By Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron’s death in May 2011 reminded us that hip-hop, a commerce machine today, once found at its center a devotion to righting social wrongs through the force of simple words.
The musician and poet did not care for the label “godfather of hip-hop,” despite having released the still-powerful “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” But he should have found no shame in influencing second-generation rappers, like Chuck D, with his uncompromising political tongue. With this posthumous memoir, Scott-Heron—who throughout his career not only released 20 albums but also two novels and three collections of poems—can at last be recognized as a top-notch writer. The Last Holiday is one of the most unpretentiously aware autobiographies by a musician. Here are the opening sentences: “I always doubt detailed recollections authors write about their childhoods. Maybe I am jealous that they retain such clarity of their long agos while my own past seems only long gone.” Everything you need to know about his legacy is there, from the doubt against authority figures and his gentle self-deprecation to the cognizance that he attributed to others while it was he himself who actually possessed the clarity of conviction. The motivation for this chronologically loose but thematically tight book was to give Stevie Wonder the recognition he deserves when he pushed for a national Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in a 1981 tour. Even in these final words, Scott-Heron denounced an “all eyez on me” attitude and chose to be a social observer. A class act.
Once in a while you come across a book that so fully transfixes your imaginative gaze, it ceases to become a book but simply a story. In 1876, a 23-year-old Swede named S.A. Andrée went to see the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. To be able to afford the ticket fare, he worked as a janitor at the Swedish Pavilion. He fell in love with all the new inventions and visited ballooning pioneer John Wise. From that point on he was gripped by an obsession, and 21 years later, in 1897, he set off with two companions to the North Pole—in a hydrogen balloon. Imagine an orb of ice in the sky, drifting toward a white kingdom. After nearly three days, the frozen balloon grew so heavy and sank so low that they were forced to land 300 miles from the pole, halfway there. They tried to walk back to civilization, and 33 years later their bodies were found on White Island, which is part of Norway. Their photographs and journals were found—documents of ghosts. “It is not a little strange to be floating here above the Polar Sea … How soon, I wonder, shall we have successors?” Andrée wrote in his diary as the others slept. You can see where the inception occurred: the pavilion where a young janitor imagined a future of adventure is now the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre in New York’s Central Park. Such an earthly scene; such a North Star dream.
People Who Eat Darkness (reviewed June 5)
By Richard Lloyd Parry
A terrible, horrible tale of a young English woman who vanished in Tokyo, and whose killer might have raped hundreds. In this hopeless darkness, her dreams and flaws are brightly brought back to life.
In Tokyo, on July 1, 2000, tall, blonde, 21-year-old Lucie Blackman went on a “paid date” and disappeared. On Oct. 12, a man named Joji Obara was charged with drugging, raping, and killing Blackman and another bar hostess, 21-year-old Australian Carita Ridgway. On Feb. 9, 2001, Blackman’s dismembered body was discovered buried in a shallow grave in a seaside cave about 30 miles south of Tokyo. The details are almost too horrible to repeat. On April 24, 2007, Obara was sentenced to life in prison on multiple acts of rape and one manslaughter charge, and on Dec. 16 of the following year he was found guilty of dismembering and disposing Blackman’s body. But he was never convicted of murder.
One can get obsessed about such a tale of evil. (Obara could have raped as many as 400 women.) Parry clearly was obsessed. Who would care to hide their sense of righteousness—or even vengeance—upon hearing such tragedy? There is considerable wrath hurled at Japanese law enforcement, the court system, and the broader culture, politics, and society of the nation. Perhaps that is warranted in this case, but there is peril in generalizing. Even more complicated is that fact that culture, politics, and society also contributed to creating the monster in Obara, and that can’t be ignored. The morals in this tale are hopelessly complex, but as the famed reporter Jake Adelstein pointed out in a review, justice can come in the most unexpected places. “One of the ironies of the case was that some of the key sources who helped the police track down Obara were yakuza affiliates of a Tokyo-based crime group. … One member of the group contacted me with a message: ‘If Obara doesn't get the death penalty, we could administer it. Prisons are full of accidents. Let Mr. Blackman know. If that's what he wants, we'll see that justice is done.’”
That vigilantism might be justice misplaced, and the yakuza helped create the scum that is Obara. Parry’s frightening work draws all these elements together into a murky, concrete soup. But in this darkness Parry never loses sight of a bright, shining truth: Lucie Blackman was a beautiful woman full of promise and love—and she would have made a great writer. “Tokyo is the extreme land. Only high as a kite or lower than you can imagine over here … never anything between the two,” she once wrote in her diary. What a radiant soul, and I thank Parry for helping her posthumously proclaim her hopes and insecurities, her joys and flaws; for restoring her humanity, never allowed full bloom; for bringing her back to life.
