The Sinister Hand

Whereas, each employee of the Government of the United States is endowed with a measure of trusteeship over the democratic processes which are the heart and sinew of the United States; and

Whereas, it is of vital importance that persons employed in the Federal service be of complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States; and

Whereas . . .
from the preamble to Executive Order 9835, signed into law seventy years ago this week (March 21, 1947) by President Harry Truman

After the opening niceties, EO 9835 directed that all present and prospective State Department employees be subjected to “a loyalty investigation,” those investigating given access to all “pertinent” information — FBI files, military records, police records, school and job records, political affiliations, and “any other appropriate source.” Over the next five years, after some 4 million loyalty checks, the designated boards and tribunals had found “reasonable grounds” (this amended to “reasonable doubts” in the fifth year) to dismiss or not hire 378 people, none of them ever charged with any espionage- or treason-related crime.

Many historians regard EO 9835 as being politically motivated. In the 1946 Congressional elections the Republican Party had made the postwar Red Scare a central issue, promising to find and topple the “pink puppets in control of the federal bureaucracy.” When the Republicans swept the elections, gaining control of both houses of Congress, Truman hoped his “loyalty oath” would satisfy the anti-Communist lobby. Instead, EO 9835 emboldened J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, created the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations, energized the House Un-American Activities Committee, and opened the door for Senator Joe McCarthy — one of those Republicans elected in 1946 on the anti-Red platform.

Historians also connect these and related Cold War developments to the origins of America’s modern security state. In The Devil’s Chessboard, David Talbot argues that the key power player in this formative era was Allen Dulles, a corporate lawyer who transitioned to intelligence gathering during WWII and then became director of the nascent CIA from 1953 to 1961. As a youth, Dulles loved chess; as director, says Talbot, he “liked to think he was the hand of the king, but if so, he was the left hand — the sinister hand”:

Allen Dulles outmaneuvered and outlived Franklin Roosevelt. He stunned Harry Truman, who signed the CIA into existence in 1947, by turning the agency into a Cold War colossus far more powerful and lethal than anything Truman had imagined. Eisenhower gave Dulles immense license to fight the administration’s shadow war against Communism, but at the end of his presidency, Ike concluded that Dulles had robbed him of his place in history as a peacemaker and left him nothing but “a legacy of ashes.” Dulles undermined or betrayed every president he served in high office.

Describing Dulles as “the chairman of cloak-and-dagger America,” Talbot says he worked closely with “the principal members of his ‘board’ — the Washington and Wall Street men of influence who quietly dominated the nation’s decision-making.” Among other current discussions of “deep state” insiders and “leak state” outliers is Edward Jay Epstein’s How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft. While Epstein agrees with those who suggest that Snowden’s whistleblowing has generated a necessary debate about the “surveillance leviathan” now threatening America, he calculates that the “the Snowden Effect” — our current widespread distrust of all government policies and statements on the security topic — will cost us too much at home and abroad.

Whether or not the Trump administration’s emphasis on vetting and security will bring a new round of loyalty checks, the West needs increased vigilance, argues Edward Lucas in Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today. In his previous book, The New Cold War, Lucas explored Putin’s favorite weapons and strategies for political destabilization; in his new book the author offers “a message that officials find hard to articulate openly, and that the public seems so unwilling to hear”:

It is this: Russian spies’ activities are not just a lingering spasm of old Soviet institutions, twitching like the tail of a dying dinosaur. They are part of a wider effort to penetrate and manipulate, which targets the weakest parts of our system: its open and trusting approach to outsiders and newcomers . . . The battle lines were more clearly drawn in the days of the Cold War, when the threat was of communist victory. The corrupt autocracy that rules Russia now is playing by capitalist rules — and the threat is even more corrosive.







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Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel

Jonathan Swift lived from 1667 to 1745, dying just short of his seventy-eighth birthday. By then words had deserted the Dean of St.Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. “His memory had been clouding for years,” John Stubbs writes in his capacious new biography, “and he lost the ability to find names.” Swift’s last words, reportedly to a servant, were “I am a fool.” A fitting observation — clear, succinct, unsparing — from “the greatest of English prose satirists” as Ricardo Quintana called him in an introduction to the Modern Library edition of Gulliver’s Travels and Other Writings.

It is for the imagined voyage of Lemuel Gulliver to Lilliput and beyond, of course, that Swift is best known. Though “A Modest Proposal” is more often quoted; this is the 1729 report in which a fictional bureaucrat explains how the surplus children of Ireland could be farmed for English diners: “A Child will make two Dishes at an Entertainment for Friends, and when the Family dines alone, the fore or hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish.” Like his compatriot Oscar Wilde, (how he would hate that comparison), Swift is a font of quotes. For example:

“He was a bold man that first eat an oyster.”
“…after the first Bottle he is no disagreeable Companion.”
“Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”
“It is worse to need friends, than not to have them.”

Such lines conjure up one Swift, the gimlet-eyed curmudgeon, while other writings reveal the misogynist, the egoist, the lover, the avenger. All of which materialize in Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, John Stubbs’s vigorous rendering of the Irish Anglican cleric who became the champion of an island that he detested and of a people whom he largely despised. “By the 1730s he was a hero and talisman in Dublin,” Stubbs writes, “known commonly as ‘the Patriot’ while styling himself ‘the king of the mob.’ “But this radicalism, Stubbs emphasizes, “stemmed from…an extremely authoritarian, conservative outlook” according to which England’s chief crime was not its colonization of Ireland but its exploitation of the kingdom.

This crucial distinction leads us into one political maze: There are many others. Swift, after all, lived in an empire that was convulsed by war and unrest, roiled by the Popish Plot and the Williamite succession, and much given to hanging, drawing and quartering. He jousted with battling Whigs and Tories, was a skillful courtier, an intimate of monarchs, a tormenter of the powerful. In addition, Swift’s antecedents had been indelibly scarred by the brutality of the English Civil Wars. This is familiar ground for Stubbs (previously the author of Donne: The Reformed Soul and Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War) and his pithily elegant style makes it relatively easy going, even for the general reader. There may be a few detours too many — into the thickets of diocesan enmities, for example – but Stubbs enlivens his diligent narrative with occasionally startling portraits and images. Citing the perils of eighteenth-century childbirth, for instance, he writes that Swift’s mother “faced the trial of the midwife’s finger, as it searched her womb for a weak spot to tear the epidermis with a sharpened nail or thimble, and so speed up the birth.” Then there is Queen Anne on whom “seventeen pregnancies – all resulting in miscarriages or young deaths – took a heavy toll” and whose “anxieties grew in proportion to her corpulence and fragility.” Indeed, women are central here, particularly the two with whom Swift was most intimate: Esther Johnson, his “Stella,” and Esther Vanhomrigh, his “Vanessa.” Scholars have for decades speculated on the relationships that inspired some of Swift’s most playful and most passionate writing and Stubbs acknowledges the various opinions but wisely avoids embellishing them. When Swift writes to Esther Johnson “I wish my cold hand was in the warmest place,” this biographer leaves it at that.

Stubbs does, however, return throughout the book to Swift the “near-abandoned, half-orphaned child” who at the age of three could read, at the age of six mastered Latin declensions and who later recalled his schooling as “Confinement ten hours’ a day, to nouns and Verbs, the terror of the Rod, the bloody Noses, and broken Shins.” The wounded child begets the sardonic genius? Stubbs knows better than to reduce his subject to such a cliché. He even concedes that Swift “ridiculed the idea of understanding writers through biography… the sort of approach recommended by idiotic ‘moderns.’ ” No theory, certainly, can explain Swift — and at the end of this biography the reader may conclude that no one volume can contain him. There is simply too much there. The politics and religion (often interchangeable); the afflictions of the body, heart and mind; the enduring friendships with Alexander Pope, John Dryden (a distant cousin), John Gay, Richard Steele and Joseph Addison; the idea of England; the reality of Ireland. And all the words, even the last. For Swift, of course, wrote his own epitaph:

“Here lies the body
Of Jonathan Swift, S.T.D.,
Dean of this cathedral,
Where wild indignation
No more
Can tear his heart.
Go, traveller
And be like him, if you can,
Vigorous to his utmost
As liberty’s avenger.”

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Spaceman of Bohemia

The path to becoming a lifelong reader of science fiction that wends through youth and adolescence is a well-charted one. Fans of my generation, after devouring all the Dr. Seuss books they could glom onto, often moved on to franchise fiction like Tom Swift or the justly forgotten Rick Brant adventures. Then they might discover quirky beginner series like the Mushroom Planet books of Eleanor Cameron, or A Wrinkle in Time, before segueing into the hardcore yet invitingly transparent genre works by Andre Norton, or the Scribner juveniles of Heinlein. The gateway to reading mature works of science fiction was then thrown wide open, and we were hooked for life and seldom abandoned science fiction as we entered our adult years. Today, the incredible wealth of young adult fantastika has broadened this introductory avenue even more, luring curious teens into the habit of reading SF by any of a hundred franchises or solo works — if they have not already been hooked by the cinema of the fantastic.

But what about adults who never developed a taste for science fiction when they were young? Sometimes the marketplace itself produces a book that, for whatever obvious or enigmatic reason, seems to leap out and snare novice readers. Perhaps the most recent such title is Andy Weir’s The Martian. If we look at its success, we can identify several factors that attract the newbie. A heroic yet Everyman character with whom it is easy to empathize. A clear-cut quest or problem to be solved. A story that doesn’t require familiarity with other SF stories or tropes. A small degree of pleasant estrangement from the mundane, an exoticism that is not utterly weird or off-putting. An ultimate hard-won victory, instead of a tragic ending. A depiction of science that renders it essential to human progress and survival, a force for good rather than evil. Familiar interpersonal relations, involving primal emotions such as love and fear.

If we cast about for classics that meet these parameters at least in part — books that could entice the non-reader of SF — we find that the list is short. I would first point to such perennials as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. H. G. Wells‘s The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The War of the Worlds. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land might still allure. Certainly the success of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline paralleled that of The Martian, both coincidentally released in the same year. Humor is perhaps the one vital ingredient lacking in The Martian (a deficit that Matt Damon’s droll line readings helped redress in the film version) and the popularity of Douglas Adams’s books among all kinds of readers attests to that powerful factor.

