Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gish Jen's Love Wife

Gish Jen's The Love Wife (2004) is an ambitious and difficult project that works its way to success. The second half of this fairly big novel (378 pages) is more engrossing than the first as the investments of both writer and reader pay off. In any project this big there are differences among passages and sections of the book, as well as bits of narrative business that are more the product of organization than of inspiration. It's great to be inspired but harder to apply the writer's art to the exposition of ideas in a workmanlike way that sustains the reader's pleasure as well as their interest. In this case my experience was that the novel got better, the characters more finely drawn, as Gish Jen settled down into her outline and let everyone live it out.

This is a "family saga" novel with an intellectual bent that does not always bother to conceal itself. Several interrelated themes are explored: the Chinese-American experience, adoption and identity, East-West culture clash and interracial marriage are all up on the board. It is a very good example of modern writing by people with strong ethnic identities who are also lifelong inhabitants of the secular Western world; Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat and of course Amy Tan are other examples.

We might call this the "culture mash" genre. The point is not to polarize between reified cultures but to explore for insights into the human condition as diverse characters have to deal with people from both inside and outside of their traditional communities. This exploration is inevitably subversive of both (or all, if more than two) of the cultural and social traditions that are being "mashed." It is a delicate business. Too much stereotyping achieves the opposite of the intended effect. There is a fine line between saying something parodic and saying something offensive. On the other hand there is a temptation to phony symmetry: having "good" and "bad" characters for each "type." A certain fearlessness is required.

Here is the story of the marriage of Carnegie Wong, computer software-writing son of the immigrant and self-made real estate success Mama Wong, and Blondie Bailey, third-or-fifth-or-so generation WASP with roots in New England and a family place in Maine (Gish Jen lives in Massachusetts). When they meet Carnegie has already adopted Lizzy, a girl of mixed Asian inheritance (apparently a Chinese-Japanese mix, and adopted from China, thus perhaps the descendant of a Japanese soldier). Together they adopt Wendy, also from China, and some years later, as the girls are entering their teens, they unexpectedly have Bailey, their biological son (one doesn't say "natural" in adoption etiquette).

All is reasonably well for this prosperous suburban family (Blondie has a professional job as well) until the death of Mama Wong leads through a series of circumstances, some engineered by Mama Wong from beyond the grave, to the arrival of Lanlan, who the Wongs bring out of China and employ as a nanny for the children, installed in an apartment above the barn/garage. Lan is Carnegie and Blondie's age and originally from something like their social class, with childhood memories of a beautiful home and garden where she lived with her scholar father. With the "Cultural Revolution" of the 60s came the murder of her father and her own transportation to a rough "reeducation" town far away. Her relatives, including Mama Wong, have worked carefully to get her out of China. Now she finds herself the nanny for the affluent and interracial Wongs.

The narration of the novel is organized by name tags - "Carnegie/," "Blondie/," "Lan/," and also including Lizzy and Wendy, denoting whose first-person narrative voice we are hearing. Developing different voices this way is an exceedingly difficult thing to do. There is the problem of inhabiting disparate souls, but also the more basic problem of having a wide enough linguistic and psychological compass to make the voices distinct. In this Gish Jen is not entirely successful although the bilingual circumstances help (Gish Jen knows Chinese and gives us a generous helping). She does give us a very believable Chinese-American man and WASP woman. Having said that, it is no great critical surprise that her two adult Chinese women, Lanlan and Mama Wong, are the two most vivid characters in the book. Perhaps this is precisely because Gish Jen's own life has been closer to those of Carnegie and Blondie: the Chinese women engage her imagination more.

There are a lot of different paths the novelist could have taken starting from this set-up. I won't give the actual story away, if this sounds like your kind of material you should check Gish Jen out for yourself. Of course everyone can see the sense of the title. I was impressed by the way she handled Carnegie's inevitable feelings of lust for this romanticized Chinese woman suddenly living with his family. The danger is vivid. Also satisfying was the way Lanlan is at first indeed a romantic figure, with her patent lack of materialism, strong survival instincts and mixed feelings about China and America, and then gradually revealed to be a more ordinary (and thus more sympathetic) mortal. Also well done was the portrayal of Carnegie, at first he appears high-functioning and sympathetic (and he is both of those things) but one comes to understand the way he maintains distance through his dry wit, a skill developed growing up with the semi-abusive Mama Wong, and what a difficult husband this makes him.

