Monday, December 24, 2007

Affliction by Russell Banks

This is the second novel I’ve read by Russell Banks—the first being Cloudsplitter—and I enjoyed this one just as I enjoyed the one previous. I did not know until after I had finished the book and looked for some of its reviews on the Internet that Banks had been beaten by an abusive father, but I was pretty sure of it anyway, just based on the reality of his fiction and the honest knowledge of his prose. A darkly powerful scene in the book comes as a flashback of just such a violent scene.

Pop held Wade with one hand by the front of his shirt, like Matt Dillon drawing a puny terrified punk up to his broad chest, and he took his left fist, swung it out to the side, opened it and brought it swiftly back, slapping the boy’s face hard, as if with a board, then brought it back the other way, slapping him again and again, harder each time, although each time the boy felt it less, felt only the lava-like flow of heat that each blow left behind, until he thought he would explode from the heat, would blow up like a bomb, from the face outward.

At last the man stopped slapping him. He tossed the boy aside, onto the couch, like a bag of rags, and said, “You’re just a little prick, remember that.”

Wade looked up and saw that Pop was still smoking his cigarette. Ma had her hands on the man’s shoulders and was steering him away from the couch, back toward the bedroom door, saying to him, “Just go on back to bed now, go on, go back to bed,” she said. “You’ve done enough damage for one night. It’s over. It’s over.”

“When I say do something, goddammit, I mean it,” Pop said over his shoulder. His voice was high and thin, almost a whine. “I really mean it. When I say do something, I mean it.”

“I know you do,” she said. “I know.”

Then the man was gone into the darkness of the bedroom, and the door was closed on him, and Ma was able to attend to her son’s bleeding mouth and nose, his swelling cheeks. She reached toward him, to soothe and cool the heated flesh of his face, but he shoved her hands away, wildly, as if they were serpents, and backed wide-eyed from her to the stairs behind him, where he turned and saw his older brothers waiting for him, huddled in gloom on the stairs like gargoyles.

He moved slowly past the two, and a few minutes later, when he had undressed and climbed into his bed, they came along behind him. For a long time, our mother sat on the couch, listening to herself break apart inside, while everyone else in the house, even Wade, let pain be absorbed by sleep—cool gray, hard and dry as pumice stone, sleep.

But Banks knows more than just what it means for a child to be beaten. As glimpsed at the end of the above selection, he knows what it means for a woman to be unable to protect her children from her abusive husband, and, most importantly for the novel, he knows what it means for a child who is beaten to grow up and struggle with the pressures and disappointments of adulthood.

Wade was locked into an old familiar sequence: his thoughts and feelings were accelerating at a pace that threw him into a kind of overdrive, a steady high-speed flow that he could not control and that he knew often led to disastrous consequences. But he did not care. Not caring was only additional evidence that he was in this particular sequence again. But there was not a damned thing he could do about it, and not a damned thing he wanted to do about it, either, which was yet a third way that he knew he was in this particular gear again.

The novel is filled with little glimpses like this, glimpses of what the world looks like to a man who had been violently disconnected from his emotions and his own vision of himself as a man, which is ultimately what Glenn Whitehouse did to his son. And in disconnecting Wade from his emotions, Glenn also disconnected Wade from everyone around him.

Other people were in one world; he was in a second. And the distance between their worlds caused other people concern and perplexity and made them curious about him—for here he was alone in his world; and there they were gathered together in theirs.

Affliction is a novel about this kind of loneliness, a loneliness Banks must have wrestled a great deal with himself.

So it was not really a question of what had happened to her; it was a question of what had happened to him. How had he come to this? How was it that he, Wade Whitehouse of Lawford, New Hampshire, a man who had once been as intelligent and complexly aware as she and possibly even gifted, was standing like this on the stoop of his ex-wife’s house, hat in hand, come begging for a visit with his child, a man wearing cheap mismatched clothes and driving a borrowed battered old stake-body truck, a man without a proper home to call his own, without a job, without any respect in the community, without a wife and with no one to care for but a drunken father who hated him and whom he hated—how had this sorry man come to be the adult version of the bright boy he had seen twenty-five tears ago in Lillian Pittman’s eyes?

Lillian’s voice through the glass was muffled somewhat, but Wade heard her words well enough: “Wait there. She’ll be right out.” Then she closed the inner door, and Wade was looking at his reflection. It was Pop he saw looking back, twenty or thirty years ago, haunted and angry, kept outside the family of man, compelled to stand in the rain and cold and darkness alone, while the others sat around a fire inside; and because he was not there with them, they were unafraid and slung their arms over each other’s shoulders and sang songs or whispered sweet secrets to one another, men and women and children full of good intentions and competence, people who were able to love one another cleanly. He, like his father before him, and like that man’s father too, Wade’s and my grandfather and our unknown great-grandfather as well, stood outside, hands buried in pockets, scowling furiously at the frozen ground, while everyone else stayed warm and loved one another.

