Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Reading Sometimes a Great Notion

I'm reading Sometimes a Great Notion again. This is a (huge) book by Ken Kesey (perhaps better known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; or the infamous acid tests).  I read it first in college; it was hard work.

The story itself is a huge cycle, centring on a town called Wakonda in the Pacific Northwest of America.  The town's income is almost exclusively derived from lumber and logging. The union, comprising almost everyone in the town (except the extended Stamper family) go on strike for better pay and terms from the lumber mill. The Stampers (who aren't on strike) are the hard-headed centre of the story.  They not only continue to work, but extend their contract, promising to deliver the lumber that the striking workers would have provided.  Were this not enough animosity to drive a storyline, Kesey also adds a dose of intra-family animosity, centred primarily on Hank and Leland, two brothers from different mothers.  While Hank lives and works in Wakonda, taking on the family business from his father, Leland lives back East. He comes out to Wakonda, ostensibly to help the family meet their contractual obligations with the lumber mill; but also to wreak some kind of revenge on his brother for injuries from the past.
The hard-headed approach of the Stampers is beautifully crystalised in an early moment:
Kesey winds through the story of how the first Stampers came to move to Wakonda. Jonas, a religious man who worries about his family's "curse" of always pushing further west moves out to Wakonda with his young family. He soon moves back to Kansas - he simply can't hack it. Everything he tries to cultivate over-grows with weeds - all his attempts at controlling nature fail. He returns to Kansas, taking with him most of the money the family have. His son, Henry, takes over the running of the family and the business.  Some time later, Henry has a child, Hank, who becomes one of the central figures of the story. Henry's father sends a religious plaque for the baby with an inscription reading "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth". Henry takes the plaque and paints "NEVER GIVE AN INCH!" over the inscription in yellow machine paint.  The humour here (the meek, who moved back to Kansas, is still convinced the meek shall inherit the earth) is also shot through the whole book - although, I'll confess, sometimes it's hard to pick up on, because the narrative is pretty dense.
The narrative style makes the book both engaging and enraging.  Kesey stitches each chapter together with threads of narrative from different characters' viewpoints. At first disorienting, the approach becomes really engrossing once you can get your concentration into gear. The voices start to spread into your own mind, much like the natural environment in the story, growing over all the attempts humans have made to cultivate and control it. 
I often think of the writing styles of American literature in terms of spreading - from the long lines Walt Whitman used in his Leaves of Grass right up to Jack Kerouac's manic, seemingly uncontrollable prose (I don't mean to ignore the minimal, and shorter forms - such as Carver, William Carlos Williams, etc; just in this context, I'm coming from this style).  The prose 'spreads' or reaches out, reflecting a discovery of the land and landscape and people.  This works really well for their narrative, as almost all their heroes have real adventures; overcoming great difficulty thanks to their own ingenuity, hope and physicality. Of course, all these ideas are played with - so you can point out nearly any book where none of these things all fall together - but the point is they play off this idea of going off to find a fortune or a good living, and the discovery and attempt to master nature.
In Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey's characters are already at the edge - there is not much further for them to spread. On one side is the Pacific Ocean; on the other, land that has already been discovered, conquered and mastered; which of course is no good to them. Where they are just keeps growing. This works well for the lumber men,  because there are trees to fell and product to sell. For others, coming from out-of-state, it's almost horrific. Those from Wakonda live a tough life in constant struggle; those from elsewhere are infected by the romanticism of this savage landscape, but soon withered by it.
This modernisation of the dream is reflected by the narrative style. The threaded voices, each telling their own story with their own motivations are like channels swirling in water. Like water, the narrative gets deeper and deeper - you don't realise until the end that you are introduced to much of the story in the first 50 pages. Rather than reaching outward, Kesey brings us down further, exploring the relationships between all these people that are on edge in so many ways.
Within this framework, Kesey deals with a huge number of themes, which all ripple outward (yes more water) - for example, antagonisms between man and nature blend into antagonisms between authority and submission blend into antagonisms between community and individuals blend into antagonisms between family members. There is a major East vs West(ern United States) theme that ripples into civilisation vs savagery, touches on family, the idea of playing it safe and striking out on your own, and so forth. This is the easiest way to describe it, but I've described it poorly - the book is not simply a series of dualities set up to duke it out. While there are many opposites fighting for control, the swirl of narrative really adds something very rich to the whole experience (and it feels like an experience - not a simply activity of reading a book).
All of this adds up to many unresolved contradictions and paradoxes and (god save us!) human hypocrisies. When I say unresolved - I don't mean storylines are unresolved - I mean that he reflects some of those questions about our life that are unresolved; and he does it in a pretty robust way. You stick with it because the characters are so human, and the prose so beautiful.
It really is a tough book, with timelines and ideas all jumbled together. Great concentration and - frankly - discipline is required to complete it, but when you do (and you actually don't) - it is well worth the toil.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On The Queen, Garret and Barack (and doing it for ourselves)

It has been a remarkable couple of weeks in Ireland, with first the UK head of state and then the American President visiting in close succession. We also lost Garret Fitzgerald.

