Sunday, December 03, 2006

Penny Press! The New Yorker!

The New Yorker, everybody's favorite maiden aunt despite the best efforts of Tina Brown and others to change that fact, has several points of interest this time out.

Oddly enough, considering that this is, after all, the New Yorker, one of the issue's interesting items is its short story. Ordinarily, the New Yorker's fiction is equal measures cautious and crappy - coming across something interesting (let alone good) is a fairly rare event.

We here at Stevereads aren't certain David Means' short story "A River in Egypt" is good, but it certainly rates as interesting.

It's premise - a father caring for his seriously ill little boy - is weighted in the author's favor from the start, but he takes narrative gambles nonetheless, and some of them pay off.

His choice of voice is very distinct - long, multi-jointed sentences, almost Jamesian in their florid superabundance. We here at Stevereads are no great fans of Henry James - we dislike almost all prose that's intentionally opaque. But more often than not, Means makes this trick work in his favor. Here's the end of the story, when the main character, Cavanaugh, is headed back into the city with his son, Gunner. See if you like what Means is trying to do:

"Cavanaugh imagined all of the above as he drove back over the Hudson while Gunner slept in the back seat with his head lolling to one side and his tiny mouth open around his own breath, and, down below, the river fretted with bits of white chop as the first hard wind of the fall drove down from the North and cut past Hook Mountain on its way to the city. As he drove, he began to cry, openly and with stifled guffaws, the way a man must cry when he is faced with the future, any future, a good one or a bad one, and after he has sat alone in a room with his child, waiting for sweat to collect so that he may know something about what is to come, some exactitude in the form of a diagnosis; he cried the way a man must cry when he's driving, keeping both hands on the wheel and his eyes wide open through the blur, and he cried the way a man must cry when he is exhausted from being up deep into the night while his boy coughs up almost unbelievable quantities of phlegm, clearly succumbing to a disease process - as his doctor called it - that at that point was indeterminate; he cried for himself as much as for his son, and for the world that was unfolding to his left, an open vista, the gaping mouth of the river, which at that moment was flowing down to the sea, hurrying itself into the heart of New York Harbor. He was crying like a man on a bridge - suspended between two sides of life, trapped in the blunt symbolism of the spans, and atop the floating pylons that sustained the decks of reinforced concrete - while his son slept soundly, unburdened now, it seemed, when Cavanaugh looked back at him in the mirror, and afloat on his own slumber. Not at all sick, or diseased, and free, from whatever torment the future might offer up. By the time (three minutes later) that Cavanaugh was exiting off the thruway and driving down Main Street (six minutes later), past the stately trees unfurling in their fall brilliance, he had collected himself and was clear-eyed and in a new state. He wasn't a man reborn at all. Not even close. That would come much later, after the second test, and when the results were in, conclusive and hard, no-nonsense in the statement they made. That would come (he imagined) when he gave himself over to the fact that salt moved chaotically in and out of certain cells, and that Gunner's body would forever confront certain facts: mucus blockages in his lungs and pancreas, and frequent infections. But for now, as he entered the town on a beautiful fall day, the diagnosis was somewhere off in the remote future, and he was alive and dealing with the moment at hand, which included his own actions in the sweat room, and the failure of his set design for the convention scene, and he felt himself growing calm before the sweet presence in the back seat, which came to him in the form of a soft snore, a little clicking sound that accomplished each exhalation, and then, finally, a small groan as the car settled over the curb of the driveway (eight minutes later) and came to a stop, and then another slight sniff as the boy awoke (one minute later), roused by the silence, the lack of road noise, and opened his eyes and blinked, and then said, 'Are we home? Are we home now, Dad?'"

That goes a long way toward some effect, and we tip our hat to the writer who at least tries it.

Elsewhere in the issue, there's a nauseating piece by Jeffrey Toobin about Senator Arlen Specter's support of the Bush administration's cancellation of habeas corpus for foreign detainees. Several of these 'detainees' have been locked up in American dungeons for years without any legal recourse at all other than the time-immemorial right of habeas corpus - that the imprisoning power is compelled to produce the person of the incarcerated in open court, and account to the keepers of that court why said person is being imprisoned.

My esteemed colleague the Reichmarshal would no doubt say foreign 'detainees' (the word just calls out for partial quotes, since the daily reality of these men argues against the misnomer - detainment is by definition temporary) have no rights and no expectation of rights from an already too-generous United States.

