Susan Scutti

Mass Instinct

The Savage Detectives by Roberto BolanoOriginally published by Editorial Anagrama (Spain) in 1998; translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (USA) in 2007. Reviewed by Susan Scutti The non-ecclesiastical definition of the word “catholic” means universal, inclusive, and by that definition “The Savage Detectives” is the most catholic of novels, it is a book that contains multitudes. Housing more-than-you-can-count characters and personalities, it is all about perception and voice, in particular it is about Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, founders of the visceral realism poetry movement in 1970's Mexico City, from the perspective of pretty much anyone who ever encountered them. Essentially, that is all “The Savage Detectives” is about… with one slight twist. Although these two poets named their movement without reference to the past, they soon discover a woman, Cesarea Tinajero, who happened to have used the very same name to describe her own poetic movement active in the 20s and possibly the 30s, the period of subsequent relapses into violence just after the Mexican Revolution. The Visceral Realists in the time of Belano and Lima, then, “walked backwards,” according to Lima, “straight toward the unknown” and so this novel also describes the journey taken to re-discover Cesarea Tinajero, about whom Belano and Lima know nothing other than that her cold trail disappeared somewhere in the Sonora Desert.

“The Savage Detectives” is not only the title of the novel, which is organized into three separate sections, but also the title of the middle and largest section, where many different voices speak of the moment and ways their lives intersected with the movement of visceral realism. The first and final sections, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” and “The Sonora Desert,” respectively, are slimmer and ostensibly written by a seventeen-year old University student and poet, Juan Garcia Madero. The first section consists of Madero's journal entries focusing on his own life as a young poet inspired by visceral realism; the final section, also composed of his journal entries, focuses on his trip with Belano and Lima to the Sonora Desert in search of the elusive poet, Cesarea Tinajero.

Who are the many savage detectives investigating the lives and times of Lima and Belano? They are the followers and friends (and friends of friends) of the visceral realism movement, among them: Angelika Font, winner of the Laura Damian prize for poetry and her promiscuous sister, Maria Font; Amadeo Salvatierra, who first tells Lima and Belano about Tinajero while they drink Los Suicidas mezcal, the favored brand of the visceral realists; Edith Oster, a capitalist's daughter who after breaking Belano's heart, becomes anorexic and lives for a time in California; the father of the Font sister, Joaquin “Quim” Font, who speaks from the men's ward in a mental health clinic; Lupe, a prostitute running from her pimp; Felipe Muller, who repeats a story of lovers and clones told to him by Belano; Jacoba Urenda, a photographer who meets Belano in Africa; and Inaki Echevarne, the critic who opposes Belano in a duel on a beach. The recounted episodes span twenty years between 1976 and 1996 and take place in Mexico City, Chile, California, Tel Aviv, Angola, Liberia, Paris, Barcelona, and a smattering of smaller cities in Europe. The sequence of the narrative washes back and forth like tides, the setting of the narrative skips from continent to continent round the globe.

Bolano chooses as an epigraph for his novel a passage from Malcolm Lowry, the author of Under the Volcano, a novel which takes place in a small Mexican town on the Day of the Dead. “Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?” “No.”

Bolano's deliberate reference to Christ calls to mind the New Testament, another text constructed in an unusual manner. Why include four separate versions of the exact same story of Christ's earthly life told from only slightly different perspectives? A conclusion one may draw is that Christ is all about the act of testimony and authentication by others — He only exists through as well as because of others. Similarly, Lima and Belano and by extension visceral realism exist through and because of others. Although Belano and Lima are endlessly discussed within this book, not one of the endless first person accounts is their own. And, in a book that is all about the visceral realism poetry movement, not one of their poems is contained within its pages.

What, then, is the visceral realism movement? Obviously, it is only the book itself. Roberto Bolano's “The Savage Detectives” occupies a sacred space between Modernism and Social Realism, between the “I” of high culture and the “we” of lived circumstance, between Virginia Woolf and Hubert Selby. Although a reader never learns which character is the ostensible “author” recording this exhaustive account of a lost literary movement, this fact is ultimately unimportant. What matters is that visceral realism as well as its founding poets continue to live both in memory and in myth.

