, many of which are retold--in much different fashion--in Riordan's own series, only the D'Aulaires did so without the addition of an overarching story concerning teenagers at summer camp. In extolling the virtues of this book, Mead acknowledges its age, though she holds that aspect of it up as a positive--the language is more poetic, she says, and contrasts it to lingo- and pop-culture-heavy quotes from Riordan's work, a rhetorical tactic I will address momentarily--and admits that most children, when given a choice, would opt for Riordan's versions, which she attributes to its "irresistibly cool" language.

Which is a revelation that, for someone who is supposedly familiar with literature and literary criticism, demonstrates a near disqualifying level of unfamiliarity with how literature actually works. The "irresistibly cool" language Mead so easily dismisses--you can almost feel her eyes rolling as you read the words--is not some strange second language introduced by an alien race to corrupt the spotless legacy of Shakespeare and Dickens and Faulkner. It's how people talk today. Very rarely does anyone in this day and age--children, teenagers, middle-aged parents, senior citizens--speak like a Greek hero, or even in the dull, manufactured tone of the D'Aulaires' collection, which reads as though it's been polished and revised by an entire college English Department.

Earlier in that same paragraph, Mead denounces Riordan's incorporation of "obsolescence"--Craigslist, iPhones, Powerball, all of which she feels date his novels--even though, in a preceding sentence, she quotes the opening lines to the D'Aulaires' book, which mentions shepherds and herdsmen, two professions that are so rare these days, or at least appear in radically different forms, that they themselves could be seen as dating their source material in much the same way. (Furthermore, the original Greek myths as retold by the D'Aulaires mention smiths, chariot-drivers, and a slew of other mortal professions that would be foreign to modern students.)

Besides teaching students who read--and discuss, and recommend--Riordan's books, I've also had the chance over the last few years to teach myths taken directly from the D'Aulaire's collection, which I've used to both prepare my students for The Odyssey (English 9) and help them understand how various myths from across the world share common themes, ideas, and characters (World Literature & Composition). This experience provides me with what I would consider the ultimate proof against Mead's argument that students would find the literary and refined work of the D'Aulaires more beneficial than the work of Riordan and his ilk:  the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths is boring.* Every student of mine who has been handed a chapter from any of their mythology books and told to read it has found it unworthy, not because it might be inferior to anything else I could have offered them, but because it was written in a different time for a different population. It is like handing students a typewriter and telling them it's just as equal to the Chromebook or iPad they have in their lockers. It doesn't mean the typewriter is a horrible object, or that we should disdain or ignores its importance; its simply the relic of older times, significant in its day, but not something that has any true and immediate relevance in the lives of young people.

Which is the truth of literature:  it changes. Mead criticizes Riordan for taking these prized myths, which have lasted for millennia, and besmirching them with modern-day references, a cliched storyline involving teenage protagonists, substandard paraphrasing, and lackluster prose. But Riordan is simply following the lead of those very same men and women who, thousands of years ago, began telling their own stories...which they, in turn, had adapted from stories they themselves had been told. When you study world literature, you understand that these stories, regardless of where they come from, all share such an incredible number of similarities that believing they arose spontaneously and without outside influence--without the fingerprints of a premodern globalization--is a mark of arrogance and stupidity. Riordan may be far from a lasting writer--he is this generation's S.E. Hinton, its Carolyn Keene, destined for dollar-bins and garage sales, as is ninety-nine percent of all books published today, or ever--but he's basing his work on the very same mythology that both borrowed from and lent to other storytelling traditions. By reading Riordan, young readers aren't just entertaining themselves, escaping into a fantastic alternate reality, or engaging with relatable characters--they're participating in a tradition as old as the stories themselves.

That my seem like a lofty and hyperbolic statement, especially in response to a poorly developed article by someone who seems to have forgotten what it means to be young and interested in books. In fact, if I were to guess, I'd say there are articles out there somewhere, perhaps buried in the reels of old newspaper microfilm, in which some respectable critic from mid-century bemoans how the D'Aulaires took such prized myths, made them accessible by children, and presented them with dozens of illustrations. After all, that was the era of Edith Hamilton's dense, virtually inaccessible Mythology book, and to present any form of classical literature in such an edited fashion would have surely stoked the ire of the Old Guard. If that person had existed, it seems as though Mead and her parents had little issue ignoring them, just as millions of readers today will have no problem ignoring the ridiculous concerns of people like Mead, who would be better served reading more of these books rather than wringing their hands over children who seek them out. Or not. After all, Mead can read whatever the hell she wants--it's her right as a reader, after all, just as it's the right of her own child and children everywhere.