I should mention that an additional point of interest here is a sustained discussion of adoption, as the two teenage girls deal with issues about belonging, self-understanding and other problems of adoptees, intertwining with their Asian-American experience. This aspect is also nicely woven into the plot. As to that, there is something of a genre market for family sagas, and as such they can be melodramatic, a kind of tony soap opera. Reading Louis Erdich's The Master Butcher's Singing Club I was at first interested in how rough of a god she was in the way she treated her characters, but after five or six tragedies too many I felt it was merely a novella (in the Spanish sense). E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, on the other hand, can stand as a paradigm case of how to treat these things with a subtler hand. Here Gish Jen takes maybe a step too far during the run-up to the climactic revelations at the book's end, but I forgave her on the basis of what came after.

Gish Jen herself is the fruit of two literary movements that are characteristic of the English-language novel of the late 20th/early 21st centuries. She is a second generation "culture mash" novelist (my coinage and you're probably observing the entire life of the phrase right here), and she is also coming out of the emergence of a strong tradition of women writers over the past fifty years who have developed the novel as a form for exploring human relationships, family histories, and the interplay of the personal and the political. Thus we enter an age when young women readers have a long shelf of good novels that are written in voices they can understand, about issues that are their own. Good thing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Duggan's Destiny: Irish Allegory, Curious and Dark

Daniel O'Connell, 1775-1847, was a descendant of ancient Irish kings, a member of a wealthy Catholic family that had been dispossessed of its lands by the English. A reformer and an advocate of non-violence, he was seated as the first Catholic member of Parliament in 1828 when it became clear that to deny him the seat would be to risk a major insurrection. "Emancipation," the repeal of the law restricting Parliament to members of the Anglican Church, was passed the following year. This was his greatest formal achievement, although he did also become the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin in modern times in 1841.

Listing these formal accomplishments conveys nothing of O'Connell's political stature in early 19th century European politics. Now mostly forgotten, his charismatic presence both in the House of Commons and in Ireland, at the height of British power, made him a lightening rod for pro- and anti-British sentiment across the Continent. Macaulay wrote, "Go where you will on the Continent...the moment your accent shows you to be an Englishman, the very first question...is certain to be 'What will be done with Mr. O'Connell?'" Balzac wrote, "Napoleon and O'Connell were the only great men the 19th century had seen." William Gladstone called him "The greatest popular leader that the world has ever seen." He was counted as an influence by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In Ireland he was known simply as "The Liberator." In anti-English countries such as Catholic France and Italy he was hailed as a conquering hero, his every word covered in the press, his travels greeted by immense crowds.

His principal cause was repeal of the Act of Union of 1801, which had merged the English and Irish parliaments. To this end he held a series of huge rallies across Ireland in the early 1840s called "monster meetings," the largest of which were estimated to have drawn well over 100,000 people, unthinkable numbers for the time, until he was jailed for three months for sedition by the British. Although this only increased his popular authority, it also undermined his health and took the momentum out of the movement: the Irish Free State would not be declared until 1922.

Of course something else happened in the 1840s to take the life out of the Irish independence movement, and that was the potato famine which, through starvation and emigration, reduced Ireland's population by three quarters. Wealthy landowners took advantage of this to drive small farmers off of their lands and consolidate sheep-farming estates to profit from the burgeoning English textile industry (Marx's subject in Das Kapital). In the long sad history of Ireland the late 1840s is one of the saddest chapters of all.

