Raw and Cooked
In 1964, famed French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss made the argument that everyday distinctions—as between “raw” and “cooked,” “fresh” and “rotten,” “moist” and “parched”—could serve as “conceptual tools for the formation of abstract notions and for combining these into propositions.” Today we’re less inclined to sanction such “binarism”; though as a rough guide, some such distinctions may still be useful. How might that play out in fiction?
In the new collection A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson, Lucia Berlin’s stories are “raw” in the sense that they appear to spring directly from life and contain almost no literary pretensions. Their style is declarative and unadorned, casual, sometimes with a bit of self-mocking humor but for the most part simple reportage. For subject matter they draw on places where Berlin lived throughout her life (she died in 2004), mostly the American West, Chile, and Mexico—mining camps where her father worked as an engineer; El Paso during his absence in World War II; Santiago as an inquisitive adolescent; the University of New Mexico; and then places like Berkeley, Oakland, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. Typically they describe the conditions that dogged her in these places, her alcoholic mother, her occasionally absent father, her selfish, eccentric, and alcoholic relatives as well as her scoliosis, addictions, marriages, sexual indiscretions, poverty, incarcerations, and work as a teacher, switchboard operator, hospital ward clerk, cleaning woman, and physician’s assistant, before landing a job teaching creative writing at the University of Colorado. Several lengthy sequences deal with her difficulties as a single mother and time she spent with her sister who was dying of cancer in Mexico City. This entire odyssey simply seems too real and too varied to be made up and too honestly stated to be considered embellished. Nearly all of the stories are written in the first person, fewer than a handful in the third.
Moreover, there is little that makes Berlin’s suffering out to be political or self-exculpatory or as having been made “for art” in some Cézanne-like, sacrificial way. Occasionally, a passage may describe a self-consciously beautiful landscape (as in “La Vie en Rose”) or may touch on the act of writing. “Bluebonnets,” for example, describes a relationship between two teachers, on an outing to a remote cabin surrounded by a field of flowers, which flounders because the woman can’t understand what her companion is saying about “Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Derrida, Chomsky and others whose names she didn’t even recognize.” “I’m sorry,” she says, “I’m a poet. I deal with the specific. I am lost with the abstract.”
Contrast such an approach with the opening to the story “Brass” in Joy Williams’ The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories:
Mother comes back one evening and she starts up at supper about feng shui, how our house isn’t organized for a happy life, how the front door should never line up with the back door like ours does—never. One of her colleagues in Parks and Recreation told her that.
“They’re all dipshits down there,” I said.
And the boy said, talking with his mouth full like he always does, “That’s why you’re not supposed to have a crucifix in the bedroom. Is a cross the same as a crucifix?” he says.
I could see the meat with the ketchup on it in his mouth.
“No,” I said. “A crucifix is a cross with the body on it.”
In its oblique, heretical, much-admired fashion (I’m borrowing a phrase from “Revenant” a few pages on), I take this passage as more or less typical of Williams’ general body of work, including the stereotypical anonymity of its characters (Mother, the boy), the banal fashionability of the things they think about (feng shui), their uncertainty about cultural correctness (cross/crucifix), where they work (Parks and Recreation), their taste in language (“dipshits”) and table manners.
As with Berlin, we should thank Williams’ publisher for reminding us of how striking her stories continue to be. To say that their substance is “cooked,” however, is simply to acknowledge that her style has always been highly evolved. It is a style of a particular era having come to life during 1970s and ’80s and acclaimed by that generation’s writers and critics ever since. Dust jacket quotes by Carver, Plimpton, Beattie, Easton Ellis, and others attest to this fact along with Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, the New York Times, the LA Times, Washington Post, and the Philadelphia Inquirer (perhaps missing only Esquire where Williams’ husband, Rust Hills, was longtime fiction editor).
