Headline: “A Portrait of the White House and Its Culture of Dishonesty”
Date: April 18, 2019
Is this the first time the New York Times has printed the F-word? I do not recall seeing it before.
This past August, I was once again a participant at the Bennington Chamber Music Conference, at the like-named college in Vermont. At one of the faculty concerts, there was performed a work already familiar to me: Anton Arensky’s String Quartet in A minor, Opus 35. (It is very unusual, as string quartets go, in that it is scored with two cellos, instead of two violins.) I had always had some liking for the piece, though perhaps finding it a bit on the “kitschy” side.
But, a few months before I re-encountered this piece at Bennington, I learned something about it — not for the better — that now is indelibly connected, in my mind, with the music itself.
In March of this year, I myself played the viola part in a New York City performance of this Arensky quartet. Actually, we just performed the famous second movement (sometimes heard in a string-orchestra version), called “Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky”. I wanted to learn about this background of the piece, so I started to do some research …
The theme of the Variations movement is described in the Bennington program notes as a “solemn, lyrical hymn”. But there is much more to it than that. The theme is from the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s “Sixteen Songs for Children”, Opus 54, composed in 1883. The text that Tchaikovsky set (in Russian, as you might expect) is a poem called “Legend” by Alexey Nikolayevich Pleshcheyev. Now, here is where things get interesting. The Pleshcheyev poem (as you can read, in detail, here ) is a translation of an 1857 poem called “Roses and Thorns” by the American poet Richard Henry Stoddard (1825-1903).
Here is Stoddard’s poem:
The young child Jesus had a garden,
Full of roses, rare and red:
And thrice a day he watered them,
To make a garland for his head.
When they were full-blown in the garden,
He called the Jewish children there,
And each did pluck himself a rose,
Until they stripped the garden bare.
“And now how will you make your garland?
For not a rose your path adorns.”
“But you forget,” he answered them,
“That you have left me still the thorns.”
They took the thorns, and made a garland,
And placed it on his shining head;
And where the roses should have shone
Were little drops of blood instead!
So the Jewish children took all the roses away from Jesus, and placed the crown of thorns on his head. If this is not emblematic of the centuries-old anti-Semitic trope of the Jews being responsible for Jesus’ death, I don’t know what is!
One might hope that Pleshcheyev’s translation — which was what Tchaikovsky actually used — altered the text to get rid of the anti-Semitic venom. But a Google translation that I did from the Russian — laughably crude though it is — indicates that this is not the case:
There was a garden for Christ the Child,
And he made many roses in him;
He watered them three times a day,
To make a wreath myself then.
When the roses blossomed,
He called the children of the Jews;
They tore the flower,
And the garden was completely devastated.
“How will you weave a wreath now?
There are no more roses in your garden! ”
– “You forgot that spikes
Remained to me, “said Christ.
And they made spikes
A wreath of spiny for him,
And drops of blood instead of roses
The man decorated it.
If anything, this more condemnatory to the Jewish children than the original English. (“They tore the flower, / And the garden was completely devastated”)
Lest you, dear reader, think that I am just being too sensitive about this issue, let me show you that others share my aversion to the anti-Jewish message. On YouTube , one can find Tchaikovsky’s song rendered by the USSR State Academic Russian Chorus. The notes supplied with the video provide this translation of the text:
When Jesus Christ was yet a child,
He had a garden small and wild,
Wherein He cherished roses fair,
And wove them into garlands there.
Now once, as summer time drew nigh,
There came a troop of children by,
And seeing roses on the tree,
With shouts they pluck’d them merrily.
“Do you bind roses in your hair?”
They cried, in scorn, to Jesus there.
The Boy said humbly: “Take, I pray,
All but the naked thorns away.”
Then of the thorns they made a crown,
And with rough fingers press’d it down,
Till on his forehead fair and young,
Red drops of blood, like roses sprung.