O'Connell died during a trip to Rome in 1847, a trip meant both as a means of restoring his health and as a means of avoiding the embarrassment of letting hostile London see the deterioration of the old lion, who was diagnosed with "softening of the brain," perhaps Alzheimer's, greatly exacerbated by over-zealous treatment from doctors of the period. His personal valet, "Firefly" Duggan, kept a journal of this trip which was kept by the Royal Irish Academy where it was eventually read by Seamus Martin, retired correspondent and editor of the Irish Times. In 1998 Martin published the very curious novel that I have just read. A label on my Poolbeg Press paperback says "Was 7.99 pounds, Our Price 3.99 pounds, Book Bargains, 75 Mid., Abbey St., D. 1." So I bought it in Dublin, probably in a bookshop/cafe near O'Connell Street and O'Connell Bridge, along the Liffey.

Mr. Martin detects rich possibilities for allegory in Duggan's behind-the-scenes account of The Liberator's last days. And it's true; everything here is an allegory for everything else. O'Connell can represent the eternal failure of the Irish leadership to deliver freedom and prosperity to the poor majority; the frailty of the flesh behind the facade of greatness; the disappointment of a great movement cut short. Duggan has worked for O'Connell for years, and tirelessly works to keep the wreck of a man afloat, but he also sees all of the great man's faults - how can the valet not? "No man is a hero to his valet" is an epigram to the book. Most bitterly Duggan understands that he will be cast out into the street after O'Connell's death. He is in fact found another station in recognition of his service: working in the South Dublin Union, otherwise known as the poorhouse, where half-naked victims of starvation and typhus are taken to die. As he observes, the first corpse he ever washed was O'Connell's; now he cannot count the rest.

With the death of O'Connell comes the death of Ireland? Or was O'Connell's reformist pacifism part of the cause of the death of Ireland? There are chapters written by others, one by a young woman who claims that she was raped by O'Connell, who in any event was reputed to have many bastard children in addition to his legitimate seven. Another is a bitter testimonial to his political double-dealings by an ex-comrade. He was heroic but vainglorious, and his elaborate presentation of himself required endless financial machinations (in truth he had no real money of his own). He was in his essence a symbolic figure, that was his function. Titling the book "Duggan's Destiny" points to Duggan as Ireland, of course, and from the time that the thick black hair is replaced by a wig Duggan has no doubt of what will happen when the symbol is extinguished.

A popular entertainment this novel is not. Much of the book is graphic detail of the disintegration of an old man's mind and body. I would recommend it to readers with an interest in the famine years. It does have depths. I think Seamus Martin saw that the material was deep by itself and that it just needed the writing. Documenting the real-life Duggan's journal in this way was a populist act befitting an Irish newsman. (Another recent novel about this period reviewed in this blog is Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Maurice Collis on Cortes and Montezuma

Maurice Collis was born in Dublin in 1889, studied history at Oxford, and spent twenty years in Asia with the Indian Civil Service. His career was effectively destroyed by his book Trials of Burma, published in 1937 and describing sedition trials in Burma in 1929-1930, in which he adopted a too sympathetic attitude towards the Burmese nationalists and a too critical one towards the British colonial authorities (he was district magistrate for Rangoon at the time). Upon his return to England he wrote many books of history and biography, mostly to do with the British in Asia.

In the early 1950s he became interested in the Spanish conquest of Mexico and, finding himself dissatisfied with the Eurocentric Conquest of Mexico published by the American William Prescott in 1843, and seeing further possibilities opened up by the much more rigorous Hernan Cortes published by the Spaniard Salvador de Madariaga in 1941, he wrote Cortes and Montezuma, originally published in 1954 and reissued in 1999 by the wonderful New Directions Books, which has been one of the most important American imprints for serious literature for many years.

New Directions knows good writing when they see it, and we should be most grateful that we have this book, where a master storyteller spins the tale of what has to be one of the most bizarre and gaudy epics to have ever transpired: something much deeper and stranger than anything that anyone could make up. As a student of literature in college I discovered history when I realized that this was true of a great deal of history. Meanwhile, when I ordered this book from the New Directions' catalog some years ago (since when it has been floating around my bookcases), I had no idea if it was history or some sort of interpretive fiction or what. It just looked cool.