An SF novel does not necessarily have to be “upbeat” to win over a general audience, as testified to by the canonical role of Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Jack Finney’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. A book such as Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, with its meticulous mimetic depiction of a telepath losing his powers in a contemporary milieu, could easily hook the typical New Yorker subscriber.

Sometimes authors deliberately try to create an accessible novel that mimics the “gateway drugs” of their own youth. John Varley’s Thunder and Lightning series, which began with Red Thunder, is perhaps the most successful recent example. Steven Gould’s Jumper series is another, and so is the Everness series by Ian MacDonald, launched with Planesrunner. Less well known are a couple of books by William Barton: The Transmigration of Souls and When We Were Real. Richard Morgan’s debut novel, Altered Carbon, took the sometimes arcane tropes of cyberpunk and blended them with enough noir to facilitate engagement by newcomers. Kim Stanley Robinson‘s trilogy about the colonization of Mars lured many new fans by its meticulous realism.

Perhaps the newest outstanding success in this vein is the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, which has spun off a well-regarded television show. If we were in this essay considering High Fantasy, then George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones would be an obvious analogue to Expanse: an undiluted genre property that nonetheless reaches beyond the fanboys.

And then of course, there are sui generis brand-name writers such as Stephen King, who seems magically able to make vast crowds of civilians accept far-out tales of time-travel and apocalypse without flinching.

Although successes like The Martian come infrequently and cannot be programmed or predicted, we might be seeing a similar case with the debut novel from Jaroslav Kalfař, Spaceman of Bohemia. But whereas The Martian was all engaging “competency porn” and featured easily apprehended surfaces, Kalfař’s novel is resoundingly about failure and the interior life. In fact, it is a pedigreed descendant of the landmark novels of Barry Malzberg, who at the height of his career represented the deliberate, postmodern dismantling of the Golden Age verities about space travel. In books such as Galaxies, Beyond Apollo, and The Falling Astronauts (all of which have been recently reissued by Anti-Oedipus Press in handsome new editions), Malzberg portrayed astronauts as neurotic basket cases, subject to existential doubts, sexual tensions, bureaucratic headaches, and bouts of hallucinatory mysticism, with space travel itself being seen as an unnatural violation of cosmic and ethical proprieties. Kalfař is fully onboard with this assessment.

The book opens in 2018, with the launch of the Czech space shuttle JanHus1. Instantly, given the absolute historical insignificance of any actual Czech space program, we feel we are in the slightly absurdist territory of Leonard Wibberley‘s books about the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, notably The Mouse on the Moon. This mismatch between overweening ambition and humbling reality will continue to flavor the tale.

Onboard the craft is a single astronaut, Jakub Procházka, an expert in cosmic space debris. His mission, funded by several corporate sponsors, is to investigate a mysterious and perhaps threatening cometary dust cloud, newly materialized out around Venus. (The cloud, discovered by India, was named Chopra — a dig perhaps at a certain popular New Age icon?) No other nation has volunteered, and so it’s up to the Czechs. Four months outward bound, four months back. Surely, with the support of his loyal ground crew and daily audiovisual chats with his wife, Lenka, as well as some delicious comestibles such as Nutella and Tatranky candy bars, Jakub can perform his task satisfactorily. And he might well have succeeded, despite some minor emotional storms, had not an alien materialized inexplicably inside his ship.

The smell was distinct — a combination of stale bread, old newspapers in a basement, a hint of sulfur. The eight hairy legs shot out of the thick barrel of its body like tent poles. Each had three joints the size of a medicine ball, at which the legs bent to the lack of gravity. Thin gray for covered its torso and legs, sprouting chaotically, like alfalfa. It had many eyes, too many to count, red-veined, with irises as black as Space itself. Beneath the eyes rested a set of thick human lips, startlingly red, lipstick red, and as the lips parted, the creature revealed a set of yellowing teeth which resembled those of an average human smoker. As it fixed its eyes on me, I tried to count them.

This creature, which will eventually allow Jakub to call it “Hanuš,” wishes to interrogate Jakub and learn all about “humanry,” without offering much in return. It consumes all of the larder’s Nutella, too. At first believing himself to be hallucinating, Jakub eventually accepts the creature. With his Earth-resident wife having ditched him, he needs the company. And then, as the craft impacts the dust cloud: transcendence, extinction, rebirth, in a most unexpected manner. The latter half of the novel finds Jakub trying to reassemble his life and dreams, post-Chopra, under the most unexpected conditions.

Kalfař wisely and deftly provides a second track to Jakub’s narrative: his poignant familial back-story. Jakub’s father was a state-sponsored torturer under the Communist regime. Upon the death of Jakub’s parents, the young boy goes to live with his grandparents. One day, a stranger arrives, a victim of the interrogations conducted by Jakub’s father, and now, rich and free in the new Czech Republic, seeks revenge. And so, interspersed with Jakub’s spaceflight, in long episodes richly evocative of a vanished past, we see Jakub’s sociopolitical path in his changing nation, as well as his early romance with Lenka. All this history will eventually blend with the outer space experiences to produce deep insights about Jakub’s destiny and that of his country

Kalfař’s prose, Jakub’s first-person voice, is equal to the task of explicating such weighty fates. Alternately droll, sardonic, weary, gravitas-laden, melancholic, tender, and outraged, Jakub conveys the full dynamic range of the emotional tempests he must survive on this odyssey of self-discovery.

My chest felt hollow. It was a strange sensation, the opposite of anxiety or fear, which to me was always heavy, like chugging asphalt. Now I was a cadaver in waiting. With death so near, the body looks forward to its eternal rest without the pesky soul. So simple, this body. Pulsing and secreting and creaking along, one beat, two beats, filling up one hour after another. The body is the worker and the soul the oppressor. Free the proles, I could hear my father saying. I almost cackled.

Spaceman of Bohemia is not your standard Anglo-American science fiction: In its allegories about geopolitical power trips, it hews more closely to the work of the Strugatsky brothers. In its cognitive derangements and depictions of ontological levels of reality, it stands as a cousin to the work of Stanislaw Lem. The work of Gary Shteyngart — like Kalfař, a writer with a foot in both is his native country and his adopted one — might also come to mind.

Jakub and Hanuš approach the interface of Chopra with the strains of the opera Rusalka playing over the ship’s speakers, evoking similar classical-music-tinged interplanetary trajectories in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then they experience its majesty much as 2001‘s Bowman does the Monolith’s:

I passed through the knot of time like sand slipping away inside an hourglass, grain by grain, atom by atom.

Time was not a line, but an awareness. I was no longer a body, but a series of pieces whistling as they bonded. I felt every cell within me. I could count them, name them, kill them, and resurrect them. Within the core, I was a tower made of fossil fragments. I could be disassembled and reassembled. If only someone knew the correct pressure point, I would turn into a pile of elements running off to find another bond, like seasonal farmhands journeying from East to West.

This is what elements do. They leap into darkness until some-thing else catches hold of them. Energy has no consciousness. Force plots no schemes. Things crash into one another, form alliances until physics rips them apart and sends them in opposite directions.

Such bravura metaphysical insights, matched with Realpolitik drama, might very well propel Spaceman of Bohemia into the realm traversed by The Martian and other tales for novice travelers and seasoned astronauts alike.

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“Kind of a Strindberg Play”: Phillip Lopate Tells His Mother’s Life

“My father’s greatest regret in life is he didn’t strangle my mother to death,” Phillip Lopate tells me while sitting at his kitchen table in Brooklyn. “And my mother regretted that my father was alive. She said, ‘I don’t want to kill him, but, you know, it would be nice if somehow he would pass away.’ ”

He laughs.

“So this is a kind of Strindberg play, you know?”

Some people have mothers who are larger than life. Lopate says that his mother, Frances, “had an amphitheater personality,” and so it’s no surprise that she pursued an acting career when she turned fifty. She needed a bigger audience than her family.

Frances Lopate lived from 1918 to 2000, and over the course of her eighty-two years she “was forced to reinvent herself over and over: working at a beauty parlor, becoming a housewife and a mother, running a candy store, working in war factories, starting a photography business and a camera store, clerking for garment companies, going into show business, touring America, doing commercials, going back to school . . . It was a twentieth-century life.”

Over three decades ago, Lopate, the prolific essayist and director of the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University, asked his mother to talk about her life story, a request that resulted in over twenty hours of recorded interviews.

“As a child I felt a little overwhelmed by my mother’s voice, so when I taped her it was an opportunity to hear her story but also to interrupt it and interrogate it.”

But Lopate didn’t listen to the tapes right away. Instead, he waited until fifteen years after his mother died to transcribe them. The result, A Mother’s Tale, is a nonfiction book that gives Frances a lot of time in the spotlight. She’s extremely candid with her son, opening up to him about her sex life, including her many affairs, and how she couldn’t stand his father.

Lopate says that “there’s a scientific side of me that’s interested in the construction of self.” By listening to the tapes, he could see how his mother formed her own identity. Much of the narrative is developed through direct quotes from the interviews. The result is a highly intimate work, more personal than many of Lopate’s carefully wrought essays, because his mother says things he himself would never say

“I thought it was a very intriguing demonstration of the way that somebody can move towards the truth and then back away from it,” he says. “How rationalization works. So it seemed to me like a good demonstration of how even intelligent people have a hard time moving past their defenses. And it also seemed to me a good demonstration of the wariness and mistrust that can exist between parents and children.”

A Mother’s Tale shows how much we are shaped by the ones we love. Lopate says part of his personality is in response to his mother. “The personality of an essayist, which is to say somewhat detached, cynical.” In fact, Frances accused him of being “clinical,” while her son found in his mother a person “fueled by anger.” They loved each other, but it was a “thwarted love,” a relationship that required some distance between them.

For himself, Lopate doesn’t find anything wrong with being clinical. One of the common problems he sees in some of his students’ work is the inability to remove themselves, as well as “speaking out of the wound” with a lack of perspective.

It’s not that the perspective has to be a definitive one. Lopate says that it’s a good time for essays “because essays tolerate and even celebrate uncertainty, skepticism, subjectivity. You don’t have to be a specialist to write an essay,” Lopate says. “You can air your contradictory thoughts . . . and I think that’s where we are as a people now. We’re genuinely perplexed.”