All those solitary dumb angry men, Wade and Pop and his father and grandfather, had once been boys with intelligent eyes and brightly innocent mouths, unafraid and loving creatures eager to please and be pleased. What had turned them so quickly into the embittered brutes they had become? Were they all beaten by their fathers; was it really that simple?

It may be simplistic to assume that Banks is using his fiction to gain a better understanding of it for himself, a better understanding of what it is and where it all comes from, but reading a passage like that makes it difficult for me to believe that he isn’t doing exactly that. And as can happen when an artist pours that kind of soul-wrenching into his art, it helps elevate the novel beyond just a story about a man named Wade and the inner demons he is fighting.

There are several more darkly powerful scenes in Affliction. Here’s another, which occurs after Wade goes to visit his parents and discovers his father more asleep than awake in the living room of their freezing home. The furnace is broken, and Glenn hasn’t gotten around to getting it fixed.

Wade could see Ma in the bed, on the far side, where she always slept, covered with a heap of blankets. He walked to the foot of the bed and looked down at her. She lay on her side, facing away from him, and all he could make out was the outline of her body, but he knew that she was dead. He thought the words, Ma’s dead—when suddenly he heard a click and a loud whir from the floor beside him, and he leapt away, as if startled by a growling watchdog. It was the fan of a small electric heater coming on, and the spring coils began to glow like evil red grins behind the fan, and a hot wind blew at his ankles.

Stepping carefully away from the thing, he crossed to the head of the bed, where he could see the woman clearly. Beneath a mound of blankets and afghans, she wore her wool coat over her flannel nightgown and lay curled on her side like a child, with her tiny hands in mittens fisted near her throat, as if in enraged prayer. Her eyes were closed, and her mouth was open slightly. Her skin was chalk white and dry-looking, almost powdery, as if her face would crumble to the touch. Her body resembled a feather-light husk more than an actual human body, and it seemed incapable of holding up the weight of the blankets that covered her to the shoulders and wrists. “Oh, Lord,” Wade whispered. “Oh, Lord.” He came forward and sat down on the floor, cross-legged, like a small boy, facing her.

Margie stood at the door, watching in silence, instantly comprehending. The room was icebox cold, and she could see her own breath, and she knew that the old woman had frozen to death in bed. She closed the door and walked slowly back to the kitchen, where Pop stood staring down at the stove.

What’s most interesting about this scene, at least to me, is the fact that we all know that the reason Sally Whitehouse is dead is because of Glenn’s drinking, as sure as if he had beaten her to death with his own fists. She was a woman who had chosen to stay with her abusive husband, had stayed with him and watched him beat and drive their children away, had withstood beatings herself, and had fatefully met her end in the same way that she had thus lived, alone and in fear. We all know this even though neither Banks nor any of his characters ever directly say it. It doesn’t need to be said. The truth of it is there so plainly on the page, in the description of Sally Whitehouse’s body, in Glenn’s and Wade’s and Margie Fogg’s reactions to the fact of her death, that to have one of them say it would be to push the fiction beyond the bounds of the cruel realism Banks has so deftly crafted.

And then there’s this scene at Sally’s funeral.

We all looked at Pop, who stood blinking in the sunlight, his flower held in front of him as if he were about to smell it. It was a strange moment. We were suddenly and unexpectedly aware of our mother’s presence in a way that until this moment we had either denied or had been denied. Her sad battered life seemed to come clear to us, and for a few seconds we were unable to look away from her suffering. We had looked away, averted our gaze, for so many reasons, but mostly because we all three believed at bottom that we could have and should have saved her from our father’s terrible violence, the permanent wrath that he seemed unable to breathe without. But somehow, the sight of that shrunken old man holding the flower before him in trembling hands, unsure of what to do with it, made us briefly forgive ourselves, perhaps, and allowed us to see him as she must have seen him, which is to say, allowed us to love him, and to know that she loved him and that there was no way we could have saved her from him, not Lena, surely, and not I, and not Wade. And not even the old man himself could have saved her from the violence that he had inflicted on her and on us. If he had taken himself out behind the barn one morning during his life with her and shot himself in the head, inflicted on himself in one awful blow all the violence he had battered us with during the years we lived with him, it still would not have released us, for our mother loved him, and so did we, and that awful blow would have been inflicted on us as well. His violence and wrath were our violence and wrath: there had been no way out of it.

