Tuesday, August 24, 2010


America can be a maddening and frustrating place. Indeed, what is best about America--its boundless optimism and energy, its refusal to listen to naysayers--is also precisely what is so maddening. Moreover, this is as true (perhaps more so) of those who are not-quite Americans, who are in the process of becoming American. After all, nobody believes more in the American Dream than those who have yet to face up to the American Reality.

But the point of the American Dream is also that it is so often unfazed by its encounter with reality. Dave Eggers's Zeitoun is a tale of one immigrant's experience in America: a man who sees the very worst of that country, but who (we are told by the author recounting the story) still stubbornly continues to believe. Indeed, is this not why Eggers, a writer otherwise notable for his sense of nuance and irony, not least about the fashionable overuse of the term "irony," has chosen Abdulrahman Zeitoun as the subject of his latest book?

The concluding words of Zeitoun, which are the last part of the "Author's Thanks," are dedicated to Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, who by this point we know have been through an appalling experience in New Orleans at the hands of Hurricane Katrina and (more horrifying still) the security services' ferocious over-reaction in the aftermath of the hurricane. Eggers rightly praises the couple's courage, which "knows no bounds," but then concludes by upholding "their faith in family and country [that] renews the faith of us all" (337).

Yet this is a story that, by rights, should destroy any faith in country, even as it does very much remind us of the virtues of family--in this case what is very much a translnational and transcultural family whose shared passion is more the water that divide (and link) different countries, rather than any one homeland in particular.

The Zeitouns are Syrians who, we are told, repeatedly try to turn their backs on the sea, but to no avail. Abdulrahman's father, Mahmoud, was born on Arward, "the only island off Syria" where "most boys grew up to be shipbuilders or fishermen" (23). Mahmoud himself worked on cargo boats criss-crossing the Eastern Mediterranean until one day he fell off a schooner's main mast and found himself at sea for two days, clinging to a barrel, until he washed up ashore again in northern Syria. From that day he moved to the mainland, searching for a house as far inland as possible, and pronounced an edict that none of his children would go to sea. But in the end he settled on a home not fifty feet from the shore, and his sons were soon following his wake in their fascination for the water.

An older son, Mohammed, became a long-distance swimmer. Another, Ahmad, became a sea captain until he settled down in Malaga, Spain. Other Zeitouns found their way to Saudi Arabia. Abdulrahman himself spent ten years serving on multinational crews from Greece to Japan, Lagos to London, until eventually finding himself in the USA where he settled on dry land, met and married Kathy, an American convert to Islam, and had three children. In New Orleans, he became a successful businessman as owner of a company of painting contractors and manager of a collection of rental properties. But his attempt, too, to turn his back on the sea failed when Katrina swept through, broke the flimsy levees, and let the waters flood in.

As Kathy and the kids, along with most of the city's population, seek safety and shelter elsewhere, Zeitoun stays. With the stubborn optimism of a hard-working immigrant, and as someone with no great fear of the elements, he felt he could do better weathering the storm and looking after his property. In the eerie silence that followed the hurricane, he paddled through the flooded streets in an old canoe, giving help where he could to its stranded inhabitants. He rescues people from their houses and feeds abandoned dogs, all the time bemused and angered by the failures of the police and other authorities who speed around in fast and noisy fan-powered boats. In his canoe, slowly and quietly navigating the waterlogged streets, Zeitoun is more attuned to the faint sounds of trapped home-owners and pets. But even when he does pass information on to the police, they seemed peculiarly uninterested in humanitarian rescue. Born out of paranoid fears of a city out of control, the official mandate, it seems, is security.

Here Zeitoun is caught up in a decidedly un-natural tragedy. Along with a couple of other fellow-survivors, he is forcibly apprehended by a posse of armed law-enforcement agents and taken to a secure facility that has been swiftly constructed in the downtown bus terminal. Known as "Camp Greyhound", with its open, wire-fenced cells, its prisoners' orange jumpsuits, and its guards' callous insensitivity, the place bears more than a passing resemblance to other sites of extraordinary force and discipline such as Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

Indeed, Zeitoun soon finds himself an exemplary subject of the current US state of exception. His detention, at the hands of a Federal Emergency Management Agency that has been folded into the post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security, abrogates all the conventional safeguards of a liberal judicial system. Zeitoun is not registered, not read his rights, not given access to a lawyer or a telephone. For all the world--and for his wife who has taken refuge in Arizona as much as for his brothers and sisters in Syria or Spain--he has simply disappeared. He has become a non-person. This is Kathy's worst fear: as the Moslem wife of an American born in the Middle East, "she had not wanted their family to become collateral damage in a war that had no discernible fronts, no real shape, and no rules" (252).