But the United States is not an island, and basic human rights don't stop at borders. Arlen Specter is and always has been a stupid tool of ambition. If every single other of his monstrous transgressions against the truth were thrown out, he'd still be damned for his particiation in the Warren Commission's purblind inquiry into the assassination of President Kennedy. His volte-face last minute reversal on the question of rights of foreign detainees (not just foreign, though: the actual wording of Military Commissions Act of 2006 is a lot more vague than the Reichmarshal would have you believe - there isn't anything in the actual wording of the text that protects natural-born innocent Americans) is just just more lickspittle complicity on his part.

But Arlen or no Arlen, there's only one right answer to this question. Either the United States is a nation that values human rights or it isn't. Not 'American rights.' Not 'human rights except in these trying times.' Listen carefully: either the United States is a nation that values human rights or it isn't.

If you say, 'OK, fine - if that's my choice, I say no: I'd rather the United States NOT be a nation that values human rights, if it means coddling foreigners and potential enemies,' if what you say some variation of that, well, that's your right.

But it does two things to you, when you start to cant stuff like that. First, it puts you outside of grace. You can 'detain' people indefinitely only if you're stronger than they are. You can deny them their basic legal rights if you control the courts. All well and good to say 'damn straight' in response to those points, but you have to understand something: if you say that, you're agreeing to live in a world where brute force determines EVERYTHING. Somebody bigger elbows past you at the gas pump? Too bad - they're bigger, so lump it. A hairier man takes a liking to your wife and moves in? Tough luck - he CAN, this hairier guy, so he will.

Second, it stops you from being American. This country was founded not only IN response to tyranny but AS a response to tyranny. In eloquent defiance of every single govermental schema yet then seen, the United States maintained something new: we here are founded not on a bloodline or a religious sect or a military junta ... we're founded on an IDEA.

That idea was freedom, as hokey and outdated as that term may sound today. When you become the tyrant, the jailor, the torturer, when you endorse torture and eviscerate habeas corpus, you become all the things this country was founded against.

Luckily, we don't have to end our New Yorker round-up on such a depressing note! Not when we can turn from a tool to a full-blown nutjob!

The article in question is called, rather ominously, "Goodnight Mush." It's by Eizabeth Kolbert, and it's a screed against ... well, against children's literature. Kids picture books.

Turns out they've been an evil racket all along, Kolbert sternly warns. They're all a plot on the part of their authors (who meet on every other Tuesday, I think), with one over-arching purpose in mind: to brainwash young children into going to bed without making a fuss. Here is her grim summary:

"... why do we tell stories to our children? In my experience, mostly it is to get them to shut up. A book read to a toddler who, after running around the house all day, has had to be stuffed, quite literally, into his pajamas, may traffic in imaginative freedom and wonder, but it is still an instrument of control. I will read this to you, and then you will go to sleep. End of story."

And on it goes:

"The tension, or, if you prefer, bad faith implicit in this arrangement is itself one of the great themes of bedtime literature, and many of the tales now regarded as classics celebrate children as artists (and artists as children), only, in the end, to sell them both out."

Yeesh. Where were the rest of us all this time, while such iron bargains were being imposed on our ruthless children?

Like a reformed alcoholic, Kolbert sees her pet vice everywhere. It'd be funny, if it weren't so creepy. Even the gentle "Bedtime for Frances" fails to escape condemnation:

"'Bedtime for Frances' was published in 1960. As a child born the following year, I identified with its heroine, both because of her insomnia and because of her domestic situation (Waking my father in the middle of the night was not considered a bright idea.)"

OKaaaaaay. By this point it's pretty clear that Kolbert needs not a reviewer but an entomologist - somebody better qualified to analyze the great big BUG UP HER ASS.

Frances has insomnia? For that matter, Frances has a 'domestic situation'?

Kolbert's stalking progress through the highs and lows of famous childrens books goes on for a conscientious span of pages, the whole while apparently unaware of the possibility that FUN might be an element in books written for kids. She ends on a typically cheery note:

"A parent is bigger than a child, but still a person. He or she can be appealed to, as in 'Bedtime for Frances,' or even tricked, as in 'Good Night, Gorilla.' The arrangements in 'Goodnight Moon' is completely uneven. Time moves forward, and the little bunny doesn't stand a chance. Parent and child are, in this way, brought together, on tragic terms. You don't want to go to sleep. I don't want to die. But we both have to."