The mixture of love and fear that Glenn’s wife and children felt for him is the saddest part of this book, and never more truthfully described than in this one paragraph. What must it be like to have the person you love the most also be the person you fear the most? Fortunately, not all of us know, but Russell Banks does, and through this powerful novel, he gives us all a glimpse of life within that reality.

One more item I can’t resist including here.

Lena and her husband, Clyde, had made Christ their personal savior, apparently the result of a visit from Him—a type of house call was the way they explained it—one night of despair four or five years earlier, and while the chaos of their life had not changed one iota, it had gained significant meaning, since they and their five children were now devoted to the life of the spirit and the next world instead of to the body and this one. Their disheveled and deprived daily lives were now regarded as evidence not of incompetence, as in the past, but of their new priorities. I did not pretend to understand the nature of the conversion experience, of being “saved,” one way or the other, or the teachings of the Bible Believers’ Evangelistical Association, to which they belonged, but it was clear to me that whereas before they had been depressed and frightened, for what seemed very good reasons, such as poverty, ignorance, powerlessness, etc., they were now optimistic and unafraid. Of course, according to the pamphlets Lena mailed to me from time to time, what they were looking forward to was the imminent end of the world, to earthquake and famine, to seas turned to blood, to plagues of sores, to legions of demons and the writhing demise of the antichrist, events that those of us who were not scheduled for rescue by the Rapture might find even more depressing and frightening than poverty, ignorance and powerlessness.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans

I didn’t enjoy this one so much, although there were a few tidbits that I think I can use again.

The first is a simple strategy for hiring for both technical skill and “fit.” It requires a clear delineation of the values necessary to success in the organization and position, such as honesty, integrity, teamwork, customer focus and work/life balance. In the phone interview, quiz them on the technical skills. Make sure they are as good on the phone as they look on paper. But in the in-person interview forget technical skills and focus entirely on the fit, asking open-ended, situation-based questions to see if they demonstrate the same values. I’m going to do that the next time I have to hire someone.

The second is a fun little reward mechanism called “Be the Best.” Once a quarter ask each team member to submit one other person’s accomplishment that impressed them. Read these submissions over and award a winner, giving them an extra day off or something similar. It gives you a chance to see accomplishments you’ll probably never otherwise see, and it gives everyone a chance to recognize their teammates.

The third is an interesting way to think about work/life balance, which is attributed to someone named Brian Dyson from Coca-Cola. Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You name them—work, family, health, friends, and spirit—you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls—family, health, friends, and spirit—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. It will never be the same. You must understand that.

And the fourth is the following description of people in Generation X:

While the X-ers do not offer “blind” loyalty to a company, they can be fiercely loyal to a project, a team, a boss they like, the mission of the organization, and, yes, even the organization itself. But that loyalty is based on the notion of mutuality. As long as they are challenged, growing, and enjoying the work—and as long as you are getting what you want and need from them—they’ll stay. When that partnership weakens or the scales tip to one side, they’ll be outta there!

They also want balance between work and their personal lives. They have boundaries, and they use those boundaries effectively. That doesn’t mean they won’t put in the occasional all-nighter when it’s needed. But don’t expect they’ll do that for the next 20 years. Many feel that one of the greatest gifts of this generation to the rest of us is introducing the expectation of work/life balance. They don’t live to work. They work to live.

You know, I’ve always eyed this generation stuff a little skeptically, but I don’t think truer words have ever been spoken about me. The first paragraph describes exactly what happened to me the last two times I changed jobs. And I can’t read the second paragraph without thinking about a former boss and the way she killed the work/life balance item from the list of ideal staff qualities we were developing.

So those four things were good. The rest of the book was either junk or stuff so common sensical that it seemed strange to think of people who would have to read them in a book to understand them.

And I hate it when books like this force its points into some arbitrary convention. Here there are twenty-six strategies, one beginning with each letter of the alphabet. As if that obeys some kind of universal law of language and management. What if I find another strategy not covered here? Will we need to invent another letter of the alphabet? In fact, how do I know there isn’t a twenty-seventh strategy, and you didn’t include it because there are only twenty-six letters in the alphabet? And are there really twenty six? Some of them seem kind of similar. Maybe you stretched twenty of them out to cover the whole alphabet. Why do they do these things? Does it sell more books?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Cold Harbor by Gordon C. Rhea

This is the fourth in a series by this author, detailing Grant’s Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864. This one takes us from the two armies' entrenchments north and south of the North Anna River on May 26 to Grant’s uncoordinated attack at Cold Harbor on June 3. I’ve read volumes 2 (Spotsylvania and Yellow Tavern) and 3 (North Anna River), and found them both remarkable in their mutual abilities to: (a) convey a great deal of detailed information about troop movements; (b) capture the perspectives of the individual soldiers fighting the battles; and (c) explain the strategy underlying it all and the thoughts going on in the heads of the commanding generals. Most battle narratives focus on one of these areas. Rhea consistently accomplishes all three in works that are both scholarly and accessible to the average reader.