Zeitoun spends almost a month incommunicado but unarraigned, uncharged, in Camp Greyhound and then the nearby Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. His companions, less lucky still (and with less property as security to secure bail when they are eventually charged), spend up to eight months incarcerated. When he finally managed to reunite with his family and return to the devastated city, at least the worst he has to face is mere incompetence: FEMA give them a trailer to live in, but no keys to access it. But there is never any attempt to compensate him for his experience. A lawsuit seems pointless: "Zeitoun's ordeal was caused [. . .] by systemic ignorance and malfunction. [. . .] This wasn't a case of a bad apple or two in the barrel. The barrel itself was rotten" (307).

With the suspension of all the usual guarantees, with the conversion of the state into a rogue force unconstrained by liberal niceties, "anything could happen. Anything had happened" (314). Or as Zeitoun reflects during his imprisonment, "there was something broken in the country, this was certain" (262).

Eggers tells us that Zeitoun's conclusion is that "New Orleans, his home, needs no speeches, no squabbling, and no politics. It needs new flooring, new roofing, and new roofing, new windows and doors and stairs" (323). Perhaps we can take this two ways. If politics is simply equated with speeches and squabbling, then fair enough; and yet that means that New Orleans (and the USA as a whole) needs as much as anything a new politics. A new political constitution has to be built, even if it is never finished, just as a city is never ultimately completed but always in a process of (re)constitution.

Eggers, however, reads this anti-politics as an affirmation of "the faith of us all" in America. For Eggers, the system merely requires supplementing with charity--and the book's profits are to go to a mixture of good causes under the umbrella of a "Zeitoun Foundation." We need to go back to work, he suggests, with our faith in America renewed, ultimately unquestioned. And he uses this tale of a Syrian American immigrant and his family, a people of waters and the trade routes that are global rather than national, to articulate his decidedly conservative patriotism. Moreover, it is a patriotism that the story of Zeitoun--and that of so many others who have been caught up in a state of exception that itself knows no borders--should by rights decisively negate.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Towards the end of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, Chip, one of the central characters, muses about a script he has been trying to write, which is entitled "The Academy Purple" and concerns the sexual shenanigans between a college professor and a female student. His revelation, which comes as he is trudging towards a desolate Baltic border post trying desperately to get home from Lithuania in time for Christmas, is that the script's problem is a matter of tone: he recalls another character's comment that the chaotic situation in Eastern Europe was merely "tragedy rewritten as farce. All of a sudden he understood why nobody, including himself, had ever liked his screenplay: he'd written a thriller where he should have written farce" (534).

With this, Franzen indicates his awareness of the problem of tone that afflicts his own novel. In the final analysis, I think, the story we're reading is intended to be tragedy: it concerns a family with a father who is rapidly slipping into dementia; a mother afflicted by remorse, frustrated desire, and a sense of social inferiority; and three children who are all, in one way or another, a mess, not least the middle child Chip who has been thrown out of his job in a New England college precisely for his sexual shenanigans, but also the elder son Gary who is caught between nostalgia, pity, and contempt for his parents, and the younger sister, Denise, who fiercely guards her privacy only to discover it has long been compromised.