Still, if a Lucia Berlin story is more often about an event or an occasion, a Joy Williams story is apt to be about the characters’ existential condition. Its prose is more apt to be like the dialog in a Beckett or Pinter play, a string of clichés registering a hollowness at the heart of their everyday lives. Names—Annie, Molly, Tom, Dwight, Rosette—echo a similar banality. Titles, too—“Summer,” “Train,” “Health,” “Rot”—are filled with resonant ulteriority. As in Eliot, the hidden implication is one of spiritual inanity (Williams’ father was a minister). The stories’ style I would argue is more time- and place-bound than we frequently acknowledge: American, East Coast, educated, and academic in its outlook, apt to compare its own high culture, now in decline, with the barrenness of pop culture which it treats ironically. Think Rauschenberg in prose. So, in “Taking Care,” as a hapless preacher sits in a hospital waiting room and listens to Kindertotenlieder, his wife “no longer a woman whom he loves, but a situation” is herself waiting “to be translated” while down the road some pages later, in “The Yard Boy,” the yard boy “is a spiritual materialist” who lives “in the now . . . free of the karmic chain.”
Often, as in stories by similar authors (think Beattie), characters are adolescent girls, preternaturally smart and just learning about the fakery of the world. What they learn will cause them to be depressed, ironic, and rebellious. Or they will figure out that to be healthy and happy they simply have to be stupid and give in. So in “Health,” Pammy coughs, “but it is not the cough of a sick person because Pammy is a healthy girl. It is the kind of cough a person might make if they were at a party and there was no one there but strangers.” In “Honored Guest,” a girl who “had been having a rough time of it and thought about suicide sometimes” concludes that “suicide was so corny in the eleventh grade and you had to be careful about this because two of her classmates had committed suicide the year before . . . and had become just a joke.” Also, probably her mom would do something similarly corny and would “want Verdi or Scriabin played at the service.”
Some of the “new” stories in this collection find Williams turning to the environment, for which she has been a vocal advocate from her homes in Maine, Key West, and Arizona. So in “Another Season,” she describes a doomed outsider, Nicodemus, whose job (as in the Bible) has to do with the burial of the dead, in this case animals killed along the road by a complacent and destructive civilization.
Cookery comes, of course, in many forms, and these days fashion dictates an ample helping of futuristic, “speculative,” and apocalyptic fantasy, and it may be time for sociologists, psychologists, and literary historians to reason why. In Salman Rushdie’s new novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights it continues to be served up by one of its greatest chefs.
We might remind ourselves that Rushdie has been mixing his particular menu of the personal, familial, political, religious, cosmopolitan, pop cultural, metaphysical, and fantastical in stories and novels throughout his career from Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses onward. He virtually founded magical realist fiction as a vehicle for expressing the postcolonialist clash of civilizations between the Eastern and Western worlds. Principally his means has been to explore the circumstances that led to his own displacement initially from India and Pakistan and then from England, landing eventually in New York. That is to say, it often seems fruitless even to read a new novel by Rushdie without having absorbed his whole life story—his “midnight” child’s displacement from Mumbai and from India, his mixed Eastern and Western education, the provocative scandal of The Satanic Verses, the fatwa, his life in hiding, and the rest. A writer of enormous talent and inventiveness admired and therefore defended by his contemporaries (Hitchens, McEwan, Amis), he writes wittily and furiously and provides something dazzling on nearly every page. His most recent works almost inevitably must be read as allegories on the events of his life, a phantasmagorical examination, and exculpation, of his own condition.
Thus, the central character of Rushdie’s new novel, Geronimo Manezes, is a Mumbai-born gardener, now living in New York mysteriously afflicted by a case of levitation not of his choosing but brought on by otherworldly forces operating in the midst of a conflict brought about by the intrusion of one spiritual world (rational, tolerant, supportive of mankind) and another (religious, intolerant, destructive of mankind), suggesting what Rushdie perceives as the current turmoil in East-West conflict. Its roots are ancient, almost beyond Geronimo’s comprehension since, it seems, he is one of the multitudinous offspring of a liaison between a female jinn, Dunia, and the rationalist Muslim philosopher Averroes that took place over 800 years in the past.
Part of Rushdie’s agenda is to introduce Eastern storytelling—the title’s 1001 nights, jinn, and Muslim philosophy—to his readers. At a more personal level, it also happens to be true that Averroes’ other name, Ibn Rushd, is the one (slightly amended) which Salman Rushdie’s father appropriated as their family name out of his admiration for the philosopher’s wisdom. A similar interaction, between the historical Muslim world and the Renaissance West, also involving Averroes/ Rushd/Rushdie occurred in the 2008 novel The Enchantress of Florence.
A similar, though less explicit and fantastical, personal exploration may be at stake in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. James is originally from Jamaica, so he probably wished to explain a part of Jamaican history and Jamaican culture not only to his readers but also to himself. The means, however, are radically different.
