Mini-Review: The Argonauts

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Easily one of my (most) favorite books I’ve read this academic year (and I’ve read more than a lot, just finishing up qualifying exams for two PhD programs), The Argonauts (2015, Graywolf Press) examines the failures and successes of language to convey and construct both identity and perspective. Benson’s work is a masterful little piece of discourse, a conjuring into being of  one writer’s position in lieu of those she holds closest to her. The text is a study in positionality and performance. It’s required reading for scholars of contemporary American literature, gender, sexuality, subjectivity, feminism, body, embodiment, and critical theory. For everyone else: If you don’t like to come out a different person after having worked through a text, or if you prefer what you read not to move you or inconvenience you by altering your interpretive frames for viewing the world or for empathizing with other people, please avoid reading the book at all costs.

Chaos and Love: A Review of Shane Crash’s “Forest Life”

I

There are at least three points where chaos—a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability—threatens to break in upon man: at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his powers of endurance, and at the limits of his moral insight. Bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox are all, if they become intense enough or are sustained long enough, radical challenges to the proposition that life is comprehensible and that we can, by taking thought, orient ourselves effectively within it—challenges with which any religion, however “primitive,” which hopes to persist must attempt somehow to cope.    –Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System

Chaos, or unintelligible, un-interpretable events, says anthropologist Clifford Geertz, assails humankind from three directions: When one’s analytic capacities fail, when one’s endurance shrivels, and when one’s moral insight is defective or lacking. Is life comprehensible? Geertz says that religion seeks to make it so through its various orientating systems. In his new novel, Forest Life, Shane Crash faces these issues square in the face, and questions the role of religion in making the world intelligible. Pain, suffering, chaos, religion, coping mechanisms, human relationships: Crash weaves these themes together effortlessly. The setting is simple enough. A young man, reeling in the wake of a tragic accident, moves to the fringes of rural America to deal with his ever-increasing despair. He works to make sense of these events, but finds that they are inexplicable. Chaos threatens him from all directions.

Forest Life is an angst-ridden meditation on human pain and suffering. It is a story about hurt and despair, gut-wrenching emotional-psychological sadness, and human phantoms flitting in and out of the margins of awareness, hovering at the borders of (non)existence. Because pain is illogical, the story, too, is partly illogical; as a reader I found myself questioning Emmett’s self-depreciations and frequent disillusioned sessions of introspective despair. Especially in the early chapters of the book, I wondered if Emmett-qua-protagonist was too despairing, or unrealistically dark in demeanor and carriage. I found it hard to trust Emmett’s cynicism—I didn’t believe it. Emmett’s character seemed stilted; Emmett just didn’t work, for me. But hear me out–all of this changed as I progressed in the narrative. I finished a chapter—chapter three, I recall—and realized that I was invested in the characters, that I cared what happened next. I remembered that dealing with pain is never logical. I realized that by whatever literary magic or writer’s craft, Crash had transfixed my interest and attention. Maybe it was Crash’s prose. Maybe it was the striking similarities between Emmett’s struggles and my own biography. Maybe it was the art of intertextuality—a sequestered cabin in the woods (think: Thoreau’s Walden), the serene lake, the physical attraction between Emmett and Maraye, the Tolstoy and Camus allusions. I imagine it was a combination of all these elements. Regardless, I found myself irrevocably invested in the narrative of Forest Life.

I also found myself consistently moved by Crash’s prose, captured by the in-between-dialogue parts of his writing that reflect the protagonist’s thoughts as he meanders around in the forest and by the lake. Crash has managed to essentialize experience through evocation, and in particular, the experience of suffering. Crash’s descriptions are profoundly embodied. Emmett’s pain is not just psychological but registers itself in his very cells, in his limbs, in his body. The alcohol numbs the pain, of course, but further blurs the boundaries between reality and subconscious fantasy. As readers, it is easy to empathize with the Emmett. I (we) know his pain. I (we) feel the ways his sadness and his overriding sense of helplessness gnaw at his consciousness and knot his stomach. Emmett is in pain—Crash paints this in broad brushstrokes. Emmett is alive—he exists, yes—but this existence is frustrated. Life is inexplicable; even religion fails to provide answers. Death is tantalizingly attractive to those whose lives pulse with despair and unaccountable hurt. When it hurts to breathe, when every breath is a focused exercise in inexplicable suffering, death is a viable solution.

Forest Life reads like a Cianfrance film. It’s dark, gritty, and emotive, but chalk full of fleeting glimpses of ecstasy and, for lack of a better term, joy, in a relational sense. In Cianfrance’s anti-romance, Blue Valentine, it’s human relationship  that is the source of the film’s wonder, the source of its pleasure. But it’s also the harsh reality of relationship that is also the unraveling of the characters in the end. Analogously, Crash’s prose at points shines although the subject matter is painful. The repeated descriptions of Maraye’s skin are themselves metaphors of what could be; they’re metaphors of the unlikely possibility of healing and loving, of quasi-reconciliation, of hope. These descriptions of beauty and attraction, of Maraye’s pale, glistening skin and sheer sundresses, are consistently undercut by Emmett’s cycles of guilt and turmoil. Yet, these descriptions of attraction and wonder represent Crash’s best writing.

