Podcast • April 2, 2013

Kevin Powers and The Yellow birds: What were we doing there?

In my own experience I had moments of lucidity when I recognized what was happening to me. And I recognized ways in which my own moral center was being knocked out of alignment… We were ...

In my own experience I had moments of lucidity when I recognized what was happening to me. And I recognized ways in which my own moral center was being knocked out of alignment… We were on a patrol once, dismounting our vehicles. I was pulling security on a ridge line near Mosul, and I realized that in fact we were on the walls of ancient Nineveh. And something about that recognition was so alarming to me — that we were in this place that was, really, in the Cradle of Civilization. What are we doing here? Why am I here? I mean, knowing that my job as a soldier was to kill people. Ultimately, if you’re wearing the uniform, if you’re carrying a weapon, that’s what your job comes down to. And it was so staggering to me in that moment. But then that moment passed, and moments like that would come and go.

Novelist Kevin Powers, of The Yellow Birds, with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 2013

Kevin Powers is being credited with the first literary masterpiece of the war in Iraq. My question in our conversation is why, like so many horrifying war masterpieces since the Iliad, The Yellow Birds leaves us feeling so helpless to fight the next onset of the madness.

Drawing on Kevin Powers’ life as a teen-age Army volunteer from Richmond, Va and a year’s duty as a machine-gunner near Mosul, The Yellow Birds is an absorbingly double-edged book. One very short form might be: Yes, the war was as cruel and criminal a mission as we all knew in our guts it had to be — young kids scared out of their wits 24/7, asking what the f*** are we doing here? The Yellow Birds is a consuming observation of breakdowns — of fraternity and loyalty, discipline and sanity; but it leaves no doubt that the general collapse began in a cloud of delusion and oblivion on the home front. Dave Eggers calls it a “gorgeous novel” and “easily the saddest book I’ve read in many years. But sad in an important way.”

Both the sadness and the significance of it affirm the great wisdom of William James. “Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect” on modern man, as James wrote in The Moral Equivalent of War. “The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us…”

A commenter on the Guardian website made James’ point more pointedly about this very book that everyone (me, too) finds “beautiful,” this winner of the Guardian’s First Book Award. “Kevin Powers’ novel is part of the war industry,” wrote “fan64”. “None of this beauty and fascination would be possible without the warmongers we pretend to hate — oh, and the voters who elect them and become their war consumers…”

Oh, and us readers as well. As I confessed to Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds is a marvelous accomplishment that made me feel sick.

Podcast • December 29, 2012

Nael El Toukhy: a post-modern novelist’s eye on Egypt

Nael El Toukhy is a bright light among Egypt’s millennial writers at a breakpoint in Arab culture as well as politics. On a rooftop in Cairo we’re talking about the family effects of the Tahrir ...

El Toukhy, XLNael El Toukhy is a bright light among Egypt’s millennial writers at a breakpoint in Arab culture as well as politics. On a rooftop in Cairo we’re talking about the family effects of the Tahrir Square revolution: In every house in Egypt, he’s saying, you’ll find a father who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood and a son who voted against them. Also: about the liberation of Egyptian talk, which used to be “just football.” The chatter on the bus every morning is now about politics, sex, religion, “everything.” Nael El Toukhy, 34, is speaking of his devotion to Woody Allen movies, Kafka stories, Borges fables and “noisy writers” in general. He is known for his own off-beat novels, but also – and it seems remarkable for an Arab writer — for his translations of provocative Israeli authors from Hebrew. The late playwright, Hanoch Levin, a fierce satirist, is “my dream,” he says. “I was curious, of course, about Hebrew, like everyone else in the Arab world. We don’t know anything about Israel from the inside.” So his blog publishes an Israeli poet, story-writer or novelist in Arabic every week. He’s serious guy with a light touch, a modernist and a sort of globalist who, like everyone else in Egypt, all but worships the immortal singer Oum Kulthum. She’s a modern goddess, as you’ll hear him say: there’s nothing like the experience of this woman’s sound, unless it’s smoking hash.