He’s also good at explaining things that have never been explained before (at least not to me). For example, Grant’s doggedness and determination are often touted during this phase of the war, especially compared to former Union commanders who had faced Robert E. Lee. Grant was determined to keep moving forward and not retreat after each battle (even if it was a Confederate victory) so as to keep the Army of Northern Virginia on its toes and unable to heal itself. I can still hear Shelby Foote’s voice from Ken Burns’ The Civil War, “Move by the left flank, move by the left flank, move by the left flank,” describing the almost simpleminded strategy Grant employed to do just that.

Well, all those moves by the left flank were more than just stubbornness. Grant was counseled and he considered numerous times a movement around the other side of the Confederate Army, but always decided against it because his line of supply was dependent on the rivers flowing into Virginia from the Atlantic coast. With each movement, and new “flying depot” was set up on the next river closer to Richmond, and the ships supplying that depot simply went further down the coast before turning in. Going around the Confederate left (i.e., moving by the right flank) would have put the Army of Northern Virginia between Grant and his base of supplies.

Rhea consistently helps me understand certain perplexities of the war. For example, here’s a written order from General Lee that comes fairly early in the book:

I approve what is therein suggested and have authorized General Early to carry out what is proposed, if his judgment approves. I desire you, if circumstances permit, to carry out your part.

And I can’t help but think, how can anyone manage an army as well as Lee did with so many qualifiers in his orders? If his judgment approves? If circumstances permit? How about just ordering people to do the things you want them to do? Aren’t these just the same kind of equivocations that kept Ewell from taking Cemetery Hill the first day of Gettysburg, assuring the Union forces the high ground and probably the ensuing victory?

But as you read more of Rhea’s text, the chaos and shifting realities of the battlefield become clear, and with it the need for front line commanders to exercise independent judgment and for their behind-the-lines generals to give them the flexibility to do exactly that. Rhea even provides one vivid example of the slaughter that can occur when such qualifications aren’t placed on orders coming from the rear.

After Grant’s assault on June 3, a collection of Union soldiers found themselves pinned down a few dozen yards or so in front of a salient in the Confederate line. Long after the assault had ended they were still there, trading shots with their rebel opponents still within the salient. One attempt to dislodge them by a Confederate company had ended in their slaughter, the Union men, protected behind improvised earthworks, shooting every man that came over the rebel fortifications intending to destroy them. Late in the day, a second such command came up from a rearward commander.

Fully aware that the assignment was futile, he [Captain Charles Seton Fleming of the 2nd Florida] asked for confirmation of the order and learned to his astonishment that he had heard it correctly. “I have been told that the order was all a mistake and was not so intended,” wrote Captain [James F.] Tucker [of the 9th Florida], who witnessed Fleming’s reaction and was inclined to give [Brigadier General Joseph] Finegan the benefit of the doubt. “Probably a verbal order was passed down the line from mouth to mouth,” Tucker surmised, “and some qualifying or optional directions were dropped in its transmission.”

The front line officers expected that kind of discretion, and the smart commanders gave it to them, knowing that more harm could come from blindly following orders that were given without a full understanding of the tactical situation at the front.

Another thing Rhea is always good for is dispelling the persistent myths about the Civil War and its battles. Cold Harbor has several good examples. Union soldiers did not, it appears, write their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pin them on the backs of their coats, so that their dead bodies might be recognized upon the field, and their fate made known to their families at home. That idea has only one source, Captain Charles H. Porter, an aide on Grant’s staff, who evidently wrote a number of sensational inventions in his memoir thirty years after the Civil War.

General Lee, in fact, did have a fair number of reserves to help him plug holes punched in his line by the Federals (what few there were). The impression that he did not again attributed only to a single source, the Confederacy’s postmaster general, John H. Reagan, writing forty years after the events he describes.

And the biggest mythbuster of all is the facts surrounding Grant’s grand assault on June 3, which had been roundly described as absolute slaughter, with even our friend Shelby Foote saying more than 7,000 men were gunned down in 20 minutes. Turns out that’s not true either.