II

Like many readers, I read novels wearing more than one hat. Aside from my being a lover of contemporary American literature, I’m also an anthropologist of religion who studies, in particular, evangelical and pentecostal Christianity in the U. S. Obvious to any careful reader is a consistent polemic edge in Crash’s writing that works to problematize Christian (and more specifically, evangelical) culture in the U. S.  In classificatory terms, Forest Life is a literary corollary to the burgeoning theologies of those provocateurs known by many names: emergents; emerging churches; postmodern Christians; The Hyphenateds; progressive Christians; or the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). Whether Crash is conversant with these groups is unclear, but in the scheme of things this is where his work fits categorically and historically. Forest Life is a work of religio-cultural protest, one that seeks to separate the essence of Christian spirituality (often framed in terms of “love” or “justice”) from the traditional cultural trappings of Christian America (implying things such as anti-intellectualism, über-patriotism, pro-violence, ultra-conservatism, patriarchal conceptions of gender, and so on). There is a danger in such a critique; no matter how compelling is one’s charge against the sins of American Christians, one runs the risks of reifying simple caricatures of those groups in focus. Sometimes Emmett’s accusations of Christians are viable. Other times, they reproduce simple caricatures and (in my opinion) ultimately undermine the value of the respective literary scene. Yet, Emmett (or Crash, rather?) redeems himself; in chapter six, when Emmett attends a worship service with Jack and Maraye, he transcends his cynicism and caricaturizing tendencies in a freeing moment of empathy: “It strikes me that most of these folks are probably just contending with life and loss. My chest begins to ache for them. I stop seeing them as back-wood rednecks and townies. I see myself in their sad expressions. I am truly ashamed of my judgment.” Chaos, if only momentarily, is held at bay; Emmett sees himself in the Other, he recognizes the universality of suffering.

And while Crash’s polemics against religion might appear to some readers as somewhat redundant or at least overplayed—I agree to a point, by the way—Crash’s writing tone is reminiscent of other American novelists like Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut. But perhaps Crash will learn from Hemingway, another American literary giant, and make his critique more effective by showing instead of telling, showing via evocative story-craft. Polemics and provocations are literary tools that must be wielded carefully and applied with reserve; too much, and the character becomes nothing more than a political talking head. Sometimes concealing some point in an artful way is much more effective than rote explicitness.

III

With all of that aside, Forest Life is a refreshing and rewarding read, dark and provocative in parts, but bursting with emotion and life. It is a modern elegy, recalling the mournfulness and sadness of human existence while it simultaneously draws on the beauty of nature; in this sense, the book is reminiscent of the small body of early Anglo-Saxon poems, dark and somber, called The Elegies. Forest Life is a beautiful meditation on pain and coping, human frailty and resiliency, and the capacity to love, even while inexplicable chaos hovers all around. Crash demonstrates rare wisdom and insight for his age. I plan on reading the book a second time. Crash is a brilliant young writer, and I’ll be keeping an eye open for his next novel. Make sure to purchase Forest Life over at Civitas Press. Crash’s other publications, including a travel journal and collaborative essay project, can be accessed here. Check out his blog here.

Game of Thrones, Season One: A (Critical) Review, Part One

“The American Tolkien,” bragged Lev Grossman, for Time Entertainment—I cringed when I heard it.

I was raised on books. My family read voraciously, in most genres, and in both what I’d now call, with my B. A. from a Liberal Arts university and M. A. in the humanities, “commercial” and “literary” fields. This differentiation bears a degree of literary snobbery, I agree, even though postmodern approaches to film and art have obscured the boundaries between what was once construed as “low” or “high” art. Admittedly, this review might come across as sort of high-brow. I agree, but this is not my intent. And I digress. In my elementary years, I consumed the Boxcar Children, The Hardy Boy mystery series, and innumerable other fantasy and adventure tomes. Latter, in my pre-teens, I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings while many of my friends spent their time playing Nintendo 64s and watching Sportscenter. In Catholic high school, I fell in love with literature and its categories: American lit, Brit lit, and most of all, Greek mythology. I noticed the differences between 14-volume teen-entertainment sets, and the timelessness of those articles of literary canon that we digested and were tested on in classes. But the theorist in me also problematizes my thinking: Who sets the literary canon? Who sets the criteria that sets this canon? Who decides which are the best examples of literature to be sampled by schools across the nation? Foucault’s analysis of institutions comes to mind. Not only that, but what is art? Is there good art and bad art? Who determines (and replicates) these categories? Although working in the field of visual art, theorist Cynthia Freeland speaks to these issues.

