June 2011

Kevin Frazier

Star-Crossed

Djuna Barnes, Joyce Carol Oates, and Vikram Seth

Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses one or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.

June Birthdays:
Djuna Barnes – born June 12, 1892, in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York
Joyce Carol Oates – born June 16, 1938, in Lockport, New York
Vikram Seth – born June 20, 1952, in Calcutta, India


Each of this month’s writers -- Joyce Carol Oates, Djuna Barnes, and Vikram Seth -- occupies a peculiar niche in modern literature. All three are simultaneously admired and neglected in about equal measure. With Oates the neglect is due in part to her having written so much, while with Barnes it’s due in part to her having written so little. And despite his popular and critical success, Vikram Seth works in fascinating independence from the main lines of serious contemporary fiction. His writing suggests an entire alternate literary movement in itself, one that nobody else is quite sure how to absorb.

1 – Joyce Carol Oates: What I Lived For and American Appetites

The last time I counted, Joyce Carol Oates had published 39 novels under her own name, another 11 under pen names, and many volumes of nonfiction, poetry, plays, and short stories. I’ve read a dozen of her books, and I can’t think of another author I enjoy so much whose work I know so little. There’s simply too much of her writing for me to keep up with all of it.

Still, I’d say that What I Lived For and American Appetites are two of the best American novels of their time. I also like Do with Me What You Will, Son of the Morning, You Must Remember This, and the 1000-page Hollywood epic Blonde. Trouble is, several of the Oates novels I’ve finished have been mediocre or downright terrible. The low point for me was Zombie, a boorishly graphic depiction of a Dahmer-like serial killer. I go through phases with Oates, and the last phase took me through Blonde and several of her earlier works, but I’m still waiting to catch my breath and get caught up on books like Bellefleur and We Were the Mulvaneys. Along with most Oates readers, I’ve had the dual problem of finding time for her old books while staying abreast of her new ones.

So I can’t really put any of her writing in the full context of her career, and I don’t think we’ll know the extent of her achievements until the next generation or two has had time to sort through her work. Yet even if she’d written nothing but What I Lived For, American Appetites, and Blonde, she would be one of the most accomplished novelists of her generation. At a minimum, she can easily take her place with the other major American writers born in the 1930s, alongside Philip Roth and John Updike and Toni Morrison.

What I Lived For, published in 1994, is the Oates novel I always recommend to people, and it’s worth the minor trouble of tracking it down. The main character, Corky Corcoran, is a 43-year-old real estate hustler from the imaginary Union City in New York. Over the years, Corky has managed to grow rich and well-connected, a city council member who knows all the most powerful local business and political leaders. He perpetually overextends himself, however, with multiple women and risky business deals, and lives in constant crisis. For 600 pages we keep pace with him through the long weekend of his final collapse. Oates views his out-of-control energies with a mixture of admiration, amusement, sympathy, distaste, and horror, and then finally with a clear-eyed sense of tragic acceptance.

Corky’s impulsive qualities make him the perfect character for the novel’s driven, relentless prose. In most of Oates’s books, the writing is complex yet urgent, rushing us forward from page to page:

He was feeling the subtle strain of adult male kindness, patience, pity. He knew it had a sudden breaking point. (Prologue)

Knowing by the age of twenty-seven what for years he’d only sensed: a man learns the way of the world from older men who love him. It doesn’t matter if they tell you bullshit as long as they tell you something. (Part III, Ch. 10)

Often the novel’s insistent, racing tone comes from Oates’s habit of running several sentences together with commas, or sprinting across certain phrases with no punctuation at all:

The Chateauguay does look alive. The more you stare at it, the more mesmerized you become, it’s impossible even to determine which way the river’s current is moving, it’s so choppy in the wind glittering and winking like clusters of eyes…

Oates excels in combining detailed authorial observation with the everyday vocabulary and thoughts of her characters. She has figured out an exceptional variety of ways to blend the carefully crafted and the casually colloquial. When Corky considers the husband of his mistress, the novel renders his thoughts with humor and intelligence, conveyed so easily that I suspect many readers enjoy it without noticing the artistry of the writing:

Harry Kavanaugh, a former federal court justice, has had MS for the past nine years. Corky gathers it’s progressing rapidly, or Harry’s deteriorating rapidly, he feels guilty as hell about the situation, yes but there’s a sweet sort of revenge in it, why not admit it, Corky’s relations with the husbands of the women he’s had affairs with have always been rivalrous, tinged with spite. But secret. For sure, secret.

