Monday, November 9, 2015

When the Killing's Done, by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle, in his storytelling prime, weaves the inevitable and improbable into a tapestry, giving individual faces to social movements and global issues.  His 2011 novel When the Killing's Done sets up a clash between fanatical nature-lovers, raising questions that should make any thoughtful person uncomfortable:

Why should some species be allowed to flourish while others, considered invasive, merit eradication?
What makes any species "native" to an isolated place?
To what extent is it even possible for us to undo the mistakes of earlier generations?
Why do we still think, "We know what we're doing"?

The setting is a California archipelago opposite Santa Barbara, twenty to thirty miles offshore but a world apart: three small rocky Anacapa Islands, and the larger Santa Cruz Island.
The main characters, tenacious and intolerant in pursuit of causes on collision course, are:
Alma Takesue, Ph.D biologist working for the National Park Service, in charge of restoration of the islands - which means extermination of the rats on the Anacapas and the pigs on Santa Cruz; and
David LaJoy, successful businessman and leader of FPA, For the Protection of Animals, a local animal rights group resisting the slaughter of rats and pigs.

Takesue's circle is rounded out with biologists, Park rangers, her lover Tim who's both, the exterminators, the local representative of The Nature Conservancy - which owns a large portion of Santa Cruz Island; her grandmother whose husband and his brother died in a storm off the Anacapas while she, pregnant, survived; and her own father, a sea urchin diver until an accident off those islands ended his life.

LaJoy's compatriots are his musician girlfriend Anise, who spent her youth and adolescence on Santa Cruz Island where her mother Rita was cook and general factotum for a sheeping operation; his right-hand-man Wilson, skilled handling a boat, delighting in the mischief LaJoy dreams up to interfere with the Park Service's plans; journalist Tina who applies her muckraking skills on behalf of LaJoy's cause; a young woman who works in Takesue's office, sharing inside information with FPA; and a group of impassioned youth following their fearless leader.

The other significant characters are sea and land and sky:
Glassy still one moment, raging the next, the unpredictable Pacific.
The craggy inhospitable islands - rocky coastlines, the only fresh water what falls from the sky.
The sky, by turns blistering, torrential and fog-bound, as different from Santa Barbara as if the islands were a thousand miles away.

Along the way, we learn enough about the ecology of the islands and what they demand of those who would survive on them, to confront the big questions and come up empty-handed.  A rat is a living creature.  Rats have lived on the Anacapas for centuries, survivors of a shipwreck.  The island birds, having no experience with them, have made easy prey for nest-robbers.  The sheep, imported to the islands as a money-making concern in the 19th century, wreak environmental havoc as they overgraze, denuding the landscape which is then at the mercy of erosion and runoff from fierce storms.  But to the sheepherders, the worst enemy is the ravens that gather at lambing time, bewildering the ewes then picking off their newborns with appalling efficiency.

Boyle is unsparing about the devastation of invasives: brown snakes, stowaways on planes or ships during World War II, have eradicated nearly all bird life from Guam.  That ecosystem is changed - the Guam before the snakes showed up is irretrievable.  Foxes and skunks live on Santa Cruz Island - how and when did they arrive?  They've been there long enough to evolve into smaller versions of their mainland counterparts, but does that make them "native"?  More "native" than the rats?  By what measure?

We can't un-break the egg.  Here in the Anthropocene era, we rely on the twin indices of appeal and efficiency, in deciding which species are good and which must go.  Water managers across the American West have declared war on Russian olive and tamarisk, which crowd riverbanks, sucking up water and blocking access for native creatures - but the primary creatures that want that water, and that riverbank access, are humans.  Fish and elk have no voice, neither do Russian olive trees.  Rats and snakes are "pest" species, raiding the nests of other creatures - but they're just doing what nature has equipped them to, and perhaps it's their survival skill that makes us hate them.  A weed is a successful plant; a pest is a successful animal. Human interference is the beating heart of the problem.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Separation - Film Review

The Iranian film (2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film) A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, is a window onto the court-ruled lives of modern Iranians. The story opens with Simin, a woman in her thirties, seeking divorce from her husband, Nader. The sticking-point is that Simin wants to leave the country, and take their 11-year-old daughter Termeh with her. Nader is willing to allow divorce, but he wants Termeh to stay with him. His Alzheimer's-stricken father, who lives with them, cannot travel, and he won't leave him. Simin oversimplifies matters - Nader should come with her: his father doesn't know him anyway, she claims, so anyone could look after him - nothing would stand in her way. She sees his refusal as stubbornness and antipathy. But as the story unfolds, we see that Nader's father does in fact know his family, and needs them.

