March 2011

Pauls Toutonghi


The Nobel Reprise, Letter 9: Herta Müller

Dear Ben,

Yes! GRADE A HYPOCRISY. You are correct. It's funny not to see something in your own work, and then realize, after the fact -- that yes, indeed, that was there.

And yet: The jokes! The jokes. The jokes are important to what we're doing, no? I struggle to find any memory of laughter provoked by The Magic Mountain. Did I chuckle, guffaw, giggle, or even titter -- yes, titter -- while leafing through those 800 pages? I don't know. I did cackle, several times, but this was more because of the recognition of madness. There's a certain crazed grandeur in the madness of some of the sections of that novel. And I do appreciate, I have to admit, a sense of crazed grandeur.

But Thomas Mann is retreating into the far parts of memory, now. It's been almost two months since I finished his big novel -- and my life has accelerated so much that it's hard to sort through all of my memories. The accumulation of memories. Since I finished The Magic Mountain, the babies have started crawling. I turned in my revisions of EVEL KNIEVEL DAYS to Random House. And I got the assignment for this Harper's essay, for which I depart to Egypt -- with my 79-year old Egyptian father -- in two weeks. Also, I've been teaching. And I ran a triathlon!

Just kidding. I didn't run a triathlon. That would have been awesome. In reality, I ate a lot of donuts (they make a delicious breakfast). No running, swimming, and/or biking.

But I did read The Appointment by Herta Müller.

Something that I will mention, as an aside. My bookmark, in The Appointment, was a "Free Pass" to Dream Girls, a downtown Seattle "gentlemen's" club. This has caused -- at several points -- embarrassment for me, as I've told someone I knew (in the literary world, generally) about The Nobel Reprise, and then taken the book out to show them. Cue me, flipping through the pages. Cue the emergence of the Dream Girls pass, which features -- prominently -- a sexy lady wearing nothing but high heels and a smile.

Drat. I've then scrambled, telling the truth, saying that as I was leaving the Seahawks-Giants game with my 7-month old son -- carrying him on my shoulders -- we walked past Dream Girls. And the promo guy standing out front handed me two free passes.

Yes, he was handing them out to anyone who walked by after the game... but... I have to admit: It startled me. Did I seem like a likely customer? ("Hey, buddy, could you hold this for a second, I'm going to run in and get a lap dance.") Or did he think that Phineas, due to his recent fondness for breast feeding, would get a lot out of the strip club experience? ("Start 'em young, that's what I say.")

Since then, I've been using the pass as a bookmark, in part because I've been meaning to paste it into the family scrapbook. But the family scrapbook -- let me tell you -- that's the thing I'm going to do, immediately after I finish that triathlon.

* * *

The Appointment is a gutsy, cold-minded book. A friend who's read it said: "There's no love in the characters. Just destruction." That's interesting, but I don't agree. I just think that the book is written under this umbrella of over-arching antagonism -- the antagonism of the totalitarian state. And love is hard to see when it's concealed beneath totalitarian antagonism. Because the characters are all so destroyed by power that they take this destruction out on each other. They almost can't help it.

We live in an age when the totalitarian state is in crisis. It seems as if democratic technological forces are opening up public discourse in a way that challenges authority. Herta Müller is writing about the totalitarian state before the advent of this little bubble of freedom.

Bubbles burst, of course. That's what they do. Expand and then burst. So, writers who tackle societies where personal freedom has been destroyed -- writers like Müller and Orwell and Galeano and Atwood -- are especially valuable to us now, in this period of relative liberty. We need to read them and prepare. We need to get ready, I think, for a bit of a fight. Even if President Obama is right to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, saying, "the arc of history bends towards justice," this arc is a long and gradual one. And "justice" like any other state of being, will be elusive. And my sense of justice, of course, won't be the same as yours.

But I could be wrong.

I do know that I loved this book. I loved this book because it horrified me. It shocked me, again and again -- both because of the depravity and beauty of the lives of the central characters, as well as because of the prose, itself, which was clear-minded and elegiac and nostalgic, without being overly treacly or cloying.

The premise is simple: A woman is riding a tram to an appointment with an interrogator at state security agency. He is horrific and quite simply a torturer. Her mind, in flight from the fear of her impeding meeting, skitters into the past. She thinks about, essentially, her life story: Her cheating father, her bullied mother, her dead friends, her alcoholic lover, her sadistic boss. Their stories accumulate and create a sense of the state in which they all live, a state which has banned private property, and is utterly brutal and corrupt.

At the recent AWP conference, I had a long conversation with a friend about short-form reviews. This month, I also wrote a brief review of Alan Heathcock's excellent story collection, Volt. But that review was tiny -- just a few hundred words, and amounted to simply an appreciation of the book.

My friend lamented the fact that all book reviews seemed to be going in this direction, that they seemed to be losing their content, and turning into bursts of opinion -- almost always positive. And I think he's right, there's a danger in that.

But... I'm harried. I don't have a lot of time. I have twins. I have two jobs: Writing and teaching. And so, I find that the act of reading itself is threatened in my life. I have to try really hard to carve out the time to spend quietly with the pages of a book, under a bright light, pensive and contemplative and not just collapsing from exhaustion into sleep. And I doubt that I'm that different from many folks out there. From you, Ben, I think. Is this true?

So, I will leave you with two quotes from the novel, two of my favorite, two quotes I underlined in red pen. I thought they were important to the text:

"There's nothing to worry about if you're lying about the dead -- none of it can come true."


"When I stepped outside everything was preparing for the night, the sun had already spread itself red across the sky, every shadow in town had lain down. Inside my head was buzzing with thoughts, on top my scalp felt loose, and over my scalp my hair was being blown by the wind. Wind is made for flying, traffic lights for flashing, cars for driving, trees for standing. Does any of this really mean anything, or is it just there for you to wonder about."

Off to Egypt!