“The Jewish children” has here managed to become “a troop of children”. Nice and harmless, for the English-speaking web surfer …
One more “alternative version of the facts” … this from the GodSongs website. At least they are honest about their version’s antecedents: “The lyrics of this song were translated by American author and translator Nathan Haskell Dole (1852-1935) from the Russian poem Legenda by A N P [sic], which is itself a translation of the poem “Roses and Thorns” by American Richard Henry Stoddard”. Here is the GodSongs version:
Christ, when a child, a garden made,
And many roses flourished there.
He watered them three times a day
To make a garland for His hair.
And when in time the roses bloomed,
He called the children in to share.
They tore the flowers from every stem,
And left the garden stript and bare,
“How wilt Thou weave Thyself a crown
Now that They roses are all dead?”
“Ye have forgotten that the thorns
Are left for Me, the Christ child said.
They plaited then a crown of thorns
And laid it rudely on His head;
A garland for His forehead made;
For roses: drops of blood instead.
Again, the Jewish children have conveniently disappeared. Some may say that this makes things OK, and that I am being unduly sensitive. But how can one forget the words that Tchakovsky set … which he was certainly aware of, and which, by setting them to music, he gave his tacit approval to?
Others will perhaps argue that Stoddard, Pleshcheyev, and Tchaikovsky were simply the product of their times … which like many (most?) past eras and societies, were inherently anti-semitic. I may somehow understand this, intellectually. But getting my feelings to go along is another matter …
I confess that I have been influenced in my views, on the bearing that “extra-musical” matters have on the “music itself”, by the writings and talks of the contemporary American musicologist Richard Taruskin. On YouTube there is, for exmple, this talk of his called “Did Somebody Say Censorship?”. And here, from Volume 2 of his Oxford History of Western Music, is part of his discussion on perhaps the most famous, arguably anti-Semitic work of all:
… the turba [“crowd”] in the [J.S. Bach] St. John Passion, following the Book of John itself, is identified not as “das Volk” or “the people” (as it is in the Matthew Passion), but as “die Juden” or “the Jews.” An accusation is being made, one that is no longer supported by responsible historical or theological scholarship, that the Jews rather than the Romans were responsible for Christ’s death. That accusation, now often called the “blood libel,” has had a bearing on a history of bloody persecutions, culminating in perhaps the most horrible page in the history of the twentieth century.
Obviously, Bach had no part of that. Nor was he, as far as anyone today can guess, personally anti-Semitic as the term is understood today, except insofar as he probably subscribed to Luther’s doctrine that the Jews should submit to conversion on pain of punishment. In all likelihood he rarely, possibly never, met a Jew and thought little about them. The St. John Passion was intended for performance before a congregation of Christian believers for whom the Gospel text was … well, Gospel. The insult it contains to Jews was wholly incidental to its purpose.
But today it serves other purposes and is performed before other audiences. Bach is long dead, but the St. John Passion lives on. Jews not only hear it nowadays, they often participate in performances of it, and are sometimes shocked to learn what it is that they are singing. Are they wrong? Does Bach’s music redeem the text? Would it impair Bach’s work from the standpoint of its present social use if the text were emended to exclude the blood libel? And if people disagree about the answers to these difficult questions, on what basis can they be adjudicated?
Red Sorghum is a rather long novel, at 359 pages. Most of it is taken up with scenes of violence, much of the violence being rendered in graphic detail. Reading it was not easy for me. Yet, I found that the rewards far outweighed the difficulties.
Published in 1986, this is a multi-generational family chronicle that takes place in China, from the 1920’s to the 1970’s. Much of the bloodshed arises from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), during which the Japanese invaded China and perpertrated many atrocities. Between 10 and 25 million Chinese civilians perished in this war. As if that were not enough, violent confrontations also occur, in this novel, between rival Chinese groups.
But now to get to the side of the book that just didn’t let me give up on it. To start, there is how the storytelling flows back and forth, non-chronologically. A character might come to an unfortunate end, … but can happily come to life again later in the narrative, when we are at an earlier point in time. In a way, memory triumphs over mortality.