For the queen, we pulled out all the stops - stops for traffic; stops for nefarious characters, who were duly searched; stops for our cynical hearts, which embraced the Queen of England's presence with startling warmth.
I am proud that our country has moved on to the extent where our neighbour's leader can come to our country and not be under constant criticism or threat for personal security. But we went a bit beyond this. For all the talk about equals, there was a wavering balance. Like having your girlfriend's ma'am turn up to meet you.
"Nothing serious!" she says, "just a little chat! I know you've been seeing each other for a while, and I just realised - we've never really had a" - here, the face scrunches up, lips pushed out, eyes peering over nose to you - "proper chat."
And duly, in our role as young lover, having shifted the face off England on and off over the years, as well as had a few rides here and there, we put on our best clothes and maybe some coffee and said "Yes! It would be great to talk!"
"Like equals" she says. And you know she means it, talking to a self sufficient young man; but you think to yourself Do I? You're nervous because you want to put forth your best face. After all, you've been in the house, and passed it a hundred times. You know about their strange ways, their traditions and etiquette, which are slightly different from yours. They remind you of the porcelain figurines on the modern wood mantlepiece, opposite which you both sit. You don't need to defer to her, but you want to. For your lover. And you know this woman has seen you round the neighbourhood, back when you did things you're a bit embarrassed by now, smoking fags with the big lads outside Tescos just a couple of years ago. But here you are now, settled.
You chat for a while; still nervous. She asks how you are, and seems genuinely interested. You tell her. You ask her about herself. It dawns on you: your both nervous. She knows how you hurt her child, and knows how her child hurt you. But you're putting that behind you - and you've been neighbours for as long as you remember; and while you've never spoken to this woman - your lover's mother - properly - you both know each other. It's a painful, but joyous moment, almost... intimate. So you move on and she says "Well, I hear you play the guitar!" Oh Christ. You know you'll have to play the guitar. While you're OK with it, you have much greater talents you could show. But this is what she knows about you, and this is what she asks for. So you play You Raise Me Up and secretly know you're going to be really embarrassed about this when your friends find out.
But it all passes on well enough. She smiles and you smile. You get so comfortable - it's like you're on the same wavelength - she's really talking your language. As she leaves you think "I'm going to do my best by her - her kid deserves the very best I can do" But then you have to ask yourself - why can't you just do it for yourself?

I must confess to witnessing some republicans (with a small r - into the "nation for the people", but not the murderous psychopathy) wavering in their own beliefs. I woke up in a cold sweat on Thursday morning - I had to get out of town before the Queen came in, and I was sure Mary McAleese was going to be crowned. Or attempt to adopt the Queen, for taxes and little-old-lady-with-the-belly-of-a-lion-leadership. But, more luck for me, this never came to pass.
I drove the startlingly well surfaced, clean roads from my home in Co Kildare out to Dublin. The traffic was still a bit heavy, but with well-tended shrubs and a beautiful morning, it didn't seem all that bad. We cleaned up pretty well here.  Sadly, not for ourselves. If only we kept the place clean, there wouldn't be that nervousness whenever someone comes to visit.

Then we heard the news.  Garret the Good had died. I know of at least half a dozen people who hoped in his last hours, he might have heard the Queen's speech at the State banquet in her honour. We reflected on the timing - so apt that he might go, just after it's confirmed that his work was done. A stickler for detail, it seemed he'd had his homework closely assessed, and outside a couple of stray grammatical errors, it was of a first class honours standard.  If the Queen was our lover's mother, Garret was surely our Grandad. Like a grandfather, everyone seemed to have a story about him; some event that demonstrated his warmth, intelligence or generosity.  Tiresome in our youth, but making more sense as we grew older; until ultimately, he calmly (having seen it all before) explained where he thought we were going wrong, as we laughed and continued doing it anyway. And when it all went wrong, rather than hold it up to us, he told us: Well, you'll have to make it right now. As we fumbled with that task, he calmly and meticulously tried to explain what it was we should be doing. Like all grandfathers, we listened but pretty much ignored his advice (some even mocked it) until he died. I have no idea if he was right or wrong - but I do know he was talking to us all the time until he did die. Then we exclaimed his broad genius.  In fairness, we always held him in our hearts; if not our minds. A true statesman and grandfather to the nation.

It was just as well our buddy was coming over. He'd cheer us up. He always did. A bit of craic, the President of the USA. This time in teh clothes of Barack Obama. Your big brother or sister's friend. No - your big brother or sister's cool - no coolest -  friend. The one that was always sound out. Dressed like they did in the movies and never apologised for it. Confidence, they had, and everyone wanted to be around them.  They asked you how you were doing, what you were up to (making you feel like everyone might want to be around you too). The one you once spent ages in the pub talking to. Then, when you were walking home, you realised (with embarrassment) that you never asked them how they were doing. But you were pretty sure they were doing OK. They were always (and still are) sexy, confident. Everyone in the room looks at them. They pay their own bar tab. Your older now, and you know they're only human; they have their problems, but you don't want to talk about that.  You want to impress them instead. They come over, full of  confidence and optimism. They tell you what you need to hear. Some hard truths, some softer, all a bit something you know in yourself, but somehow you still need to be told. Then you want to say something to them, but you're nervous you'll say something stupid (even though you know they're pretty generous of spirit, you don't want them thinking your stupid). Say something smart. Say something. SAY SOMETHING! You tell yourself over and over. And you tell them something you know they've heard before, because they said it before. But you say it anyway - repeat back to them something they've already said - to show how cool you are now. How you're getting it together. They make you smile, maybe laugh a bit. And like your big brother or sister's coolest friend - they have to hit the road too soon! They leave, but you feel confident. You think, "Yes, I can do it. I'm no dork".

And we have to hold onto all these things. It is sad that we can't generate this confidence within our own country.  Confidence in our status, the conviction of our values, the courage to go on. And we must go on. If we don't nurture this new-found self esteem, it will be gone again, and before we know it, this mad weekend will be over; it will be Monday again, and we'll be hitting Snooze because it's just a struggle to get out of bed and face that day ahead.