Stories of fields littered with blue-clad corpses convey distorted pictures of what really happened. A few sectors saw tremendous slaughter, but along much of the battle line Union losses were minor, and many Confederates had no idea that an offensive had even been attempted. The popular image of a massive Union onslaught at Cold Harbor belongs more to the dustbin of Civil War mythology than to real history.

Union casualties have been grossly exaggerated and probably did not exceed 3,500. Commentators have suggested numbers ranging from 7,500 to well above 12,000, all supposedly incurred during a few terrible minutes after dawn. (In reality the assault sputtered on for about an hour, not the eight minutes some writers have claimed.)

But it is Rhea’s description of the personal experiences of the soldiers in combat that really make these books worth reading from my perspective. The first one I read was the one about Spotsylvania, and the images he describes of men fighting, dying and disintegrating at the Mule Shoe stay with me to this day. Here’s something similar from Cold Harbor.

Combat swirled around Sergeant George Allen Woodrum, the 26th Virginia Battalion’s illiterate, twenty-year-old color bearer who had fearlessly led his company in the attack on Sigel’s lines at New Market. The night before, Woodrum had found a brass bar shaped like a spear. Polishing it, he had fastened it on the end of his flagstaff and shown it to Captain Morton, who remarked that it looked pretty. “It is not only pretty,” Woodrum responded, “but if anybody tries to get these colors, I’ll run this through him.” Captain Morton thought it unlikely that the enemy would get close enough for Woodrum to use his spear, but the young man was insistent. “We are going to have a graveyard fight tomorrow,” he predicted, “and are mighty apt to get mixed up.”

Woodrum, Colonel Edgar, and the battalion’s adjutant, Brown Craig, stood in the middle of the salient, surrounded by the swirling melee. Spotting the flag, a Union officer and two men elbowed through the mob to Woodrum and demanded that he surrender the banner. “This is the way I surrender, damn you,” Woodrum shouted and ran the spear through the officer’s body. The men accompanying the officer shot Woodrum, who fell tightly gripping the staff. More Yankees rushed for the flag, but the rebels drove them back. According to Captain Morton, Woodrum opened his eyes, “saw that his precious flag was still safe, and with one last superhuman effort pulled himself forward and, reaching over, tore the colors from the staff, threw them behind [the enemy], and fell back a corpse.” Christopher B. Humphreys of the regiment clasped the flag until four Federals wrested it from him and passed it back out of sight. Corporal Terrence Begley of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery was credited with capturing the flag. Killed a few months later at Reams Station, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his feat. Federals bayoneted Edgar in the shoulder, captured him, and killed his adjutant Craig. Resistance was futile, and Edgar’s Virginians began surrendering. One enraged Confederate fired into the 7th New York’s color guard, then threw down his musket and hollered, “I surrender.” The regiment’s color sergeant jammed his flagstaff’s steel point into the rebel’s mouth. “You spoke too late!” he roared. Herding captives into low ground immediately behind the salient, Federals made them bow low and mark time to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”

The other thing Rhea can be relied on for is his cogent summaries of the strategies used by the generals and their reasons for employing them. And when they come after all the exhaustive detail of his battle narrative, it is hard to dispute them, even when they run counter to conventional wisdom. For a case in point:

Grant has been roundly criticized for assailing Lee’s line the morning of June 3. Viewed in the campaign’s larger context, the decision made sense. Recently reinforced by the 18th Corps, the Army of the Potomac was stronger than ever. Grant believed that the Confederates were on their last legs, and everything that had happened since crossing the Pamunkey, from Early’s botched assault at Bethesda Church to Wright’s and Smith’s breakthrough on June 1, supported him in that conclusion. Lee now stood a mere seven miles from Richmond, his back to a river. Delay, Grant determined, would serve no purpose, and further maneuvering would be difficult and uncertain in outcome. A successful assault at this juncture stood to wreck the Confederate army, capture Richmond, and bring the war to a speedy conclusion. What better gift could Grant offer President Lincoln on the eve of the Republican convention? Aggressive by nature and accustomed to taking risks, Grant seized the moment. If the offensive worked, the rewards would be tremendous. If it failed, he would simply treat the reverse as he had his earlier disappointments at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and the North Anna River and try another tack. In short, the consequences of not assaulting, thereby forfeiting the chance for a quick victory and extending the war, seemed worse than those of attacking and failing. “Could we succeed by a general assault in breaking [Lee’s] lines, the annihilation of his army was certain, as he would be driven back into the Chickahominy, whence escape was impossible,” was how a Union engineer put the case for attacking. “The hazard was great but General Grant concluded to take the chance.” In many respects, Grant’s reasoning underlying his decision to attack on June 3 at Cold Harbor parallels the reasons that Lee had to launch his ill-fated assault on July 3 at Gettysburg. Both attacks were gambles, but in both instances, the payoff in the event of success promised to be large.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Herzog by Saul Bellow

