March 29, 2017
I purchased this 2004 edition of Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel The Fixer for no other reason than my gently mad, inner book collector wanted it – and I wanted it for its introduction, in which Jonathan Safran Foer talks about the difference between a good book and a great book, as well as for Foer’s signature on the title page. I could’ve read the introduction online. Also, I don’t collect Foer. (Book collectors will understand this. Herein is the madness.)
The Fixer tells the story of a Jewish handyman named Yakov Bok, who leaves his small village after his divorce, hoping for a new life in Kiev. It is 1911, and Tsar Nicholas II rules the Russian Empire in a climate of fear and uncertainty. This non-practicing Jew gets caught up in a horrific, mind-bending nightmare when accused of murdering a Christian boy with ritualistic blood-letting. He’s thrown into jail, refuses to confess to a crime he didn’t commit and suffers daily beatings. After a long time, he finally is granted a trial, which is more for show than justice. In the book’s introduction, Foer writes: “Regardless of Yakov’s ultimate fate, a few good people have expressed their solidarity with him, and hence their humanity and his.” Foer tells us some of these few good people include those watching Yakov go to trial. They are waving and shouting their support. “It’s the most they can do, and it’s a lot,” Foer explains.
Great books are necessary (while good books are involving, entertaining, critically acclaimed but not necessary), according to Foer. And they are necessary when they show us the importance of our sympathy, mercy and open-mindedness in the midst of injustice and bad times: “Good books often remind us of our troubled world. Great books go a step further: they remind us of our humanity. And it’s only our humanity that can fix the world.”
I’ve learned over the years that memorable words and thoughts need to be on the bookshelf, so I can read them in the form of which they were originally created, instead of on a page printed off the internet. It’s just not the same without the book. Especially when it comes to universal concepts that resonate with as much power today as they did in the past — and as they will in the future.
“Our world – our desperate, broken world – needs existential novels, novels that give us something more valuable than hope: a call to action. The real fixer isn’t Yakov Bok. (He’s a character in that world.) And it isn’t Bernard Malamud. (He’s the bridge between that world and this one.) The real fixer is each of us. We must do something. That’s what this novel, like all great novels, reminds us.”
June 25, 2013
Christian Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine, the oldest magazine of verse in the world, founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe. Monroe discovered and gave early promotion in the magazine to many then unknown poets who became famous, such as Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Vachel Lindsay, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Wiman, himself a poet, wrote an essay about despair and faith seven years ago that went viral in print anthologies, church services and reading groups, as well as online. Letters poured in regarding this essay he describes as “my entire existence crammed into eight pages.” The response surprised him and, according to the preface of his new book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, brought to light a need for continued dialogue — with himself and this hungry audience — on the topic of understanding his faith in God while living with the diagnosis of an incurable but unpredictable cancer.
My Bright Abyss is composed of thoughts, what Wiman calls prose fragments, organized into chapters. It is part memoir, part meditation and part probing of “that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God.” Throughout, Wiman quotes passages from poems to expand on a point, including the work of Osip Mandelstam, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wallace Stevens. In one chapter, he mentions the three living novelists whose work means the most to him: Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping and Gilead) and Fanny Howe (Indivisible).
Wiman writes compellingly about the yin and yang of his faith; what lies beyond the temporal landscape of modern life; and why we don’t really begin to know life until we’re faced with death. Below is the first paragraph to the chapter “Hive of Nerves.” There are many quote-worthy paragraphs and sentences in the book. This is the one I kept coming back to:
“At a dinner with friends the talk turns, as it often does these days, to the problem of anxiety: how it is consuming everyone; how the very technologies we have developed to save time and thereby lessen anxiety have only degraded the quality of the former and exacerbated the latter; how we all need to ‘give ourselves a break’ before we implode. Everyone has some means of relief — tennis, yoga, a massage every Thursday — but the very way in which those activities are framed as apart from regular life suggests the extent to which that relief is temporary (if even that: a couple of us admit that our ‘recreational’ activities partake of the same simmering, near-obsessive panic as the rest of our lives). There is something circular and static to our conversation, which doesn’t end so much as fizzle indeterminately out, and though there is always some comfort in comparing maladies, I am left with the uneasy feeling that my own private anxieties have actually increased by becoming momentarily collective — or not, not that, increased by not becoming collective, increased by the reinforcement of my loneliness within the collective context, like that penetrating but enervating stab of self one feels sometimes in an anonymous crowd. It is a full day later before it occurs to me that not once, not in any form, not even with the ghost of a suggestion, did any of us mention God.”
The American Scholar in its Winter 2009 issue published the first chapter of My Bright Abyss — you can read it here. The subtitle perfectly expresses the heart of the complete book: I never felt the pain of unbelief until I believed. But belief itself is hardly painless.
The original essay Wiman wrote seven years ago also can be found in The American Scholar.
On June 30, 2013, Christian Wiman will leave his post as editor of Poetry magazine. Don Share, the magazine’s senior editor, will become the new editor on July 1, 2013.
June 17, 2013
Patrick McGrath’s talent for writing dark, psychological stories and for creeping out his readers holds a firm place in Gothic literature. Constance, his newest psychological tale, features the unstable Constance Schuyler, a New York girl who marries Sidney Klein, a professor 20 years her senior. Soon, Constance is suspicious of Sidney, believing his love is a sham; however, he convincingly projects a desire to protect his fragile wife. Sidney frequently encourages her to share her worries and concerns with him, especially regarding her hatred for her father. Daddy, always spelled with a capital “D,” lives in a massive, isolated old family house perched on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. He’s the reason Constance rages deep inside with paranoid resentment, which infects her interactions with the world.
It is the 1960s. Constance and Sidney live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The location lends a dark touch to the atmosphere because this is a time when the now gentrified location groaned with drunks, whores and drugs. Hovering over the city is the long, drawn out demolition of New York’s original Penn Station, a metaphor illustrating the city’s structural breakdown and a senseless destruction of beauty. It also visually represents the structural demise of Constance’s sense of self when the big Daddy reveals a dark family secret that validates why all her life Constance felt neglected by him, and why he worshiped her younger sister, Iris.
By giving us the viewpoints both of the paranoid Constance and the doting Sidney in alternating chapters, McGrath creates an uncertainty about Constance’s reality, and it effectively keeps us off-balance. But no matter how effectively McGrath’s style takes hold in Constance, the blame-it-on-a-parent theme lacks originality. Also, it feels more wearisome than inviting. Even the family secret lands with a bit of a thump, revealing poor decisions more than an unusual, shocking disclosure. And that isolated old house on the hill reeks of an easy prop.
Not all is lost, though. Suicides, love affairs and that famous Patrick McGrath creepiness sustain engagement, despite the eye-rolling daddy issues. Also, Iris, Constance’s sister, provides morally corrupt color when she moves to New York City and lives near the newlyweds. And Howard, Sidney’s young son who comes to Manhattan to live with him and Constance, injects a bright spot into the morbid heaviness.
Constance refuses to see a psychologist, and so Sydney remains her main connection to reality beyond her Daddy obsession. He hangs in there through her bizarre behavior because Howard needs a family, after the death of his mother. Even Constance realizes this, but how — and if — she’s going to rid herself of Daddy in her head and forget about that house on the hill is what haunts Sidney– and leaves us wondering — at the end of this elemental psychological tale.