And cool it is, as Collis, convinced that previous chroniclers failed to understand the thinking of the Mexicans (they called themselves "Mexicans," by the way. "Aztec" is, according to Collis, a word of European coinage), set out to learn all he could about the "astro-magical" calculations of Montezuma and those around him. This has traditionally been difficult since the Spanish Catholic priests who came in Cortes's wake, although not genocidal and with their share of selfless heroes, did do their best to destroy every vestige of Mexican sacred writings, icons, and rituals. As with many other areas of early history, we are actually today in a better position to interpret many of these events than anyone has been since they occurred, as we now have several reasonably well reconstructed Mexican sources as well as a cadre of scholars of the classical Nauatl language to read them.

The story is of course amazing, better when one has the sensibility both to appreciate the magical aspects and to ask sceptical questions. On the one hand Cortes had the seemingly impossible luck as to appear to the Mexicans to be the incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, the god of the highways and the wind, who had disappeared into the East millenniums before with the promise that he would destroy anyone who resisted his return. According to Mexican legend he was a white-skinned man with black hair and beard. The year that Cortez arrived on the coast of modern Mexico, 1519, was, according to legend and to Collis's reading, the end of a 52-year cycle that culminated in the return of Quetzalcoatl and his confrontation with Humming Bird, the militant incarnation of Smoking Mirror. Thus Montezuma attempted to convince Quetzalcoatl/Cortes to go away without confronting him directly. It is a great part of Collis's thesis that Montezuma regarded Cortes as a modern astronomer would regard a returning comet, and that highly precise calculations of an astronomical nature governed his thinking on strategy. (It is also important that Cortes understood none of this, perhaps not even to the very end.)

On the other hand it is certainly not the case that the Mexicans simply acquiesced, on astro-magical grounds, to the hegemony of Spanish forces. In fact Montezuma was killed by stone-slingers of his own people who revolted when Montezuma acquiesced to his confinement in the temple of Lord Face of Water's Palace, just down the street from his own palace. Subsequently the Spanish were routed from Mexico City and spent the better part of a year besieging the city and conquering it by force. An undeniable part of the story is Cortes's prowess as a field officer, who held his troops together under attack from numbers exponentially greater than his own.

As in the case of Pizarro's subsequent conquest of the Incas in the Andean lands (which did much to eclipse the reputation of Cortes during his own lifetime), a crucial part of the story is the cooperation with the extranjeros of local subject peoples. In particular Cortes enlisted, after fierce battles that convinced them of his importance, the Tlaxcalan people, who were older residents of the area (the Mexicans were derived from North American tribes) who saw themselves as culturally older and more distinguished than the Mexicans and who resented their depredations.

As to that, another decisive factor was the fact that the locals fought in a manner calculated to obtain live captives, who would subsequently be sacrificed to the gods and eaten. (The ruler before Montezuma is on record as having sacrificed as many as 20,000 people at a time in rituals designed to placate the gods of nature.) Montezuma himself was known to dine on the flesh of young boys, a fact highly distracting to the Spaniards who shared his table and who were at times unable to distinguish between various savories.

The Spanish, by contrast, had horses, heavy armor, and fought with sword and lance thrusts designed to kill. They were concerned with maintaining their own formations in order to survive, although the fact is that hundreds of Spanish were killed and many more were captured and sacrificed to the gods of the Mexicans. Cortes was tough and shrewd, and vastly ambitious, but his real genius was as a field officer. It was clear to every Spaniard, not all of whom were entirely loyal to him, that they would all perish if he were killed. Meanwhile the lure of gold was not merely fantastic; Cortes had a difficult time paying his local allies for provisions and always needed cash and credit to proceed.

All of this is superstructure to a fantastic story of individuals, men and women, Spanish and Mexican, who underwent tests of fortitude that most of us, thank God, will never even have to contemplate. Bernal Diaz's reminiscences, certainly the most important source for Collis, tell us of many individuals, their personalities, their foibles. I have a copy of Diaz here, and a copy of Prescott of course, but I'll move on, reluctantly enough: this is one of the great stories of all time, brilliantly narrated by Collis.