Corky holds the whole book together. As a character, he has enough different levels to him -- enough vitality, cunning, obtuseness, alertness, passion, and generosity -- to carry Union City and its inhabitants on the shoulders of his short, lumpy body. Oates turns an early meeting between Corky and a financial advisor into an engaging study of both men, and then into much more than that. The meeting is as rich with psychological, cultural, and philosophical detail as it is with factual information on investments and markets. Oates is a good reporter, and What I Lived For has a lot to tell us about the ins and outs of real estate development, the personal bonds behind local political systems, the dissolution of the East Coast Irish-American working class from which Corky springs, and Union City’s swift-building, swift-crushing economic currents. But Oates isn’t satisfied with simple journalistic annotation: she uses her social and political knowledge as a springboard to a deeper understanding of her characters. She never flattens Corky into a caricature, stamped out on the page as an engraving of his circumstances. The gusts of wild unpredictability in Corky’s personality are like the gusts of wild unpredictability that blow through every aspect of his life, from his relationship with his stepdaughter to his ties with the relatives, business partners, and politicians all around him. Oates is famous for the violence in her work, but her characteristic mode is less the blunt impact of physical brutality than a stunning awareness of how everyone and everything strains and twists through a ceaseless storm of change. Corky is a hurricane man living in a hurricane world, and Union City ends up feeling like a ship in a typhoon, with every inch of its masts and planking stressed by the wind and the waves.       

American Appetites, the other Oates novel that I usually encourage people to read, is a shorter and more elegant book than What I Lived For. Despite her preoccupation with murder and brutality, Oates has traveled across a remarkably broad range of settings and subjects during her career, and the characters in American Appetites are as self-consciously cool and controlled as Corky and his friends are hot and brash. Appetite is the novel’s presiding theme. A professor and his wife have spent many years tastefully consuming each other, for what seems to be their mutual benefit. When the wife turns 50, however, she learns that the husband’s appetites have apparently changed, and her response to this discovery leads to her death and then to his trial for her murder.

It’s a simple situation with a simple storyline, but there’s nothing simple about the way Oates builds up the relationships among the husband, the wife, and the young woman who comes between them. We’ve been here before: this is very much the world of Cheever or Updike, with suburban adultery at its center. Oates, however, is only incidentally interested in examining suburban mores and suburban hypocrisy. Her true subject is a larger one, the terror of the sense that all our devotions are vulnerable, and that even our strongest certainties and commitments can be eaten away before we quite realize it. It’s the same revelation that afflicts the Player King in Hamlet, in lines that make explicit some of Oates’s concerns:

Most necessary ’tis that we forget
To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.
What to ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.
The violence of either grief or joy
Their own enactures with themselves destroy.
Where joy most revels, grief doth most lament;
Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident.
This world is not for aye, nor ’tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change…
But orderly to end where I begun,
Our wills and fates do so contrary run,
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

2 – Djuna Barnes: Nightwood and the Poems

If Oates represents literary writing at its most abundant, a career of tenacious productivity, Djuna Barnes represents literary writing at its most reticent. Her reputation rests entirely on one short novel, the Modernist masterpiece Nightwood, and on the difficult, fragmented poems of her later years.

Phillip Herring has given us the definitive biography, Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes. Herring first made his mark with Joyce’s Ulysses Notesheets in the British Museum, and he brings to the Barnes biography a Joyce scholar’s precision and knowledge of the Modernist period. He also enters with sensible care into some exceptionally controversial topics: the possibility that as a girl Barnes was seduced by her grandmother, for instance, and the difficult literary relations between Barnes and T. S. Eliot.

Barnes was homeschooled, a process that cultivated her gift for writing but left many gaps in her education. Though these gaps sometimes embarrassed her when she was older, they probably contributed to the originality of her approach to language.

In 1921 she went to France as a correspondent for McCall’s and met Thelma Wood. She started living with Wood in Paris in 1923. Their relationship lasted until 1929, when they separated because of Wood’s infidelities. The end of their love was catastrophic for Barnes. In a letter to her friend Emily Coleman, Barnes wrote that Wood “was that terrible past reality, over which any new life can only come, as a person marching up and over the high mound of a grave.” She added: “I have had my great love, there will never be another.”

There never was. The loss of Wood destroyed her. The rest of her life was a long testament to her devastation, abetted by her alcoholism and overall pessimism. The talented, hard-working Barnes had overcome quite a few trials in her bizarre childhood and youth, including her rape as a teenager: many of her earlier experiences were significantly more extreme than a failed relationship. But part of the profundity of Nightwood is its apprehension of how the wrong person at the wrong time can do far more damage to someone than would have ever appeared possible.