First of all, the novel is raw—the violent depiction of a murderous, sexually degraded, crime-ridden, drug-infested culture in Jamaica in the 1970s to the ’90s. The “fuckery” that appears on every page and in nearly every sentence is simply understood to be characteristic of a particular set of historical and cultural circumstances, in a particular place and time. This fact is most pointedly demonstrated in the manner in which a number of the characters speak, a Jamaican patois that, if it is at all familiar, will be known from music and popular culture:
—Beg you di bone nuh?
—Dutty gal move you bombocloth from here so. You no see big man is here?
—Lawd, yuh hard, eh? A weh Weeper deh?
—Me look like Weeper’s keeper?
Many of the characters—some thoughtful, reflective, and well read—occasionally talk about the choice they have made to sound “Jamaican” in order to establish or maintain this cultural identity. The relevant question is the degree to which this language is meant to be actively or benignly an assault on readers’ sensibilities and a description of a violent culture as in, say, the slang in Anthony Burgess’ 1962 classic A Clockwork Orange. Burgess based his language on the infiltration of Russian propaganda. In Seven Killings, a similar role is played by American movies, television, and rock and roll. For instance, the most violent of the ghetto “dons” goes under the name Josie Wales.
The many complications of the Jamaican situation, however, also require telling by a variety of other speakers in the novel including journalists and agents of various outside interests like Communist Cuba, the CIA, and drug cartels like the Medellín. The principal journalist is from Rolling Stone (who later in the novel writes a piece for The New Yorker). Whatever their ideological interests, however, James first makes characters personally, and sometimes pathetically or pathologically, interesting before they become part of any larger analysis of Jamaican politics and culture.
Having engaged our interest, however, it is not especially clear what message Seven Killings means to deliver. In keeping with the title, the plot shows how seven individuals—participants in an attempt to assassinate singer Bob Marley on December 3, 1976—were subsequently murdered, some almost immediately, others as late as 1991. The swirling manner of this depiction, however, means the significance of the murders will remain largely obscure. Marley, whose Rastafari message of peace and love might have provided a sermon on what was wrong, significantly is not named in the novel. He is simply called “the Singer” and does not speak, so any such message would have to be inferred. Nor is there any clear basis for saying that the imagined assassins were historically real, perhaps only “realistic” as a portrayal of the various energies at work in Jamaican society at that time. Lacking a unitary point of view or clear sympathies (although several are implied), Seven Killings doesn’t have the advantage of V. S. Naipaul’s postcolonial analysis of Caribbean history The Middle Passage although Naipaul’s book is referred to several times.
Structurally, the story builds to the moment of the attempted assassination two-fifths of the way through, followed by the working out of the consequences for the many people involved. The characters all speak for themselves often in interior monologue, sometimes even posthumously, in a technical manner borrowed from Joyce—also employing Joyce’s use of dashes in place of quotation marks to introduce dialogue. At times James, a college professor in Minnesota, seems willfully postmodernist in attempting to make what is actually cooked seem raw and chaotic. Several reviewers have pointed out how current literature, and especially television, thrive on such artificially contrived acts of violence (The Killing, The Walking Dead, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, etc.).
In a similar vein, a friend of mine who attended the 2015 Cheltenham Literature Festival heard Jonathan Franzen explain that his new novel Purity reversed the process of The Corrections and Freedom, by having been written from the “bottom up” rather than the “top down.” I’m not sure what he may have meant by such an assertion, but the significance may be that it was a public assertion at a public event by a writer whose persona, increasingly, is that of a public figure. By his well-known disagreement and reconciliation with Oprah, his outspoken dislike of the Internet, his well-documented defense of a type of late-realistic and issues-oriented Dickensian fiction, and perhaps before all his (reputed) anti-feminism, it’s hard not to believe that whatever he would say in a new novel like Purity would come precooked by the author and predigested by some of its potential readers.
Indeed, some early reviewers seem surprised that Purity seems as well-written as it is, clear, well-plotted, with interesting characters, suitable complications, a moderate amount of humor, interesting parallels between heroes and villains, quirky (and occasionally malignant) family relations, a feeling for particular moments in cultural history, allusive references to literary parallels like Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Conrad, concern over issues (like feminism and the Internet, the state of the arts, journalism, and the East-West divide), and a narrative that carries a reader all the way to the end. These are things Franzen does, and heretofore has done, well. Next to this skill set, much of the criticism he sometimes receives sounds like so many axes to grind.