Of the daily battles around the new constitution and the war inside “the deep state”:

Nobody knows about this fight… At the start of the revolution, the Western media said: Egypt is on the road to Turkey… Other media said: no, the road to Iran. I say: let’s be surprised. This is the most beautiful idea in the Revolution: you don’t know what will happen in the next day; you have no plans. The politicians have plans. But I’m not a politician.

Of women, men, couples and families in the “rising generation” of Egyptians, his readership:

The individuals in Egypt are amazing. Society itself is a very awful factor. By society I mean the relationships between people in families. Authority in the family? We have to refuse it, and in the last three years we did. Many families were against the revolution; the new generation was against their families. I think it’s very significant to be against society and family and Mr. President, all at the same time.

I said I was reminded of a scene in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy in which two sons of the patriarch come home tipsy one night — in the 1930s! — shouting “Long live the Revolution! … Down with the tyrannical wife! … Down with the tyrannical father!”

Same theme. Yeah! All the time the boys are more revolutionary against their families, because you know our society gives more freedom for boys than girls. But I saw this with girls also. How’s to say: ‘I am free. I can do what I think about.’ The concept of challenging the family to go to Tahrir Square is a sign. I think in every house in Egypt today you will find the father voted for the Muslim Brother and Mohamed Morsi, and the son voted for the counter-candidate; and all the time they are fighting eachother. I think the main thing since the revolution is that everybody discusses everything in public. When you get the bus, all the time you are hearing discussions — that Morsi did this because he’s a good man; or: no, he did this because he’s a bad man. It’s a really good thing, this fight.

On the “butterfly effect” of revolt that spread from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. The butterfly has a message:

Don’t fear anybody powerful. Nobody’s powerful… We learned it with Mubarak. Of course we were afraid of Mubarak. We thought he was like God and the Nile and the Pyramids. He will never go. He will never die. I thought: Mubarak is immortal. And then in 18 days he disappeared. There’s nobody behind the curtain.

Podcast • February 17, 2011

Jaimy Gordon’s Racetrack Revelation in Lord of Misrule

Jaimy Gordon impels us to find the other great small-press writers we’ve never heard of. She is this winter’s longshot winner of the National Book Award, for her gorgeous racetrack novel Lord of Misrule. The ...

Jaimy Gordon impels us to find the other great small-press writers we’ve never heard of. She is this winter’s longshot winner of the National Book Award, for her gorgeous racetrack novel Lord of Misrule. The 40-to-1 payoff is for readers who, but for the big prize, might never hear of non-commercial fiction or savor it’s very distinctive pleasures.

Lord of Misrule was reviewed in the Daily Racing Form before it was noticed by the New York Times. It may never get noted in the Times Sunday Book Review. But anyone who opens it will recognize instantly the real old American thing: horses, jockeys, trainers and touts with Damon Runyon names like Medicine Ed and Suitcase and Two-Tie, loners and outcasts on their own crummy racetrackers’ planet in far West Virginia. Just as quickly we meet characters, both equine and human, whose lives, language and trials feel entirely new.

I wanted to write a social novel of a kind, I wanted to represent, in one way or another, all the orders of humanity of this world. I think my previous books were usually dominated by one reckless human being, usually a young woman, whose fortunes would horrify and interest the reader.

In the case of Lord of Misrule, I think I was getting to be of an age where I could identify as much with the family-less loan shark, Two-Tie, and Medicine Ed, who’s looking for a home at the age of 72, not sure that he’s made the right career choice in being a groom for 60-some years … I think that since, as a writer, I felt that my career had never broken big and I was getting into my sixties myself, [I wondered] had I made the right career choice here? I think that, like Medicine Ed, I didn’t feel competent to do anything else and I couldn’t have pictured myself anywhere else than on my racetrack, which is the world of American fiction, but I couldn’t see exactly where I was heading.

