I’ve been rereading Sergei Dovlatov’s “The Compromise,” a collection of comic vignettes about life in Soviet Estonia. It’s got everything we need for our times: authoritarian ineptitude, fake news, anti-Semitism. Who knew we’d find ourselves suddenly living in the U.S.S.R. in the nineteen-seventies?
Eugène Ionesco brilliantly dramatized the weakness of a community to deal with a bully-fascist in “Rhinoceros.” Alfred Jarry portrayed a mad, stupid, unleashed collective id in “Ubu Roi.” Thomas Mann’s Herr Peeperkorn—obese, rich, scarcely intelligible yet strangely charismatic—in “Magic Mountain,” feels like a familiar figure now. Among more recent books, I highly recommend Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” Karan Mahajan’s “The Association of Small Bombs,” as well as Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West,” which will come out soon, and which is eerily prescient with regard to vicious “nativists” in First World countries.
—Joyce Carol Oates
I’ve been rereading “No-No Boy,” by John Okada, for a class I’m teaching. It’s a 1957 novel about Japanese internment, told from the perspective of a young man, named Ichiro, who spent the Second World War in prison. In 1943, a year after Executive Order 9066 incarcerated more than a hundred thousand people of Japanese ancestry throughout the Western states, the War Relocation Authority created a series of questionnaires designed to test the loyalty of these detainees, the majority having gone from citizens to suspects overnight. For a variety of reasons, ranging from principled dissent to confusion over the questionnaires’ snaky wording, a small number of young men answered no to a pair of important questions—whether they would serve in the U.S. military, and whether they swore “unqualified allegiance” to the United States.
Okada’s novel begins just as Ichiro, a quiet, tempestuous young man who still doesn’t understand what compelled him to become a “no-no boy,” returns home to Seattle from prison. His parents are lost to madness and booze; he is bullied by fellow Japanese-Americans who were good citizens, serving their time in the military or in the camps. White liberals welcome him back, eager to help Ichiro reintegrate into society, apologizing for remaining silent when the trucks came for their neighbors.
I’ve read “No-No Boy” dozens of times, often with the same zeal with which I greet my morning vitamins. Whenever I teach it, I tell my students it is an important work about an overlooked moment of American history, acknowledging that Okada’s prose might feel a little stiff, Ichiro’s psyche underdeveloped, the novel’s visions of identity and community immature by today’s standards.
Reading “No-No Boy,” this week, it no longer seemed bound to its past; it felt like prophecy, a cosmic tragedy, a message in a bottle that arrives a half century later. Ichiro spends much of the novel lost in his own wounded thoughts, trying to rise above their self-loathing murk. He is an alien—he accepts this. And yet he yearns for something that he cannot yet imagine, let alone describe. The language of dignity and justice was unavailable to him, just as it let down his creator, Okada, who served in the Air Force while his family was interned in Idaho. I’d like to believe that we possess that language now, that we can see things that Okada and Ichiro could not. But unless we speak it into being we will never know for sure.
I’ve been dipping back into Simone Weil for spiritual isometrics. A recent bedtime-reading discovery: the intensely hilarious crime-caper novels by Donald Westlake (starting with “The Hot Rock” and steadily improving), for the homeopathic hell of it. And, after long meaning to, I’m finally pitching into an Icelandic masterpiece novel, “World Light,” by Halldór Laxness—it is cruelly comic, serving me with a timely lesson that the bad, once on track, can hardly help getting worse, but that intermittent auroras of eerie joy mustn’t be ruled out, even then.
Lately, I’ve been looking for books that both recognize a turgid, doubtful state of mind and (somehow) make it seem possible that one’s own doubtful turgidity can turn into something strong and beautiful and good. Those have been “Look,” by Solmaz Sharif, a restless, gorgeous book of poetry that uses the United States Department of Defense military dictionary as an internal structure; “The Correspondence,” by J. D. Daniels, which is dark and funny and contains sentences like “My face looked like a sandwich someone had already eaten”; and, like a lot of people, “Hope in the Dark,” by Rebecca Solnit, an elegant reminder that activist victories are easily forgotten, and that they often come in extremely unexpected, roundabout ways.
I’ve been reading and rereading David France’s brilliant “How to Survive a Plague.” In chronicling ACT UP’s heroic and imaginative battle for the lives of people with AIDS, France offers a primer on the resistance tactics used in the last successful radical political movement in this country. Until very recently in America, queer people and people with AIDS faced entry bans and the threat of internment camps. Anyone who wants to resist the current Administration needs to study this history. I’ve also been turning to André Aciman’s “Enigma Variations,” because part of art’s purpose is to provide the solace of beauty, and the contemplation of something so gorgeously wrought is its own kind of resistance.