Now that's some pretty funny stuff.


Beepy said...

Lovely, Steve. But what about the piece about the Bratz dolls? Will that be in the next entry?

Jeff Eaton said...

It's a nice confirmation that I'm reading the right blog when the summary labels say:

"Labels: children's books, habeas corpus"

Sam Sacks said...

This soliloquy incited by the Arlen Specter article is particularly, quotably wonderful.
There must have been at least one Senator or Congressperson who took the floor during the hearings for that bill and said something that at least approximated what you wrote... Anyone? Anyone at all?

Kevin Caron said...

Well put, Steve. The 'detainee' debacle is particularly disheartening - it's so wildly unpopular, so many rail against it, yet the administration doesn't even flinch, and this travesty of justice continues nearly unabated. For what, half a decade now? At this point I have to assume they're holding people not to try and convict them or pump them for information, but to keep the stories of their imprisonment from getting to the public while their jailors are still in power.

Beepy said...

Steve, your comments about the David Means story caught my attention. We here at Beepyalsoreads are not great fans of the short story as a literary form, but this one hit it out of the park.

For those of you that haven't read the story, don't judge it by what Steve posted. It's very hard to get a sense of anything from reading the bit that he quoted. I read Steve's entry, thought "What the...?", then went and read the story. Means does take chances with his narrative style and, for me, it totally worked to convey the emotional state of this dad.

I also read the piece about children's books after reading Steve's post and he is dead on target with this one. After I read the article, I got down on my knees and thanked the Great Maker that this woman was not my mom. What a sour, grumpy, buttbug infested woman indeed. Bound to raise children who will only come into the local Barnes and Noble to drink coffee and to find out what (and whom) Brit and Paris are doing this week.

Kevin Caron said...


Love it.

Mine'll be
or maybe

steve said...

I assure you, you're jumping the gun. 'beepyalsoreads' was just manatee wishful thinking.

Anonymous said...

Actualy Steve, I too am against the MCA because it allows the government to abuse the rights of American citizens. As for the untermensch, or "detainees" as you call them, they have no constitutional rights whatsoever. Also, the Geneva Conventions clearly stipulate that citizens of nations that have not signed the Geneva Conventions have no right to claim their protection, and that combatants taken out of uniform may be executed as spys. As usual, your womanish viewpoint does not put the safety of U.S. citizens first. The Founders may have embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment but they were also pragmatists. The subhuman scum at Gitmo and elswhere are dishonorable foes who have no conception of human rights at all and they should not be allowed to use our values against us. In the words of one Supreme Court justice, "the Constitution is not a suicide pact." Reichmarshall

steve said...

Lieber Gott, one hardly knows where to start ....

A) as we've gone round on time and again, Reichmarshall, just because somebody isn't YOU doesn't automatically make them 'subhuman scum.' Most of the United States' 'detainees' have had no crime nor any shadow of a crime imputed to them, much less proven against them - most of them are guilty only of being Muslim in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jails (and coffin ships) throughout history have been full of people guilty of the same thing - doesn't make them subhuman scum.

B) The Geneva Conventions are 60 years old, and not everybody holidays there with pen in hand. The point is, everybody in the entire GALAXY is guaranteed their basic human rights - not under the Geneva Conventions but under that far superior document, the U.S. Constitution. The minute you abrogate those rights for somebody, you abrogate them for all of us - which is why the government right now can eavesdrop on my phone calls without warrant, arrest me without probable cause, and detain me without legal representation. I'd like those rights back, now, for me AND all the country's 'detainees'

C) I feel behooved to point out that although 'womanish' doesn't necessarily work as an across-the-board insult (unlike, say, 'girlish,' which does), the safety of American citizens is endangered FAR more by a stupid and rapacious government than it ever could be by the shopkeeps and cobblers we have locked up at Gitmo

D) the craven originator of the 'not a suicide pact' phrase you mention is not a Supreme Court justice - thank GAWD, or we'd all be out in the gutter along with Magna Carta

Kevin Caron said...

A)Right on
B)Hear hear
C)You go, girl