Friday, July 24, 2009

Book 39: The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

In my junior year of college, I got a great job. The theater department had gotten a grant to create an acting troupe. Work study. Other departments could then bring us in to perform in classrooms as a teaching tool. We were to be called 'ETC', the Educational Theater Company' and 6 of us made the squad.

I think I made $1,000. I only remember one scene.

A science fiction class was reading 'The Left Hand Of Darkness' and wanted to have some of the information presented as a debate. Three of us had to quickly read the book and dissect the chapter in question into a 'scene'...needless to say, we had a blast.

What started as a job quickly became an obsession for all of us. The book tells the story of Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen, a new ruling group which is based in equality and social order. There are planets that had once been part of the empire that have fallen out of contact with the rest of interplanetary society so envoys are sent to observe in secret before trying to reintroduce these runaways back into intergalactic community.

Long story short. Genly Ai goes to observe a planet where the inhabitants have a very unique sexuality. They go into a kind of 'heat' 2 days out of every 26. For most of the time they are androgynous and asexual. But on those 2 days they morph into either male or female form. One month they might be male, the next female. The father of one child could be the mother of many more.

This book has continued to resonate in my heart almost 20 years later even though I remember NO details of the plot other than that one.

LeGuin, in inventing this different mode of sexual living, points out just how fixed and trapped we can be in our own version. This isn't judged, merely presented. The complications that arise in this book are COMPLETELY impossible here. Imagine. You meet someone. You like them. For almost a month you get to know them. The moment of transformation occurs and you may be the male, you may be the female. But your knowledge of that person HAS no sex attached to it, the sex is completely OTHER. Which, when you think about it, is not all that foreign at all.

We met in dingy college rehearsal rooms and hashed out three different characters who were debating the information brought back by Genly the observer. One of us was a functionary, determined to keep his conservative view of sex and sensuality. One of us was a purely scientific mind who merely wanted to investigate the information as dispassionately as possible. And the third, I think, was a more artistic soul who was interested in the emotional aspect of this anomaly above all.

We were also in the middle of rehearsing 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' (see 'As Datchery I Did My Bit' elsewhere on the blog for an amusing anecdote on that subject) so my friend David and I had big mutton chops and long unkempt hair that could be slicked back to approximate Dickensian style. This added to our alien appearance since this was before grunge swept the nation and shagginess became chic again.

Imagine if you will a classroom of sci-fi literature nerds seeing us sweep in wearing robes and hotly debating 'kemmer', the 'Ekumen', 'mindspeak', and Genly Ai's relationship with Estraven, especially what happened out on the ice when Estraven 'transformed' during his 'heat' period and Genly Ai was the only other being around...

And the State paid for it! I love America.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book 40: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

Somehow this book took me by surprise in spite of the fact that everyone I knew was reading it, everyone who had read it insisted I read it, and everywhere I looked a review raved.

I resisted this tidal wave of praise out of an innate sense of contrariness, a go-against-the-grain-and-don't-believe-the-hype sensibility that was most likely honed while I was a teenager listening to music that was born of total outsider status and despising the flavor of the month. This kneejerk eclecticism kept me from appreciating some very worthwhile music, books, movies, etc., but it is a stance I still prefer to its inverse, which seems slavish and Pavlovian to me.

Needless to say, the second the character of Quoyle appeared I realized that popularity in this case was merited. Like 'The Scarlet Letter' or 'Ethan Frome', this book lives in a spare, sparse, isolated environment which is made all the more stark by the love affair that populates it. This elevates the subject matter to something universal and not soap opera-ish. Which is also why the movie seems an abomination to me. Never having seen it I'll never know for sure.

I do know that the book affected me in an emotional way in which few books have. I love books in different ways. 'Crime and Punishment' I love in the way a citizen loves the country of their birth. 'Moby Dick' I love the way a young boy loves the worlds he imagines for himself to play in. 'The Great Gatsby' I love the way you love a masterpiece painting hanging in a museum of a beautiful woman, the pose capturing a moment in a life you'll never quite grasp.

'The Shipping News' feels like an actual love affair, one that had to end, one that was destined to end, one that, looking back on, you can't quite believe that you started because the end was already so obvious.

This is due partly to my reluctance in picking the book up in the first place.

I dated a girl in college. Dated is a strong word. We flirted for a short time and then she came to a party at my house. She slept with someone else at that party and I fooled around with someone else but we were at the party together. There was a desperation to our coupling when it finally occurred, already laced with guilt because we'd betrayed each other from the first.

This pattern continued over the next year and a half, only ending when the Atlantic ocean intervened and I went to France. Once in France it was as if I was exorcising devils daily. I sank deep into a blackly nihilistic view of humanity which haunted me until about last week.

'The Shipping News' is like that for me. This is heightened by my relationship with the rest of E. Annie Proulx's work. I remember breathlessly awaiting 'Accordion Crimes'. I read the short story volume 'Close Range' which contains 'Brokeback Mountain'. I can't really overstate how much I disliked these books, 'Accordion Crimes' especially. Ooh, I hated and still hate those books.

This adds yet another layer of the bitter remembrance factor to my view of 'The Shipping News'. Why would she move away from that style? Why wouldn't that be the catalyst for deeper, plainer, stronger work?

And like the scars from that collegiate love affair which was over before it ever began, what might have been is stamped onto what is, until you decide to scrape it off and let it heal. So, E. Annie Proulx, I let you go. Thanks for the one book I loved but no longer need.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book 41: The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

When I was in 8th grade, I used to fantasize that I could stop time. While everyone around me sat frozen, I dreamed of being able to go right up to C. and get as close to her as I wanted. I didn't actually kiss a girl until I was a junior in high school so my fantasy was G rated. I don't think I would have even kissed C. during the time stoppage. I only wanted to get close enough to look at her without her knowing I was doing it. To see her for a moment without having to worry about being caught looking, to see her free of her own knowledge of being watched, to see her in her purest essence.

Nicholson Baker was not in 8th grade when he wrote 'The Fermata'.

His narrator has discovered that he can ACTUALLY do what I dreamed of. And somehow, in spite of the X-rated and surely criminal actions he undertakes, the novel maintains a tone of innocence and exuberance.

I have only read Baker's sex books, this and 'Vox' which is one long phone sex transcription. Perhaps someday I'll read his other stuff, but for me, his treatment of sex as a viable literary device is refreshing to the point of revolution. Usually sex in books comes as a moment of other, as a deviation from the story, as a catalyst for tragedy or euphoria, in other words as something that either precedes or follows the REAL event.

In 'The Fermata', sex is the event.

There is something refreshing about this, as if a dinner party has finally loosened up because some difficult subject were accidentally broached. Once the elephant in the corner of the room is acknowledged, things get really interesting.

I read this book at a time when I really needed a frank, unapologetic look at the male sex drive. How that drive can distort us if it is not directed in a positive manner, how much time can be wasted in a fantasy land of your own making, how lost we can become if we remain alone inside of our desires. The main character in 'The Fermata' is struggling with these questions and ultimately realizing that even the presence of real magic cannot replace the wonder of actual human interaction.

Baker somehow treats this X-rated journey not like a pornographic romp but as a crisis of the soul. This juxtaposition has the odd effect of heightening the titillation factor because Baker isn't apologizing for the content, merely positioning it as a fulcrum. The narrator must let go of this wondrous anomaly if he wants to reap the benefits of an actual relationship.

Ultimately it is a book about growing up, about discarding juvenile fantasy in favor of actual experience.

But, boy did I want to stop time and run my fingers through C.'s hair.