The Centennial: April 22, 1915

Spring had been lazy, without consequences. Stefan approved an outline and booklist that Eran immediately scrapped and rewrote. Heat came and went, unable to settle in. Green appeared.

The transports were nothing to speak of. A skirmish here, a Parliament session there, and there had been a peaceful, starlit night in Belgium, the first gentle evening of spring.

“I’ve got a meeting with Stefan next week,” Kyle said. “See if he still wants to be my advisor. If I ever come back.”

“Want me to put in a good word?”

“Nah. To be honest, I’m not sure I want to keep working with him.”

Kyle had wanted to get out of the house, but Ian and Cam didn’t want a junkie poking around in their baby’s crib. (Although Eran suspected the real reason was that they, like all reputable yuppies, had an insecure stash of Percocet in their bathroom.) So they were at Chatterbox – Minneapolis; Eran had insisted on crossing the river – playing an old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

“Fucking tanks.” Kyle made as if to throw his controller down, remembering only at the last second that it wasn’t his.

“Who else would you work with?”

“I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. The department has to give me something. I mean, I’m trying here.”

Kyle was doomed. Passively bored, unwilling to plan, unwilling to participate, lying around waiting for someone to fix it. He had willpower from circumstance: Oops, I got in deeper than I wanted, but I’m not really an addict. It would dissolve with time. Nothing would happen, as it had before. What’ll it hurt? Just one shot. The only question was: surprise overdose or lingering decay?

Eran spared a moment of sympathy for Kyle’s parents, who would not take the loss of their only child well.

“I think

Kaspar rubbed his shoulders with the heels of his hands. Hauling canister after canister to the line, by hand, had turned his entire body into a knot. He arced toward the opposing line, tensed as if to smite them with the ache.

The wind? he asked.

Not yet, said the other soldier. Eran couldn’t divine his name.

Kaspar kept watch, and the sunlight slowly dimmed.

What would it do? They had all heard stories. Some were afraid. Some beat their chests and declared that Germany would by such means win the war. Kaspar did either, depending on which attitude prevailed among the others.

It’s the wind. Now.

Kaspar opened the canister. A green cloud wafted out, taking a leisurely course toward their opponents. But puffs of wind knocked arcs and segments away from the mass. Kaspar wondered if he could adjust the canister to direct the flow. He leaned in. He breathed in. He regretted it.

He was down on his knees, coughing until he retched, seeing red. Now the ache was to push the gas out, to pull air in. He couldn’t seem to get any. Eran, knowing the consequences of staying low in the cloud, willed Kaspar to rise.

The other soldier helped Kaspar to his feet, They staggered away from the canister. Kaspar thought: But what’s going to happen to them?

        you should stay with Eran. At least until you’re back into the routine.”

“Yeah? You think?” Kyle died again. He had just missed the pizza wedge and fallen onto a Foot. “I dunno. I’d rather go work in a bookstore.”

It was Eran’s turn. He took the controller. “Your funeral.”

April 22, 1915: The Second Battle of Ypres begins. German forces opened the battle by releasing chlorine gas, in the first use of gas on the Western Front.

Read-in-Progress: O. E. Rølvaag, Peder Victorious

Like Summit Avenue or the North Woods, Giants in the Earth has always seemed quintessentially Minnesotan to this Michigan transplant. It’s not a book that I ever saw in my hometown, but I routinely run across it in the Twin Cities. In my first year here, I picked it up at a library book sale; upon reading it, I thought that Rølvaag’s prairie seemed intriguingly hostile compared to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s, that Beret was awful and Per Hansa an idiot. I haven’t re-read it, but it has kept its place on my shelf.

Peder Victorious is the second book in the Giants trilogy, and I’m not enjoying it nearly as much. I’m still not a Beret fan, but her angst is understandable given that she’s trying to hold the farm and the family together on her own, and is sidelined by the community due to her double-X chromosomes. But the bigger problem is Peder himself. His boy-hero is thus far a debit rather than an asset. I’m allergic specifically to books in which a boy is constantly chopping at the tether his mother placed on him – Nancy Atherton’s execrable Aunt Dimity series being the ur-allergen. Rølvaag understands that Peder still respects his mother, but it’s still deeply frustrating to read. I don’t know what the trilogy’s third book is about, but I don’t think I’m going to read it.