I think that the charm of the book, if it has any, is that the writer is fully as much inhabiting Medicine Ed and Two-Tie as the young woman. I used to be the young woman in my books, but now I am just as much the old guys, looking into a kind of bitter and insecure unknown.

Jaimy Gordon with Chris Lydon at the Boston Athanaeum, 2. 11. 2011.

One of the great epiphanies of her life, Jaimy Gordon remarks, came at 17, working illegally in a bar on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was the first time she was surrounded by people who “didn’t speak proper English,” and she was amazed at the poetry in their conversation.

I venture that Jaimy Gordon’s work is marked by a kind of comic maximalism in the manner of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, every type of literary effect exploding on every page. Indeed, she’s telling me, she claimed maximalism as her métier when she studied writing at Brown — with John Hawkes and Keith Waldrop, among others — and minimalism was all the literary rage. She points to John Updike’s novel The Centaur, which also won a National Book Award, as her inspiration for transferring the kind of far-fetched, daring metaphors common in poetry into plot-driven prose.

Jaimy Gordon assures us that despite the echoing laments for the death of literature, we are in a sort of “Golden Age of American letters,” fueled by more than 350 college-level creating writing programs. In this conversation she gives us some of her favorite practitioners, well-known and unsung: Katherine Davis for Hell, Labrador, The Girl who Trod on a Loaf; Kellie Wells for Skin, Compression Scars; Joanna Scott, Russell Banks, Peter Carey and Paul Harding for his out-of-nowhere small-press Pulitzer Prize Tinkers. We are blessed.

Podcast • September 21, 2010

Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame: The Self in the Cyber Century

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniel Kehlmann (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3) Daniel Kehlmann is a very funny, very philosophical young fictionist from Germany who will make you want more like him — ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniel Kehlmann (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

Daniel Kehlmann is a very funny, very philosophical young fictionist from Germany who will make you want more like him — and more playfully engaging books like his Fame, a novel in nine linked short stories, or “episodes.” A number of reviewers who seem not to have read the book suggest that Fame is all about celebrity, which it’s not at all. It’s an imaginative probe into the YouTube universe and the always-online feel of our emergent cyber-humanity — into cell-phone effects on our self-hood, or Facebook effects on our fantasies. It is also a storyteller’s bright-eyed rumination on what the digital range and speed of our lives have made possible, or impossible, in stories themselves. The new taken-for-granted info tech has realized the yearning in endless fairy tales, for example, for telepathy: if only I could whisper a word to the lost beloved… It has enabled double-lives and resurrections that used to happen only in dreams and miracles. At the same time, the ways we connect now have collapsed, among other things, the “big goodbye” scene in prose or on the movie screen. How could we summon a surge of tears nowadays hearing Ilsa tells Rick, “We’ll always have Paris…,” when we know that two minutes later, in today’s world, would come the first text message?

Flickering in the Kehlmann background are deeper, more delightful riddles. One of the central stories in Fame introduces Rosalie, an older woman with terminal cancer, making her way to an assisted-suicide clinic in Zurich. En route she rebukes the author of her story and pleads with him to save her: “Is there no chance, she asks me. It’s all in your hands. Let me live.” To which the author replies: “This isn’t a life-affirming story. If anything, it’s a theological one.”

Kehlmann’s theology, in our conversation, is richer than what we’ve often heard about authors playing God with their characters:

Any story puts me, as the writer of the story, into the godlike position of creating people to make their life difficult, to make them suffer because I have a plan for them. The plan is just to get the story as good as possible. There is a kind of teleology in getting the story right, because all the things happening to a character, causing pain to the character, ruining the life of this character, they are there for the greater good of getting a good story. And so this is exactly the same position in classical theology where the theologian tries to justify god: we are told that yes, you are suffering, but you are suffering because there is a plan. You might not understand this plan, maybe you never will, but you should trust that there is such a plan and that’s why you should accept your suffering.