Simin walks out, so to care for his father while he's at work, Nader hires a caregiver. This woman, who comes with her 4-year-old daughter, is so pious that before helping, she consults an imam, asking if assisting a senile man who has soiled himself is a sin. But she is also pregnant, which her little girl knows but is a secret from Nader - and from Simin, who provided her name. According to the law, this woman must have her husband's permission to work for Nader. The men meet and Nader thinks the man will be coming to look after his father - instead, it's the woman who continues to come, though her long bus commute and trek up multiple flights of stairs to Nader's apartment exhaust her.

Spoiler Alert - read no further if you plan to see the film!

Nader comes home early and discovers his father alone, crumpled on the floor barely alive, one arm tied to his bed-frame. In his rage, Nader sees that the cash he had set aside to pay the woman is gone. When she and her daughter return from their errand, he confronts her, accusing her of theft. She argues, and he pushes her out of his apartment.

Next thing we know, Nader is informed that the woman fell on the stairs and miscarried, and therefore he is charged with murder of the 19-week-old fetus. He and Simin, concerned when they hear the woman is hospitalized, go to visit her, only to be confronted by her angry distraught husband who declares they have only come out of guilt. The men are soon at each other's throats.

The referee requires witnesses; clearly this arbiter of justice is exasperated trying to get to the bottom of who knew what, whether Nader pushed the woman, whether he knew she was pregnant, why the woman tied his father to his bed then left - the story becomes more convoluted. Costly bail is set which Simin's wealthy parents willingly pay, while we learn that the caregiver's husband was recently in debtor's prison and takes several medications to treat mental illness. More and more, Simin's plan to leave Iran looks like the choice of a person of means.

Simin continues to negotiate with the woman, forcing Nader into a position of having to admit he knew the woman was pregnant when he pushed her, or else face prison time. He doesn't want a deal, he wants justice. The other man also wants justice, which to him appears to mean that others must suffer as he has. He stalks Termeh at her school, which throws Simin into panic, her own role in Termeh's anguish quickly forgotten.

At every turn, Termeh is forced to bear witness to her parents' behavior. She wants only for her mother and father to stay together, and she'll say whatever she thinks will enable that - but they withhold what they know, urging her to "tell the truth" though she knows that will not help. She's constantly weighing what they tell her - If I say this, will Mom stay with Dad? If I say that, will Mom leave for sure? It's heartbreaking.

This glimpse into a society as litigious as modern America is depressing: Sharia (Quranic law) solves nothing - piety is just one more weapon people use against each other. Class divisions spark resentment and jealousy, and justice is blind. When Nader is first charged with murder, he pleads with the judge: who will care for his father if he's in prison? But it's not the judge's problem.

At the end, Simin, Nader and Termeh are again meeting with a judge about the divorce, this time to determine custody. By now Nader has passed the burden to their daughter - whichever parent she chooses, he'll agree. The judge asks Termeh if she has decided, she says yes. But she won't utter the name. He presses, she continues to say yes, she's decided. Tears flood her face. He sends Simin and Nader out into the corridor, which is filled with petitioners, some bickering and others slumped in chairs in a scene out of Kafka. They wait as the credits roll.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Fasting Meditation

I'm not Jewish, but for the last 15 years have been celebrating events on the Jewish calendar. I have learned that my digestive system is unhappy without bread, and that I don't mind fasting. That's not a contradiction.
A week of Passover turns my gut inside out.
A day of fasting for Yom Kippur is welcome.

Fasting is not about food.
It has to do with how we spend our daily lives, and what happens when we interrupt routine.  When you get up in the morning, thoughts of eating are not far off. Brush teeth, wash face, put on the day's clothes - and on to breakfast. It's comforting, stabilizing, sets you up for a typical day.