Franzen writes sensitively about the problem of aging--both the increasing helplessness of old age, and the dilemmas of middle age--and the ways in which family relations and roles are forced to shift as time goes on, against the resistance of entrenched habits and prejudices. His first-person-perspective portrayal of dementia is particularly good, catching the disorientation and the uncertain processing of affect into emotion as an old man tries to make sense of sensory stimuli that he can't immediately interpret. Here, for instance, is the erstwhile patriarch as he tries to eat lunch:
Denise left the kitchen and took the plate to Alfred, for whom the problem of existence was this: that, in the manner of a wheat seedling thrusting itself up out of the earth, the world moved forward in time by adding cell after cell to its leading edge, piling moment on moment, and that to grasp the world even in its freshest, youngest moment provided no guarantee that you'd be able to grasp it again a moment hence. [. . .] which was why, rather than exhaust himself playing catch-up, he preferred more and more to spend his days among the unchanging historical roots of things" (66).
And yet much of the book, especially those sections devoted to Chip and to his mother, Enid, is rewritten as farce and is concerned less with the "historical roots of things" than with a rather superficial (if quite funny) mode of entertainment. Chip's misadventures at college, for example, come straight from the campus novel genre à la David Lodge, while almost any scene involving Enid soon becomes a comedy of manners for which the character plays simply the rather obvious role of hectoring mother and/or judgemental snob with not quite enough status to carry her snobbery off. Here she is, for example, on a cruise where even the most tragic of episodes are ultimately played for laughs:
She veered to a cushioned bench and slumped and did, now, burst into tears. God had given her the imagination to weep for the sad strivers who booked the most el-cheapo "B" Deck inside staterooms on a luxury cruise ship; but a childhood without money had left her unable to stomach, herself, the $300 per person it cost to jump one category up; and so she wept for herself. She felt she and Al were the only intelligent people of her generation who had managed not to become rich. [. . .] But then, through her tears, she saw a sweet thing beneath the bench beside her. It was a ten-dollar bill. Folded once. Very sweet. (309-10)
To put this another way: some characters are given the possibility of self-awareness, and so allowed redemption (this is the case of Denise and even, surprisingly, Chip); others are denied self-awareness, and this is their tragedy (Alfred); but for others, Enid above all, the failure to understand themselves and their world is merely the occasion for humor.

There's nothing necessarily wrong in a book's slipping between tragedy and farce. And there are passages of both in The Corrections that are very good indeed: I liked Denise's story, for instance, whose elements of high bedroom farce (as she has an affair both with her boss and with her boss's wife) add to rather than detract from its meditations on the role of a younger sister and daughter who is devoted to her work but not so good at connecting with people.

The problem, rather, is that too often the shift between genres, between the two moods in which the book is written, appears almost arbitrary or a matter of indecision rather than discretion. Of course, in this sense the novel accords with the affective dilemma signalled by the phrase "I'm not sure whether to laugh or to cry." All messed-up families (and no doubt all families are messed up) can be viewed either with amusement or with despair, and when you are involved in them you often have to alternate between these responses in order the better to survive them. And yet here, too often we do know when we're supposed to be laughing and when to be crying: it is not so much that we can't resolve the difference between tragedy and farce, as that the way we are led between the two of them is a matter of re-writing, rather than re-reading.

Re-reading tragedy as farce (or vice versa) would be quite a different experience from the repeated exercises in rewriting (however virtuoso) that characterize Franzen's book. But the novel would have to do better to persuade us, for instance, that the fact that that midwestern town in which Alfred and Enid still live is called St Jude, for the patron saint of hopeless causes, is less of an easy joke than the naming of the "Deepmire" hospice in which Alfred ends up.

It is not that there has to be some hidden depth to the names, some solid substance attached to the signifiers, though this is a book that has much, at times, to say about the real, and the relationships between images or indices and things: "How could people respond to these images," wonders Enid at one point, "if images didn't secretly enjoy the same status as real things? Not that images were so powerful, but that the world was so weak" (303). But the mother here is too quickly identified with the image, just at the father is too quickly identified with the "roots of things," which is after all no more (and no less) than another image.

More generally, too often the names and the images (and even the things) that Franzen conjures up are too one-dimensional, allowing for only one reading or affect at a time, rather than forcing us, as in the best literature they do, to hover uncertainly between many, to realize their multiplicity.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I learn from "Thinking Blue Guitars" (and now also from obituaries such as The Guardian's) that the distinguished British literary critic Frank Kermode is dead.

Years ago, as a student at King's, I wrote a dissertation on "Cambridge English." My aim was to undertake a Bourdieusian analysis of the university's English Faculty, to see the disputes that had marked it in terms of the clash between different forms of capital and prestige.

It was a fun project, and along the way I tried to contact a number of people connected with significant episodes in the Faculty's history. I wrote, for instance, to L. C. Knights, one of the last surviving members of the Scrutiny group, and though he was too ill to travel or correspond at length, he did send me a couple of nice letters written on a mechanical typewriter, with his own somewhat shaky ink corrections.

And I phoned Frank Kermode, who was happy enough to talk to an (over-)eager young undergraduate such as myself, and invited me round to dinner. I drove up from London to Cambridge, to meet him at his house on a leafy lane somewhere out near Homerton.