When I made Rosalie protest against this, and tell the writer “don’t do this to me. I don’t care about your plan,” it wasn’t just a metafictional game. It was a very real point that in the face of basic human suffering the whole idea of a bigger plan justifying all that seems ridiculous. To me this was a very serious theologically, philosophically charged story which also had a very personal twist because Rosalie is also telling the writer “one day all this will happen to you, you will be in pain, you will be dying, you will hope that somebody, against the plan, will just save you and it will not happen.” It’s true, and she was not just talking to some abstract writer, at this moment she was talking about me and the fact that it will happen to me too.

… Even when I started the story, I had always intended the ending that the writer interferes and ruins the story and saves the character. Then the writer also says “I hope someday somebody will do the same for me.” I think, well, as you say in English, “fat chance!”

Daniel Kehlmann with Chris Lydon at the Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, September 20, 2010

Podcast • May 7, 2009

Paul Harding’s Magical ‘Tinkers’

What is the rock drummer thinking? Well, if he’s the dazzling first-novelist Paul Harding of Tinkers, the guy at the drums in the band known as “Cold Water Flat” was channeling Elvin Jones, reinventing time ...

Paul HardingWhat is the rock drummer thinking? Well, if he’s the dazzling first-novelist Paul Harding of Tinkers, the guy at the drums in the band known as “Cold Water Flat” was channeling Elvin Jones, reinventing time with his own hands and feet on drumsticks and pedals. He was listening to hear how sound works, how the world works, how he works. He may have been composing a contrapuntal bit of narrative that turns up on paper in this exchange between an itinerant mule-and-cart peddlar named Howard Aaron Crosby and his customers in the backwoods of Maine, circa 1900.

Where’s the soap?

This is the soap.

The box is different.

Yes, they changed it.

What was wrong with the old box?

Nothing.

Why’d they change it?

Because the soap is better.

The soap is different?

Better.

Nothing wrong with the old soap.

Of course not, but this is better.

Nothing wrong with the old soap. How can it be better?

Well, it cleans better.

Cleaned fine before.

This cleans better — and faster.

Well, I’ll just take a box of the normal soap.

This is the normal soap now.

I can’t get my normal soap?

This is the normal soap; I guarantee it.

Well I don’t like to try a new soap.

It’s not new.

Just as you say, Mr. Crosby. Just as you say.

Well, ma’am, I need another penny.

Another penny? For what?

The soap is a penny more, now that it’s better.

I have to pay a penny more for different soap in a blue box? I’ll just take a box of my normal soap.

From Tinkers by Paul Harding, pages 13 – 14. Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2009.

Paul Harding’s prose in that moment can remind you of Marshall Dodge’s old “Bert and I” Maine stories. It can also sound like music: “Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets…” We hear light percussive sounds of a human voice, repetitions finding a rhythm. We hear a musician becoming a writer — not a wild a leap, he observes in conversation.

The differences between being a rock drummer and writing are superficial. The obvious ones: you’re playing with a couple of other people on stage, and you’re doing it at an ungodly volume. I’m clinically half deaf and I have tinnitus and a ringing in my ear all the time. But writing scratches the same itch… Having been a drummer I write by ear. I write by rhythm, you know. I just think of the rhythm of the sentence, and there’s a certain number of beats in a sentence, in a phrase, in longer passages. So there’s a kind of arranging. And then certainly in all these multigenerational things going on in Tinkers, I’m just fascinated by the experience of time, of being in time, and all these characters thinking about time and all that. As a drummer… you can futz around with all sorts of time signatures and all sorts of beats. You can play a time signature within another time signature. You can do all that sort of stuff. It’s all narrative, and narrative is all about time. So that’s what you’re doing with the writing, too.

I saw Elvin Jones of the famous Coltrane quartet several dozen times and had the opportunity to sit right in front of him and watch what he did with time. He could tap into the depths of the universe… Drumming is multi-tasking, it’s orchestration. You think of it as a string quartet — in the way you can play counterpoint with yourself, with your own different limbs, that kind of thing. I think of that as the way of making narrative, too. Any given scene has different strata. You can have things moving very nimbly, very quickly in one level of the writing, with larger, deeper cycles going on beneath. And you can work all that contrast and counterpoint. It’s the way you actually pull depth and dimensionality out of things.