One of the many pieces of advice he gives to his students is to see their parents as “individuals in their own right” when writing about them. “They existed as individuals before they ever had you, and they continued as individuals,” he says. It’s advice that A Mother’s Tale clearly takes to heart. Frances, and her opinions about “being thwarted by others” and being married to a lackluster husband, comes through clearly. Lopate’s mother was a “monologist” who understood the power of narrative, and a person who could captivate and frustrate any audience who was willing to listen to her. She was stubborn, especially in her judgments of others.

“Part of what I was doing in talking to her,” Lopate says, “was trying to nudge her away from some of her grudges, partly because ultimately I wanted her to forgive me and not hold such a grudge against me.”

His plan didn’t work, unfortunately. Even when Frances had some insights, she’d inevitably revert to her original opinions. “The stalemate between us was unbreakable,” Lopate writes in the book. “We were too much alike.”

Asked if he would ever do this kind of project again, he’s quick to say no. “This is a one-time experiment,” he says. “Nobody’s voice has dominated me to the degree my mother’s voice dominated me.”

Photo of Phillip Lopate:  Sally Gall

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A Letter from the Bottom of the World: On Robert Lowell, Poetry and Madness

In a 1959 letter to his fellow poet John Berryman, Robert Lowell wrote,

I have been thinking much about you all summer, and how we have gone through the same troubles, visiting the bottom of the world. I have wanted to stretch out a hand, and tell you that I have been there too, and how it all lightens and life swims back . . . The night is now passed, and I feel certain that your fire and loyalty, and all-outedness carry you buoyantly on. The dark moment comes, it goes.

Berryman had telephoned him the night before; he had just separated from his second wife. Lowell had indeed been there too, he really had “gone through the same troubles”; had, like Berryman, conducted an unstable and at times tumultuous personal life, had struggled with alcohol, had suffered from devastating mental illness. “The bottom of the world” was a place both men knew well. Neither would ever fully break free of the cycle of suffering. Berryman would commit suicide in 1972, while Lowell would continue to suffer periodic breakdowns and frequent hospitalizations until his death from heart failure in 1977. The dark moment comes, and then it goes; but for both men it always came again, later if not sooner.

Other poets of the American midcentury also suffered from depression. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton committed suicide; Randall Jarrell is widely believed to have done so as well. Theodore Roethke and Delmore Schwartz, too, drank heavily and suffered from periodic bouts of mental illness. All of them, despite the challenges they faced, managed to achieve works of deep beauty and lasting significance. Lowell, for his part, was regarded while he lived as the leading American poet of his generation; his reputation has receded a bit since then, but he remains fairly firmly established. Reading the account of his life, and in particular the detailed account of his illness, Kay Redfield Jamison offers in Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire, one feels astonished that someone so severely afflicted could have managed to continue to write at all, let alone that he could have written the poems — poems that combine audacity and tenderness in roughly equal measure — on which that reputation is based.

Part of Lowell’s misfortune was to suffer in an era in which understanding of manic-depressive illness — Jamison prefers this term to the more current “bipolar disorder” — was limited at best. Lithium, the treatment that worked best for Lowell, came late onto the scene; by the time he began taking it in 1968 he had been sick for decades. (“It’s terrible,” he told Robert Giroux, “to think that all I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.” Even then, while the lithium treatments improved his life considerably, they did not permanently relieve the manic cycle or prevent him from being hospitalized on occasion; the proper dosage and application of the new drug still needed to be worked out. Electroconvulsive therapy was tried early on; its ameliorations were at best temporary. As for psychoanalysis, Lowell found it interesting at times but mostly ineffective: while his emotional life was undeniably complex, the root of his problem was chemical. A late poem, “Notice,” expresses the poignant skepticism and frustration of an afflicted man whom medicine has repeatedly failed to save:

The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination, or enthusiasm —
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression —
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

In manic-depressive illness, episodes of acute mania are followed by plunges into depression. In between are reprieves, periods of normalcy and calm. Those who knew Lowell talked about him as if he were two different people: one a tender, charming, brilliant, and entertaining man — Derek Walcott once referred to the “gentle, amused, benign beauty of [Lowell] when he was calm” — the other a chaotic, terrifying, and frequently delusional dynamo spinning wildly out of control. Jamison, though her focus lies largely on his illness, is keenly aware that Lowell was more often than not sane and lovable; she does not let the reader mistake the madness for the man. “He was known as a gentle and kind man when he was well,” she writes. “That he was well most of the time is underappreciated; the shadow cast by his illness was long.” The playwright William Alfred, a close friend of Lowell’s — like all of Lowell’s close friends, he called the poet Cal, a shortened form of Caligula or Caliban — touchingly describes one of the several occasions on which the police had to be called to restrain and subdue the poet:

So the police arrived at Marlborough Street to take him away. Before he left, he wanted to sit for a few minutes in [his daughter’s] room and watch her sleep. He did this, with me telling the cops: “He won’t be long.” Then we left in the police wagon. And I remember the look on Cal’s face — it was as if the real Cal, the Cal I knew, were looking out at me from within the mania. It was very moving. I’d never seen him crazy.

Still, as different as the two Lowells felt to those who knew him, Jamison in no way suggests that the poet’s mania was deeply separate or easily cleavable from his talent. Indeed she makes a fairly convincing case that he would not have been the writer he was, or became, if it had not been for his illness. She has argued in previous work — most notably in 1993’s Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperamentthat a general connection exists between manic-depressive illness and artistic genius. (A professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Jamison herself suffers from manic-depressive illness and has written a highly regarded memoir about her own experience of it.) The manic state, she argues, opens artists to new possibilities and prompts them to take risks — artistic and otherwise — they would not otherwise consider taking:

Mania infects the individual who is manic with the certainty that the newly generated ideas are important and must be shared . . . The elated mood that usually accompanies mania disinhibits, makes the taking of risks and exploration more likely and creative combination of ideas more probable. To be in the grip of mania is to experience the unimaginable, try the unthinkable, do the unforgivable . . . The element of mania referred to as flight of ideas . . . is at the heart of manic thought. Flight of ideas is clinically unmistakable, characterized by a torrent of near-unstoppable speech; thoughts brachiate from topic to topic, held only by a thin thread of discernible association. Ideas fly out, and as they do, they rhyme, pun, and assemble in unexampled ways. The mind is alive, electric.

Lowell himself had once told Allen Ginsberg that “the particular hopped-up state of mind in which he found himself [during manic episodes] was precisely the state of mind in which his best ideas for poetry occurred.” Still, the use of the word unforgivable in the above passage reminds us that, however productive such episodes might prove to be in the long run, the risks are not only artistic but moral and personal as well, and the effects can be highly damaging. Lowell’s behavior during his manic episodes, for example, could be dangerous. He more than once assaulted his first wife, Jean Stafford, breaking her nose on one occasion, attempting to strangle her on another. His second marriage, to Elizabeth Hardwick, endured for over twenty years; it was a deeply loving marriage but also an intensely troubled one. It was common for Lowell, during his manic periods, to seek out new women to have affairs with; he often convinced himself he was in love with them and several times announced to Hardwick that he was going to leave her and begin a new life with someone else. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Hardwick said later, “but even if I had, I still would have married him. He was not crazy all the time — most of the time he was wonderful.” But he eventually left Hardwick too, for the English writer Caroline Blackwood, who became his third wife and who also drank heavily and suffered from depression. (Lowell and Hardwick, it should be noted, achieved a partial reconciliation in his final months.)

Setting the River on Fire is a bit too long, in places redundant, at times a bit undisciplined. Jamison wants to cover everything, and her instinct is to include everything; the book contains, among other materials, selections from Lowell’s medical records, a great deal of general information about manic-depressive illness, and substantial accounts of Lowell’s ancestors and their mental issues. It is, nonetheless, a fascinating and frequently moving book, one that adds considerably to our understanding of a challenging and essential artist, and one that for the most part avoids the standard perils of writing about mental illness in the context of artistic creation. It avoids romanticizing madness, as well as the sort of objectionable reductionism that insists on seeing an artist’s entire oeuvre as resulting from, or being single-mindedly concerned with, his struggles with his illness. Lowell wrote insightfully about his manic and depressive episodes, and about the periods of recovery in between, but Jamison resists the temptation to treat all of his poems as veiled commentaries on his mental condition. She remembers, and reminds the reader, that he wrote about a great many other things too.

Indeed, what concerned Lowell most deeply, according to Katie Peterson in her introduction to his  New Selected Poems, was the depiction of a human consciousness that was highly self-aware, aware in particular of its own ephemerality and of the ephemerality of the world that it inhabited and navigated from moment to moment. (March 1st marked the centenary of Lowell’s birth; the appearance of these books at this particular moment is no accident.) The voice of Lowell’s later poems, Peterson writes, is one that comes “straight from a human body, in the middle of an ordinary day . . . The Robert Lowell I offer in this brief selection emphasizes the perishability of life, its twinned quality of fragility and repetition, as framed by the structured evanescence of daily consciousness.” Peterson, herself an accomplished poet, has made a selection that successfully emphasizes and dramatizes this aspect of Lowell’s work. In light of what Jamison’s book reveals about the difficulties of Lowell’s existence, the prevalence of this theme — the focus on momentary survival and experience in contrast to, or at the expense of, the security of sustained, coherent existence — should not surprise us.

Reading the New Selected Poems alongside Setting the River on Fire, other aspects of Lowell’s writing stand out as well. The biblical imagery of early poems, particularly his famous poem “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” takes on new resonances for a reader who is aware of Lowell’s fanatical early-life stint with Catholicism. (This happened during his marriage to Stafford, who found herself barred, by her newly devout husband, from watching movies that had not been approved by the Church or reading newspapers — or, for that matter, reading novels by anyone other than Proust, James, Tolstoy, or Dostoyevsky.) And the long prose piece “91 Revere Street” — from Life Studies, the 1959 volume that revolutionized Lowell’s poetic voice and became emblematic of the so-called confessional school of poetry — becomes increasingly affecting the more one learns about Lowell’s difficult childhood, his family’s eccentricities and internal tensions, and, in particular, his mother’s disappointment in her husband and the barely suppressed hostility she felt toward her son.