Improvised Explosive Device: a New Novel of the Iraq War

How Many Suns Burn Over Babel Where Poets Dieby Patrick Kosiewicz 2012 farfalla press/McMillan &Parrish by Susan Scutti In How Many Suns Burn Over Babel Where Poets Die, author Patrick Kosiewicz employs the popular form of interconnected stories to narrate his vision of the War in Iraq. The compelling opening chapter is of a “bibliocaust,” the burning of a library by the infidels, while a professor “clutching three archaic codices to his chest” watches and cries. Preservers of culture and looters alike attempt to save the library's treasures while arsonists and other “bibliocidal maniacs” ward them off with pipes, sticks and even pistols. The chapter ends with a small group of men in a pickup truck; they will obtain weapons, ammunition and explosives in exchange for the ancient, invaluable books they steal, and with these ill-gotten gains, kill many other people though driver and gunner will also die “...shooting and smiling and praising God.” In the second chapter, Kosiewicz follows an unnamed American soldier who wakes in a house smelling of guns and takes a midday run along a sandy road. Through Kosiewicz's eyes a reader cinematically observes the soldier as he jogs through an unidentified region past hummers and abandoned outposts as well as the many faithful saying their prayers. “Some respected him for being able to speak their language. Others hated him even more.” Like a despised Odysseus his return home is greeted by a dog who rushes around the corner of the latrine, teeth bared. The third chapter ascends the void to describe the creation of the Angel Destroyer while the fourth glimpses a suicide bomber as he lingers over the application of lipstick and kohl eyeliner in preparation for his moment as “death in drag.” Approaching his targets, an Interior Ministry official and a district police chief, he recalls his mother, whose pretty face resembles his own. Other chapters are peopled by a dead child and a grieving mother, bikini-clad “journalists” and American soldiers, the translator who, in his village, is rumored dead or living as a Christian in Italy, and a daughter who is raped by her own father.

Kosiewicz's use of concise, descriptive sentences, similar to the work of Thaddeus Rutkowski, readily conveys the extreme indignities of war. Meanwhile, the separate chapters offer insightful though fleeting glimpses into often nameless characters in unidentified places; gradually they accumulate and fit together like the parts necessary to improvise a bomb. As one chapter dissolves into the next, boundaries of identity, image, religion, and mythology blur until the narrative comes to an end with the arrival of a familiar figure and familiar name. Cain is not, as some say, the “offspring of the serpent and the mother of all humanity” but a simple human born of man and woman: “the first to feel an empowering wrath flow in his veins” and “the first to say that it was he who owned, and that his was more valuable.” Kosiewicz is satisfied with nothing less than tracing the war back to its most primal origin.

Creating a cohesive novel through interlinked stories is a difficult trick for most writers (though just such a feat was consummately accomplished by Gilbert Sorrentino in “The Abyss of Human Illusion”). Although Kosiewicz frontloads each chapter with vivid enough details to quickly establish new character and new place, sometimes the drive of the narrative falters; in places this reader felt somewhat less compelled to push on to the end. No matter. The strength of Kosiewicz's vision is rare enough to warrant a close and careful reading; even more rare is his temperament of sensitivity and bravery. (He is a veteran of the war of which he writes.) Ultimately, Kosiewicz achieves much in this minimal, sand storm of a novel that conveys all that is eternal in one specific, contemporary conflict. How Many Suns Burn Over Babel Where Poets Die is an achievement to be read and savored.

Saturday, May 21, 7pm Book Launch: "The Commute" by Susan Scutti

Press Release  

A Gathering of the Tribes announces a book launch for The Commute by Susan Scutti on Saturday, May 21st at 7pm.  Featured poets include Michael Carter, Elizabeth Harrington and Lee Klein.  The event is free with a suggested contribution of $5 for Tribes.  Come celebrate!

 

"By observing nuance and circumstance, Scutti’s poems map a psychic landscape peculiar to the city-dweller, characterized equally by distanced anomie and impassioned desire; an interworld or no-woman’s land where dreams and memories inhabit the same space as the office world and the morning commute, where the boundaries between the external and internal winnow and blur. Carried by a voice that sounds assured even the midst of probing uncertainty and speculation, there is more than incidental lyricism in her syllables and nimble prosody."  Michael Carter, author, Broken Noses and Metempsychoses.

 

"Susan Scutti’s unique voice is unmistakable in this collection.  Her poems feel organic, as if they’d been born whole.  Poignant, intimate, and evocative, they are grounded in in the everyday world while also being transcendant.  Her topics are diverse:  including, for example, work (“Job”),  Hiroshima (“Death is the mother of beauty” ), and love (“Hymn”).    She leads us into ourselves:   showing how chaotic, contradictory and vulnerable we are while navigating through life experiences.   They make us think and feel.  They make us feel as if we’d experienced them ourselves."   Elizabeth Harrington, author of two award-winning chapbooks:  The Quick and the Dead (2010) and Earth's Milk (2007).