Then there is the “inside” view of the Chinese mentality that we get from a Chinese novelist, writing about his own country. The view there of an individual life (based on their huge population) seems rather different from the Western outlook:
The old man with the dark face and white beard shouted, “What are you crying for? This was a great victory! There are four hundred million of us Chinese. If we take on the Japs, one on one, how do you think their little country will fare? If one hundred million of us fought them to the death, they’d be wiped out, but there’d still be three hundred million of us. That makes us the victors, doesn’t it? Commander Yu , this was a crushing victory!”
“Old uncle, you’re just saying that to make me feel good.”
“No, Commander Yu, it really was a great victory. Give the order; tell us what to do. China may have nothing else, but it’s got plenty of people.”
Also … I had certainly heard of foot-binding before. Even after reading this book, it still seems barbaric to me. But now, like the books’s narrator, perhaps I have a slightly more nuanced view. These women do have a special quality to their walk …
A yard in length, the cloth bindings were wound around all but the big toes until the bones cracked and the toes turned under. The pain was excruciating. My mother also had bound feet, and just seeing them saddened me so much that I felt compelled to shout: ‘Down with feudalism! Long live liberated feet!’ The results of Grandma’s suffering were two three-inch golden lotuses, and by the age of sixteen she had grown into a well-developed beauty. When she walked, swinging her arms freely, her body swayed like a willow in the wind. 
And then (though not specific to the Chinese) there are the dogs! There is a section many pages long, in which the behavior of a pack of dogs is chronicled in detail. (Indeed, one of the book’s five parts is called “Dog Ways”.) I will admit that what the dogs are actually engaged in is rather horrible. (Think of the dead on a battlefield, and you will probably get the idea.) But the writing is totally absorbing. One feels (with due respect to the author) that an actual canine is narrating this section! You may get a small idea from this excerpt:
One of the battles [for domination of the pack] occurred when a dog in Green’s brigade, an impudent male with thick lips, bulging eyes, and a coat of bluish fur, took liberties with a pretty spotted-faced female who was one of Red’s favourites. Infuriated, Red charged the motley male and knocked him into the river. After climbing out and shaking the water off his fur, Thick Lips launched into an angry tirade, which earned him the jeers of the other dogs.
Green barked loudly at Red to defend the honour of his brigade, but Red ignored him and knocked the motley cur back into the river. As he swam back to shore, his nostrils skimming the surface, he looked like a huge river rat. The spotted-faced female stood beside Red, wagging her tail.
Green barked contemptuously at Red, who returned the insult.
One must surely mention the sorghum, which one sees in the book’s title … and just about everywhere in the novel.
Mo Yan himself admits that he has been greatly influenced by William Faulkner. Just as Faulkner has his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, so Mo Yan has his (semi-fictional) Northeast Gaomi Township. The main activity there is growing sorghum, a grain used for food, and also to make “sorghum wine” — so called in the novel, but actually a distilled spirit called “baijiu”.
Making this “wine” is the occupation engaged in by the central family in the book. But beyond that, sorghum is the central “leitmotif” of the novel. It is constantly mentioned in all kinds of metaphorical constructions, … but somehow instead of being annoying, this reader (at least) felt it as a strong unifiying element that helps us gain distance from narrative that can be hard to assimilate, because it is so painful. At the end of the book, we gain some understanding as to why the red sorghum was so much on the narrator’s mind:
The sorghum that looked like a sea of blood, whose praises I have sung over and over, has been drowned in a raging flood of revolution and no longer exists, replaced by short-stalked, thick-stemmed, broad-leafed plants covered by a white powder and topped by beards as long as dogs’ tails. High yield, with a bitter, astringent taste, it is the source of rampant constipation. With the exception of cadres above the rank of branch secretary, all the villagers’ faces are the colour of rusty iron.
More than just being itself, the red sorghum is symbolic of the glorious past.
Along with Faulkner, Mo Yan also claims Gabriel García Márquez as an influence; and indeed, Red Sorghum has been cited as an example of “magic realism”. Events that in ordinary life would be unbearably painful are transmuted into richer, more complex things. Example: near the end of the book, a female character, evidently near death, appears to have gone berserk, mouthing abuse and cursing the family around her. But it turns out that an evil spirit has taken possession of her body. Finally, a Taoist has to be summoned from the village to exorcise the demon!