It is hard not to view the work gathered in New Selected Poems as a chronicle of the long, slow decline of Lowell’s talent. I remain among the minority convinced that “The Quaker Graveyard” represents the pinnacle of Lowell’s achievement, unmatched by any of the more informal and direct poems in Life Studies and later volumes. (Admittedly, “Skunk Hour” and “For the Union Dead” are tremendously powerful poems; either would be almost anybody’s best poem, though they are not Lowell’s.) There is more widespread agreement that the work following Life Studies shows somewhat diminishing returns. This is partly, no doubt, the result of Lowell’s lifelong struggle with his illness; but it also has something to do with his obsessive revisionism, his tendency to go back repeatedly and rewrite past work rather than breaking free and moving into fresh new territory. Individual poems appear in different versions in different books, and entire books are sometimes rewritten; 1969’s Notebook 1967−68 is expanded to become 1970’s Notebook, which is then split into History and For Lizzie and Harriet. It wasn’t Lowell’s first bout of radical revision, as a 1959 letter to Elizabeth Bishop makes clear:

In the hospital I spent a mad month or more re-writing everything in my three books. I arranged my poems chronologically, starting in Greek and Roman times and finally rose to air and the present with Life Studies. I felt I had hit the skies, that all cohered. I[t] was mostly waste.”

Here Lowell draws a more or less explicit connection between his rewriting and his madness. But these episodes point to a different element of Lowell’s character as well: his profound restlessness, his inability to be satisfied with a single version of anything, a single plotline, a single life. It was a restlessness that found release during his manic periods, when he would fall in love with someone he had just met and be seized with the promise of running away and beginning life anew; as if his very existence were a text he could revise and, this time, get exactly right — until, each time, he fell back to “the bottom of the world,” forced to admit once again that it wouldn’t cohere, that it was “mostly waste.” Which explains, perhaps, why, as I read through the poems Peterson has selected for New Selected Poems, the lines I found most affecting were from a poem I had never taken much notice of before, a late poem called “Hospital 1” from Lowell’s penultimate collection, The Dolphin:

Too many go express to the house of rest,
buffooning, to-froing on the fringe of being,
one foot in life, and little right to that:
“I had to stop this business going on,
I couldn’t attack my doctor anymore,
he lost his nerve for running out on life . . . ”
“Where I am not,” we chime, “is where I am.”
Dejection washes our pollution bare.
My shoes? Did they walk out on me last night,
and streak into the glitter of the blear?
I see two dirty white, punctured tennis-shoes,
empty and planted on the one-man path.
I have no doubt where they will go. They walk
the one life offered from the many chosen.




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Something Intricate and Fierce


I, who seemed to myself full of things to say, who had all of Shillington to say, Shillington and Pennsylvania and the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America to say . . . some terrible pressure of American disappointment, that would take a lifetime to sort out, particularize, and extol with the proper dark beauty.

John Updike, in his memoir Self-Consciousness

Rabbit at Rest is one of the very few modern novels in English…that one can set beside the work of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Joyce and not feel the draft.

reviewer Jonathan Raban

John Updike was born eighty-five years ago this week (March 18, 1932) in Reading, Pennsylvania — model for the city of Brewer, capital of Updike’s fictional universe and battle zone for his theme:

My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules. Something quite intricate and fierce occurs in homes, and it seems to me without doubt worthwhile to examine what it is.

Updike made that comment in a 1966 Life magazine interview, the author just a few years into his half-century, sixty-book career. The most celebrated of his two dozen novels feature Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the Brewer High School basketball star who, as his city and region decline, finds prosperity as a car dealer. Published at ten-year intervals from 1960 to 1990, the four-book series tolls a bell for the Middle America that Rabbit, in an often frantic zigzag path, both pursues and flees.

At the opening of Rabbit Is Rich, third book in the series, Harry stands gazing out of the showroom window of his Toyota dealership, convinced that “the great American ride is ending.” At the end of the fourth book, Rabbit at Rest — like the third book, winner of the Pulitzer Prize — Harry consents to dress up as Uncle Sam for a hometown parade; as he mingles with the crowd at his old high school, the “glory days” past competes with the uncertain future:

He expects to come across his old girlfriend, Mary Ann, as she had been then, in saddle shoes and white socks and a short pleated cheerleader’s skirt, her calves straight and smooth and round-muscled . . . springing into joyful recognition at the sight of him. Instead, strange people with puzzled Eighties faces keep asking directions, because he is dressed as Uncle Sam and should know. He has to keep telling them he doesn’t know anything.

Rabbit’s prolonged decline ends in Florida, “death’s favorite state.” Updike’s own death in 2009 was sudden, coming just a few months after his annual checkup revealed stage 4 lung cancer. After hanging on as long as possible in his Massachusetts home, he was moved to a local hospice — described by Adam Begley in his biography Updike as “a mildly pretentious, tastefully landscaped example of suburban-sprawl architecture, a place he would have skewered in exact and loving detail” in the Rabbit books.

Updike’s death is one of six discussed in Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End. Roiphe describes Updike’s “Creeper,” one of a number of poems he worked on over his last weeks (collected in Endpoint: And Other Poems), as perhaps the most graceful expression of a peaceful death that I can think of”:

With what stoic delicacy does 
Virginia creeper let go:
feeblest tug brings down
a sheaf of leaves kite-high,
 as if to
say, To live is good but not to live — to be pulled down with
scarce a ripping sound,still flourishing, still stretching
toward the sun — is good also, all
photosynthesis abandoned, 
quite quits. Next spring 
hairy rootlets left unpulled 
snake out a leafy afterlife
that same smooth-barked oak.

Whatever Updike’s own politics — biographer Begley notes that Updike on his deathbed rejoiced at President Obama’s inauguration — some commentators say that Updike lives on as spokesman for embattled Middle Americans, whose current angst and anger he saw coming: “Revisiting Updike’s Rabbit novels is a rendezvous with prescience, for no collection of postwar fiction could help us better understand how working-class populism — in the form of Donald Trump — prevailed on Election Day 2016″ (Charles McElwee, The American Conservative magazine).


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A Brush with the Past: Artists in Fiction

Readers drawn to lushly imagined quasi-historical fiction that dramatizes the importance of art in people’s lives are in luck — as the current bumper crop of novels about well-known painters and paintings attests.

Why such affinity between novelists and artists? For starters, they share keen observational skills and an ability to see more than meets the eye. Their work entails constantly facing down a blank page and trying to fill it — often painstakingly — with what they make of the world. One way writers deal with that daunting challenge is to start with a known entity — whether an intriguing personage or an enigmatic painting that suggests a moving tale — rather than create a character from whole cloth.

But Anka Muhlstein reminds us in The Pen and the Brush, her new study of the importance of art in the works of nineteenth-century French novelists, that for centuries the flow of inspiration ran in the opposite direction: Artists were more likely to find inspiration in literature — including the Bible and mythology — than the other way around. Muhlstein finds it striking that “not one well known [French] novelist of the 1800s failed to include a painter as a character in his work,” while in the 1700s, the only French writer who took an interest in art was Diderot. What happened? In a word: museums. The creation of museums after the French Revolution opened up new access to art, which previously had been cloistered in palaces, mansions, and churches. Writers flocked to the Louvre and found inspiration in the masterpieces they saw. So, it appears, do contemporary novelists — and their readers.

Famous art and artists have become mainstays of historical fiction in particular. Irving Stone’s blockbuster biographical novels, Lust for Life (1934), about Vincent Van Gogh, and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1919), about Michelangelo, were as popular in their day as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013). Somerset Maugham’s still-fresh 1919 novel, The Moon and Sixpence, inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, explores the heavy toll of creativity with a penetrating portrait of a stockbroker who abandons his wife and children to pursue his art in Tahiti. Maugham’s narrator comments on the very first page, “To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults.” It’s an issue that has surely fueled as many books as faults.

Dawn Tripp’s Georgia animates Georgia O’Keeffe’s passionate but stormy relationship with Alfred Stieglitz in a fictional memoir. Her book explores the intersection of life and art by portraying a fiercely independent woman who, championed and guided by the accomplished older photographer and art dealer, struggled to shape her own story.

Georgia dramatizes the couple’s battles for control, especially after the 1921 exhibition of Stieglitz’s at-the-time scandalous nude photographs of O’Keeffe, which attracted attention to his young protégée’s work but, to her dismay, also framed her art as a collection of emblems of feminine sexual experience. As Tripp writes in her author’s note (an ever-important feature of historical novels that separates fact from fiction), “While O’Keeffe allowed passion — creative and sexual — to be a key inspiration for her art, she would explicitly come to resist and ultimately refuse to allow her art to be cast in gendered terms.”

Tripp strains to translate into words what O’Keeffe was attempting to capture in light and color on canvas, sometimes descending into triteness or mawkishness. But her admiration for the iconoclastic artist extends well beyond her bold abstractions, calla lilies, and cow skulls to O’Keeffe’s personal fearlessness and unconventionality, a trailblazer who insisted on autonomy. It’s a theme that still resonates today.

Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) shifted the focus from artist to subject with her indelible portrait of a Delft household in the 1600s and the maid who modeled for Vermeer. This enormously popular book unleashed a spate of novels springing from a focused appreciation for a single work of art. One of my favorites is Marisa Silver’s Mary Coin (2013), which fleshes out the harsh life behind Dorothea Lange’s iconic Depression-era photograph, Migrant Mother — deepening the reader’s understanding of both Lange’s portrait and the human condition.

Christina Baker Kline’s new novel, A Piece of the World, follows in this vein, spinning an atmospheric if none-too-subtle fictional memoir, narrated by the woman in the pale pink dress straining across a field toward a desolate grey farmhouse in Andrew Wyeth’s haunting 1948 painting, Christina’s World. Her emaciated arm and twisted position, we learn, was the result of a crippling, congenital nerve-damaging disease, for which she refused treatment or a wheelchair. (Kline spells out the motor sensory neuropathy as Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome only in her author’s note, since it was never diagnosed in her character’s lifetime.)