*Just to be clear, I'm not saying I don't think people should avoid the D'Aulaires' book, or that it shouldn't be taught. I'm only saying that, in attempting to denounce one book while elevating another, Mead has replaced the subjectivity and democracy of readership with her own biased ideas about which is better, and what books we should be reading over others.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Darkness ("Beautiful Darkness" by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerasco√ęt; translated by Helge Dascher)

The setting of Beautiful Darkness, the graphic fairy tale by Fabien Vehlmann and illustrator Kerasco√ęt, is not a charming castle or faraway wonderland populated by anthropomorphic daydreams, but the corpse of a young girl. Struck down inexplicably in the book's opening panels, she is presented to us as a Tennelian cadaver laid out on the forest floor. The book's characters--small, toylike creatures in the girl's body--soon crawl from her mouth and nose and circle around her, blissfully unaware of what this means for them, or who she even is. (In fact, the cause of her death is never disclosed and, in a perverse way, it doesn't seem to matter.) Instead, they line up for bits of cookie, then disperse into the wild and unmapped brush around them, almost all of them lost in their own enchanted delusions.

Soon, they begin to die one by one, and in horrifying ways. One creature, desperate for food, climbs into the nest of a bird and sits among the hatchlings; when the mother-bird returns and prepares to regurgitate the morning's catch, her beak pierces the creature's tender organs, causing it to vomit blood before dying in the high branches. Another, even more famished, feasts on maggots from the corpse before crawling deep into her soft skull, where it finds shelter but is also haunted by the girl's own memories; eventually, the story drifts away from this creature, and we can only assume it dies within the bone-walls she has come to call her home. There is cannibalism, the torture of small animals, a live entombment, and a half-dozen other instances of nature's vicious indifference towards the small figures, who have gone from the warm protections of a child's anatomy to a cold, Darwinian world of predators and prey.

Throughout much of the story, this reality exists in spite of the blind optimism of its protagonist, a blond-haired girl named Aurora, who is borne of pure fairy-tale obligation:  the wholesome daughter and watchful granddaughter, the princess-in-waiting, the sugar-toothed dreamer in a world of cynics and wickedness, the defining version of just what we've come to expect from Disneyfied bedtime stories. She is pre-ball Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty before the curse, Snow White before the apple has been bitten. She is Alice searching for her way into Wonderland, forever testing the balance between too large and too small, all without ever becoming frustrated when the equilibrium escapes her. Throughout much of the book Aurora works to keep order, once even arranging a party between her fellow creatures and some of the forest's wild animals--an attempt, she says, to encourage friendships between both parties, which ends in predictable failure. Soon, the others begin to take advantage of her, dismissing her attempts to adapt and using her goodwill to feed and shelter themselves.

This is, the author and illustrator tell us, the nature of humanity:  we are selfish, cold-hearted animals fit to live among the rabid tail-and-claw underclass, and the fairy tales we tell ourselves and our children--the very same stories represented in Aurora's blond hair and sunny demeanor--are not only worthless but delusions in themselves. To create a story as graphic and cold as this one, and to populate it with small creatures the size and appearance of both toys and people, is to juxtapose the fantasies we have of ourselves--as veritable royalty, or of overlooked beauty awaiting the midnight carriage and glass slippers--with the truth behind our masks. The message of Beautiful Darkness--a contrast in itself, it could be argued--is that the behavior Aurora faces, even when she's exhausting herself to help others, is the same behavior we exhibit to one another, not just in times of hardship, but in all aspects of daily life. 

In the end, Aurora--our bastion of morality and humanitarianism, this personification of our own fantastical ideas of ourselves, left standing alone among supposed degenerates--gives in to the darker angels of her nature and lashes out, first at a furry companion and then at those who wronged her time and again. She does so not around the girl's corpse, which has now rotted away into a heap of bones, but the warmth of a cottage--the home of a nameless woodsman whose shelves are littered with broken keepsakes, including a clock and child's doll. In a way, the authors might argue that in taking revenge, Aurora fulfills her destiny by becoming the harshest creature of all--by ripping away the mask of fantasy and embracing the ugliness beneath. And when she does, we smile...and we tell ourselves we're glad the villains got what was coming to them, even as those spinning this story know that we smile because the virtuous Aurora has joined our ranks. She has awoken from her slumber and joined the shadows of a much different and deeper sleep.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this entire story, however, is that Aurora has not wandered far in order to find the woodman's cottage. Which means that, just a few dozen feet from his door, are the bones of that very young girl. Which begs the questions, did this man know her in life? Was he her father, or perhaps an older brother, or uncle? Why is it that this one man, so thoroughly involved in the wilderness beyond his front door, never once stumbled upon her body, or at least noticed the smell of rot in the forest air? And why would a man, so obviously alone, have a broken doll on his shelves when there is no evidence that he has children of his own? The question arises that, perhaps, this man is callous, or even ignorant. Or perhaps he knows she is there, that he is the one who felled her body as he might fell one of the surrounding trees. Or perhaps, in this world--this dark and honest anti-fantasy--we must live with the unknown, the mysterious, the unpursued. Perhaps it is time we accept that, sometimes, unhappily ever after is the best we can do.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Cycle ("The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell)