Rølvaag was a professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf College, and his son Karl was a governor of Minnesota.

Read-in-Progress: Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis

I finished The Golden Notebook and felt the way I expected to, so now I get to move on. Narcopolis, which thus far has been about the opium-smoking eunuch prostitute Dimple and the Chinese refugee Mr. Lee, raises what I call “the Trainspotting question.” Novels about drugs and the people who love them tend to walk a fine line, as Trainspotting did, between evoking a specific culture and wallowing in its trappings for the sake of rebel cred. The question is which side of the line it falls on. Trainspotting had a sense of adolescent humor that helped it get by, but Renton’s concluding escape from The Life tied things up so neatly that I still haven’t decided where it falls.

Thus far Narcopolis is staying in the good zone. It helps that Mr. Lee has a background as a political prisoner under Chairman Mao. The historical context gives the book a scope broader than its own narcotized navel. Thayil also avoids porning up the outré notes of his story, sidestepping the temptation to make a myth out of the dark side. There’s no fetishistic detail of the ritual of smoking opium; it’s just something that the characters do. (A lot.)

Thayil is ordinarily a poet, but I’m not familiar with any of his work on that side. His Wikipedia portrait shows him holding a guitar, which seems a little pretentious on first thought, and on second thought too. Video footage suggests that he also has issues with buttoning his shirts, or wearing anything under them.

Fiction: The Desperate Debut

Hawley believed in magic because magic was taking things as they were. Magic was discovering black holes, not harnessing them. It was observing the disparity of wealth, not inflecting it.

He wanted food. Noodles in umami that could be drawn into his mouth without a pause for breath. He left his home and his family, absorbed in a shattering riot of TV color, for the corner.

What was a home? Six unlike bipeds under roof and on camera. This was also a family. When the producers sat Hawley down and asked about his family, he included the producers, anonymously, in his description.

The lead producer had had another life as a regional network executive. Consolidations later, his facade perforated and peeled. He was paid the same as the associate producer, a green media studies major who had just finished her degree. One’s mortgage and child support was the other’s rent and student loans. Each always tried to skimp on their share of the takeout bill.

“But what about your parents?” they asked.

“What about your wife?”

Losing his job, the producer’s face said, had been like being disconnected from 911. He preferred to keep to himself. He never looked in mirrors; he knew he had no heart.

At the corner, traffic signals were against Hawley. And the train came through.

A Grand Am with more rust than trunk roared into view – faulty muffler. It did not stop. The bank’s front windows excused themselves gracelessly.

Bank security drew guns, but too slowly, and succumbed.

Magic. Hawley held this thought, from behind a bench. Magic was when you couldn’t inflect the world.

He was the fifth person to call 911. Immediately after, he called the producers. They were his family too.

The whole household came down to gawk. He joined them at the police barricade. He was intact, but hungry. Family shared a loaf of bread.

In their era, there were no great wanderings or tales of heroic exile. There was only glue. They would keep vigil for as long.

Read-(Still-)in-Progress: Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

Now we’re beyond Anna’s days as a young leftist and into her years as a disillusioned leftist whose friend’s son (spoiler) shoots himself. She’s also a moderately successful novelist who can’t finish her obviously autobiographical book. And that’s a problem.

A while back I mentioned that I avoided books about writers, but never followed up on why. So here goes. As usual, all roads lead back to Stephen King. His numerous author-heroes (Jack Torrance in The Shining, Bill Denbrough in It, and two of them in the atrocity that was The Tommyknockers) get a pass because their occupations were incidental; King’s books are mostly about people exploding in showers of pus. But as King drifted away from horror and toward the literary – I’m thinking of the first hundred-odd pages of Bag of Bones – his author-heroes became a problem. Bag of Bones‘s evocation of writer’s block may not have been King’s own neuroses put to page, but as with Jennifer Weiner and her heroine’s and her bad experience in TV, it’s hard not to take it that way.