Born in 1893, Christina Olson grew up in rural Maine in an austere coastal farmhouse with no running water or electricity. Jilted by an early lover, she bears her hard, constricted life with steely, bitter resignation. When young Andrew Wyeth, who marries a local summer resident, finds inspiration in the barren Olsen homestead, he lets a crack of light into Christina’s dark existence. With A Piece of the World Kline imagines a stark life redeemed (somewhat) by art and the flash of unexpected transcendence that occurs when one is truly seen and understood.

The complex plot of Ellen Umansky’s debut novel, The Fortunate Ones, also revolves around a single painting, albeit a fictional composite of Lithuanian-born artist Chaim Soutine’s many portraits of bellhops. This painting plays a pivotal role in the lives of two women, one born in Vienna in 1927, the other a child of 1970s New York.

Rose Zimmer, sent to England as part of the Kindertransport in 1938, spends years after the war searching first for evidence of her parents’ deaths, and then — as a sort of proxy — for her mother’s beloved Soutine painting, stolen by the Nazis. Although she realizes she’s lucky to be alive, she is wracked by survivor guilt. New York lawyer Lizzie Goldstein’s life has also been derailed by guilt — over the disappearance of two of her father’s artworks, a Picasso drawing and Soutine’s Bellhop, the night when she threw an unauthorized high school party at their Los Angeles home while he was out of town.

In the wake of Lizzie’s father’s sudden death, both women are keen on solving the mystery of what happened to the twice-stolen Soutine. But it’s noteworthy that neither actually loves the painting. Umansky’s novel is more concerned with the emotional attachment to a work of art than with what that art expresses in itself.

Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs is another tale involving a long-lost painting. The novel conjures a fictional celebrated artist and one of his canvases, his answer to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Schlink tells us in his author’s note that his imaginary painting bears some resemblance to Gerhard Richter’s Nude on a Staircase.

But the real focus of this frequently far-fetched narrative is on three men’s obsession with the woman in the painting. Irene Adler disappears, along with the canvas, for decades — to the consternation of her ex-husband, who commissioned the work; the artist, who briefly seduced Irene but now just wants his work back; and the narrator, a rigid lawyer who improbably gets pulled into the mess. The painting becomes a pawn and a stand-in for the inaccessible woman, but Schlink’s ultimate concern is with the choices we make about how we want to live.

In contrast, Ali Smith, the brilliant Scottish polymath who revels in drawing unexpected connections between different art forms and seemingly disparate subjects, deploys art in her novels to flag what really matters. In How to Be Both, fifteenth-century Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa’s gender-bending tale about the creation of his allegorical fresco of the seasons is book-matched with the story of a teenage English girl mourning the sudden death of her smart, wily mother, who took her daughter to see del Cossa’s work shortly before she died.

Smith’s latest novel, Autumn, the first of a planned seasonal quartet, weaves a tribute to Pauline Boty (1938−66), the talented blonde bombshell who was the only female member of the 1960s British pop art movement, into a tale of intergenerational friendship that champions kindness, hope, and a love of art and language over the dismaying breakdown of civility following the Brexit vote. Boty, she writes, was a “free spirit . . . equipped with the skill and the vision capable of blasting the tragic stuff that happens to us all into space, where it dissolves away to nothing whenever you pay any attention to the lifeforce in her pictures.”

In other words, Smith wields art as neither commercial commodity, sentimental attachment, nor metaphor but as a plumb line into what is best in humanity. And indeed, all of these novelists are drawn to paintings that pare away the inessential to capture a vibrant lifeforce. A museum curator could bring the chain of inspiration full circle by mounting quite a spectacular exhibit with artwork culled from these books.

The Barnes & Noble Review


The following is an excerpt from musician and memoirist Marcia Butler’s new book The Skin Above My Knee, just published by Little, Brown.

Audiences  marveled  at  this young violinist — how he  performed with effortless abandon, uninhibited by the technical challenges in the violin concerto repertoire. Tonight, our audience was newly enthralled, on the edge of their seats inside Carnegie Hall, as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto moved at breakneck pace. In the principal oboe chair, alongside the fifty-plus other musicians in the orchestra, I leaned forward, listening intently, not wanting to miss a second of the violinist’s nuanced interpretation. My eyes wandered over the conductor’s head to the upper balcony of Carnegie Hall — 137 steps above the lobby. The  very first time I performed on this stage, so many years before, I’d also gazed up to the farthest patron. Young and new to the freelance scene in New York City, and fresh out of music conservatory, I remember pinching myself for my good fortune: I had made it to that venerable and most august of concert halls.

Years later, I felt I knew the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto almost as well as the soloist; I’d performed it within the orchestra dozens of times over many years. Considered to be perfectly constructed, this iconic work of the violin repertoire emerged from Mendelssohn’s genius at age sixty-six. Unencumbered by compositional traditions of his time, he experimented with a concerto form in flux, ultimately becoming a critical composer in bridging the late-classical, muscular writing of Ludwig van Beethoven and what would become the lush and broadening romantic realm of Johannes Brahms. The violin concerto reveals what a precocious innovator Mendelssohn was, retaining the usual fast-slow-fast movements of classical concertos but breaking with form by having the soloist enter immediately at the beginning of the first movement rather than using a lengthy exposition by the orchestra to introduce the thematic material. All three movements are performed attacca, or without a break. Neither the violin soloist nor the orchestra has the opportunity to regroup after each movement, whether to retune or just relax. We begin, and then it is “go” until all noses cross the finish line. No matter how many times I’d performed that concerto, I felt compelled to jump out of my seat at the end along with the audience.

Along I played, in love with the soloist’s interpretation of this warhorse favorite, feeling as if I were part of an intricate Flemish tapestry made of silky sounds and woolen harmonies. We musicians in the orchestra carefully balanced our accompaniment, and I emerged occasionally with my own solo here and there. The flow was instinctive, as if we could play it in our sleep. But not quite. Music of the late-classical period can be repetitive and easy to mix up, because melodies are repeated many times, and whole sections may be revisited, albeit in a different key. It isn’t a matter of not knowing the piece well enough but of losing one’s presence in time, or perhaps the mind’s uncanny ability to function on different levels of consciousness simultaneously.  And when a long work is performed, the mind wanders to surprising and perhaps unimaginable places — almost like dreaming onstage.

Perhaps this particular conductor was thinking about the reception afterward and the donors he needed to chat up. He certainly wasn’t thinking of the musicians before him, his arms offering us no assistance, his eyes shut as if enthralled. No matter. A conductor’s public persona often trumps his conducting skills. Charming potential donors brings in necessary revenue, after all. And while he was no genius on the podium, we knew that this conductor could effectively execute the public “fearless leader” aspect of his job and guide us with minimal help.

Other minds also wandered. Just before stepping onto the stage, a section violinist had a screaming fight with her husband by cell phone. We had all heard it, trying not to listen too care- fully. She surely had other things on her mind as she crimped her violin under her chin, preparing to play her next entrance. My eyes drifted toward a friend in the viola section. Our eyes locked. She signaled a very subtle “Oh, brother” look, lifting her brows slightly. I knew just what she meant: she detested this conductor. Glancing back over to the violinist who’d fought with her husband, I noticed her hooded and dull stare while she played a particularly difficult passage in a tutti section. Yet the music continued, beautifully.

I indulged in my own momentary lapse, wondering how my new puppy was doing and worried because I’d left her at home alone for far too many hours. Now the third movement was beginning, so I refocused and started diligently counting my rests, preparing for my next entrance.

Many  complex lives wove snugly together  on  the  stage, and in spite of this communal daydreaming, the bitching and moaning by means of conspiratorial glances bandied back and forth, and the nonverbal high jinks, a wonderfully transcendent performance was emerging. Scattered minds and thoughts notwithstanding, we remained intensely occupied with the task at hand: the performance by a superb violinist and a sensitive and attuned orchestra of one of the greatest violin concertos ever written.

An orchestra functions not only on these levels but also as a tight, organic, undulating ball of kinetic energy, similar to an enormous shoal of minnows — thousands of which can span across half a mile. Consider the whimsy of one minnow. Suddenly, that first minnow decides to make a 180-degree turn, and every single one of the others makes the same exact turn at precisely the same second. Spanning half a mile, where minnow number 1 can’t even see minnow number 50,000, they pivot on an invisible fulcrum. This intuition is undoubtedly primal and surely important for their survival: it is also wondrous to watch. That evening, our soloist made his own whimsical version of a 180-degree turn, and we became his personal school of minnows. The first little fish veered, and an orchestra awakened.

We felt the subtle rupture in the music, not sure of what had happened or even if it was significant. But as it turns out, it was big: the violin soloist skipped eight bars, heaven only knows why. Daydreaming or just losing his place, he jumped and kept on playing as if nothing had happened. But what occurred next was unfathomable, really, except if you consider the humble minnow.

When the violinist made his error,  the principal trumpet player instantaneously took on the role of minnow number 2. He had been counting many rests, waiting for an important entrance, but when the soloist leaped, he jumped, too, and put the trumpet to his lips to play his heralding entrance. He did this without thinking, it seemed, and in a split second. Upon hearing the trumpet entrance, half the orchestra jumped eight bars and followed him. By beat 4, all fifty-plus musicians were perfectly aligned. That was all it took: four very fast beats.

A small smile appeared on the face of the violin soloist as he realized what he’d done — and how the orchestra had saved his performance. Mendelssohn may have known from his grave that eight bars had been deleted from his magnificent violin concerto. But the audience was none the wiser, because those four seconds were a mere blip on the radar. Our conductor, whose eyelids were still fluttering and shut, listening to his internal and solitary rapture, was the last to catch up.

Compositions are painstakingly rehearsed in order to establish the  basic interpretive  arc for how the  work will be heard by an audience. But in performance, many previously agreed-upon subtle details and gestures worked through dur- ing rehearsal may be spontaneously tossed out. Skipping eight bars of music aside,  musicians love it  when something un- expected happens. These moments are experienced as group impulses, emanating from the collective beating heart of the ensemble. Calling this nonverbal communication is too simplistic. It is not just an intuitive understanding among highly skilled artists but rather a developed, honed expertise realized after thousands of hours of practice and a lifelong dedication on the part of each musician to the mastery of his or her instrument. Musicians are gifted, no doubt, but they  are also muscled Clydesdales. Perhaps it was our dogged preparation that helped dig the violinist out of his potentially embarrassing mess. A piece of music, played perhaps thousands of times before, can be interpreted spontaneously or manipulated quickly because of an error, a fact profound in concept and occurrence. And thrilling. We call this making music.

