Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Lone Star State and Lone Children

A Texan with a large ranch bordering Mexico said he supported Trump's policy of separating migrant children from their parents: "These people are criminals," he said. "In the United States, citizens who commit crimes are separated from their children." He said he wept for those children--American children--not those who cross American borders illegally. Democrats, the argument continues, care more about these migrants than they do about Americans.
What would the Texan rancher do if he found himself suddenly unable to feed his family or pay his bills? If his children were crying from hunger, if rats were invading the baby's crib, if a drug lord put a price on his head? Would he steal food and fuel for his family? Poverty makes criminals of us all. Australia, the noted historian Niall Ferguson has observed, was a nation founded by shoplifters. British persons convicted of stealing stockings or food got put on ships and deported there--at a time when most transportees initially regarded the region as alien as the planet Mars is to us.
I live in a nation with great health care and reasonable food prices. I'm easily able to feed my family well-balanced, nutritious meals and I don't have to worry about robbery or crime in my neighborhood. Once in a while everything stops while a bomb from the Second World War is found and defused--that happened at our local main train station today--but otherwise, life goes on, with the many, many refugees Germany has absorbed. 
The realities--that the vast majority, if not all, migrants coming across the border are both harmless and easy to help, that the richest of nations can easily afford to help these poor people, is not something the Trump administration cares about. Might I persuade the Texan rancher? Somebody tell me how. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Zero Tolerance and the American Heart

Our former students left East Germany before the wall fell—the husband by masquerading as a businessman from another part of Germany, counterfeiting an accent unlike his own. The wife followed under mysterious circumstances she’s never explained. The children, both under the age of four, were left with grandparents. At the time our friends left, they had no idea the wall would come down a few months later. They were willing to leave their children behind for an indefinite period. I understood how desperate they were when the husband, a builder, revealed he’d had a friend at a construction site pull out a splinter that had landed in his eye. They'd been “borrowing” materials from the site. Being blind in that eye saved him from going to the hospital, where the doctors would have been too scared not to turn him over to the authorities for stealing.

When I try to imagine conditions that would make me willing to risk death or eternal separation from my children, the families pouring into detention centers in Texas come to mind. They have some idea of the cruel deal imposed upon them by the Trump administration. They are fleeing conditions that make the unwelcome ones they encounter luxurious. Better to be deprived of your children but know they will be fed and clothed; better to be stuck in a cage lying on a pallet in a former WalMart than killed by drug lord, chewed by rats, or starving. I listen to the Pro Publica recording of weeping children begging for their parents and try to imagine what Emma Lazarus would write. Her “New Colossus” sonnet is affixed to the base of our national monument, the statue of liberty,

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We might as well tear down the statue of liberty. She's no longer allowed to lift her lamp and welcome the "wretched refuse"  because our president insists on blocking refugees from what he's infamously called "shit hole countries." 
 Trump’s business is to separate. He’s separating parents from children, he’s separating citizen from citizen, party from party—his immigration policy is the logical extension of his lifelong mission to divide and conquer. He’s saying and doing things that make us angry. In spite of him we should—as the German comedian Jan Böhmermann said in his “Be Deutsch” video, “hold together, try to be nice.” Ignore the haters—or laugh at them. Volunteer for groups that help get those children reunited with their parents. Speak up, Republicans, and remember Abraham Lincoln’s vision for your party.

When our East German friends settled in a Western German state, they decorated a hallway in their home with a placard purloined from an East German tunnel: “You are now leaving East Germany.” Let us leave behind those who separate; let us pull together and re-make America. On the (1999-2006) TV series The West Wing, the fictional president played by Martin Sheen solved an illegal Chinese immigrant crisis by looking the other way so that detainees could melt into the population. A president with a heart would do this.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Dotard and the Rocket Man

The sun was shining on the nukes
Shining with all his might
He did his very best to make
The mass destroyers bright
And this was very odd because
The men weren’t there to fight.

The dotard and the rocket man
Were walking side by side
They smiled like anything to see
What other folks had tried
We’ll pile up nukes and dough, both said
And slapped their bellies wide.

The dotard showed the rocket man
A film of future days
One man, one choice, big trains, hotels
On beaches cannons graced.
"Take money, try my brand he said
I’d never be two-faced."

His chain-saw signature poked at
The missile-launching scrawl
Their loose-fit trousers swished and sagged
But signatures stood tall
Each smiled and saw he’d bulldozed fast
And had the other bagged.

“The time has come," the dotard said,
To talk of many things:
Of power, threats, fake news and tax
Of dominance and things
And why those climate changers plot
And damn, we pigs have wings.”