Generation Restoration

Sunset Park by Paul Auster (Henry Holt: 2010) by Susan Scutti

As ever, Paul Auster remains heavily indebted to indirect discourse; he favors a style that views his characters at arms' length, a narration that concentrates more on their inner lives than on their outward actions. His most recent novel, Sunset Park, opens with a description of the occupation and preoccupations of Miles Heller: "For almost a year now, he has been taking photographs of abandoned things." Miles' job is to clean out houses abandoned by those who have either defaulted on their loans or in some other way found continued residence impossible. The result of Auster's distance from Miles' direct speech and actions translates into a kind of underwater feel which is fitting since Miles as well as every other member of Sunset Park's ensemble cast is struggling against powerful currents.

On the surface, Miles' predicament appears to be somewhat self-created. Stopping home while still in college, he overhears his father arguing with his step-mother, a fervid conversation in which they shred Miles' behavior and personality; scorched, he leaves them a note claiming he will be visiting his mother in California, and then he sets off on a private journey refusing to contact any of his parents for seven plus years. Moving from place to place, working odd jobs, he suffers from more than his parents' supposed disapproval. Miles has never revealed to anyone, including the girlfriend he truly loves, that he believes he is responsible for his step-brother's death; arguing, Miles had pushed his brother into the street just before a speeding car turned the corner.

Yet an interpretation of Miles' troubles as self-made becomes questionable upon closer inspection of his parents. Miles' troubles have certainly and inevitably spread to Morris Heller and Mary-Lee Swann, each of whom feels a strong sense of guilt regarding him. This guilt is then complicated by more routine middle-aged discord and disorder caused by general conditions as well as the characters' own human blunders. Morris is finding the financial downturn greatly challenging within his world of book publishing just as his second marriage enters rough terrain due to his wife's discovery of a sexual indiscretion on his part. Similarly, Mary-Lee Swann, an actress, has just begun a new role as the novel begins; she is playing Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days. To add gravitas to her characterization, Mary-Lee has gained weight and this newfound heaviness both reveals and expresses the burden of her unmitigated guilt toward Miles, whom she left in the care of his father while still a baby.

Thus, the themes of abandonment, emotional deficit, and collapse evidenced in Miles' life are further expressed by Auster within the thoughts and circumstances of his parents' existences. And along with the family Heller, Auster similarly paints the only slightly less-troubled housemates collected by Bing Nathan, leader of a squat in Sunset Park, the Brooklyn neighborhood to which Miles returns. Through this set of younger characters, Auster communicates the angst of an entire generation. Bing seeks to forge "a new reality from the ruins of a failed world" and "tangibility," his favorite word, articulates the essence of his crusade. A part-time jazz musician, he is sole proprietor of The Hospital for Broken Things, a storefront enterprise to which customers can bring busted typewriters and faulty radios as well as pictures needing frames (from this latter service, the real money is made). When one member of his squat leaves, Bing invites Miles to take her place. Importantly, Bing has been receiving letters from Miles, his on-the-lam childhood friend, then relaying that information to Morris Heller; in this way, he works to restore one more broken thing, the relationship between father and son.

Another of the squatters, Alice Bergstrom, is a graduate student writing her thesis, the subject of which is America in the years just after World War II. Meanwhile she works part-time at PEN (the organization for poets, publishers, essayists, editors, and novelists) on its "Freedom to Write" program. Meanwhile, Ellen Brice, who also lives in the house in Sunset Park, is an emerging artist working as a realtor; during the course of the novel she surfaces from dull depression, rediscovering the sensual identity she abandoned years ago in the aftermath of an abortion.

Like Miles, then, each member of the squat is involved in some form of reclamation. Yet Auster does not coddle his readers by clearing a path to redemption for each of his characters by novel's end; in this way he suggests the separate and uncertain fate that awaits each, he gestures toward the possibility of a failure to repossess what has been ruined, discarded or lost. Most expressly, he has made them squatters, an apt metaphor for the instability of their home, their world.