Paul Harding in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Essex, Massachusetts, May 5, 2009.

Paul Harding is also a self-taught modern New England transcendentalist, out of the Thoreau and Emerson school, who read his way into an original inner life. Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers Workshop eased his transition from the drums to the keyboard. He’s read everything — been touched by Henry James and Proust and Carlos Fuentes and Michael Ondatje, among others — and he’s taught writing at Harvard.

Tinkers — as in country peddlars between the 19th and early 20th centuries — is an almost plotless novel, constructed as carefully as a clock, about fathers dying, thinking about their sons, and their fathers. It is a marvel on every page.

Podcast • March 3, 2009

Blindspot: Lepore and Kamensky in Olde Boston

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore. (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Kamensky & Lepore: 2 madwomen, 1 attic Blindspot is a lark, with lessons. First, about sex and slavery ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore. (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Kamensky & Lepore: 2 madwomen, 1 attic

Blindspot is a lark, with lessons. First, about sex and slavery in 18th Century Boston, where you didn’t expect to find so much of either. And then, about the writing of serious history as delicious fiction.

Blindspot was undertaken as an experiment, something of an email joke, by ranking professionals who’ve been friends since grad school (Yale): Jane Kamensky, now at Brandeis, and Jill Lepore, of Harvard and The New Yorker magazine.

Told in letters and journals, Blindspot, set in 1764, is a borderline kinky love story about a Scots portrait painter (think: Gilbert Stuart) who’s fled his London debts to Boston, and a passionate, downwardly-mobile 19-year-old daughter of the Boston ruling class who presents herself as a boy so as to get a job as the painter’s assistant. Get it? Frances Easton goes to work as Francis Weston for the portraitist Stewart Jameson. She falls in love with him, of course, and he with her — or him, as he supposes through most of the narrative. Fanny writes: “I felt full prepared to open myself to him, in whatever direction he wanted, Easton or Weston.”

But Blindspot is also an argument about history and the writing thereof:

18th Century novelists called their books ‘histories.’ You know, Tom Jones is “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.” Fielding insisted that Tom Jones was a history and that what historians wrote was made up, that it was so contrived to be answerable to the surviving set of facts that could be lined up and arranged in any which way that its reliability is fundamentally questionable. It comes from Aristotle’s Poetics to make this claim — that to make something up that has universal truth because it’s about humanity was the true reform of historical writing. And it wasn’t just Fielding who made this claim. This was the argument of 18th Century novelists from Defoe on; and it was an argument they had with historians like Hume… That is a piece of intellectual work that Simon Schama took up when he called for a return to narrative history in the 1980s and 1990s…

Jill Lepore in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

I think our agent was hoping that Blindspot would generate the kind of controversy that Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties generated in the 1990s. I remember Gordon Wood writing an extremely angry brief in the New York Review of Books called ‘Novel History‘ — about how dare a historian do such a thing. To the extent we’ve had reaction from our colleagues — and we didn’t write it for our colleagues — it’s been very positive… I’ve been asked by a graduate student: is this something that every historian should try? And I’ve said: I don’t know, maybe every historian should take up tennis.

Jane Kamensky in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

The itch that Blindspot scratches for me is the appetite for history in the manner of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Miserables or, in our own day, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies — which is to say, grand, teeming, historically informed but imaginative narratives that speak to the contemporary national and global crisis.

What Dickens, Tolstoy and Hugo have in common is that, like a Breughel painting, they’re crowded with life. I can’t think of things in the 19th Century American literary tradition that do that. Maybe Harriet Beecher Stowe. But that sort of teeming, crowd-centered urban history that tackles a political event from below is not for the most part an American tradition.

Jane Kamensky in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

Why is that? … Where is our Dickens? It’s a really interesting question…

Jill Lepore in conversation with Chris Lydon, February 27, 2009

Blindspot can be taken as a shot at answering it.