Red Sorghum was originally written in Chinese. I read the able translation by Howard Goldblatt. I don’t normally read translated books (having the purist position that it’s “like taking a shower with a raincoat on”),  but an experience like this shows me how much I might, generally, be missing …
Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. At the end of his Nobel lecture, he tells a story that I’d like to repeat here. It has nothing to do with Red Sorghum! I just like the story a lot:
Bear with me, please, for one last story, one my grandfather told me many years ago: A group of eight out-of-town bricklayers took refuge from a storm in a rundown temple. Thunder rumbled outside, sending fireballs their way. They even heard what sounded like dragon shrieks. The men were terrified, their faces ashen. “Among the eight of us,” one of them said, “is someone who must have offended the heavens with a terrible deed. The guilty person ought to volunteer to step outside to accept his punishment and spare the innocent from suffering.” Naturally, there were no volunteers. So one of the others came up with a proposal: “Since no one is willing to go outside, let’s all fling our straw hats toward the door. Whoever’s hat flies out through the temple door is the guilty party, and we’ll ask him to go out and accept his punishment.” So they flung their hats toward the door. Seven hats were blown back inside; one went out the door. They pressured the eighth man to go out and accept his punishment, and when he balked, they picked him up and flung him out the door. I’ll bet you all know how the story ends: They had no sooner flung him out the door than the temple collapsed around them.
 Though foot binding was banned in 1912 by the new Republic of China government, the practice continued in some rural areas till about mid-century.
 “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.” Though of course I am not talking about poetry here, this aphorism came to mind. I encountered it in the 2016 movie Paterson. I feel like it has been around longer, but cannot find an earlier source.
Well OK, not really a secret. I just don’t like to read about books before reading them, due to my morbid fear of “spoilers”. And Wilkie Collins has never been on my go-to list of Victorian novelists. I might not have gotten to him at all, were it not for a scrawled note in the little notebook I always carry, to firm up my leaky memory. I don’t remember who or what supplied me with this lead, but as the saying goes, I will forever be grateful.
As for what led me to this particular book of his: I knew that The Woman in White and The Moonstone were his best-known novels. And since (all things being equal) I like to read an author’s works in chronological order, I chose the earlier TWIW (1860).
After I had been reading TWIW for a time, I made the note
poster child of STICK W THE BK
In other words, I experienced that wonderful (well, to me) feeling of having input persistence, patience, and observation without much immediate reward … only to have that reward finally come, and in spades.
What put me off initially? One thing was that very early on, we meet Professor Pesca, a good friend of the protagonist Walter Hartright. Pesca, from Italy, is shown as an excessively enthusiastic fellow who excessively bubbles over, cheerfully mangling the English language as he goes along. He recalls some of Walter Scott’s “sidekick” characters (probably speaking in some deep Scottish dialect) who are evidently inserted into the narrative to add “color” and “humor”. As you may have surmised, I tend not to be too fond of these fellows. (Though I am really a Scott partisan; see my review of Rob Roy.) Anyway, as it turns out, I had to eventually revise my appraisal of Pesca … which is, I hope, enough said to tantalize but not to give anything away.
There are other aspects of TWIW that would perhaps also fall into the “old fashioned” category, and that put me off for a while. There is a melodramatic cast to things, characters being either very good or … very much the other way. The surroundings for a given scene are set up so as to enhance the story; for example, you can imagine what kind of events might transpire given this scene:
It is a still, sultry, moonless night. The stars are dull and few. The trees that shut out the view on all sides look dimly black and solid in the distance, like a great wall of rock. I hear the croaking of frogs, faint and far off, and the echoes of the great clock hum in the airless calm long after the strokes have ceased. I wonder how Blackwater Park will look in the daytime? I don’t altogether like it by night.