In the novel, Barnes reinvents Wood as Robin Vote. Robin is a black hole, an individual who pulls her admirers into crushing, reality-distorting darkness. The suffering she inflicts on those who love her isn’t merely emotional but metaphysical. Few literary environments are as disorienting as the superficially ordinary settings of Nightwood, where everything is intensified by the pressure of Barnes’s dense, heightened prose. A hall is “peopled with Roman fragments, white and disassociated… the blind bold sockets of the eyes given a pupil by every shifting shadow so that what they looked upon was an act of the sun.” A man carries his hands “like a dog who is walking on his hind legs.” A woman’s gaze is said to have “the long unqualified range in the iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye.”

In this world, Robin is more than a lost love. She is the source of a complete reinvention of what life means to many of the novel’s characters, especially to Nora, one of Robin’s lovers:

Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the “findings” in a tomb. As in one will be charted the taken places of the body, the raiment, the utensils necessary to its other life, so in the heart of the lover will be traced, as an indelible shadow, that which he loves. In Nora’s heart lay the fossil of Robin, intaglio of her identity, and about it for its maintenance ran Nora’s blood… Robin was now beyond timely changes, except in the blood that animated her. That she could be spilled of this fixed the walking image of Robin in appalling apprehension on Nora’s mind -- Robin alone, crossing streets, in danger. Her mind became so transfixed that, by the agency of her fear, Robin seemed enormous and polarized, all catastrophes ran toward her, the magnetized predicament; and crying out, Nora would wake from sleep, going back through the tide of her dreams into which her anxiety had thrown her, taking the body of Robin down with her into it, as the ground things take the corpse, with minute persistence, down into the earth, leaving a pattern of it on the grass, as if they stitched as they descended.         

Nightwood’s most memorable figure is Dr. O’Connor, a transvestite who tries but fails to ease Nora’s despair. Resting in bed, dressed “in a woman’s flannel nightgown,” Dr. O’Connor delivers to Nora a long monologue on the night and its significance:

Listen! Do things look in the ten and twelve of noon as they look in the dark? Is the hand, the face, the foot, the same face and hand and foot seen by the sun? For now the hand lies in a shadow; its beauties and its deformities are in a smoke -- there is a sickle of doubt across the cheek bone thrown by the hat’s brim, so there is half a face to be peered back into speculation. A leaf of darkness has fallen under the chin and lies deep upon the arches of the eyes; the eyes themselves have changed their colour…

All through the night Rome went burning. Put that in the noontide and it loses some of its age-old significance, does it not? Why? Because it has existed to the eye of the mind all these years against a black sky. Burn Rome in a dream, and you reach and claw down the true calamity. For dreams have only the pigmentation of fact…

For the lover, it is the night into which his beloved goes…he wakes her suddenly, only to look the hyena in the face that is her smile, as she leaves his company…

Like most of what passes for speech in Nightwood, the monologue is ostentatiously unrealistic, reaching not for verisimilitude but for the poetic suggestiveness that Barnes admired in Elizabethan tragedy, and in the verse of Herrick and Donne:

Have you thought of all the doors that have shut at night and opened again? Of women who have looked about with lamps, like you, and who have scurried on fast feet? Like a thousand mice they go this way and that, now fast, now slow, some halting behind doors, some trying to find the stairs, all approaching or leaving their misplaced mouse-meat that lies in some cranny, on some couch, down on some floor, behind some cupboard; and all the windows, great and small, from which love and fear have peered, shining and in tears. Put those windows end to end and it would be a casement that would reach around the world; and put those thousand eyes into one eye and you would have the night combed with the great blind searchlight of the heart.

Nightwood came out in 1936. By 1938 Barnes’s alcoholism was severe, and would afflict her until 1950, when she managed to bring it more-or-less under control. From 1940 to her death in 1982, she lived in a small Greenwich Village apartment. Here she concentrated on her poetry, and on her verse drama The Antiphon. The Antiphon is about a wrecked family confronting its past. It’s a bad play but contains wonderful passages:

Caught in the utmost meridian and parallel—
As of a moor-hen, watching a hawk heel in,—
Draw ’round in dust the broken wing
Its last veronica.

Barnes has her own special feel for words and phrasing, and some of her best work is found in the verse she spent years obsessing over in her final decades. Much of this was never published in her lifetime but can be read in her Collected Poems, a volume which was issued in 2005, and which is just as impressive as Nightwood.