Podcast • November 13, 2008

Our Better Angel: Chris Adrian

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Adrian. (44 minutes, 20 mb mp3) Chris Adrian: Pain’s Artist, Doctor, Minister The writer Chris Adrian is a medical doctor, a pediatric oncologist, who seems to have ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Adrian. (44 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Chris Adrian: Pain’s Artist, Doctor, Minister

The writer Chris Adrian is a medical doctor, a pediatric oncologist, who seems to have known from the beginning that our bodies are not the problem. I think of Beatrice, an attempted suicide, “the jumping lady,” in “The Sum of Our Parts,” one of ten stories in Adrian’s shimmering, glow-in-the-dark collection A Better Angel. Beatrice is comatose, being readied for a liver transplant. But “that part of her which was not her broken body” doesn’t want to live. Her spirit lifts off, finally, “in search of a place without loneliness and desire; without misery and rage, without disappointment; without crushing and impenetrable sadness.”

In Chris Adrian‘s world, the people who jumped out of the twin towers on 9.11 are still falling, some in the strangest of places. In “The Vision of Peter Damien,” for example, they are raining down on a medieval Ohio farm town which may also stand for Iraq. It’s a world where, as he says, “dead people don’t go away.” Out of his own experience and his own obsessions, Chris Adrian’s stories embrace the natural and the supernatural, articulate souls as well as hurting minds and bodies. It was his writing teacher at Iowa, Marilynne Robinson, who turned him toward theology, toward the unexpected pleasure of reading John Calvin, and then to Divinity School at Harvard.

Our long conversation here fortifies the hope that bad times make good books, and that Chris Adrian is as good as they get at making metaphors of this very strange moment. In one of his most widely read stories, “The Changeling,” which ran in Esquire with the title “Promise Breaker”, a single father hacks off his own hand with an ax to address the psychosis of his son Carl, who has taken on himself the pain of the 9.11 dead. “Is it enough?” the father asks. “And I think I mean is it enough to prove to them I love my son, or that I deserve to have him back, that I mean it when I say I promise to take better care of him, that I promise to be a better father, to unroot whatever fault in me threw him into the company of these angry souls who died to make us all citizens of the world…” In Chris Adrian’s cosmos of irremediable pain, father and son can both be seen meeting agony with love. “I am still a fan of happy endings,” as Chris Adrian said to me in conversation. “It was meant to be a happy ending.”

CA: I tend to write about whatever is troubling me most deeply at the moment. That used to mean writing about death, my brother’s death specifically. He died when I was 22, he was 25. A lot of what is in the first two novels has to do with that. But as I got older and became more removed from his death, in time at least, my capacity to be troubled by things that were not quite so personal opened up. And as I started to notice what a sorry state the world was in, and particularly America was in, it started to intrude into fiction in areas that used to be more personal or more private.

 

CL: It seems so brave to introduce not just angels, which are almost cliché, but a spirit reality that’s in endless conversation with us, with individuals but even with countries.  Where does that conviction come from?

CA: I guess it’s a notion that I have demonstrated to myself in my own obsessions and the way that I have engaged in troubling things over the years, that has proven to me that dead people don’t go away after they’re dead. I think that is true for individuals that lose them, and for communities, and for countries and for the world at large. That is something I explored in a relatively ham-handed though satisfying personally way in that the first novel I ever got published [Gob’s Grief] which  was about the civil war but more particularly about a man who loses his brother in the civil war and spends the next ten years trying to build a machine that will bring his brother back to life but also bring back all of the other soldiers who died in the civil war with the idea that the whole world would be transformed if death were abolished.  

 

CL: The godfather of doctor-writers, [Anton] Chekhov, once said, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.” Throw in pastoral ministering in your life… how do these things relate to each other?