Suffice it to say, a taxonomic ability to separate literature (and media more broadly) into categories is seared into my cognitive faculties. It’s an ability that comes in handy as a J. Z. Smith-influenced scholar of religion, one that impairs my ability to enjoy very much of what we call “pop” entertainment—at least, not without a high degree of irony. (NBC’s Bachelor and Bachelorette are important exceptions. It’d be easy to blame my wife, but I ultimately have no excuse. I study culture, media, consumption, religion, and emotion, so, obviously, I’m hooked. The show is so bad, but so good.)

And now to the material at hand: George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones, and absurdist Tolkien comparisons. To begin, I read the opening book in the series. I was at times impressed by Martin’s sporadic witticisms and ability to weave together multiple, but interrelated storylines. There’s no question that Martin knows how to craft a compelling storyline. I was hoping for a realist, gritty, medievalesque, dragon-and-armor epic. In a way, I got what I wanted. I had heard, through the proverbial pipeline, that Martin develops deep character personalities, with contested moral identities, like real, everyday people–people like us, the viewers. Martin’s works, proponents praised, captures the world in all of its realism, in its chaos and meaninglessness. In my experience, however, the book both reinforced my preconceptions of Martin’s writings as commercial literature and challenged it. When I use the word commercial I simply mean marketed for mass appeal and consumption, sometimes at the risk of losing artistic nuance, and I indeed imply, perhaps, that such a work might be borderline sensationalist. Contrary to my expectations, however, I finished the book eager to wanting to know what happens, and with mixed emotions. I’ll explain, below.

Second, I’ve had a similar reaction to HBO’s rendition of Martin’s book, which I’ve recently just finished viewing. Again, I had high expectations. Film versions are entirely different animals than their print predecessors, sometimes even for the better. The season’s cover, after all, hails it as a “crowing triumph,” “red-blooded and raw . . . rich . . . cinematic . . . brilliant.” So when I finally got a hold of the five-disc set of season one, I was hyped. And for a while into it, I was caught: The blood! The layered stories! The lineages! The hints of terra incognita! The incest! The history! The tragedy! The cosmology! The complexity! I compared the fold-out lineages and territorial map of the DVD with Martin’s originals on my Nook. But the hype wears off pretty quickly. One learns to predict the bloody impaling and slicing and de-limbing of bodies to the right and left of EVERY, SINGLE military skirmish. The nudity, mostly from scenes staged within brothels and whore-houses, is a-dime-a-dozen. One recent review, in fact, has described these particular scenes as “sexpositions” in that they contain crucial plot material, nearly always in the form of character dialogue, while a minimum of two minor characters go at it in some interesting position (more on this term later). I’m looking for the right word, here, but based on my own experience, one becomes desensitized to these scenes. What am I trying to say, here? The scenes become redundant: that’s it. They become expected, predictable, and cliché. Don’t mistake this critique as puritanical modesty; don’t think that I support tighter media regulation. This, after all, an HBO series. And it is, after all, Rated R. Actually, I enjoy realist literature and film that captures life in all of its ambiguity, and portrays the depths of relational human beings in all dimensions, including their identity as sexual beings. I dislike artistic censorship, it’s true, but I really like art. I’ll just come out with it: Martin and HBO, especially, objectify sex and women’s bodies. Refrain! Refrain! I admonish as I watch, addressing Martin himself to a degree, and also the HBO screen-writers that gleefully overextended many of his explicit-yet-still-titillating scenes of eroticism. Martin, I argue, are you not aware that in art, sometimes less is more—sometimes vague or abstract descriptions fire the imaginations of the readers? Take a lesson from your fellow novelist James Joyce, who, in his Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, says it by not saying it, says it by showing it, nay, shows it in crafted, brilliant, provocative, phantasmagoric phraseology and artful word-craft. To give too much is to make for lazy, inept readers (and viewers). I don’t want to bracket my imagination; I want to partner with the artist in an active dialogue. On Game of Thrones, sex is commodified. It serves a dull purpose, a dual purpose: To exploit the attention of the viewers in moments of lagging plot-line and to enter details that are crucial to the plot arch. As I’ve implied, it gets a little redundant after a while. To return to the term introduced above, James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly (EW), argues that Game of Thrones includes “infamous scenes of ‘sexposition,’” which he defines as “noun: the strategic use of sexual activity to make expository dialogue more lively.” This isn’t art, though; it’s artifice. It’s cheap entertainment, reminiscent of what one might find in the adult video section of the now disappearing video store. Like the Greek literary device of deus ex machina these scenes are merely convenient and predictable fillers-of-space.

What are your thoughts, so far, those of you who have seen the show and read the book? Am I too hard on Martin? In my next post, I’ll consider Martin’s construction of characters and personalities. Stay tuned.