A best-selling as well as an award-winning author, Auster nevertheless stumbles upon a few issues of believability in the course of this novel. (Spoiler alert!) The most jarring arrives near the end when Alice's computer comes to harm and therefore her dissertation is lost, years of difficult work gone, "disappeared." I believe most grad students working on a years-long writing project backs up any necessary files on either a disk or a drive. Other aspects of the novel that strain credulity center around the squat itself --- wouldn't the neighbors greet or question the squatters at least once? Within a house requiring continuous repairs, would relations among the residents remain so untangled, so amiable? And don't marshalls perform evictions rather than police officers? Finally, Pilar Sanchez, Miles' girlfriend, is too consistently mature, she is unbelievable in her sexual acquiescence, and she lacks too many of the trappings --- schoolmates, for one --- of someone her age.

Ultimately, these shortcomings cannot dislodge Auster from the psychological edifice he's chosen to build and occupy in these pages. Ranking among the most accomplished of American writers, Auster is, as we are much too frequently told about certain financial institutions (though I mean it here in its most pure sense), "too big to fail." Whether another reader deems this novel one of his more or less successful efforts --- and I would side with the latter opinion --- Sunset Park nevertheless offers a compelling vision of contemporary America after economic catastrophe and constitutes a well worthwhile, if not grand, reading experience.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

 

Dying Notes of an Ordinary Songbird?

by Susan Scutti  

The most present character of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom is not so much Patty Berglund as her generation and class. Franzen frames Patty in her choices and her choices are distinctly those that were made, as he would have it, by most everybody. In his first chapter, he declares of Patty, “She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.”  He then makes it clear that he's speaking to a reader who understands all of this because a reader inevitably lived on that same street; his reader is you and you are middle-class gentrification, no matter who you actually are or what city or town you come from. “The collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it.” Eventually, he concludes, “For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee.”

And with these words we've backed out of the drive and begun our trip with this sunny carrier of  sociocultural pollen. Despite my suspicions that Franzen has created his Everywoman the way  Dr. Frankenstein might, stitching together disparate parts to resonate with each segment of his reading public --- she's originally from New York and now living in St. Paul, she's half WASP,  half Jewish, her original family was upper middle class yet she married a lower middle class guy, she's the oldest of four and formerly played sports in college, and now she's the stay-at-home mom of a daughter who is bright and normal and a son who is exceptional --- despite the fact that Franzen labors to hit every single key on his piano, I can't help but to enjoy and appreciate Patty Berglund. Franzen, after all, is a terrific writer, nimble in his plotting, succinct yet thorough in his characterizations, relentlessly topical and usually fun. Franzen has an unerring instinct for the juice of neighborly relations; describing Patty's rise and inevitable fall, he stops inside a jealous neighbor's house so a reader can overhear another woman cut Patty to pieces. Best of all, he repeatedly flogs her for the root trait of her eventual demise: Patty is and always has been competitive and at times she's inept at hiding that fact. Within the lock-step conformity of the middle class, what could possibly be more damning than this? For that jagged truth alone,  Franzen must be appreciated.

Quoting Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale in his epigraph, Franzen foreshadows the adultery at the heart of his own winter's tale, which presumably is the dying season of American empire. Walter, Patty's husband, is the environmentally-aware guy who rides to an office job weekday mornings on a bike. Around the time his wife flips out over their son's affair with the slightly older lower-class girl next door, Walter begins to distance himself from his family by becoming more involved in green politics. Soon he's shuttling back and forth to Washington D.C. and eventually he accepts a position with a private trust protecting the cerulean warbler, a native American songbird which is rapidly disappearing due to removal of mature hardwood forests as well as the presence of household cats (the cerulean warbler has never evolved proper defenses to this non-native species). After Joey has moved in with his girlfriend's family, after a distraught Patty has consummated then ended her brief affair with Walter's former-college-roommate, the Berglund family, minus Joey, sets up house in a Georgetown mansion that doubles as headquarters for the Cerulean Mountain Trust.

With his assistant Lalitha, Walter visits his former roommate, Richard Katz, now a cultish rocker --- the songs he wrote after the demise of his affair with Patty have catapulted him to fame. Unaware of his wife's infidelity and hoping Richard will lend celebrity to his own cause, Walter explains his vision of creating a cerulean warbler preserve in West Virginia by first permitting coal extraction via mountain top removal. Walter believes that reclamation following mountain top removal (MTR) will mitigate much of the damage --- what's best about it is the preserve will be safe as no one will ever rip open the mined-out land again. Walter explains his perspective:

What’s given MTR such a bad name is that most surface-rights owners don’t insist on the right sort of reclamation. Before a coal company can exercise its mineral rights and tear down a mountain, it has to put up a bond that doesn’t get refunded until the land’s been restored. And the problem is, these owners keep settling for these barren, flat, subsidence-prone pastures, in the hope that some developer will come along and build luxury condos on them, in spite of their being in the middle of nowhere. The fact is, you can actually get a very lush and biodiverse forest if you do the reclamation right. … But the environmental mainstream doesn’t want to talk about doing things right, because doing things right would make the coal companies look less villainous and MTR more palatable politically.