Friday, June 1, 2018

Symmetry in Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry

When I want cleverness, I go to Renaissance poetry with its puzzles and paradoxes. Or I go to T.S. Eliot with his puzzles and paradoxes. Give me George Herbert's pruning poem or "I saw a peacock with a fiery tail" or John Donne's "nor ever chaste except you ravish me" or the humdinger, attributed to Nicholas of Cusa, Empedocles, and Voltaire: "God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."
I'm not looking for a story when I'm looking for cleverness. I'm looking to be amused, enlightened,  thrust into a philosophic mood, and startled by the beauty of language.
When I read a novel or a short story or a memoir--a narrative of any kind--I'm looking for something different, something that makes me, I am sure, the wrong reader for Lisa Halliday's experimental Asymmetry. When I read a novel I don't want puzzles and paradoxes: I want to know what happened, meaning, how the central conflicts get resolved. I want to know whether Snape is a good guy; I want to know what makes Anna jump; I want to know--and Lewis Carroll will tell you--how Alice got through the looking glass and made it home.
Halliday's Alice neither gets through the looking glass nor back home again. She's stuck between the float glass and the aluminum powder within three narratives bereft of resolution. 
The tricks--spoiler alert ahead--don't do it for me, because the characters created (and apparently remembered) are so extremely well-drawn, their worlds so anthropologically accurate (how I admire the way Halliday's created the neighborhoods of my youth in New York!) that we want to know what happens to them. We never do.
In part one, "Folly," Mary-Alice, who like Lewis Carroll's Alice is getting bored, meets Ezra Blazer, the pewter-haired stand-in for Philip Roth. She's a grown-up, unlike Alice Liddell, but the pedophilic implications play over the scene nonetheless. The two remark on their relationship as it develops in lovely ways, he wondering whether it's tragic, she conceding it is "around the edges." At the end of "Folly," Ezra's in the hospital and Alice is thinking of leaving him. Then I turn the page to the "Madness" section and find myself alone with Amar Jaafari, a young Iraqi-American inexplicably detained at Heathrow, clearly on charges of flying while Arab. He has something to do with Alice's story only in the sense that she's been reading about Iraq, longing to be a writer, longing to write about people more important than herself, trying to imagine the mind of the "Muslim hot dog seller" and whether she, a choir girl from the midwest, could ever do so. 
We learn all about Amar's life and his tragedies, and toward the end of this section, we're treated to a view of a young blond woman weeping in the holding area across from him--and we know she's Alice because she's wearing the same Searle coat with the black fur around the hood that Ezra bought her back when the two of them were a thing in "Folly." But we don't find out why she's there--except that we're supposed to see her as a character in Jaafari's story, the author of it? Or he is the author of her story? Keep 'em guessing. The final clue comes not in the "Madness" section--which leaves both Alice and Jaafari in a Kafkaesque lack of closure--but in the "Ezra Blazer's Desert Island Discs" section. There, we're treated to Ezra's ramble about the two or three or "all right, maybe four" times that depression hit, when women left him and his brother died. Then the kicker, at least it's supposed to be the kicker, on p. 260-261 of the British edition: "Our military might is unmatched and in any case the madness is at least an ocean away. And then all of a sudden we look up from ordering paper towels online to find ourselves delivered right into the madness." [Get it? Amar's madness, the war madness, Iraq and Middle East madness.] Ezra goes on: "And we wonder: How did this happen? . . . what good will it do, the willful and belated broadening of my imagination? A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we're able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It's a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author . . . " 
So now it's confirmed that his young friend, Lisa Halliday or Alice, wrote Asymmetry.
I am one of those readers who feels cheated. Especially because we're getting slammed with that overused "looking glass" metaphor again. No, we did not get through the looking glass. If we had, we'd have learned how Ezra and Alice's relationship ended, what happened to Amar and whether he ever got out of the airport to see Alistair, and what Ezra thinks about Alice's novel--much more of what Ezra thinks of Alice's novel! And then you'd have three novels. Three very long novels. Instead of one skinny, clever novel--too clever by half. I can't help but think this novelist chose not to go through the agony of living through Alice's and Amar's states of mind when they're thrust into the dramas she creates. The ending is a clever deus ex machina rendered popular by the death of my hero, Philip Roth--I think of the miraculous voice of Portnoy and the scintillating plotting--not to mention the panorama of America's race, politics, and gender issues in The Human Stain--and conclude that Asymmetry is a footnote to the life of a genius. 
But more: Lisa Halliday is, I persist in feeling, cheating herself as a novelist. She's selling herself short. Her gifts are considerable--she can create endings, but perversely (it must be that--it could be a desire to be mathematically precise--it can't be laziness) she won't. 
The question of whether the choir girl can imagine the mind of the Muslim hot dog seller--of course she can. Of course he can imagine her mind, too. Literature abounds with unlikely narrators: how did he think of her? Vice versa? One example will suffice: In Thomas Mann's Schwarze Schwäne ("The Black Swan" in English) a menopausal woman who has inexplicably begun to bleed again, argues with her daughter, who has cramps, insisting menstruation is a wonderful experience the daughter ought to appreciate.  I first read this story in a graduate seminar with the late lamented and brilliant Steven Marcus--who, and this is the only time I ever saw this happen, didn't get it. He began the class by saying, "this mother and daughter are having a wonderful, loving conversation." Both I and another women sprang to our feet--I think we did, at least we interrupted him, which none had ever dared to do--and informed him that this mother was anything but loving--she was jealous. How, I later wondered, had Mann gotten so far inside the mind of women that even Steven Marcus didn't understand--when any woman would?
So the answer to Lisa Halliday's Alice is: Of course you can imagine. So imagine. And then imagine Amar's fate--imagine how he does nor does not get out of that airport. Imagine Alice's fate: what are her last romantic moments with Ezra, and why?
Plotting. The hardest part of all. Mastery lies in plots that wind up the reader, moving so smoothly that you can't imagine how the author agonized his or her way through them.
Ms. Halliday: please agonize--tell us the rest of the story. I don't want the symmetries: Oh, look, here's Alice, and here's Alice imagining Amar, or vice versa, and here's Blazer imagining both. I want to know what happened.