 

CA: They all, especially the medicine and the writing, because I have been at that longer than the divinity stuff, certainly seem to inform each other. I don’t think that I could do one without the other; I would be a worse writer and a worse physician if I weren’t a writer and a physician both. The things I am privileged to see in my work as a physician drive my work even when it is not about a hospital… I don’t want to say I imagine my patients’ lives, but I think that the habit of trying to imagine the world from someone else’s perspective even if that person is just an imaginary construct you’re using in the course of your work as an artist, makes it easier to make room for how big people are in real life.  It helps you to remember to keep in mind that there is a lot more to the world or the person sitting across from you than what is in that little room.

Chris Adrian in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 11, 2008.

 

 

 

Podcast • May 5, 2008

Israel at 60: the Etgar Keret Version

The writer Etgar Keret was our Open Source witness in Israel two years ago to a general (local, global, existential) disbelief and alienation from the war on Lebanon. And now we have the pleasure of ...

The writer Etgar Keret was our Open Source witness in Israel two years ago to a general (local, global, existential) disbelief and alienation from the war on Lebanon. And now we have the pleasure of meeting him in the flesh on a campus visit to Brown.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Etgar Keret here (24 minutes, 11 MB MP3)

etgar keret

Etgar Keret: “a Jew in a diaspora of Israel”

Edgar Keret’s bizarre, violent, popular short stories (in a collection The Girl on the Fridge) are cited as a register of Israel’s consciousness, post-Intifada and post-peace process. Crowbar beatings, sledge-hammer murders and other grotesque happenings abound in these fictions. In one, a kids’ party magician reaches into the hat and pulls out, first, a rabbit’s bleeding severed head and, later, a dead baby. He concludes: “It’s as if someone was trying to tell me this is no time to be a rabbit, or a baby. Or a magician.”

Keret’s Israeli characters are caught in states of mind and spirit between love and suicide, between boredom and brutal anger. As in this story, “Asthma Attack,” reproduced here in full, the writer keeps fighting through the frenzy, for words:

When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words, if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones — those cost you too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asmatic says “I love you,” and when an asthmatic says “I love you madly,” there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.

Etgar Keret, “Asthma Attack,” in The Girl on the Fridge, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2008.

In our conversation, Etgar Keret and I were both trying (and failing!) to remember the source of the notion that art, including fiction, is the layer of the human record (unlike the monuments of warfare and politics) that does not lie.

CL: Imagine a hundred years from now people are reading this red-hot popular Israeli writer from 2008, Etgar Keret, for the truth about Israel. What would they learn?

Etgar Keret: Well, I think that they would learn that people in Israel know a little bit less than what they pretend to know; that they’re a little bit bit less confident than they want their neighbor to think; that there’s a very strong ambiguity and confusion among the Israeli people — the same ambiguity and confusion that all human beings tend to share.

CL: Can you explain how you became the rage among young Israelis in the last few years? Not the familiar image of the Israeli writer, you’re anti-epic and anti-macho, a cuddly, eccentric vegetarian who writes about people who are beset with perplexity and pain and fearful violence and, as you say, confusion.

EK: Well, I think that growing up In Israel, I think the one thing that’s not allowed is to be confused. Being surrounded by so many enemies who want to attack us, the last thing you want to do is to raise more questions, or to be more confused and uncertain. But at some stage you realize it’s actually the fact that you live in such an unsafe situation that makes all those questions that you are supposed to postpone more urgent. Because if you know you are going to die for something you want to know what you are going to die for. You don’t want to postpone it for later.

CL: Are these stories written from the perspective of a writer who’s worrying what he’s going to die for?

EK: Well, yeah… It’s not to die for, or live for. There is something about life, especially when you come from Israel, in a region where everything is so extreme, there’s something very overwhelming about life, you know. And it leaves you with your mouth open, with your jaw falling down, you know. And this is the situation I wanted to write about. Because there is something about Israelis that whenever you speak to people they give you this feeling that they are certain about all those answers. And they have all those answers, but those answers don’t seem to be working all around us.