Now for the good news. Or, as I noted succinctly at the time,
SPIN STRAW INTO GOLD
What was this gold I was now finding? Firstly, a very unusual story. TWIW is a murder mystery that’s … well, not quite a murder mystery. (I don’t mean to confuse, just to tantalize without giving away the store.) The freshness one feels reading this, might connect to Collins being a pioneer. TWIW is regarded as one of the very first mystery (or detective) novels. By anyone. (Note the “novel” qualification; Edgar Allan Poe had already penned “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, but that was a short story.) On top of that, TWIW is known as the first “sensation novel”. I hadn’t been aware of this category, but it seems that sensation novels were big in Great Britain in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Like everything, there is a Wikipedia article for this subject, and you could pursue it there, but I will just mention the keywords Secret, Crime, Romance, Melodrama, Gothic. (But unlike gothic fiction, the story of the “sensation novel” is given more realism by being placed in a true-to-modern-life setting.)
So, TWIW is an early example of both the Mystery novel, and the Sensation novel. And it is regarded as one of the best in each category. It is noteworthy that pioneering works in a given genre can quite often emerge later as one of the greatest in their genre. (Doesn’t this seem to fly in the face of common sense notions of things originating “rough”, and subsequently improving?) The example that comes to my mind first is Don Quixote, one of the earliest novels, but also one that has been considered the greatest novel ever. [See, for example, the Guardian list, which incidentally places TWIW as #23.]
To come back now, to my own personal reactions to TWIW. Two things stand out positively. Firstly, Collins’ ingenious method of narration. The story is initially related by Walter Hartright. But when it becomes more appropriate for someone else — who was an eye-witness to the subsequent events — to tell the story, then that person becomes the narrator. I was initially disappointed to see this, since I like to “bond” with a central character, so might be sorry to see him walk off stage; but Collins’ narration plan ends up working beautifully. Not only does it give a great sense of verisimilitude, but it creates variety in a long novel that else might turn wearying.
Secondly, Collins writes with great skill. Reading his prose can be a pleasure in its own right. I should perhaps have noted several examples, but just recorded one, which seems very deft in its arrangement of words:
I am to ask a personal favour, for the first time in my life, and to ask it of the man of all others to whom I least desire to owe a serious obligation of any kind.
So … if you are ever hankering for a novel that’s “modern” in the sense of being a mystery story, but also one of the best products of another age, I hope you will give The Woman in White a try. It is not a short read, but if you are at all like me, you will soon be expertly swept along by many successive voices, taking turns in relating a devilishly clever plot.
This past August, I was driving up, with my spouse, to Block Island for an extended weekend. One has to take a ferry; one of the boat terminals is at Point Judith, R.I. As usual, we were relying on our car’s GPS navigation system. But luckily, I remembered to also bring that old standby, our road atlas. Even though the GPS basically got us there fine (you’ll see later why I say “basically”), the Connecticut and Rhode Island maps in the atlas supplied all the “context”. As we proceeded, I could see on the map what we were passing, arousing either memories of the old, or curiosity about the new.
To perform the rather egotistical act of quoting myself: “A navigation system gets you where you want to go. But it doesn’t tell you where you are.”
Recently, in the book world, I ran across a parallel to this. I retrieved from my shelf a volume I had dipped into, maybe back in the 1980’s when it came out:
Written by a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, the Eater’s Guide is a tutorial on the subset of the written Chinese language one has to know, in order to read the menu in a Chinese restaurant. (It is common knowledge that the English part of a Chinese menu typically does not present the full range of culinary offerings.)