Look, 2015 isn’t the Dark Ages. Writing is neither scarce nor in need of patronage to exist (the economics of literature are another thing entirely). Not only does this situation radically reduce the value of any individual book, it also makes it nigh-on insufferable to read about the travails of the writing life. I can tap as many words into this laptop as I want and world hunger will still exist, so if I’ve got that big a problem with my hobby I should probably get out of the house every once in a while. Similarly, making a main character’s writing life a main part of the novel is probably a sign that Lessing had too much time on her hands.

The Golden Notebook is still a book to finish, both because Lessing is a Nobel laureate and because the evocation of mid-20th-century British communism is still right in my wheelhouse. But I’m assigning demerits for Anna’s occupation, and I don’t think the book can recover.

The Centennial: March 10, 1915

Load shell. Fire. Burn hand on gun.

Load shell. Fire. Hope ears stop ringing.

Load shell. Fire. Check time. Only five minutes?

Load shell. Fire.

Between shots, Christopher held his fingers apart. Better that his blistered skin touched nothing but what it had to – the gun.

(Transports hadn’t seemed like something Eran would ever learn – but then he learned them. Now, it was like dropping in on a movie theater, running a film Eran had seen a thousand times. He knew the names without asking. The sounds of the trench were like home.)

Christopher kept well away from the 4-5 when it was firing. Last week, the recoil from the breech had broken Charley’s leg. Then again, that meant Charley was back in hospital, probably having a time with the nurses. He could be invalided home. He didn’t have to sleep in the trenches.

Artillery was better than going over the top. Then again, if the line folded, Christopher would be left behind and the Germans would have a clear path to him at his gun.

“They want us to conserve,” Lawrence reminded him. His face was black with smoke, some from the gun, some from his pipe.

“Take a longer breath between?”

Load gun. (Breathe.) Fire.

“Longer than that,” Lawrence insisted.

Load gun. (Breathe.) (Breathe.) Fire.

“See? It’s like clockwork.”

“Was that another one?” Mildred asked.

Eran was there in the Purple Onion. Marveling that Mildred took his story of transports at face value. Wondering what she said about them when he wasn’t around. They were still meeting. He was still assembling a dissertation outline. Outside, it was weather for short sleeves. Winter was over.

“Neuve Chapelle,” Eran said. “It started this week. I guess that was the kickoff bombardment.”

“Did the flashback match up across time zones? Like, is the clock’s now in Minnesota the hundred-years-later equivalent of the clock in Europe?”

“You know, I’ve never tried to figure that out.”

March 10, 1915: The Battle of Neuve Chapelle opens with a bombardment from British artillery. The bombardment lasts thirty-five minutes; in it, according to Martin Gilbert, more shells are fired than were fired in the entire Boer War.

It Made the Shelf: Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

Given that I liked the first half and it’s a short book, all Season had to do in the back half was stick the landing. It pulls this off in three ways:

  1. Maintaining control of the prose (still don’t know if this is the author or the translator, but it works either way)
  2. Saving the postmortem reveal of the mysterious elder’s crime for the end
  3. Killing lots of people

I’d give slight demerits for the very end. If Victorian serials hew to the marriage plot and Stephen King likes to have small-town folk defeat a great evil, literary fiction has as a default climax the irrelevant personal crisis. It tends to get chatted up on the back-cover blurbs: “Her journey brings her to a turning point that will forever change her.” After filling in the last piece of Mustafa Sa’eed’s story, our hero has one of these. It lasts about two pages and it ends in a Kostya Levin epiphany: Guess I’m not gonna change. Gondor Calls for Aid, and we’re done. A good in medias res ending ought to mean something to the book. This one didn’t need to be longer, but it would have been better if it had had a point.