Break the pattern.
Wander the kitchen for a few minutes: no, no coffee, no toast, no yogurt or piece of fruit. The morning news isn't the same without them - just skip that. Leave the kitchen - what are you doing in there anyway? You're not eating today, and you can only drink water to keep from passing out.

Go outside. Talk to god, whatever/whomever/wherever that is for you. Follow love from what you know brings joy, into the crevices where you doubt it can reach. And seek it there: in the face of the homeless woman who sells you a newspaper, in the bees pollinating trash cans, in contrails painting the sky with a gigantic Y.

What is atonement? Apology for what you did that you shouldn't have, or an effort to turn the opposite direction? Acknowledging the existence and humanity of someone invisible might be the kindest possible act.

Atoms packed close together form a solid - see it, touch it, manipulate it. Further apart, they form liquid - still visible, still tangible, but restless, taking on the forms of its containers. More space, they become gas. Now we can't quite see it, can't feel it. The vibrational space between atoms is god - more intense in a solid, more malleable in liquid, more ubiquitous in gas.
Bones, tears, breath - fragments of god, surrounded by an infinity of fragments.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station all the time

This rumpled sky, rough worthy of Van Gogh,
a hundred colors graying into dusk
a palette mixed of white in black to mimic coming dark.

At Fruitvale Station New Years Eve (2008-9) a young black man was jumped then
    policed to death
      subway crowd recording pictures under threat
         till the train moved out.
Fear, hysteria, chaos, reactions under duress -
      we have divided our nation into warring camps while
Justice, head in hands,
      catches the action too late for
                          the weighing and balancing for which we turn to her after, torn,
                          we have berserked.
We grieve an instant before the next bad-news pulse
     beats away this alarm.
Shrug or shout later, how change that fraught interface between
        what we fear and
        those anointed as our bulwark,
                            frail tho they be,
                            not up to correct swift determinations,
                            just jumping at noise, struggle,
         a young man harmless till they thugged him?

It's coming evening now, and for now
    cicadas soundtrack the time -
pop of guns come later
    - Friday night in America
           young men and cops are cruising armed,
                   looking for a hair out of place,
                   trigger to take offense.
How do we collectively learn to draw a breath,
             to see past the fear-paintings that debase our nature,
             to prove we are the homo sapiens -
              the thinking beings -
 we are named?

Fruitvale Station again and again -
      why are young men of color the enemy?
      why are police an occupying army?
Life is a wink between waking and gone -
       why do we invest in damage and defense
       when the door to the stars yawns near and cold?
When we lie in ashes, my atoms and yours rejoin once more.

Start by remembering:
   this is who we are:
       bits of one whole
           so soon to return
    having learned -


Friday, July 31, 2015

Self Portraits: Fictions, by Frederic Tuten

Frederic Tuten's series of linked short stories, most titled Self Portrait (followed by such varied qualifiers as "with Bullfight", "with Cheese", "with Icebergs"), examine love and adventure in magical ways. The narrator, the I of these pieces, is variously a lover, husband, father, son, and a man spending time alone in a public place where he can observe those around him. Tuten makes frequent allusions to paintings and films, which must either alienate the inexperienced, or draw closer those for whom these arts are familiar.

His story The Park Near Marienbad, for example, refers to Alain Resnais' film "Last Year at Marienbad", in which at a spa a man approaches a woman with intent to seduce her, insisting on details of what they did "last year at Marienbad." She has never seen him before, and knows this, but though she puts him off, gradually his stories insinuate themselves into her thoughts. The narrator weaves his fondness for this film into his museum-going travels with his wife: they too are among the few who have the time to visit places for no purpose except pleasure. He watches his wife hoping to see a repeat of Delphine Seyrig's enchanting gesture, so singular in the film. If she can slip across the boundary between the closed reality of a story and the larger world in which they have wed, perhaps their marriage will touch him on that deeper level where he seeks consonance between artistic vision and life.