Elias Canetti’s “Crowds and Power,” published in 1960, is one of the greatest studies not only of mass psychology, of barbarism, and of the forms that domination may take but also of the murderous resentments generated by helplessness. It is especially important to read the section titled “Inflation and the Crowd,” which relates to the rise of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Canetti, the Bulgarian-born Nobel laureate who wrote in German, has a unique perspective on the hyperinflation that hit the Weimar Republic, and which Hitler exploited for his political ends:
The individual feels depreciated because the unit on which he relied, and with which he had equated himself [the Deutsche mark] starts sliding; and the crowd feels depreciated because the million is. . . . No one ever forgets a sudden depreciation of himself, for it is too painful. Unless he can thrust it on to someone else, he carries it with him for the rest of his life. The natural tendency afterwards is to find something worth even less than oneself, which one can despise as one was despised oneself. . . . The object Hitler found for this process during the German inflation was the Jews.
It seems that we are seeing something parallel taking place in Trump’s America: the panicked reaction of a crowd that feels it has been devalued and is looking to project that sense onto a group that can then be driven from the fold. This process has happened before in American history, notably in the post-Civil War South, when defeated whites, many of them poor and dispossessed, projected their sense of depreciation onto the even poorer population of former slaves. (Read James Agee on THAT subject.)
The stories I have been hearing about refugees and immigrants detained at U.S. airports over the weekend—a young African woman, for example, a graduate student at a prestigious university, who holds a green card and who has lived in America for most of her life, handcuffed, patted down crudely, deprived of counsel, harshly interrogated about her beliefs and connections, and held for some thirty hours—are an illustration of what happens when a rabble-rouser marshals the instincts of a fearful crowd to dehumanize a scapegoat.
“Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” by Sam Quinones, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction last year. It’s a frightening look at the wave of opiate addiction that’s sweeping over and submerging communities in the American heartland. Middle-class white kids are starting with cough syrup, moving on to OxyContin, and then fatally overdosing on black-tar heroin; appalled parents, who have long associated heroin with big coastal cities, feel besieged when they learn that it’s on their suburban streets. Quinones explores this phenomenon by talking to everyone involved, from addicts and parents to doctors, scientists, cops, and even Mexican drug traffickers. (The heroin is made in northwestern Mexico, and the book details the business side of how it’s moved across the border and into the bedrooms of Ohio teen-agers.) Whole towns and regions of America have been affected; Quinones makes their desperation, anger, and feelings of abandonment palpable on every page.
I found a certain amount of solace in Mark Kishlansky’s concise, elegant “Charles I,” in which a king with a brittle ego and a distaste for being contradicted gets his head chopped off. It’s a volume in the Penguin Monarchs series, which are only about a hundred pages long and have a super-cute design.
I’m kidding about the decapitation—or, anyway, about the pertinence of this particular decapitated monarch to the news of the month. King Charles wasn’t really all that Trump-like—he was uxorious and devoted to theology, and he assembled one of England’s greatest collections of art. Even less reminiscent of Trump, and therefore a great sanctuary, was Langdon Hammer’s eight-hundred-and-one-page biography of the sparkly formalist poet James Merrill, a devotee of opera, Alexander Pope, and the Ouija board. Almost every night, after Twitter frayed my nerves, I stayed up late reading Hammer’s biography to soothe them. Like Trump, Merrill was an heir—the son of one of the founders of the investment firm Merrill Lynch—but unlike Trump he gave away his money prodigally, and he worked patiently and industriously (Hammer reports that when, late in life, the composition of a lyric poem took Merrill only sixty hours, he boasted to a friend that poems now “just come.”) In such parlous times, I felt a little guilty about indulging at length in reading for mere pleasure—the one lacuna in Merrill’s cosmopolitanism was politics, which he seems to have found boring—but only a formidable pleasure was capable of drawing me away from the news, and for the sake of my mental health I decided I had to license it. I once heard Merrill read from his poetry when I was in college, and I became starstruck by his glamour. For years afterward, as I tried to sort out my own life as a gay would-be writer, I puzzled over the glimpses that his poetry furnished of his life with boyfriends and other lovers. Although he relished putting his life into his art, he boiled life in his poet’s alembic at a pretty high temperature, and much of the who, when, and how was volatilized away. For low reasons as well as high, therefore, I was riveted by Hammer’s revelations, and by his insightful tracking of Merrill’s passions as they progressed into his letters, journals, drafts, and finally published poems.
I’m reading Joseph Roth’s “The Radetzky March,” which is full of mourning for the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire—the twilight period before the First World War, and then after. The characters implicitly recognize that empire is ending, but they experience this as a kind of internal sadness that they can’t surmount. This strikes close to home. People my age entered college a few weeks before or after 9/11; we graduated a couple of years before the recession; we witnessed the stalling of the Obama Presidency in Congress and his inaction over Wall Street. And now Trump. Meanwhile, our personal lives have been a hodgepodge of self-medication: pills, meditation, exercise, no-carb diets. We’ve pretended that the structural problems are personal problems. Trump allows us to see, once and for all, that our emotions are truly not our own; they are dictated from above. I’d recommend Roth’s book to those who wish to understand how quickly the end of empire can come upon you.