McCawley begins by explaining that most Chinese characters are not pictorial, but rather composed of two parts: the RADICAL which shows the general area of the character’s meaning, and the PHONETIC which rhymes with the word the character represents. Much of the book is composed of a glossary, which ingeniously does not rely on scholarly knowledge, but is usable by the beginner. The pages below, for example, show some of the phonetic half-characters that could go with the four-stroke radical meaning “tree”:
In the last several weeks, I’ve been studying this book rather seriously (finding it a good companion to subway trips). I have been diligent about doing McCawley’s exercises, which ensure that one has not just an abstract notion, but actual skill in tracking down words in his glossary:
This was indeed work, but it brought the reward not just of useful ability, but also of general learning. Plus some delightful discoveries. In finding the character that means “home”, I was suddenly presented with the Chinese name of one of my favorite dishes (though at least in my Queens, NYC neighborhood it appears in a vegetarian incarnation):
And, I thought it was fun to discover that “chop suey” originates in a Chinese character that means “miscellaneous”:
OK … the scene shifts to a subway trip when I was NOT perusing McCawley’s book, but talking to a friend about it. Not greatly to my surprise, she noted that “there is an app for that”. I’m not sure if this is the one she meant, but here is one called Waygo:
This seems to me, to be the GPS of the Chinese-menu world. To be fair, I have not tried Waygo yet. If it turns out that it does not just give facile translations, but delves into the linguistic intricacies that are so interesting to me, I will eat my words (so to speak) and update this blog entry accordingly. But my strong suspicion is that you will get a result that is quick — and (darn it!) probably very practical — but one without any of the alluring context and background.
Now, I’d like to extend this discussion into a much broader arena. I’m linking below to a recent article in the New York Review of Books. It’s a review of a 2017 book called Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy.
The authors (Philippe van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght) advocate a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans. (Note that this is not a “minimum wage”, but income that you would get whether you held a job or not.) Why? Because the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics will dictate that many workers will need only minimal skills to do their jobs. (An example already widely current: since taxi drivers use — here we are again — GPS, they don’t need to know anything about a city’s geography.) All these now-unskilled workers will not be able to command a liveable income from their job alone. As Benjamin M. Friedman puts it in his review:
Only convinced futurists envision FedEx and UPS vans racing around the nation’s cities anytime soon with no human inside. But in the future, what will the human on board be doing? Most likely, not driving the van but running packages up to people’s doorsteps and then pushing a picture icon on a touch screen to confirm that deliveries have been completed — not so different from what the cashier at a McDonald’s now does. For just this reason, the wages those no-longer-drivers receive also won’t be much different from McDonald’s wages.
If I may come full circle here, and return to my trip to Block Island …
We had to get to Point Judith. We were coming up on Route 1, and our GPS, as I recall, left us in some doubt as to where to turn off toward the coast. With my map in hand, it was easy to see that we should not head towards Jerusalem (necessitating a swim across the inlet), but rather go a bit “too far” and double back, on Route 108, towards Galilee. (We are very Biblical here, no?) The map freed us from our GPS blinders, and gave us (literally) that “extra dimension”. We got to our Block Island ferry in time!
I have long been interested in giving variety to my reading choices, so over the years I have accumulated a repertoire of tools that would give me new ideas for books to delve into. In no special order,
One such defunct printed calendar was “On Writers and Writing”. An instance from a year long gone still survives on Amazon:
Every week, you could turn the page to read about a different author. To my liking, it emphasized “literary” writers, delving back into former decades and centuries. I might be reminded about a writer I had once enjoyed … or perhaps told of one who was unfamiliar to me.
My current choice for literary calendar is Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac”. Though I don’t consider myself as a bona-fide writer, this doesn’t deter me from my visits. 🙂 There is a new “page” to read every day. (Or, as you can see, to listen to instead if you wish.) Things always start with a poem:
Following this, there are a number of descriptive entries, tailored to the current date, e.g.
Unfortunately for my purposes, not all the entries are about writers, … though many of them are. If I see a name that intrigues me, I may follow up by reading the Wikipedia article on the given person. There is also the (happily online) Columbia Encyclopedia, with a succinct (and usually spoiler-free) account of the writer in question. Usually these sources are a help to me in deciding which of this author’s books I should start with. (Sometimes it will be the most celebrated one. But often I will choose the work written the earliest … especially if it is part of a series.)
Can anyone suggest other places to get reading ideas? For instance, are there any websites (or apps) that, if you input your reading tastes (Authors A, B, C), will suggest that you should try Author D?