Often a story's setting is a restaurant or cafe; a newlywed couple's interactions with their waiter are key to the progress of Self Portrait with Bullfight:
"...[I]f you turn you may notice [the waiter's] appearance, accompanied by two guests."
"Just a coincidence," I averred, deigning not to seem amazed by two bulls, festooned with garlands of garlic and roses, being ushered to their table.
"It is the custom," our waiter explained, finally returning to us, "to host a banquet for those bulls who survive the day. Of course, they may stay the night, on the house, naturally, and leave when they want and return to their mothers, if they wish."

In this brief exchange we see Tuten's method: his mingling of familiar and fantastic in ways that challenge the reader's comfort with what we think we're used to, and also question whether the magical is as removed from daily life as we might prefer.

The cycle's progress takes us from a man recalling his grandmother, to the death of the narrator's mother, and his son's pursuit and rescue of her soul from pirates. In that first piece, stories are the binding skein that holds a child to his grandmother. In the last, the grandmother's fond final desire was to be alone through eternity with the Borges-sized library of stories she loved so well.

Tuten's spare precise language is a marvel, the stories he tells the more wonderful because of the delights of his prose.  Seek, and enjoy!

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali

In May 2015, partners involved in the extensive restoration/reconstruction of Satyajit Ray's masterworks The Apu Trilogy released meticulously restored versions in a digital format. I've just seen the first film, Pather Panchali, about the birth and childhood of Apu. The sound is Ravi Shankar's music which in many cases renders dialogue unnecessary, expressing the emotional layers of life in a variegated stream of notes and beats. Mischief, mystery, argument, discovery - the wedding of sitar and drums to the camera's keen eye creates a rapturous and all-encompassing experience.

The camera loves everything it sees: a large lidded basket of kittens; a girl hiding in an orchard, stealing a piece of fruit, then skipping home where she places her bounty in the bowl of ancient Auntie, the penniless woman who shares her family's house; water striders moving on the surface of a river; a distant shot of sister and brother hurrying along the right-angle paths flanking rice paddies, in search of the family's calf, an excuse to go see the railroad tracks.

Whether the image is of Auntie struggling by the light of her oil lamp to thread a needle, or of young Apu fascinated by the behavior of his teacher who is also a merchant, or the exaggerated costumes and dialogue of the traveling troupe who entertain the village, this black-and-white film is eloquent, shedding light on family, on village society, on the full tapestry of life.

Satyajit Ray was master of his medium, and we are the richer for his vision. If you have the opportunity to see these restored films on a big screen, go!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon © 2006
Reviewed by NC Weil

In the nearly-1100-page steppes of this novel, Pynchon starts at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, carrying us through the tumult, political and scientific, that lay the tracks to World War I. We cross continents and oceans to linger in the mining boom-towns of Colorado; observe competing strains of obsessed mathematicians who gather in Illinois, at Yale, in London, Gottingen and Ostend to disagree about the shape of time; fly with a crew of perpetually adolescent extra-dimensional balloonists - The Chums of Chance - materialized from the pages of dime novels to ply the skies, unseen by the earthbound as they undertake missions-for-hire; loathe an evil plutocrat who perceives that money is the next ruler of the world; and most especially, follow the family of Webb Traverse, Anarchist dynamiter of mines whose murder scatters his wife Mayva, sons Frank, Reef and Kit, and daughter Lake to lives seasoned by explosion, whose travels suggest the scattering of bomb shrapnel: revolts in Mexico, mines and railway tunnels of the Alps, uprising in the Balkans, a journey in Siberia during the Tunguska Event of 1908. And to Venice, where they don't have purpose so much as compulsion to spend time.

Secret organizations advance their chess-games of strategic mayhem, at times in opposition but perhaps always in cahoots, their purpose the domination of masses of people by means of exhausting work, controlled information, and the lure and necessity of money, using nationalism and war to stamp out the anarchist dream of humanity in cooperation.