Briefly, then, Purity describes the life of a young woman named Purity, or Pip, Tyler burdened with student debt, working at a shit job in Oakland, squatting in a house full of anarchists, oppressed by having to deal with a needy and eccentric mother, and interested in finding out, if she can, who her father is. Through a seemingly chance encounter, she is invited to go to South America and work for a charismatic and predatory character, Andreas Wolf, an ex-East German who resembles Julian Assange and runs an operation like WikiLeaks. Although she is skeptical, Pip accepts because the work seems intriguing, may help to pay her debt, and may provide a lead to discovering her unknown father. To say that her journey might resemble that of a well-known Dickens character or that complications and social ills abound is merely to state the obvious. To say that the novel is somehow abstractly about the totalitarian instincts attributable to the Internet or that male and female relations are fraught with masculine, feminine, and biological competitiveness is similar. Franzen wants to argue about such things and does so at length. We want to argue about such things. It’s hard to fault the chef for the ingredients. To do so would be to argue that novels should set themselves aesthetically apart, should not attempt to engage the world as we find it, which in light of its history is a very bold notion indeed.
Finally, I’m completing this chronicle on the day following the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris. Nothing could be more raw than the images currently being cycled and recycled on CNN such that words, especially about literary matters, do seem pale by comparison. Yet words are what we have, their worth perhaps best summarized by texts I’ve received from friends in Paris: “Yes, we’re safe,” “Pray for Paris,” or best, “No, don’t pray, think!” And if literature helps us think, so much the better.
Everyone probably knows by now—both cycled and recycled—that Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, was originally scheduled to be published on January 7, 2015, the same day as the attack on Charlie Hebdo, that one of the twelve who were killed was Houellebecq’s good friend, and that Houellebecq’s image was on the front page of that week’s issue. As a result a whole narrative regarding Houellebecq’s character and his social and political turpitude has been rehearsed in the press. Because he has been critical of Islam and has called it “the stupidest” of religions and overly prescriptive in dictating every aspect of believers’ lives, he has been linked with France’s nativist right, and French President François Hollande has been at pains to say that “France is not Michel Houellebecq.” Such characterizations seemed to fit with his image as a misanthropic provocateur on many features of contemporary French life—sexual tourism, the self-indulgent ’60s, consumerism, politics, the affectless complacency of academic and artistic life, and of course religion. Much of this depiction may in some sense be true. On the other hand, it does occasionally seem oxymoronic that at the same time one supports the right of Charlie Hebdo to provoke satirically, Houellebecq is excoriated for exercising the same right.
Yet for all the negative press Submission and its author have received, it turns out to be a fairly orderly, realistic, “speculative” fiction set in the near future of 2022, a satiric portrait of a middle-class professor, an expert in the life and literary works of Joris-Karl Huysmans whose most famous novel À rebours (1884; trans. Against Nature or Against the Grain) became the Bible of fin-de-siècle decadence. Appropriately, Houellebecq’s protagonist, François, is similarly decadent, a member of the French academic class that is cynical, disillusioned, overspecialized, and without meaningful social or political commitments, a man whose apartment, habits of eating, and sex life have become indifferent and mechanical. François drifts, and, amidst the turmoil of the current fraught political landscape of religious and ethnic tension, he remains blandly self-interested while astonishingly, through compromise and manipulation, the Islamic party, by negotiating a deal with the liberals over and against the nativist faction, has formed a new government.
Is such a possibility at all plausible in light of today’s headlines? Perhaps not, but that is not, as I read it, Submission’s real point. What it seems to depict is the manner in which a certain kind of bourgeois personality can remain indifferent to, and therefore a victim of and perhaps contributor to, contemporary events. Again Huysmans remains the appropriate touchstone whose Baudelairean decadence and deep, Schopenhauerean pessimism eventually did give way to religious conversion. So too his principal scholar François—a footnote within a footnote—is flattered to learn that his newly accepted monograph has given him reputation enough to be recruited back to the university from which he has been dismissed on religious grounds. All such a gratifying rentrée will require his undergoing a modest, unprincipled, and ceremonial conversion, one that will make him safe and secure, no longer raw but rather definitively cooked.
 A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN, by Lucia Berlin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.00.