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31 October 2011

I progress as I digress

I'll be writing more on this topic later, especially as it involves writing about sex, but I wanted to make an observation on something I find important: digression.  That is, I find things more entertaining, more illuminating, the more digressive they are (up to a point).  I'm just going to use an example from that crappy novel I'm reworking before I send it off to meet its fate.  Option A is a simple statement of what might happen at that moment when you look at someone and 'connect.'

We looked at each other and all of the walls between us came down.

Now, this is crap.  It is crap initially because it is a cliché, and also because it tells you something without letting you experience it.  Digressions can be ways of thinking.  Now, option B is a digression, though it is hampered by my skill as a writer.  Stil, it is more interesting than option A.

In that moment when her eyes met mine, the complete mystery of her background, of her lineage and personal history, of the contradictions she herself encouraged, dropped away and she was – there is no more certain way to put this – translated for me.  She was no longer descended from soccer star progenitors or revolutionaries.  The memory of the grace of her previous turn and farewell receded.  I could see in her another place, a place existing far away, a large house in a lush climate, columned front porches, hot late afternoons, and lemonade, men with well-trimmed beards wearing seersucker suits and sitting on dark-wood chairs in the shade of the porch, talking business and laughing, and women inside talking to each other, fanning themselves, their voices less exuberant but more knowledgeable than the voices of the men, each one glancing out onto the porch occasionally, looking at their husband, or at the other husbands, and moving among these women in their lace and dresses, almost unnoticed, a little girl with black curls and black eyes, with childhood innocence, which is temporary and always close to dangerous extinction from the inconsiderate adult world in which children must survive, a girl as intelligent as the adults, but clothed in the hopes of the unknown future.  This girl was also watching the men outside, especially her father, the man in the largest of the chairs, the man who owned this porch and this grand house and who, every Sunday after the little girl returned from Mass, took her by the hand and walked with her, singing old ballads to her, or whistling snippets of waltzes as he hopped and trotted, laughing as he missed a note, and laughing harder as she laughed too, her little feet trying to copy his in dance.  The little girl watched her father on the porch, and all of the disappointments of life, the compromises one makes with the world and with oneself, the observation of the falling from grace which is the lot of every parent, even those who are in some way forever idealized, and which every child experiences in some way…all of these minor catastrophes were still unformed, perhaps avoidable, and yet inevitable.  I have since come to know Maria’s story, and so I am sure I did not really see all of this, but I did yet see some of it.  And at this moment, I also ceased thinking of the woman I had seen go to her death on the bridge, and thought only of the woman before me.  Maria looked tired, but I saw something of my future in her, either a brief future in my bed or, perhaps a more distant future, which is what it has become.  I hastened my steps as I crossed the street.
But, I digress.

20 October 2011

The Horror-scope

Imagine opening your Sunday paper to a small section called ‘Ethnicities.’  Here is what you find:

Jews: work smarter rather than harder in order to maximize the opportunities that come your way

African-American: Don't get discouraged by your lack of direction

Asians: Don't bother attempting to justify your actions because your explanations will just grow increasingly convoluted. Keep things as simple as you can and try to finish whatever you begin.

Caucasians: Push steadily toward your goals because you have the necessary inner resolve to overcome most obstacles now. Set your mind on your destination and then don't let anything or anyone distract you.

And so on.

I personally find this sort of thing both offensive and limiting.  But let me explain.  I have made up the categories of ethnicity and simply copied the first few horoscopes I found online to fill in the information.  It is strange that reading how African-Americans shouldn’t be discouraged by a lack of direction feels a tad racist, but saying the same thing about someone born at the end of March is completely acceptable, and printable. 

Horoscopes have no scientific backing, and are indeed based currently on out of date astronomy.  Chances are, you are not the sign you think you are.  Yet, at best horoscopes are thought of as harmless diversions.  We can laugh at their predictions and point to the generic makeup of their advice.  “Finish whatever you begin” is sound advice to Spring babies as well as those born just before the first Winter snow.  So what could be so bad in a little fun.

Well, the problem, as with most things, comes from those who go in wholesale on a superstitious idea.  A great many people actually do, to a certain extent, attempt to adjust their lives according to these little snippets of rubbish.  Love advice often warns one sign against getting involved with another (I couldn’t possibly date Pisces!), denying possibilities to the believer.  Being warned against another because of supernatural reasons is never good.

Yet, my greatest problem with horoscopes comes from my example above.  When used with race or religion, it is offensive.  We are sensitive to stereotypes based on differences in geography.  We shun blanket statements about other human beings separated bt physical space.  Yet, we have become accustomed to stereotypes based on distances in time, separations in temporal space.  Even good natured, they are groundless and distracting.  As a species, in an age of growing nationalism, fundamentalism, and sectarianism, the last thing we need right now is to be separated by arbitrary, and in this case imaginary, divides.  

 We need things, even diversions, which illuminate how we are all a part of the human family, not how we are alien to each other according to some cosmic mumbo jumbo.

08 October 2011

Narrators who confound.

One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite books with an unreliable narrator is this:  “This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard.”  Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier may be one of the greatest novels ever written, and I cannot argue with Jane Smiley’s opinion that it is one of the most stylistically perfect novels in any language.  The experience of reading it is tremendous, and it ranks high among other works with such narrators, like Lolita.  Sadly, I haven’t come across many books as good at deploying the use of the unreliable narrator...until now.

Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in the Mirror is, on the surface, a murder mystery, and underneath a fierce examination of society in collapse.  Olga Maria has been gunned down in front of her children, and the whole aftermath is narrated for us through incessant dialog by a shallow young socialite.  As the wake progresses, all the right people show up, and Laura Rivera talks about her best friend, we see just what sort of narrator we have:  “Come on, come with me, let’s see how she looks.  Look at those gorgeous flower arrangements:  Marito’s advertising agency sent them over.  I told you that’s her best dress – don’t you think she looks gorgeous, they did a good job on her, you can barely even see the hole in her head.  Life is a catastrophe.  How could this have happened to her?  You went to her last birthday party, remember...those cowards (who shot her) should be killed!  Doesn’t her hair look great?”  And so on.  While she prattles on, trying to solve the mystery of her friend’s death, we learn that Olga Maria was something of a tramp, and that our narrator is no better.  One minute “vulgar is as vulgar does, and it disgusts me” and “all those poor people, theives and whores,” to a page later, “when we finished, lying in the hammock, my pussy red and swollen from so much in and out, I asked him if he’d done it like that with Olga Maria?”  And underneath it all, beyond the grasp of our vacuous tour guide, is the corruption and history of violence of San Salvador, which we catch in glimpses.  As the novel progresses, Laura slowly goes mad, and justice becomes more and more opaque.  Her narration becomes more fevered, more disgusted with the filth around her.  But she has yet to look in the mirror.  

This is a great, terrifying book.  I suspected I would find the social scene of the novel foreign, but it was frighteningly familiar.  Perhaps the she devil in the mirror isn’t Laura’s society, but ours.