When we finished the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the ecstatic audience clapped with extended and then renewed force. The  soloist came back for several bows and played an encore of unaccompanied Bach. We left the stage and filed upstairs to the dressing rooms, another concert at Carnegie Hall under our belts.

“Nice job, Bill,” we simply said later to the trumpet player as he was packing up, getting ready for his commute home to Leonia, New Jersey. The section violinist had a make-up cry with her husband on the cell phone. I packed up my oboe quickly, rushing so that I could get home to let my pup out the door. The violin soloist didn’t show up to thank the orchestra — or the trumpet player, for that matter. Our conductor was nowhere to be found.

As I walked out the stage door of Carnegie Hall with my friend the violist, she took up her rant about the incompetence of conductors in general. Nodding in agreement, I let her vocal treatise float into the background. I was already musing about the performance that evening, dreaming again about the first time I performed at Carnegie Hall and how in awe I was of the sheer beauty of the space and the impeccable, world-class acoustics. Even now, after my many years of performing concerts all over the world, Carnegie Hall still softly rocks me — suddenly I felt very young.

I noticed the quickening of a deep vessel expanding within my heart; always beating, always pulsing. Walking down the subway steps, I remembered the very day when my guileless four-year-old ears first experienced the life-altering impact of music. I halted midstep and stood, motionless, needing to grab that fleeting, now ancient, sensation; to hold it close again for just a moment. My heart slowed, aching for the next beat.

Excerpt from Marcia Butler’s The Skin Above My Knee republished by permission of Little, Brown.

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High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic

Critic Andrew Sarris once called High Noon “the favorite Western for people who hate Westerns.” That Bill Clinton supposedly screened it a staggering twenty times in the White House says a lot about his fantasy life, not to mention Hillary’s and/or Chelsea’s tolerance for skull-melting tedium. But Bill’s passion for Big Macs didn’t win him many plaudits from gourmets, either. Although it’s still a touchstone to everyone who grew up on it and even won star Gary Cooper an unlikely Best Actor Oscar, this 1952 movie about a frontier marshal stubbornly facing a pack of killers alone after everybody else in town refuses to help him has never been especially beloved by serious fans of America’s defining screen genre.

In fact, purists like to say High Noon isn’t really a Western at all. Producer Stanley Kramer’s specialty was socially conscious, stacked-deck message movies, and this one’s stilted reliance on six-shooters and cowboy hats to add novelty is midway between a convenient device and a fraud to people who revere the complex folk poetry of John Ford’s Stagecoach or the exultant obsessiveness of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Even Cooper, whose presence does lend the movie some badly needed horse opera cred, thought so. “I hate to disappoint a lot of customers, but High Noon wasn’t new or especially genuine,” he once said. “There was nothing especially Western about it.”

Glenn Frankel, whose last book combined the making of Ford’s masterly The Searchers with the story of the actual nineteenth-century Indian kidnapping that inspired it, would certainly like everybody to think better of poor old High Noon. But you don’t have to agree with him to find High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic engrossing. Frankel is a lively and original social historian first and foremost, and this is an expertly detailed, occasionally revelatory reconstruction of a time (1951), a place (Los Angeles), and a fraught political milieu (the Red Scare traumatizing movieland’s idealistic if foolish Commies, ex-Commies, and liberals alike).

It’s also a sympathetic but trenchant set of portraits of the key players involved in bringing High Noon to the screen: Kramer; writer Carl Foreman; director Fred Zinneman; Cooper; his then twenty-two-year-old costar, Grace Kelly; and composer Dmitri Tiomkin, among others. Now all but forgotten, Foreman is the central figure here. That’s not only because he cooked up the movie’s premise, or thought he had — its belatedly recognized resemblance to John W. Cunningham’s magazine story “The Tin Star” recast it in the credits as an adaptation — but because he found himself living it.

He and his wife had joined the Communist Party in their younger years, drifting away after the 1939 Soviet-Nazi pact. But he’d been too minor a toiler in movieland to attract the witch-hunting attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, when the unfriendly witnesses known as the “Hollywood 10” went to jail for refusing to testify about their Communist associations. By the time HUAC came back for a second bite, however, Foreman had teamed up with independent producer Kramer on a few probing, scrappy postwar movies, from Champion (Kirk Douglas’s breakout role) to The Men (Marlon Brando’s screen debut). He was subpoenaed just as he completed High Noon‘s script.

From then on, the movie’s production played out in tandem with Foreman’s decision not to “name names” — the pound of flesh the committee ritually extracted from witnesses who wanted to avoid being blacklisted by the movie industry — and the legal and professional mare’s nest of maneuvers and negotiations he faced as a result. Since he was also discovering who his real friends were, he reworked the screenplay into an ever so slightly vainglorious metaphor for his own beleaguered situation. “I became that guy,” he was to recall. “I became the Gary Cooper character.”

What makes the book compelling is the rich texture of everybody’s back-stories and Frankel’s rendering of the larger picture, from the appeal of Communism in the 1930s to the looming demise of the studio system and the politics of hysteria that gave the HUAC clout. Even readers broadly familiar with the era’s history will enjoy Frankel’s knack for the right summarizing detail or revealing quote as he sets the scene. It’s one thing to be aware of Hollywood’s virtual monopoly on the popular audience’s imagination before television came along, another to learn that “there were more movie theaters in America than banks.” As for the Depression-era Chicago of Foreman’s youth, here it is in a nutshell: “Even Al Capone opened a soup kitchen to feed the hungry.” The social (as opposed to socialist) side of Hollywood Communism’s appeal is captured in screenwriter Philip Dunne’s remark about a colleague who joined simply to make friends: “To her, the Communist Party was a sort of glamorous Lonely Hearts club.”

Partly thanks to the benefit of almost seventy years’ distance from its subject, Frankel’s High Noon is also more compassionate than the movie it celebrates. With understandable bitterness, Foreman’s final script reduced the townspeople who abandon Marshal Will Kane to his fate to a cardboard gallery of hypocrites and poltroons. Sullenly resentful of his appeal to their consciences, they aren’t even allowed any grace notes of ambiguity or remorse. Nor is Kane’s resolve ever in any real doubt, though Foreman’s may have been. (Some people still think he did cough up a few names later on to broker his return from exile.)

By contrast, Frankel keeps showing us people who want to do the right thing and are mortified when they fall short. Perhaps the saddest case is Kramer, a staunch liberal who nonetheless had to choose between turning his back on Foreman and wrecking his own career to — as Frankel makes clear — no purpose whatsoever. Admirably, despite his own political conservatism, Cooper let it be known that he’d back Foreman’s bid to set up his own independent production company once he and Kramer parted ways. But Cooper, too, ended up buckling under pressure from, among others, John Wayne: “Even Gary Cooper couldn’t stand up to the blacklist,” Frankel writes.

Foreman ended up relocating to England, eventually — and notoriously — writing the Oscar-winning script for David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which the novel’s author, Pierre Boulle, who didn’t speak English, got the official credit. By 1961, with the blacklist all but moribund, he was able to write and produce The Guns of Navarone under his own name. But aside from that one hit, his return to Hollywood’s good graces never panned out as he’d hoped; he’d lost a decade that otherwise might have been his creative peak. Even so, the loss to us, as opposed to him, is hard to gauge. Ultimately, what he and Kramer had most in common was a fatal hankering to be judged for their noble ambitions, not their artistry — and, yes, that includes High Noon.

The case Frankel tries to make for the movie’s greatness is unlikely to sway skeptics. When it comes to 1950s political allegories in Western disguise, some of us will always prefer Nicholas Ray’s deliriously feminized Johnny Guitar, with Mercedes McCambridge — the future voice of Satan in The Exorcist — sensationally parodying Joe McCarthy decades before Melissa McCarthy’s gender-bending Sean Spicer. By comparison, High Noon looks awfully creaky today, aside from Katy Jurado’s cynical sizzle as Kane’s mysteriously cast-off mistress. (Even Cooper’s fabled stoicism is unconvincing; he’s almost neurotically stoic.) Once acclaimed as an innovation, Foreman’s suspense-inducing stratagem of having everything play out in real time from 10:40 a.m. until Kane’s nemesis arrives on the noon train mostly conceals how repetitive the material is: another doleful trudge down the street in search of allies, another floridly craven rejection, another insert shot of a clock ticking away.

Instead, the book is most impressive in how skillfully it turns High Noon into a many-faceted, still resonant cultural artifact, as well as a signal moment in the careers of everyone involved: Cooper’s last hurrah as a box office draw, Grace Kelly’s first prominent screen role, Foreman’s ideological crucible, and Kramer’s goodbye to his wishful self-image as a crusading idealist. Beyond his acute sense of the interplay between political beliefs and character, the depth of Frankel’s research into every stage of the movie’s genesis and production is formidable, but he’s also mastered how to use it, to the point that there isn’t a dull page here. Just about all that’s missing is so much as a mention of “Hah! Noon!,” the biliously funny Mad magazine parody that some of us knew by heart before we ever saw the original, but that’s all right. So far as I can tell, he didn’t miss anything else.

The Barnes & Noble Review

The Case of H.P. Lovecraft: Paul La Farge on “The Night Ocean”

“My husband, Charlie Willet, disappeared from a psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires on January 7, 2012.” The sentence that opens Paul La Farge’s bewitching, book-haunted new novel The Night Ocean hints at the sibling genres of horror and mystery, both of which lend their DNA to the story that unfolds. Moreover, this kind of  just-the-facts entry into a world where consensual reality will later be banished in favor of madness, obsession, secrets and unbelievable truths is, of course, the signature opening flourish of H.P. Lovecraft, the early-20th century American master of “Weird Fiction” and the creator of the Cthulhu mythos, a body of stories celebrated for their unique contribution to dark fantasy and infamous for their reliance on racist and xenophobic terrors.