This one was an interesting journey. I’ve read some Bellow before, and seemed to have kind of a mixed reaction to him. Henderson the Rain King was memorable, but neither Dangling Man or The Adventures of Augie March were. Looking back on Herzog, I think it’s going to wind up in the same category as Catch-22. I wasn’t sure I was enjoying it while I was reading it, but now that it’s done I sure am glad I read it. And I sure dog-eared enough of the pages. It started with stumbling across passages like this one:

Not everyone threatened with a crackup can manage to go to Europe for relief. Most people have to keep on working; they report daily, they still ride the subway. Or else they drink, they go to the movies and sit there suffering.

And this one:

He saw twenty paces away the white soft face and independent look of a woman in a shining black straw hat which held her head in depth and eyes that even in the signal-dotted obscurity reached him with a force she could never be aware of. Those eyes might be blue, perhaps green, even gray—he would never know. But they were bitch eyes, that was certain. They expressed a sort of female arrogance which had an immediate sexual power over him; he experienced it again that very moment—a round face, the clear gaze of pale bitch eyes, a pair of proud legs.

And I think to myself, this guy has been inside my head. These are thoughts I’ve had myself, and here they are printed in this forty-year old book. So I keep reading, suddenly interested in this guy Herzog, this guy whose thoughts are revealed in scribbled letters to people, living and dead. What does Herzog think of Nietzsche’s theories of God and man? We don’t have to ask because Herzog writes Nietzsche a letter explaining his thoughts in great detail. And what about the way his ex-wife played him for a patsy, or the way his psychiatrist seemed to be in on the deal. Same answers there, letters to both of them that never get sent.

But we mustn’t forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of the intellectuals. The canned sauerkraut of Spengler’s “Prussian Socialism,” the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness.

This in a letter to one of his fellow professors, and the following in a letter to the Monsignor who had helped shepherd his ex-wife towards Catholicism:

One way or another the no doubt mad idea entered my mind that my own actions had historic importance, and this (fantasy?) made it appear that people who harmed me were interfering with an important experiment.

It’s an interesting device, putting the narrative very close to Herzog’s inner voice, so close that the slips from the narrator’s third person to Herzog’s first person are sometimes jarring, sometimes unnoticed. It was also interesting to see Herzog’s backstory unfold through a series of interactions and letters with other characters in the story—his new love interest, the woman he cheated on his first wife with, the man and best friend with whom his second wife cheated on him. In fact, the book is mostly backstory, character development and philosophical rambling until about two-thirds through when the plot actually begins.

And shortly after the plot does begin, Herzog finds himself a spectator in a courtroom where the following trial is going on.

A young couple, a woman and the man she had been living with in a slum hotel, uptown, were being tried for the murder of her son, a child of three. She had had the boy by another man who deserted her, said the lawyer in his presentation. Herzog observed how gray and elderly all these lawyers were, people of another generation and a different circle of life—tolerant, comfortable people. The defendants could be identified by their looks and clothing. The man wore a stained and frayed zipper jacket and she, a redheaded woman, with a wide ruddy face, had on a brown print house dress. Both sat stolid, to all appearances unmoved by the testimony, he with his low sideburns and blond mustache, she with blunt freckled cheekbones and long, hidden eyes.

I’m going to quote this passage at length, because I find it fascinating on multiple levels, and also because I think it has a lot to say about what Herzog the novel is all about. This section is mentioned kind of in passing in some of the critical reviews of the novel that I’ve read, which probably means that I’m off base, but I think it is significant.

She came from Trenton, born lame. Her father was a garage mechanic. She had a fourth-grade education, I.Q. 94. An older brother was the favorite; she was neglected. Unattractive, sullen, clumsy, wearing an orthopedic boot, she became delinquent at an early age. Her record was before the court, the lawyer went on, even, mild and pleasant. An angry uncontrollable girl, from first grade. There were affidavits from teachers. There were also medical and psychiatric records, and a neurological report to which the lawyer particularly wished to call the court’s attention. This showed his client had been diagnosed by encephalogram as having a brain lesion capable of altering her behavior radically. She was known to have violent epileptoid fits of rage; her tolerance for emotions controlled from the affected lobe was known to be very low. Because she was a poor crippled creature, she had often been molested, later sexually abused by adolescent boys. Indeed, her file in children’s court was very thick. Her mother loathed her, had refused to attend the trial, was quoted as saying, “This is no kid of mine. We wash our hands of her.” The defendant was made pregnant at nineteen by a married man who lived with her several months, then went back to his wife and family. She refused to give the child for adoption, lived for a while in Trenton with it, and then moved to Flushing, where she met the other defendant, at the time employed as porter in a lunchroom on Columbus Avenue, and decided to live with him at the Montcalme Hotel on 103rd street—Herzog had often passed the place. You could smell the misery of it from the street; its black stink flowed out through open windows—bedding, garbage, disinfectant, roach killer. His mouth was dry and he sat forward, straining to her.