When a series of beheadings terrorizes Victorian London, it falls on a confessed former member of a bloodthirsty Indian "Thuggee" cult and his friends to find the real killer.
A gang of killers is on the loose in Victorian London, taking the lives—and the severed heads—of the city’s lowlife. The press spins tales of cannibalism to further terrorize the public, never suspecting the gang’s real motive is money. The killers collect skulls because they are paid handsomely for their work. Their patron is the wealthy Lord Batterstone, a high-society phrenologist obsessed with expanding his anatomical collection. But the newspapers turn the public’s attention toward Amir Ali, a confessed former member of the bloodthirsty Indian Thuggee cult. Ali has been making the rounds in London social circles as the pet project of a man named Captain William Meadows. In reality, Amir is nothing more than an unlucky farmer’s son who saw self-mythologizing as a ticket out of unfortunate circumstances. Now Ali’s exotic tales of murder have caught up with him, and he is out of luck once again. Running out of options, Ali and his fellow second-class immigrants decide to hunt down the man behind the killings themselves. It’s easy to see why The Thing About Thugs was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Crafted through layers of narrative (third and first-person observations from a variety of characters are interspersed with love letters, passages from Captain Meadows’s Notes on a Thug, and newspaper clippings), the story both mimics and upends the conventions of a Victorian novel. Author Tabish Khair also gives voice to a class of Londoner underrepresented in 19th-century-British literature: The voice of the forgotten, the marginalized, the misunderstood, and unknown.
Henry James once described the “house of fiction” as one that has “not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned.” In his metaphor, the novelist stands within the house and looks out through any one of these many windows onto all manner of human experience transpiring in the external world. But in Portrait of a Novel, Smith College professor Michael Gorra reverses the metaphor; he stands with the reader on the lawn and the balconies and looks into the many windows of James’s life, peering in on both the psychological and biographical circumstances that helped shape his masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady. The book is part scholarly yet compelling close read of that text, part biography, and part travelogue—Gorra retraced many of James’s expatriated steps though Europe. The author’s encyclopedic understanding of not only James, but also his influences and contemporaries, offers a thoroughly illustrated and appropriately tumultuous picture of fiction’s awkward adolescence between stilted Victorianism and modernistic messiness. The reader does not have to love or even be particularly familiar with James’s work to enjoy this book; this is as much a story about the creative process itself, or the function of genius, as it is about any particular product.
You know you’re in for an interesting read when a book opens with a cautionary note warning you not to electrocute yourself (or any animals) if you happen to re-create the experiments within. Oxford professor Frances Ashcroft colorfully illustrates the fact that some of life’s most metaphysical concerns, such as fear, death, and thought itself, can boil down to the action of ion channels, which facilitate the movement of electricity through our bodies and brains. (The same mechanism controls our most basic processes, including the flexing of a muscle or the beating of the heart.) If the body is a machine, then this book is a users manual on the electrical system. There is some rigorous science here, along with charts and graphs that may give the reader stressful flashbacks to school exams, but Ashcroft writes for a large audience, and keeps things moving at a colloquial clip. There is an incredible weight of info here, beginning with a detailed history of the field, up though modern examples and advances being made pertaining to all matter of physical ailments. Just don’t go trying to cure them yourself.
“I need you to tell me our story,” Elisa says to her husband. She recently went on a brief trip—was it a visit to see her dead son’s grave or to attend a work conference? But when she returns home to upstate New York, she finds the components of her life inexplicably altered. Somewhere along the highway, her existence shifted. Her body feels heavier. Her home and yard look neater. Her husband is more attentive; their marriage seems closer. Most perplexingly, the son she buried as a teenager now is alive and well, designing video games in California, but not speaking to her. Trapped in this strange, parallel version of her life, there’s no graceful way for Elisa to mask that she has no idea who she is. Has she had a nervous breakdown? Or fallen victim to the mischief of a multiverse? Lennon has created a fascinating conundrum for his protagonist, but he doesn’t let the messy time-and-space quandaries of Elisa’s situation distract from the human drama. Most of the novel focuses on the endlessly awkward fallout from being lost in one’s own life. Elisa hides in her university office until she can piece together what she does for a living. She sneaks around her house and Googles her children to try to put together a narrative of her home life. She reintroduces herself to the man she was having an affair with in her other life just to see what will happen. She battles the shrink she and her husband see for couple’s therapy. “This is not my life,” she tells him. But then whose life is it? Familiar is a mind-bending book, a carefully drawn portrait of domestic life and existential dislocation too sharp and strange to be unbelievable.