So if there’s anything I want to say about this reality, it is maybe: take some sort of Socratic position and just say that we may know less about what’s right, and what we are feeling at a certain moment and what should be done. I’m saying I feel it’s important to admit our limitations and our confusion just so we can start finding the real answers, and it’s much better than kind of doing that than settling for some fake answers that seem to be going around in circulation for the last 60 years.

Etgar Keret, in conversation with Chris Lydon, May 1, 2008.

Podcast • December 6, 2007

A Free Life: Ha Jin’s Immigration Story

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ha Jin here (25 minutes, 11 MB MP3) What if the meticulous realism of Ha Jin‘s first “American” novel, A Free Life, could be slipped into the fearful ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ha Jin here (25 minutes, 11 MB MP3)

What if the meticulous realism of Ha Jin‘s first “American” novel, A Free Life, could be slipped into the fearful immigration debate we’re not quite having in the US?

Ha Jin: the long arc to America

I can imagine two reactions.

First, the generous sigh of sympathy — “give them a break!” — on being reminded just how humbling it is to hit the American beach running, to grasp our idioms (“in the doghouse,” “shooting the breeze,” “getting laid,” and “getting laid off”) — how just plain hard it is to confront the routine suspicions and exclusion, to cover the rent, to keep a family clothed, to see a way forward.

Second, there’s the more complicated, maybe off-putting realization under Ha Jin’s endless documentation that getting started here is not exactly an American experience. For a Chinese immigrant it’s a Chinese experience. Ha Jin reminds me of my daughter Sarah’s discovery: “When you’re pregnant, everybody’s pregnant.” Everybody in Ha Jin’s American saga is Chinese, and the divisions (between Taiwan and the mainland), the strongest feelings (“I spit at China…”), the intimate language, the brave hearts and weaklings, are all Chinese.

In the Americanization process that Ha Jin writes about there is no baseball, no Abraham Lincoln or FDR, no Paul Bunyan or American camp-fire songs, no Grand Canyon, no interest in our local or national politics… and no outward sentiment about a golden path toward the citizenship moment and pledge of allegiance. John Updike’s New Yorker review of Ha Jin notes that his characters “strive less to let America in than to squeeze China out — ‘squeeze every bit of it out of themselves.'” Is this part of what upsets us about immigration — that these strangers are so wrapped up in old languages, and their own damned dramas?

To me the slow-release beauty of A Free Life is its very long arc of acculturation and assimilation, over about 15 years. Between 1985 and 2000, the protagonist Nan Wu, with his wife and son, follow Ha Jin‘s own path from Boston to Georgia and back. Nan is first a graduate student in political science at Brandeis, then a translator and cook in Manhattan, then a successful-enough strip-mall restaurateur in suburban Atlanta, reading Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and W. H. Auden in his private hours. But by the time he is forty his poetic muse is in control; he is determined to be an artist and to run the risks of an expressive life. He is sounding like no one so much as the arch-American, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “Self-Reliance.”

“He didn’t want to die a successful businessman,” Nan realizes, summoning up his real credo: “Do something moneyed people cannot do… Why hadn’t he devoted himself to writing poetry?”

In Nan’s Chinese circle, he has taken a lonely and provocative position.

“You never cease to amaze me.” Mei Hong stood up. “A madman is what you are. Let me tell you, you’re also a banana [yellow on the outside, white on the inside]!” She jabbed her finger at Nan. “You always despise China and our language. That’s why you’ve been writing in English and dreaming of becoming another Conrad or Nabokov. Let me tell you, you’re just making a buffoon of yourself! Get real — stop fancying yourself a great poet.”

Flustered, Nan felt his chest constricting. But he scrambled to answer, “To write in English is my personal choice. Unlike you, I prefer to be a real individual.”

“Yeah, to be a lone wolf,” scoffed Mei Hong.

“Exactly!” …

He preferred to stand alone.

Ha Jin, A Free Life, Pantheon, 2007. Pages 496-7.

Tom Tancredo, or Lou Dobbs for that matter: say hello to Ha Jin. Can Ha Jin point us to the core of this campaign frenzy about immigration, and immigrants?