Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More on Moore ...

"Tragedies, I was coming to realize through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classroom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society, full of sorrow and truth but without moral function. Stories of the vanquishing of the spirit expressed and underscored a certain societal spirit to spare. ... Where life was meagerer, where tables were only half full, the comic triumph of the poor was the useful demi-lie. Jokes were needed. ... And to ease the suffering of the listener, things had better be funny. Though they weren't always. And this is how, sometimes, stories failed us: Not that funny. Or worse, not funny in the least."

Of course, Moore's novel is funny, though not in any consoling way, weirdly, beautifully, madly, angrily funny. These lines, from Tassie Keltjin, our narrator of A Gate at the Stairs, express not only the class-consciousness of Moore's novel, but also its interrogation of conventional ideas about comedy and tragedy, and the function of storytelling in general. In a post-9/11 world, what can be more tragic than the absurdity of a phrase such as "enduring freedom," a phrase which has the power to lead to all sorts of violence, rhetorical and physical and psychological? As the psychoanalysts Davoine and Gaudillière have suggested in their work History Beyond Trauma, war ruptures the symbolic order and leads to a kind of madness, a break, a silence, a confrontation with an utter loss of meaning.

This is a deeply melancholic novel, bearing the marks of numerous losses that cannot be overcome or wished away. Moore refuses us all consolation (the tenderest expression of mourning here is also the novel's most mad moment). The novel addresses itself to the holes left by lost objects. Tassie is reading Rumi throughout, and though I don't know much about Rumi, what little I have read reminds me of the erotic poetry of Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross, whose love poetry to God is addressed, as Michel de Certeau has written, to a missing being. If God is dead in this novel, this loss still haunts with an absence nearly indistinguishable from presence, and it is to this haunting near-presence, which takes various forms in the novel, Tassie addresses herself.

While the novel is about class, education, race, war, and death, it is also, profoundly, about love. Not the kind of love that ends in a wedding, like a fairy tale, "Reader, I married him," but the kind poured out to an absence that will never answer. This novel ends with a witty, brazen response to Jane Eyre, to all novels of education and development and whatever definitions of the humanities they imply. Here, humanistic education is an education in the necessary impossibility of love.

But I don't want to overdo it too much. The novel is melancholically angry, too, about the violence that surrounds us, in small and large ways, and this bursts out in some of the most crazily funny lines and the most intensely lyrical descriptions I have read in recent years. This experience, more than anything else, is what stays with me.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, is tinged with a very special kind of madness that I have not experienced at such a pitch since reading Virginia Woolf for the first time as a young college student (around the same age as Tassie, Moore's narrator-protagonist). (I have, however, recently encountered it in Barbara Comyns's The Vet's Daughter, which was my favorite novel of those I read last summer, in the few free days of non-school-related reading.) It is, as J. Robert Lennon has remarked, a very strange novel. Moore, as always, is interested in the slippage of language, and she has given us here a narrator who is increasingly unmoored in language, constantly searching for a firm grip in a stream of retreating signifiers, and Moore has placed her in a plot in which certainty after certainty, object of desire after object of desire, is stripped away, laying bare the extreme lack at the center of something or other, a center always fading. God is dead, Moore tells us, as if we needed reminding, and we do, and all our spiritual seeking tells us that, if we are only brave enough to admit it. There is no wisdom, which is a kind of wisdom, but not a wisdom we can rely on. There is perhaps only poetry, only so long as it doesn't get maudlin or annoyingly sentimental. Tragedy is for those of a certain upper-level tax bracket, and comedy is for the poor who need to make laughter out of the worst possibilities. Moore's novel is neither tragedy nor comedy, though there is plenty (more than plenty) tragic in it ( reviewers' constant complaints of this fact reveal American readers' impatience with unhappiness or loneliness in fiction, which is probably why not many people I know have read St. Kitts-born, British novelist Caryl Phillips, who piles on the tragedy much more heavily than Moore, and yet can't be accused of getting it wrong, in a global sense--check out A Distant Shore), and it is not a comedy, though there is plenty to laugh out loud about (every single sentence in this novel sings, which is perhaps a fault, though not much of one). It is neither comedy nor tragedy, or both, or some absurd hybrid. I am grateful for this novel, in spite of, because of, alongside of all of its beautiful failings.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A touching tribute to J.G. Ballard from his daughter Bea, who paints a portrait different from the persona his stories and novels present. As much as I've admired Ballard for his SF pop-surrealism (a major influence on me for his ability to combine the "low" culture of SF with "high" culture avant-garde cred), I was not aware he raised his daughters himself after his wife died. I admire him even more now. Is somebody going to get me his Complete Stories for Christmas, please?