This is an unpleasant story, start to finish. But who is to blame? Interesting that the scene is a court of law, where such concepts like liability and justice are supposed to have meaning. And notice how Herzog is consumed by the story, when everyone else, even the defendants, seem unaffected.

The medical examiner was on the stand. Had he seen the dead child? Yes. Did he have a report to make? He did. He gave the date and circumstances of the examination. A hefty, bald, solemn man with fleshy and deliberate lips, he held his notes in both hands like a singer—the experienced, professional witness. The child, he said, was normally formed but seemed to have suffered from malnutrition. There were signs of incipient rickets, the teeth were already quite carious, but this was sometimes a symptom that the mother had had toxemia in pregnancy. Were any unusual marks visible on the child’s body? Yes, the little boy had apparently been beaten. Once, or repeatedly? In his opinion, often beaten. The scalp was torn. There were unusually heavy bruises on the back and legs. The shins were discolored. Where were the bruises heaviest? On the belly, and especially in the region of the genitals, where the boy seemed to have been beaten with something capable of breaking the skin, perhaps a metal buckle or the heel of a woman’s shoe. “And what internal findings did you make?” the prosecutor went on. There were two broken ribs, one an older break. The more recent one had done some damage to the lung. The boy’s liver had been ruptured. The hemorrhage caused by this may have been the immediate cause of death. There was also a brain injury. “In your opinion, then, the child died violently?” “This is my opinion. The liver injury would have been enough.”

All this seemed to Herzog exceptionally low-pitched. All—the lawyers, the jury, the mother, her tough friend, the judge—behaved with much restraint, extremely well controlled and quiet-spoken. Such calm—inversely proportionate to the murder? he was thinking. Judge, jury, lawyers and the accused, all looked utterly unemotional. And he himself? He sat in his new madras coast and held his hard straw hat. He gripped his hat strongly and felt sick at heart. The ragged edge of the straw made marks on his fingers.

Why does this speak to me so? Because I’m a father with a three-year old child? That’s certainly part of it, but I think I would see the horror in this simple tale even if I wasn’t. Like Herzog, I’m on the edge of my seat, dreading to hear any more. And it is simple, the story, simple in its construction and simple in its telling. Having the abbreviated facts revealed in the style of a court drama is an effective way to pack a lot of information into a relatively few words. It’s also a good way to accentuate the things that are missing—the passions, emotions and frustrations of the lives being described. They are, of course, the real story here, the complicated side of this simple recitation of facts—and they are, of course, ultimately more difficult to write about.

A witness was sworn, a solid-looking man of thirty-five or so, in a stylish oxford gray summer suit, of Madison Avenue cut. His face was round, full, jowly, but his head had little height above the ears and was further flattened by his butch haircut. He made very good gestures, pulling up his trouser legs as he sat, freeing his shirt cuffs and leaning forward to answer questions with measured, earnest, masculine politeness. His eyes were dark. You could see his scalp furrow as he frowned, weighing his answers. He identified himself as a salesman in the storm-window business, screens and storm windows. Herzog knew what he meant—aluminum sashes with triple tracks: he had read the ads. The witness lived in Flushing. Did he know the accused woman? She was asked to stand, and she did, a short hobbling figure, dark-red hair frizzy, the long eyes recessed, skin freckled, lips thick and dun-colored. Yes, he knew her, she had lived in his house eight months ago, not exactly employed by him, no, she was a distant cousin of his wife, who felt sorry for her and gave her a room—he had built a small apartment in the attic; separate bathroom, air-conditioner. She was asked to help with housework, naturally, but she also took off and left the boy for days at a time. Did he ever know her to mistreat the child? The kid was never clean. You never wanted to hold him on your lap. He had a cold sore, and his wife at last put salve on it, as the mother would not. The child was quiet, undemanding, clung to its mother, a frightened little boy, and he had a bad smell. Could the witness further describe the mother’s attitude? Well, on the road, they were driving to visit the grandmother and stopped at Howard Johnson’s. Everyone ordered. She had a barbecued beef sandwich and when it came began to eat and fed the child nothing. Then he himself (indignant) gave the boy some of his meat and gravy.