Barnes constantly revised and recast her lines, and seemed incapable of putting most of her poetry into finished form. This has resulted in a mass of material that exists in fragments and in incomplete or contradictory drafts: a fascinating display of echoes and variations, nightmarish for an editor but thrilling for readers. The shattered quality of the writing works to its advantage, and Barnes is often most effective not when she pulls her fragments together but when she surrenders to their repetitions and breakdowns.

Two of the poems, for instance, open with the phrase “There should be gardens for old men,” but develop the phrase in very different ways. The first version reads in part:

There should be gardens for old men
To twitter in;
Boscage too, for Madames, sports
For memory, poor puff-balls of a day…

The second version, written four years later, begins:

There should be gardens for old men to whimper in,
For where’s the great bull-curl that swagged the leg?
Nothing as vanquished as an old man’s groin
Where now hangs a sullen bag,
A sac of withered infants on his leg.

This version goes on to advance the theme much more elaborately:

There is no swarming in him now,
His heart’s an hive
That’s banished all its bees.
He keeps alive
By shivering:
Reverberation of oblivion is his motion,
Disintegration now is all as motion;
Yet cat-wise he will fall, all four feet down
On paradise, the upside down.

Then in a third version Barnes comes back to the groin and the bull-curl and takes a new approach:

Nothing’s as vanquished as an old man’s groin
(Where’s the great bull curl that lolled his leg?)
The fruited swingle of his toil, his staid.
The mayfly whistles in the webbing of his loin
And sings it down, as in a minaret
The Muezzin cries the Arab to his drone.
From what part of darkness {absence} are you come?
For what past of darkness were you born?

By leaving us these singular scraps and drafts, Barnes has, in imitation of her old men, fallen “all four feet down / On paradise, the upside down,” landing in fulfillment precisely where she at first seemed to have dropped toward disaster.

3 – Vikram Seth: A Suitable Boy

When I think of Vikram Seth, I often remember a story one of his friends told me about him. As a student at Stanford, the friend said, Seth would visit some of his acquaintances by climbing up the side of their apartment building until he reached their balcony. Then he would pull himself over the balcony’s railing, and would stand there quietly smiling, as relaxed and casual as if he’d just come to the front door from the stairwell.

The story catches one of the most obvious characteristics of Seth’s writing: his compulsion to carry off risky and difficult feats with nonchalant good humor. His first novel, The Golden Gate, is written not just entirely in verse but in the rigorous sonnet form of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. (I’m linking to the Charles Johnston translation because it’s the version Seth found most inspiring.) Seth isn’t a great poet, but he’s admirably competent and consistent, and the verse does what it needs to do for the novel’s purposes. The anachronistically rigid iambic tetrameter and the overripe rhymes cleanse his contemporary Californians of their Bay Area trendiness, and lend a slightly archaic tinge to all their ideas and tastes.

The Golden Gate is more a stunt than a fully realized work of art, but Seth’s next book, the Indian historical novel A Suitable Boy, is a tremendous success. My edition of it is 1,349 pages long, in small print, and the spirit of Tolstoy swells the text just as the spirit of Pushkin runs through The Golden Gate. Yet A Suitable Boy isn’t another pale imitation of War & Peace. It’s something we haven’t seen before: a national epic that has the lightness, humor, charm, and grace of a Jane Austen novel. We’ve grown used to serious writers -- particularly serious writers of long novels -- taking on a heaviness of tone to match the heft of their ambitions. The general mood of A Suitable Boy, however, is playful and celebratory, buoyed by Seth’s sweet-tempered appreciation of just about every human tic and weakness except violence and overt cruelty:

Savita noticed for the first time over dinner that Malati had a crush on her husband. It was evident in the way the girl looked at him over the soup and avoided looking at him over the main course. Savita was not at all annoyed. She assumed that but to know Pran was to love him; Malati’s affection was both natural and harmless. Pran, it was clear, was unaware of this… The obtuseness of intelligent men, thought Savita with a smile, is half of what makes them lovable. (Part 1, Ch. 19)

Maan was very fond of Bhaskar and liked throwing arithmetical problems to him like a ball to a performing seal. (Part 2, Ch. 6)

The Gita asked for detachment, tranquil wisdom, indifference to the fruits of action. This was a lesson that Mrs Rupa Mehra would never learn, could never learn. The lesson did not suit her temperament, even if its recitation did. The day she learned to be detached and indifferent and tranquil would be the day she would cease to be herself. (Part 3, Ch. 11)