The students of time gather annually at Candlebrow University in Grossdale, Illinois, where one might find patrons, professors, lunatics, and a time machine junkyard:
"Up and down the steeply-pitched sides of a ravine lay the picked-over hulks of failed time machines - Chronoclipses, Asimov Transeculars, Tempomorph Q-98s - broken, defective, scorched by catastrophic flares of misrouted energy, corroded often beyond recognition by unintended immersion in the terrible Flow over which they had been designed and built, so hopefully, to prevail... A strewn field of conjecture, superstition, blind faith, and bad engineering, expressed in sheet-aluminum, vulcanite, Heusler's alloy, bonzoline, electrum, lignum vitae, platinoid, magnalium, and packfong silver, much of it stripped away by scavengers over the years. Where was  the safe harbor in Time their pilots might have found, so allowing their craft to avoid such ignominious fates?"  The time machines' names are made up, and some of those materials would seem to be too (packfong silver? bonzoline?), but Pynchon didn't invent them - he's just very skilled at finding obscure terms and ideas, then making them both exotic and necessary.

Meanwhile, gaps open between dimensions, and the alert and perceptive can use them to inhabit paired worlds. And it wouldn't be a Pynchon novel without hefty doses of kinky sex.

As a lover of words, Pynchon gives us indelible names: Scarsdale Vibe, the American financier/archvillain.  We also have Yashmeen Halfcourt, a beautiful mathematical genius of Russian descent; her inamorata spy-bait Cyprian Latewood; Merle Rideout, an itinerant American photographer and his daughter Dahlia (Dally), abandoned by wife/mother when Dally was little; Lew Basnight, a private detective hired by Vibe and his henchman Foley Walker to break up Anarchist gangs in the Colorado mines; the Quaternions (a mathematical cult who believe in four-space) vs. the Vector Analysts who dispute their conclusions. And there is Shambhala, an other-dimensional paradise to which only the pure of purpose have access.

There are mystical instruments: the paramorphoscope, which allows the viewer to see "...Earth not only as a three-dimensional sphere but, beyond that, as an imaginary surface, the optical arrangements for whose eventual projection onto the two-dimensional page proved to be very queer indeed." And the Hypopsammotic Survival Apparatus, or Hypops, "revolutionizing desert travel by providing a practical way to submerge oneself beneath the sands and still be able to breathe, walk around, so forth."

He gives us Iceland Spar, a calcite crystal through which one may see a pair of refractions - the same image in different space/time. Mined in Iceland and Mexico, it was used by mirror-makers in a sunken portion of Venice where the craftsmen were held prisoner and eventually went mad thanks to the clarity of their creations.

Okay, so what happens? Plot, please! Thematically, we have the hegemony of money and nationalism against unions and anarchists; war against cooperation; light against darkness, but with light the villain; we have the dominance of materialism over mystic options and dimensions; we have the importance and the futility of family ties - though the murderers of Webb Traverse are soon known, and two of his sons agree to go after Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, years go by and the brothers keep getting sidetracked. Revenge tugs at them like ill-fitting clothes, not quite annoying enough to do something about.

Pynchon draws some parallels between that era a century gone, and our own: the acceleration of travel and communications forming a web that entraps and constrains us as surely as the network of train tracks bound the earth; military uses of light in the 1900's evolving to today's lasers; sophistication of weapons enabling less human-to-human combat, tending instead toward large-scale deployment and slaughter; Muscle, whether in the guise of private enforcers like Pinkertons and thugs or well-funded armies, does the unquestioned bidding of Authority; and surely, the more factually-"understood" our world, the more we crave the lighter touch of mysticism: Tarot, travel through dimensions and time, the hidden relationships between things, places, people which our logical minds deny, but whose connections govern us.

He frames the Tunguska Event in Siberia as a rupture in the fabric of space-time. We think of it now as a large meteorite impact, but in this novel, people all over the world are affected by it in varying ways, depending on their sensitivity to extra-rational activity. It represents a great pause in the onrush of mechanization, war and the pitting of groups against one another by nationality, belief and class. As memory of it fades, accessibility to a higher plane of existence is lost.

When a novelist creates and populates a world, the details have to ring true. Recognizing inaccuracy ejects a reader from the story, damaging our faith in our guide through a place we do not know. My travels and interests have intersected Pynchon's at many points, and not once did I catch him in error. In an era of sloppy off-the-cuff "information" I find it refreshing to read a well-researched book. He so skillfully interweaves what we only believe with what we have proven, that his most outlandish-sounding ideas make more sense than much of what we take for "reality" these days.