Walter outlines his understanding of this confluence of finance, government, corporate interests, private investment and environmental cause then explains that this is merely a preliminary before he tackles the real problem: low-density development, fragmentation, and over-population. Reading the ins and outs of what is, for the well-intentioned Walter, an acceptable solution, glimpsing the compromise and deal-making and taint behind simple preservation of land for an endangered species is enough to smog a reader's mind for days. Unfortunately, it stinks of the truth and this is Franzen's horrifying point; this is where it’s at in America now, bloated bureaucracy and innumerable interest groups mean absolutely nothing is simple (or sacred). To create his preserve, Walter ends up making a deal so that displaced homeowners will be given jobs at a factory run by LBI, the oilfield services giant and government contractor that manufactures body armor and also happens to employ Walter's son, Joey. Father and son, then, are caught in the same web... what will they do? 

Despite the urgency of this environmental plot-line, the lifeblood of Franzen’s novel is Patty's marriage to Walter. Gracefully, compellingly, Franzen offers a reader his understanding of the crucial psychological underpinnings of their marriage, the emotional counterpoint that creates both consonance and discord: Patty's high school rape, and Walter's drunk father's cruelty. Raped by Ethan Post, the son of wealthy friends of her parents, Patty feels abandoned by her parents. A pragmatic lawyer, her father outlines what he believes will be her humiliation, not her rapist's: “Patty, the people at the party were all friends of his. They’re going to say they saw you get drunk and be aggressive with him. They’ll say you were behind a shed that wasn’t more than thirty feet from the pool, and they didn’t hear anything untoward.” Disappointed, hurt, Patty notes, “You’re not on my side, are you.” After rape and lack of justice, Patty becomes “a real player, not just talent” on the basketball court, a girl who is “no longer on speaking terms with physical pain.”

Her husband's childhood has been sculpted by a drunk father who favors his first-born son while doing his ample best to beat down his book-loving son, Walter; one of the father's favored tactics is to demand Walter perform the most humiliating chores at the family-run motel. In order to support his family in his father's demise, Walter gives up his dream of becoming a filmmaker so that he can work extra jobs while attending law school. When Walter, a natural caretaker, meets the needy Patty, he falls in love yet his knowledge of her rape makes him too sensitive, too careful, too respectful in bed and ultimately not as exciting as the more self-aware Katz. Thus Franzen animates these psychological portraits of Patty and Walter who blindly enter the inevitable crisis of mid-life in which Walter will choose between Patty and his assistant, Lalitha, an Indian-American raised in Missouri by engineer parents.

First seen through Katz's eyes, who describes her merely as an “Indian chick,” Lalitha is the notable exception in more ways than one within this comedy of errors (or Mistakes, as Patty would have it) among the middle class. I can’t argue with Franzen’s understanding of the separate fate of the one character of color as compared to the other characters. This is his vision after all, and it may very well be the true state of America in the earliest years of the Twenty-First Century. So, too, he may be correct in his understanding of greed as the natural yet unsavory offspring of a union of upper middle class and lower middle class (as embodied by Joey Berglund and Connie Monaghan). I’m not sure his perceptions are unfounded, so much as I fear them; Franzen unfortunately has done his job too well, seduced and implicated his readers too fully, so that seeing the truth played out in fictional form hits too close to home.  

Finally, mention must be given to the title of this novel. Although at first "Freedom" seems both too serious and too sprawling a word for what transpires on these pages, Franzen's ironic meaning becomes clear by novel's end. Hemmed in by government, big business, neighbors and the limitations of our own characters, our American freedom is as endangered as that of the cerulean warbler.

 

from The Stone Mason’s Daughter

Out of nowhere, I’d suddenly begun to wear my hair, my unruly curls, pinned in a tight bun. At the same time, I became a fan of a peculiar shade of purple lip gloss and heavy eyeliner. I wore jeans and over-sized shirts with button-down collars, which I bought at the co-op. My uncertain style amounted to a common-law marriage of punk and preppie — but I was neither, I was just another financial-aid student fumbling my way through Yale.