He was a scholarly rather than an ambitious man, and he often wondered how he had strayed into politics and why he had remained there. But he had discovered he had a sleepwalker’s flair for it. (Part 14, Ch. 27)

Dipankar stepped out of his hut in the garden after having meditated for an hour or so. He had come to a decision about the next step in his life. This decision was irrevocable unless he changed his mind. (Part 16, Ch. 3)

The novel takes place in the early 1950s, at the time of India’s first General Election, “the largest election ever held anywhere on earth,” involving a sixth of the world’s population. For the most part, the book’s plot develops with a relaxed, natural intricacy. The story is built around four entangled families: the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Khans, and the Chatterjis. One of the minor characters, a writer, describes his work in musical composition terms that could be applied to A Suitable Boy itself:

I’ve always felt that the performance of a raag resembles a novel… first you take one note and explore it for a while, then another to discover its possibilities, then perhaps you get to the dominant, and pause for a bit, and it’s only gradually that the phrases begin to form and the table joins in with the beat… and then the more brilliant improvisations and diversions begin, with the main theme returning from time to time, and finally it all speeds up, and the excitement increases to a climax.

Considering the novel’s length, Seth’s prose is remarkably nimble and sustained. It tends toward observant deftness:

The munshi was always irritable at this time of day; it was like a malarial cycle. (Part 10, Ch. 9)

The sky was still overcast, but there was also an undercast of light that added brilliance to the emerald colour of the transplanted rice. (Part 14, Ch. 22)

In Uma’s left ear was a most delicate vein that branched out into smaller and smaller ones in an exquisite pattern. (Part 15, Ch. 6)

A lizard was climbing up the wall in an irregular wriggle, stopping and starting. (Part 17, Ch. 19)

At the same time, Seth faces many of the darker aspects of his world, the complexities and horrors that Austen and other lighthearted novelists usually ignore so they can maintain their decorum. Against its idyllic chapters of a couple gliding downriver in a boat or of village children playing beneath the neem, A Suitable Boy imposes sobering tones of violence and injustice. The novel keeps returning to the tensions behind the General Election, particularly the pressures at work between Hindus and Muslims. A calm, lucid early sequence portrays Indian government officials confronting a Muslim mob:

The head constable was a Muslim; it must have struck him as strange that he was about to start shooting Muslims in the course of defending a half-built Hindu temple that was an affront to the very mosque in which he himself often prayed… [One official] turned to the others, who appeared petrified. He immediately ordered them to run with him towards the bend. They stationed themselves on either side of the alley, about twenty feet from the bend itself. The mob was less than a minute away. He could hear it screaming and yelling; he could feel the vibration of the ground as hundreds of feet rushed forward.

Later, as the election date comes nearer, another mob scene intrudes on the story. This time a thousand people die within fifteen minutes as a crowd panics and disintegrates into “a kind of collective suicide”:

He saw one of the younger nagas stab furiously at a man, an old man who had in his terror tried to force his way to safety on the other side of the procession. The man fell, then rose again. Blood was streaming from wounds on his shoulder and back. With horror, Dipankar recognized him as the man whom he had met in the boat, the hardy old pilgrim from Salimpur who had been so insistent upon the correct spot for bathing. The man tried to struggle back, but was flung down by the crowd as it surged forward again. His back and his head were crushed by the trampling feet. When the crowd next surged back at the point of the tridents, the mangled body of the old man remained, like a piece of debris washed up on the tide.

The national violence seeps finally into the relationship between one of the main characters, the casually bisexual Maan, and his Muslim male lover, Firoz. Yet Seth’s humor and warmth continue even through these sections of the novel, and indeed are strengthened by them. Maybe the most accurate comparison comes not from literature but from music: A Suitable Boy has the transparent lightness of Mozart, a clean, unforced ease that can at first seem frivolous but that slowly becomes salutary and ecstatic in its all-embracing amusement. This is a very different direction for modern literature to take, though it has something in common with what David Foster Wallace, from Infinite Jest onward, hoped to achieve. Wallace, however, could only twist toward that target via the most self-conscious convolutions, ironically undermining irony, using postmodern distance to evade postmodern distance. Seth starts where Wallace wanted to end, with compassionate laughter and unembarrassed affection, with a tenderness and kindness purged of both undue cynicism and undue sentimentality. A Suitable Boy is a sophisticated piece of writing, and it opens up possibilities that other novelists might consider exploring.