How do people sound? That’s one of the primary concerns of a writer. Get that right, and everything follows. Donoghue gets it right, as anyone who’s read Room would know. In that remarkable, terrifying novel whose very mention sends my heart rate up and up, she reproduces the speech of Jack, a 5-year-old boy who lives in a tiny room with his mother with no contact with the outside world. Here he is seeing his first sunset: “I watch God’s face falling slow slow even orangier and the clouds are all colors, then after there’s streaks and dark coming so bit-at-a-time I don’t see it till it’s done.” That “slow slow,” “orangier,” using dark as a noun and the exhilarating “bit-at-a-time”—what perfect control she wields. Reproduce is inaccurate, for she does the opposite. She invents, creates, stylizes. You’ve probably never met a 5-year-old boy who’s only ever lived in a tiny room with his mother, but reading Room, you are positive he would sound like Jack. It takes bucketsful of imagination to pull it off, and you wonder whether Room is a one-off. Then you read the short stories in Astray, and you realize this is how she writes! I’ve got plenty more where that came from, she might be saying. Almost all of her characters in this new collection are based on real people, and she writes briefly about their origins after every story. In “Man and Boy,” she introduces Matthew Scott, a zookeeper in P.T. Barnum’s circus, who talks to Jumbo, his African elephant. “Anyway, the superintendent has an iddy-fix that you’re a danger to the kiddies, now you’re a man, as it were. Oh, you know and I know that’s all my eye, you dote on the smalls.” Again, it’s the things that sound “wrong” that transfixes you, the “iddy-fix,” a few words seems to be missing between “kiddies” and “now you’re a man,” the “as it were,” (as it were what?) whatever “that’s all my eye” means. In “Onward,” she was piqued by Caroline Maynard, a woman who called herself Mrs. Thompson, was forced into prostitution and who stirred Charles Dickens’s imagination for 18 months when her brother Fred wrote to the great writer and philanthropist asking for help. But without knowing any of that at the start of the story, it is extraordinary to read lines like these: “‘We saved you the last of the kippers,’ she says in a tone airy enough to give the impression that she and Pet had their fill of kippers before he came down this morning. Mouth full, Fred sings to his niece in his surprising bass.” Is there a tone airy enough to give such an impression? And why is it surprising that Fred is a bass? One has to read Donoghue a few times to fill in the blanks, and there are many blanks; is “Pet” perhaps a typo for “Peter”? Donoghue reads like she takes a dry eraser and deletes chunks of letters and words—there’s something constantly missing, and parts of the world are a mystery. But isn’t that how we think to ourselves, as Joyce demonstrated, skipping over the river of thoughts and refusing to bother explaining the obvious or the visual? With such ingenuity, Donoghue achieves the effect of creating magic and wonder in the real world. To follow Donoghue into the unknown is one of the most pleasurable experiences I can think of.
Canadian master Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, her 13th, finds her at the height of her craft. Postwar men and women reaching for normalcy parade across the pages of Dear Life. An editorial note points out that in this collection, Munro has taken the unusual step of revising the endings of stories that have been previously published. Still, the collection betrays no real shift from the Canadian writer’s signature style. Her protagonists are tight-lipped and their worlds are sharply-observed. Their emotional lives loom larger than their fates and are frequently tragic, especially when Munro turns her attention to the mind’s shortcomings. “In Sight of the Lake” watches an elderly woman try to make her way to a doctor’s appointment; she has arranged to see a specialist because she suspects her memory is failing. Munro cuts off her search for the doctor’s office with an eerie abruptness that seems to confirm the reader’s worst fears. The title story, “Dear Life,” is a similarly melancholy remembrance of a childhood in rural Canada. Abandoning conventional plot structures (“this is not a story, only a life”), the narrative takes the shape of a lyrical essay. But the narrator’s detailed memories of her house, neighbors, school, and the land, it turns out, present only an incomplete picture of the past. In the end, the distinction between a story and a life might not be so great, after all. As one Munro protagonist puts it, “good use can be made of everything, if you are willing.”
Kafka in Love, by French novelist Jacqueline Raoul-Duval, is presented in a unique form. Not quite historical fiction and not quite a collection of primary documents, it is more of a “dramatic recreation” of Kafka’s letters to the four women who captured his heart. The book shares with its namesake Shakespeare in Love in the intensity of Kafka’s obsessions, but with an added touch of sturm und drang. The letters reveal the writer’s neuroses and penchant for pessimism. As he writes one lover: “My real fear—nothing worse could be said or heard—is that I will never be able to possess you.” And it becomes clear that he was never well suited for any kind of stable relationship. Replies that same woman later: “The only thing that interests you, as you’ve said a hundred times, is tormenting others and being tormented! I’ve had enough of being both your victim and executioner.” Through Kafka’s turbulent personal life, the reader can see the themes of his most enduring works of fiction taking hold in the forefront of his mind; humiliation, fatalism, and trial.