An entire decade separates David Mitchell's newest novel The Bone Clocks from what is perhaps his most famous work, Cloud Atlas, and in writing about the former it is inevitable that we must also discuss the latter. Not only do both books share the same overarching plot--the movement of souls through time, whether abstractly (in the case of Cloud Atlas) or literally (in the case of The Bone Clocks)--but a similar structure, as well. Where the stories in Cloud Atlas are organized like concentric circles, with each story interrupted at the halfway point until we reached the end of the chronology and each story's second half is resumed, The Bone Clocks traces the entire life of one person, Holly Sykes, often as it's witnessed and intersected by other characters, who each narrate a chapter. This allows Mitchell to do what he loves best, and what make his books unique among so many others:  to not only explore language but wear it like a well-tailored wardrobe made of words, which he wraps around the throats and tongues of his storytellers with ease.

Unfortunately, these similarities also work to amplify the weaknesses in Mitchell's work. Where Cloud Atlas allowed Mitchell to trace the English language as it evolved across centuries, including well into the future, and imbued his stories with a hypnotic richness, the changing tones of the The Bone Clocks' half-dozen narrators is one of the book's great inconsistencies: from desperate teenage Holly in the opening pages to self-assured literary badboy Crispin Hershey in the novel's middle to a body-jumping Horologist named Marinus in the penultimate chapter and, finally, Holly again, now elderly and living in a post-grid Ireland with her two grandchildren, Mitchell's use of language is at times beautiful but more often than not infuriating. For instance, the second-to-last chapter involves a battle between two metaphysical armies that is narrated, in real time, as though it were a piss-poor action-adventure novel more appropriate for the paperback bin at a thrift store. It is the novel's longest chapter, and also it's most sophomoric. (The final chapter--and the shortest--all but makes up for the preceding disaster by being the novel's best, and at times I wished Mitchell had excised it and made it a post-apocalyptic novel all its own.)

Furthermore, Mitchell's editing skills, which kept Cloud Atlas a lengthy but succinct work of literary architecture--the pipes did not jostle or leak, the wires didn't flicker, the windows let in warm and endless daylight--have all but abandoned him here. Coming in at 630 pages, The Bone Clocks is loaded down with unnecessary tangents and details, often running a dozen pages or so in length. Extended exposition has its place, to be sure--to develop characters, for example, or to introduce complicated ideas without rushed explanations--but here it seems as though Mitchell were writing a half-dozen different novels at the same time, noticed shared characteristics, and joined them together in a moment of frustration. And the stitching that holds these disparate pieces together is the ongoing war between two small armies, the body-jumping Horologists and the cannibalistic Anchorites, which interrupts the otherwise standard storylines as wild, pseudo-mystical diversions that become ponderous when they drift beyond the pace of the dense, esoteric conversations with which Mitchell is obviously the most comfortable.

Where The Bone Clocks exceeds the impact of its ancestor, however, is in its relevance to our contemporary life. In structuring his novel around the idea of a cycle--that certain immortal souls can move from body to body--Mitchell also drops his characters into a world that demonstrates its own cycle, albeit with subtlety. Beginning in the 1980s, with Holly Sykes running away from home, Mitchell follows her across decades and continents; in the background, constantly moving in and out of the rising action, is the changing society around her, including the move from vinyl records to digitized music, bicycles to voice-operated cars, fossil fuels to bioelectricity. By the time Holly's life is sunsetting, a failure of the world's grid plummets almost all of humanity back into a world before alternating currents, processed food, and the Internet. The world we live in now, Mitchell suggests, is not a long step in the upward progress of our world, as we all believe, but rather the apex of a bell-graph. The decline, if and when it happens--and Mitchell's prose is weighed down by data that seems meticulously researched, if not altogether blatantly expressed--will return us to an existence reminiscent of 200 years in the past, and we will be forced to begin again. We will need to grow our own food, live within our means, travel on foot or by non-motorized wheels, communicate with those closest to us, and tackle the darker impulses of human nature, including fear and intolerance.

The Bone-Clocks is ambitious, to say the least, and Mitchell certainly deserves praise for pushing the boundaries of his own writing into new and even more otherworldly directions. Unfortunately, ambition is often a misinterpretation of recklessness, and the few sparse moments of beauty in The Bone-Clocks do not alleviate the pain of knowing just how good this novel could have been if its author had just separated himself from his own cycle and began again, anew. As even Mitchell's own characters realize, the novelty and superiority of reincarnation becomes tiresome very, very quickly.