The echoes of Lovecraft’s style are deliberate, and the enigma of Charlie’s vanishment – investigated with heartbreakingly rational care by his wife Marina – becomes part of a story that draws on the mystery of Lovecraft himself. When Charlie discovers a long-neglected memoir by one of Lovecraft’s admirers, which fills in a surprising gap in the author’s biography, he sets out to investigate and document a story that will change the world’s understanding of Lovecraft and his work. But as Charlie journeys down the rabbit hole of stories — stories that lead from Florida in the 1930s to the horrors witnessed by liberators of the concentration camps, from a clutch of utopian science fiction writers in New York to a community of paranoid expats in 1950s Mexico City – he encounters forces that he hasn’t bargained on facing. Some seem to be arrayed mysteriously against his work, and some seem to come from within Charlie himself.

Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, The Night Ocean is a work that compels readers to see just how far within its nested stories they can follow Charlie’s quest. The result is a work about possession and loss, love and betrayal, and our unending thirst for the strange truth only fiction seems to be able to provide.

I sat down recently to talk to Paul La Farge about the origin of The Night Ocean, and all of the questions and obsessions it invites us to consider. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.– Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: Was The Night Ocean a long-gestating idea, or was there a specific event that made you go “Aha!”?

Paul La Farge: Yes, there was. I was the writer-in-residence at Bard College in 2005, and one of the people on the faculty there is the poet and novelist Robert Kelly. I’ve been a fan of his — read his novel The Scorpions, which blew my mind. I got to go out to dinner with him, and somehow it slipped out that I was a fan of Lovecraft, that I’d been a Lovecraft fan as a kid. And it turned out that he knew a lot about Lovecraft, and he had been friends with Lovecraft’s friend Samuel Loveman, who was a used-book seller in New York for decades. And he told me the story of Lovecraft’s friendship with Robert Barlow, and he said, “Did you know that Lovecraft traveled to Florida to spend time with this very young fan in the summer of 1934 and 1935?” I had no idea. I had never heard of Barlow. So he told me a little bit about that, and then he told me some things about Barlow’s life, about what happened after Lovecraft died, and how Barlow had gone on — he’d moved to San Francisco, he’d become an experimental poet, and then he’d moved to Mexico City and become an anthropologist and an authority on the civilization of the Aztecs.

I had no idea about any of it, but as he talked, I thought, Wow, that’s actually a pretty good idea for a book. So I went home and I looked Barlow up, and his life was more interesting, if anything, than Robert had made it out to be. The questions about Lovecraft’s visits to Florida were also quite interesting, and there was no obvious answer to the question: What was a forty-three-year-old horror writer doing for two months at a stretch with a sixteen-year-old fan? What did they do? What was the nature of their relationship? What happened during the time they spent together? None of that was known, at least as far as I could find out.

BNR: Did Barlow himself ever comment on that relationship?

PLF: Both of them commented on it. Barlow wrote two memoirs about Lovecraft. I can’t remember if they’re both about the time that Lovecraft and Barlow spent together in Florida, but they both touch on that time. Lovecraft wrote dozens of letters to friends and relatives while he was in Florida, talking about things that happened while they were together. But at the center of it, there was this question mark, which Barlow doesn’t address directly, and neither does Lovecraft.

So I thought: That’s something that I would like to write a book about. But not exactly to fill in the blank. Not just to say, you know “Gosh, could it be that H. P. Lovecraft, the renowned American horror writer, was (a) homosexual and (b) in a relationship with a sixteen-year-old fan?” The question of Lovecraft’s sexuality has come up before. It’s one that people who study Lovecraft have been asking for decades. And the answer to it isn’t going to be as interesting as the question. Whatever anybody decides is going to be hypothetical, first of all, because we can’t know. But also it’s: OK, he was gay — and your point was what? There’s something a little deflating about coming down on one side or other of the question, of saying: This was Lovecraft’s relation to Barlow; this was Lovecraft’s sexuality; this is what happened.

So what I wanted to do wasn’t so much to answer the question as to write a novel about the question. I thought: OK, how can I do that? Maybe I could have somebody propose an answer which creates a scandal in the world of Lovecraft fandom, but then it turns out to be a fiction, and we have to live through both the scandal and the disruption of Lovecraft’s reputation, but then also the unmasking and the revelation that all of these people have burnt the wrong witch.

BNR: You reconstruct a view of what could have happened in that Florida, in that idyll, one with a melancholy, confused element. But it also has a real sweetness, this uneasy, fraught relationship between the older writer and this younger man, this boy, who is trying to emerge almost from this sort of chrysalis of himself, and become something new.

Then around this wonderful kernel of a romance that can’t quite come into being you expand into what I think of as a love story about stories, but one that takes a very dark turn. In a sense it seems to be a book about becoming possessed by books.

PLF: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a really lovely way of putting it. All of the things that you’ve said were on my mind. One thing that’s notably absent from Lovecraft’s biography is the experience of romantic love. He was someone who was married for a couple of years, but when you read the story of his marriage you get the feeling it was maybe a warm friendship which he converted into marriage out of a feeling of what he ought to do as an adult, rather than because he had a passionate attachment to his wife.

BNR: They lived apart for some time as well, did they not?

PLF: They lived together in Brooklyn, and then, for economic reasons, she took a job somewhere else, and Lovecraft stayed behind, and then they separated. And he never had another romantic relationship.

So there was a part of me, I guess, maybe, that wanted to give that to Lovecraft, and say, “OK, this is what you might have had; you could have had this love story; and there might have been some actual warmth, some actual affection in your life.”

BNR: That’s something it seems we frequently want to find in the lives of writers. If they did not have an overt grand passion or a deep and well-evidenced romantic life, one wants to find that buried somewhere in there. It’s satisfying to us to look for secret love story.

PLF: Yeah. I think because we find love stories satisfying in themselves, and also because we want to be sure that these writers are people like us, that they have the same desires and the same attachments, or maybe even that they are people whose lives are more exciting and more sort of passionate than ours. And the truth might be quite different, that someone like Lovecraft was just a person for whom that wasn’t very interesting, and the reason that he was able to do what he did as a writer was because his energy and his attention were directed elsewhere.

The other part of your question about literary possession is also something that was on my mind. What happened is, I started to play around with this book in 2005, and I wrote some preliminary draft type things, some scenes, some chapters, and I set it aside, and I kept coming back to it and coming back to it and coming back to it.

I began with a little bit of story about Spinks, and his relationship in the ’40s and ’50s to the world of fandom.

BNR: I don’t want to spoil too many of the intricate, layered revelations of this book. But Spinks is a figure who emerges for the reader rather later in the story as a science fiction fan who has a particular engagement with the sort of world of Lovecraft, and begins to sort of insert himself into that world.

PLF: Yes. He is the editor of Lovecraft’s erotic diary, the intimate diary of H. P. Lovecraft. I couldn’t find a way, starting from that place, to sustain the story. It kept sort of going and then stopping, and going and stopping. Finally, I was at the New York Public Library, I had this wonderful fellowship at the Cullman Center, and I was reading a lot about Lovecraft and Barlow, and their world, and their friends and their friends’ world, and I immersed myself in it.

I came back to one of Lovecraft’s novels — really Lovecraft’s only novel. It’s a book called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which he wrote right after he left New York and went home to Providence, and he had a kind of creative burst, and wrote a lot of the things that he’s remembered for now, and among them was this book. In a way, it’s the most autobiographical of Lovecraft’s fictions. It’s about a young man growing up in Providence who likes to walk around at night. He’s fascinated by history. He’s fascinated by architecture. He’s an antiquarian. He takes a strong interest in genealogy, and he looks into his own family tree, which ends up getting him in some sort of supernatural trouble. But the character feels very close, in some ways, to Lovecraft. He shares a lot of Lovecraft’s tastes and Lovecraft’s interests, and Lovecraft’s qualities. That story is also, I should say, a story about possession. It’s a story about possession which does not end well.

BNR:   I think it’s a story that many people who encounter Lovecraft through some of only his most famous short stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” would be find a little surprising. It takes the shape of more of a ghost story of the kind that we might be more familiar with from other writers —  rather than the encounter with cosmic-scale monsters as in so many of the other tales.

PLF: The story does become quite lurid by the end. But there is a kind of sobriety to the opening parts of the book. Lovecraft’s a very competent writer. He doesn’t have to be florid. And he’s engaged with all the world in that book, in a way.

So I knew that I wanted to do something with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. I knew that would be a reference point for The Night Ocean. And in a moment of something, of confusion or desperation or whatever it was, I thought: OK, I’m going to make an outline of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and then I’ll see if I can use that structure, and I’ll see if there’s maybe some way that I can borrow it for The Night Ocean. So I made the outline, and then I started thinking about the different layers of The Night Ocean and how they might map onto the plot of Ward, and it turned out that there was a really natural fit. It was very easy for me to reimagine the episodes of Ward as scenes in the story that I wanted to tell. And that became the outline of The Night Ocean.

So it does follow the structure of Lovecraft’s novel, and in that sense, it’s literally a possessed book. It is possessed by the spirit of another book. I thought that was actually something that I wanted to happen. I wanted that feeling to be there.

BNR: I think that feeling is absolutely there! But you embed that very Lovecraftian and literary tale in a story that seems very poignantly about two people and their marriage.  Where did that part come from?

PLF: It comes from a few places. But I think most importantly, it comes from a desire on my part to write a book that would be of interest to readers who aren’t Lovecraft fans, to readers who aren’t already steeped in Lovecraft’s mythos and the various books and creatures and ideas that populate his cosmos. I think for that to be the case, I needed some of the characters not to live in that world already. There needed to be people who are coming at it from outside, so that they can be introduced to that world, and then they can kind of wander deeper and deeper into the mystery of it — but one step at a time rather than presuming all of this knowledge.

So Marina (the narrator who opens the book and who narrates much of it) is that character, for me. She’s our witness, our guide, our point of entry into this world. But it’s not her world

BNR: She’s kind of a Lovecraft skeptic, in the sense that Lovecraft is not a writer whose sensibility would have lent itself to her. She is a scientist.