I don't remember much about that evening, except that dinner was roast chicken followed by port with an apple accompaniment, and that Sir Frank (newly knighted) was extraordinarily generous with his time and his conversation. We talked about the impact of Theory on Cambridge, the so-called Structuralism affair with Colin MacCabe (though Kermode emphasized that MacCabe was never, in fact, fired or, as Wikipedia currently has it, denied tenure), about figures such as Raymond Williams and Christopher Ricks, and in general about the rather turbulent period from the 1970s to the (then) present of the early 1990s. For our chat was right around the time of the campaign, led largely by the more reactionary elements within the English Faculty, to deny Jacques Derrida an honorary doctorate.

What I remember most was a comment towards the end of this long discussion about the various feuds and fights that had occupied the sundry members of the English department almost from its origin. Ultimately, Kermode observed, all of this was of little consequence. Somewhat surprised, I asked what did matter, then? Oh, he replied, as far as the university was concerned the Humanities as a whole were almost irrelevant. We were like paddlers in the shallows. The immense sea of resources and attention belonged to the Sciences.

I don't think that this sense of marginalization concerned Kermode particularly. It was merely a reminder of how little was at stake in academic politics, and an attempt to dampen down my youthful impulse to see all this in terms of heroic narratives involving (pro-Theory) angels battling (anti-Theory) demons.

I also wonder now whether both his sense of perspective and his choice of aquatic metaphor were inspired by his experience in World War Two, when he served in the Navy in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, and was on the Hood off Iceland, shortly before it was sunk by the Bismark. Such memories might also have made him regard the shallows as sometimes a rather better place to be than the deep sea.

Meanwhile, if anything characterizes Kermode's own criticism, it is surely its restraint and delicacy but also its astuteness, its almost deceptive modesty as Kermode tenaciously pursues some subtle textual point.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


Ethan Canin's America America is, as its title suggests it sets out to be, a Great American Novel. It ambitiously portrays a vital part of the core of US society over several generations... indeed, to trace the process by which what was once vital becomes sclerotic and corrupt, and what was once core becomes marginal. Moreover, it shows us the dark underside of even the most refined elements of North American civilization--to demonstrate how it was always in some sense corrupt, and how violence underpins (both undermines and enables) the best of intentions. And yet Canin's aim is not so much to denounce as to explain, to portray the inevitable ambivalences that undo and sustain American liberalism. Finally, the novel is also, simply, great: it's a quite marvellous achievement, beautifully written, with an extraordinarily measured and thoughtful tone.

The story begins in 2006, with a funeral in small-town upstate New York. Senator Henry Bonwiller, a beacon of New England progressive politics, has died at the age of 89. An impressive crowd turns up to pay their respects, as the establishment mourns the loss of one of its own but also (as with any figure who has made their share of enemies as well as friends) to ensure that he is at last safely dead and buried. Among the crowd is Corey Sifter, middle-aged editor of the local paper, the Speaker-Sentinel, but here now for personal rather than professional reasons. Sifter's life has, we discover, long been bound up with that of the deceased senator. So although the newspaperman initially presents himself as something of an outsider to the social elite gathered by the graveside, it soon emerges that he, least of all, is hardly untainted by the slight whiff of scandal that still surrounds the Bonwiller name.

The novel then shifts to the early 1970s when Corey, as the sixteen-year-old son of a local plumber, is called in to help fix a broken sewer on the estate of a prominent landowner, Liam Metarey. Metarey is taken by the young boy's industriousness and desire to please, and so gradually hires him to do more and more jobs around the estate. Soon young Corey is also invited into the house itself, and not always to work. Gradually he becomes the older man's protegé, enjoying a remarkably intimate relationship with the entire Metarey family, though always with the recognition that a vast gulf of class difference divides him from them. Frequently, this combination of intimacy and distance, with all the awkwardness that attends it, plays out in Corey's relations with Metarey's young daughters, Christian and Clara. Clara, particularly, likes to tease the young interloper, both to remind him of his subordinate status but also to indicate her interest in whatever he's up to.

But Corey isn't really up to anything particularly nefarious. He is portrayed (though we should remember that this is all from his own perspective) as a hard worker who merely likes to be liked by these people who have had so much power and influence in his community. Indeed, Sifter presents himself as rather naive, and the point of narrating his story in extended flashback is so that the middle-aged man can judge the youth he once was, not so much for his drive and ambition but more for not asking enough questions about the circles he finds himself frequenting. Everything comes to a head as Metarey decides to back a rising political star for what will turn out to be a campaign for the presidency. And so we turn to Senator Bonwiller again.