My usual reading tends to concentrate in two areas: the classics, and detective novels. Since both these genres go back many decades (not to say centuries), a corollary of this is that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction. There are exceptions, however. The New York Review of Books is my favorite journal; as such, I give special attention to writers, and books, that are discussed there. Recently in that publication, Joyce Carol Oates wrote an article about works by the American writer Mary Miller (born 1977).  Two of these books are short-story collections. The third is The Last Days of California (2014). So far, it is Miller’s only novel. Oates’ review of this novel was not totally glowing, but there was something about this book — perhaps the quotations from it? — that caught my eye.
The story takes place over only four days. It’s about a family on a road trip from their home in Montgomery, Alabama to California. The father believes the end of the world is coming soon, and is trying to “save” as many people as he can, buttonholing strangers and passing out leaflets along the way. His reasons for going to California are not too clear, but he seems to be on some kind of pilgrimage. Jess, the narrator, is 15 years old. Her mother, and 17-year old sister Elise, are also on the trip with her.
The Oates review attaches the label of “minimalism” to the book. Even though I like the writings of at least one “minimalist” — Raymond Carver  — there is something barren-sounding about that designation. I’m glad it did not put me off from reading this novel, which certainly came across as very rich to me.
True to its “minimalist” badge, there are many seemingly unimportant events described in the book (as you can imagine from the time span of only a few days). (Even these events strangely held my interest, however.) But as well, both Jess and Elise undergo some quite momentous experiences. (Being averse to spoilers myself, I will refrain from elaboration on this.)
It seems paradoxical, but even though I have very little idea of what a teenage girl’s inner life is like, Jess comes across as completely genuine. Perhaps a considerable part of this lies in the contradictions exhibited in her behavior, feelings, and beliefs. (Being a teenager, poised between youth and adulthood.) One could start with her obsession with her (alleged) excess poundage, while blithely munching on junk food! For a couple of further examples, let me turn to some passages from the novel.
The first selection shows how perverse Jess can be, engaging in behavior which she knows very well will result in bad things:
My favorite [Stephen King book] was Duma Key. I also liked It and The Tommyknockers. The books frightened me but it didn’t make me not want to read them. This seemed to imply something defective in my character. It was like the other things I did to make my life harder—eating too much when I knew I’d get a stomachache, drinking water when I had to pee and there was nowhere to use the bathroom.
The next passage — with its jolting turnabout in the middle — seems to encapsulate the wide emotional swings that an adolescent could have. Note that at both ends of this spectrum, no communication with the parents will result!
I picked up my milkshake and turned to the window. At some point, my feelings for my parents had changed. I mostly felt nothing and couldn’t think of anything to say to them, but it [sic] was periodically broken by a brief, crushing feeling, a love so intense that there was nothing to do but reject it altogether.
Next, Jess relates an encounter with a boy at one of the motels where the family stopped. Another jolt for me, as the passage goes from an alleged world-weariness, to the pure desire expressed in the last sentence:
“Hey, girl,” Gabe said, “you want another?”
“Keep ’em coming,” I said, though my beer was still half-full. I liked how he called me girl, as if there were too many girls to remember, as if the names of girls would take up too much space in his head. If he liked me, maybe I could become pretty girl or even my girl. But for this to happen, we’d have to fast-forward past all of this getting-to-know-you business. We’d have to pretend we already knew each other. People were so similar once you got to know them.
I watched him out of the corner of my eye, his body in constant motion, an ankle bouncing on a knee, his hand lifting a can to his mouth. I wanted to feel his body move over mine.
Jess feels she is in the shade of her older sister Elise, who is slender and turns heads wherever she goes. But I defy you to read Jess’ unsparing revelations, and not root for this ugly duckling who is perhaps not so ugly after all.
In sum: My encounter with this achingly beautiful novel has encouraged me to delve more into contemporary literature!
 Joyce Carol Oates, “Postcards from the Edge”, New York Review of Books, April 20, 2017. You can read it here: NYRB review
 See my review: The Short Story … featuring Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”