PLF: That’s right. She’s a doctor. She’s a levelheaded person. She’s an empirical person. (Lovecraft was also an empirical person, but never mind.) And she’s never read Lovecraft when the book begins. She’s never even heard of him. So she really has to get the story told to her from the beginning, which gives me a chance to tell this story to the reader from the beginning. And it also maybe puts the story in a perspective where there’s at least one point of view that we feel we can trust. The other characters tell us stories, and there are a lot of true things in them, but they aren’t always completely true stories. At least with Marina, there is some ground under her feet, and maybe under our feet, while we’re reading her.

BNR: So Marina’s entry, her unlikely entry into this world, this kind of fantastical world, or this literary world, is through her husband, Charlie, a writer who opens the Pandora’s Box that this book winds up being.

PLF: Marina is a character who knows when to stop. She has limits. She will engage with something, but not past the point where it’s dangerous to her. Charlie doesn’t. He is willing to throw himself completely into the things that he’s interested in, into the things that he cares about. And that’s dangerous for him, to be that engaged, to immerse yourself in someone else’s world. You run the risk of being taken over. You run the risk of getting too involved.

BNR: So Charlie’s taken over by the project he’s involved with, by the voices or the stories of the people that he’s involved with. But that pliability also shows up in his willingness to put all kinds of masks on himself. He is constantly being fooled, but he’s also someone who does a significant amount of deception.

PLF: That’s true. I imagine those things, in a way, going hand-in-hand. That Charlie’s sense of who he is, is porous, so he is able to let other people in. As the book begins, he has made his living, such as it is, writing profiles, so he sort of immerses himself in other people’s lives and then writes about them, and that’s what he does to get involved with the story of Lovecraft and Barlow, which is where the book begins. That porosity is great for him as a writer of profiles. It allows him to almost become the person he is writing about, to see the world from that person’s point of view, to really get into their head and to write these very empathetic stories. But it also means that when he’s thinking about who he is, and how to present himself, he has to deal with the same porosity, and maybe there’s a kind of vagueness or a kind of uncertainty. Who is he? And in order to answer that question, he puts on a mask. He tells a story. He says, “This is who I am now; this is the part I’m playing.” And there’s a kind of deception in that.

BNR: One of the wonderful things about The Night Ocean is that there is never a point at which we feel like we’ve reached the level “base reality.” There’s always the possibility that there is another mask that might be seen to slip if we were only looking at it from the right angle. It’s about how we decide a story is true and how we decide a story is not true.

PLF: Yes.

BNR: It’s also populated with figures who are both based on real people from American history, and especially literary history, like William Burroughs and Donald Wollheim and other luminaries of science fiction, and they all  come with their own passionate interpretative lenses. They all give us an opportunity to see what’s happening as “it’s not that reality; it’s really this reality.”

PLF: In an everyday way, we put on masks. We see the world through the lens of our interests and our beliefs. It’s not that we are hoaxes, or that we are making ourselves up as we go along. But we do tell different stories about who we are, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We do tell different stories about what’s happening around us, depending on what we believe — and not only what we believe to be true but what we believe to be right, or good, or bad or whatever. So there is a constant creation of fictions that goes on as we live our lives and as we get along with each other. And if we try to get past those fictions, it’s very difficult to try to find out who someone is really.

When I was getting ready to write The Night Ocean I thought a lot about the active unmasking, and the way that hoaxes are exposed, and the hunger for truth that leads people to expose hoaxes, and to feel like, OK, now we know the real story. We hate to feel like we’re being lied to. Nobody wants to believe that what we’re being . . . We want to believe that we’re being lied to, but we don’t like it. We want to know what’s behind the lie. We’re hungry to find out the true facts.

BNR: The latter sections of the book really turn on our desire for the act of unmasking.

PLF: Yes. It’s very satisfying for us to say, “You say X, but I know Y to be the case,” because that puts me in a position of power, because I know the truth that you may or may not know, but that you’re not sharing with me. In a way, that’s the appeal of Lovecraft’s stories, that they are telling you the real truth about the cosmos: By the way, you didn’t know it, but Cthulhu is sleeping at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and humans are latecomers to the earth, and there’s all this other intelligent life and countless millennia of weird history have happened before people ever came along.

BNR: Horror is almost always a narrative that relies on the idea of “you don’t know the real story.”

PLF: “You can’t handle the truth.” The horror story is an initiation. It’s taking you from your place of ignorance, and it’s leading you into the world of initiated, and then, however unpleasant that world is, at least you have the consolation that you know the facts. You’ve been wised up.

BNR: Unless you choose to see it as not a consolation. In Lovecraft’s stories, getting wised up is the worst thing that can happen to a person.

PLF: It’s the worst thing that can happen to the characters. But for the reader, it’s very satisfying. I think that’s why Lovecraft appeals so strongly to teenagers. Right? Maybe teenage boys in particular, who are very, like, curious about the world, and also maybe sometimes a little uninformed. If you’re a teenage boy, you really want to be wised up. You want to feel like you know something that other people don’t.

But one thing that The Night Ocean is about is: What if you can’t just raise the mask and find out the true facts? What if the story that the person is telling kind of is their true self. What if that’s where the truth was? So this whole act of unmasking isn’t necessarily taking you from ignorance to knowledge. It’s just taking you from one kind of knowledge to another kind of knowledge.

BNR: By the way, this is a book that’s also very funny in a lot of places. There’s a wonderful section following Charlie as he goes to a Lovecraft convention to promote his book and give talks and stuff like that, and the local bars have Lovecraft specials, and he eats Lovecraft-themed seafood dishes…

PLF: Cthulhu calamari.

BNR: Which sounds either tasty or terrifying, depending on how you see it.

PLF: That was an actual thing. I went to a gaming convention years ago in Indianapolis, and there was a whole Lovecraft-themed menu at one of the restaurants, and they had Cthulhu calamari. They were terrible.

BNR: I was curious whether The Night Ocean was strongly influenced by other reading — as I read I thought of stories by Jorge Luis Borges that follow the logic of trying to get through the myth, the narrative, the mystery that you are presented with, only to find at the end that what you achieve isn’t a sort of firm ground of truth beyond that, but rather the simultaneous pleasure, and sometimes terror, of a world which is all narrative, which is masks upon masks upon masks.

PLF: Yes. I think about that Borges story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” about an imaginary encyclopedia that encroaches more and more on the real world until it feels as though the whole world is becoming a fiction from this encyclopedia.

BNR: There’s something in both stories that suggests the virality of a certain kind of fantasy.

PLF: I think that’s true. I think about what happened with Lovecraft’s imaginary book, The Necronomicon, which is this book of forbidden knowledge that is supposed to drive the reader mad. Lovecraft describes it as a real book. And he also got his friends, fellow writers like Robert E. Howard and Robert Block and Frank Belknap Long and all these people . . .

BNR: They refer to it also in their books.

PLF: They refer to it in their books, so that it comes to seem more and more real. And then everybody else kind of plays along. So people would plant cards for it in, like, the Yale University Library catalog or in the catalogs of rare book dealers, and as more and more people got involved, it came to seem more and more real. It’s like there was something so compelling about the idea of this fake book that everybody decided to bring it into existence. And finally, there was a paperback book called The Necronomicon.

BNR: I remember running into it at Waldenbooks in my science fiction−obsessed teenage years — it just was there, this black thing. It was very Heavy Metal.

PLF: Yes, it’s very Heavy Metal. The pentagram on the cover. So it’s almost like there’s a virality to hoaxes, to a certain kind of hoax. You experience it and then you perpetuate it. Or maybe you experience one kind of hoax and then you perpetuate another. There’s like the temptation to do something similar.

BNR: That seems to me to be of a piece with the idea that if you practice magic, maybe you can make the world magical by bringing fantasy, kind of hauling it out of the pages of books, and whether it’s the fantasy of a delicious hoax or the fantasy of magic — you know, if the magic described in a book might be made to work in the real world.

PLF: I think there’s a strong connection between those things. I think hoaxes are a kind of magical thinking. It’s like: I’m just going to make the world be the way I imagine it by saying that’s how it is. I’m going to bend the shape of the world to my will, and I’ll get away with it for a while.

BNR: One can argue that this is an age-old political technique. But I think we’re in an era where that’s become a more total phenomenon.

PLF: It has. Those stories are very powerful. And the acknowledgment that they don’t necessarily fit consensus reality is also increasingly explicit. I don’t know if for better or worse.

BNR: But you have major figures saying, “Well, I said that — but I was just saying that.”

PLF: Right. Or “these are alternative facts.” And of course, the stories that some of these people are telling are actually horror stories. They are stories about how terrible the inner cities are in America, or how many crimes are committed by immigrants, or how the crime rate is at an all-time high in the U.S. when it’s actually at an all-time low. They are alarmist stories, but they are very compelling. And we’re willing, at a certain level, to base policy on them.

BNR: Do novels and stories, and stories about stories of this kind, have any work to do in this context? Do they inoculate us against the danger? In other words, do they help keep us from making Charlie’s mistake? Is that a reasonable thing to expect, or is that something to ask of a novel that can’t really be asked of it?

PLF: I don’t know that that’s what novels do. I think there’s a lot of great critical writing that makes those points, and there’s a lot of great journalism that can kind of wake us up to the dangers of subscribing to stories and a lot of history. I think, in a way, a novel can give you a question. It can give you something to think about. But for a novel to make a case for something feels like a kind of bad place for a novel to be.

For me, fiction is more interesting when it’s in a kind of state of internal tension, when there’s a pull in one direction and then there’s a pull in the other direction also. Maybe, if I did my job right in The Night Ocean, on the one hand you feel the danger of believing too wholeheartedly in somebody else’s story about you or themselves or the world, but maybe, at the same time, on the other hand, you feel the appeal.

It would be terrible to live in a world where we couldn’t let ourselves be engaged at all. How cold would that be? How would we connect to each other if we couldn’t listen to each other’s stories, if, as soon as you started talking I said, “Ah, you’re just telling me a story.” There would be no possibility for empathy. There would be barely any possibility for communication. So we need some engagement. We need some warmth. We need some ability to care about each other’s stories, even as, maybe, in the back of our mind, there is a sense that we’re not learning everything, and that the person we’re talking to might have other aspects that elude us, and that can come back and surprise and disturb us.

Author photo of Paul La Farge credit: Carol Shadford

The Barnes & Noble Review