Bonwiller, it turns out, is something of a Ted Kennedy figure: well-meaning, perhaps, and voice for the unions and the working class, but tragically flawed. In an incident reminiscent of Chappaquiddick, Bonwiller's political hopes are derailed and, more to the point for the novel's purposes, Corey finds himself involved in the attempt to cover up the scandal. Again, it is not that the young man is calculating in his actions; more that his unwittingness is what makes him useful, and what allows him to be used. Fundamentally, the novel is telling us that neither ignorance (on Corey's part) not good intentions (in different ways, on the parts of both Bonwiller and Metarey) are sufficient alibis. Corey finds himself at the dark heart of a political morass that brings tangible human suffering. The fact that he only realizes this later (and perhaps never fully realizes it at all) is no proof of his innocence.

It's perhaps inevitable that a Great American Novel should be a tragedy that involves the loss of innocence, the failure of high-minded aspirations, and the slip of social masks. Here, the tragedy is threefold: it is Bonwiller's, it is Metarey's, and it is Corey Sifter's. In the end, however, the Bonwiller story is mere pretext or catalyst. The real interest lies in the relation between Metarey and Sifter, as the servant comes to stand in for the patriarch's missing son. For almost despite himself, Sifter comes to be an inheritor, both literally and figuratively. Metarey pays the the young man's education, for instance; and ultimately (a fact that isn't revealed until we are a long way into the narrative), Sifter also marries into the family. Sifter "makes it," and if he never achieves quite the same position as Metarey had, this is merely because that position can no longer be filled or is no longer relevant: the big estate is sold off, and developed for suburban housing and fancy apartments. As Corey's father says on surveying the scene, "That's the way progress is. It's always half criminal" (375). But of course, as Corey himself replies, it alway was half criminal: "that's a hell of a lot of land for one family" (376). Any inheritance is mixed: it's right that there should no longer be local oligarchs such as Liam Metarey; but the fact that they have disappeared doesn't mean that the mark they've made in the American way of life is gone. It's merely buried, a trauma lying in wait to be rediscovered by succeeding generations.

Ultimately, this is a book that's more about history than about politics in the strict sense of the word. Or rather, it is about politics as affect, as the bid to either harness or forget deep-rooted feeling, "a primal battle that is more charismatic and animalistic than either ethical or reasoned" (394), and about history as it is constituted by affects and habits that are never fully available to consciousness. By this, Canin is referring both to the fickleness of the potential campaign donors who have to be wooed by lavish parties and also to the engrained habits and affections of ordinary people. Sifter spends the entire course of this tale trying to understand such processes of loyalty and betrayal: ultimately he himself is both the most loyal and the most traitorous of all. He feels, it's suggested, that it's only with a certain distance that he can sift (as his name suggests he should) through his legacy--America's legacy--to piece together the clues of the scandal of violence at its heart. But in distancing himself from his own roots, he also loses sight of the "ingenuity of the American working class man" (436). There is here no Copernican position from which any final judgement can be made, except for the realization that we are all guilty whether we know it or not.

Sifter recognizes that in the end there is no redemption for him. And not because he has been himself bad, but because he'd "been involved in something--not that [he] did something, but that [he] was involved in something--something unforgivably wrong" (332). The only hope is for a subsequent generation: both his own daughters and a young woman reporter with who he has a rather similar relationship of mentor and protegée that he once enjoyed with the thoughtful and generous Mr Metarey. And yet it is was precisely because of such thoughtfulness and generosity that Sifter had become embroiled in the unspeakable evil at the core of the narrative. And it was precisely in order to make amends, to leave a good legacy, that Metarey had embroiled him in it. In lieu of redemption, then, even for subsequent generations, we are left merely with a few reflections, deliberately limited, homely, and simple:
that love for our children is what sustains us; that people are not what they seem; that those we hate bear some wound equal to our own; that power is desperation's salve, and that this fact as much as any is what dooms and dooms us. That we never learn the truth. (455)
This is truly a brilliant novel, not least in the restraint that leads it only to these quiet conclusions, a restatement of "the old verities" that we will necessarily have to forget before we can re-learn them. It is, moreover, in the best sense a deeply humanistic novel: about the making and unmaking of humanity itself.