I fail to understand! thought Herzog, as this good man, jowls silently moving, got off the stand. I fail to…but this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended. Of course he really knew better—understood that human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. Why should they?

And there it is. Human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. That’s the essence of writing, isn’t it? That last, uncrossable chasm between fiction and reality. Obscure it as much as you like with your scintillating prose, there are certain things about real life that you will never be able to portray accurately in your fiction, because they are not the kind of things you will ever be able to understand.

But he had not time to think of this. The next witness was already sworn, the clerk at the Montcalme; a bachelor in his fifties; slack lips, large creases, damaged cheeks, hair that looked touched up, voice deep and melancholy, with a sinking rhythm to every sentence. The sentences sank down, down, until the last words were lost in rumbling syllables. An alcoholic once, judged Herzog from the look of his skin, and there was a certain faggotty prissiness in his speech, too. He said he had kept and eye on this “unfortunate pair.” They rented a housekeeping room. The woman drew Relief money. The man had no occupation. The police came a few times to ask about him. And the boy, could he tell the court anything about him? Mostly that the child cried a lot. Tenants complained, and when he investigated he found the kid was kept shut in a closet. For discipline, was what the defendant told him. But towards the end the boy cried less. On the day of his death, however, there was a lot of noise. He heard something falling, and shrieks from the third floor. Both the mother and the boy were screaming. Someone was fooling with the elevator, so he ran upstairs. Knocked at the door, but she was screaming too loud to hear. So he opened and stepped in. Would he tell the court what he saw? He saw the woman with the boy in her arms. He thought she was hugging him, but to his astonishment she threw him from her with both arms. He was hurled against the wall. This made the noise he had been hearing below. Was anyone else present? Yes, the other defendant was lying on the bed, smoking. And was the child now screaming? No, at this time he was lying silently on the floor. Did the clerk then speak? He said he was frightened by the look of the woman, her swollen face. She turned red, crimson, and screamed with all her might, and she stamped her foot, the one with the built-up heel, he noticed, and he was afraid she would go for his eyes with her nails. He then went to call the police. Soon the man came downstairs. He explained that her boy was a problem child. She could not toilet-train him. He drove her wild sometimes the way he dirtied himself. And the crying all night! So they were talking when the squad car came. And found the child dead? Yes, he was dead when they arrived.

“Cross-examination?” said the bench. The defense lawyer waived examination with a movement of long white fingers, and the judge said, “You may step down. That will be all.”

When the witness stood, Herzog stood up, too. He had to move, had to go. Again he wondered whether he was going to come down with sickness. Or was it the terror of the child that had gotten into him? Anyway, he felt stifled, as if the valves of is heart were not closing and the blood were going back into his lungs. He walked heavily and quickly. Turning once in the aisle, he saw only the lean gray head of the judge, whose lips silently moved as he read one of his documents.

Or was it the terror of the child that had gotten into him? Can you imagine the terror that child must have felt? Can I? Can Herzog? Can anyone? He was three, raised from infancy by a mentally retarded woman, and kept in a closet. What kind of world is it in which the person you feel the most instinctual love for—your mother—is also the person that most represents fear, terror, shame and pain? What could he understand at three? What could he understand but what Bellow will soon describe as the monstrousness of life, and understand it better than any author ever could. And in spite of all that, he is not real. He is a fictional character in a quickly sketched anecdote.

Reaching the corridor, he said to himself, “Oh my God!” and in trying to speak discovered an acrid fluid in his mouth that had to be swallowed. Then stepping away from the door he stumbled into a woman with a cane. Black-browed, her hair very black though she was middle-aged, she pointed downward with the cane, instead of speaking. He saw that she wore a cast with metal clogs on the foot and that her toenails were painted. Then getting down the loathsome taste, he said, “I’m sorry.” He had a sick repulsive headache, piercing and ugly. He felt as if he had gotten too close to a fire and scalded his lungs. She did not speak at all but was not ready to let him off. Her eyes, prominent, severe, still kept him standing, identifying him thoroughly, fully, deeply, as a fool. Again—silently—Thou fool! In the red-striped jacket, the hat tucked under his arm, hair uncombed, eyes swollen, he waited for her to go. When she left at last, going, cane, cast, clogs, down the speckled corridor, he concentrated. With all his might—mind and heart—he tried to obtain something for the murdered child. But what? How? He pressed himself with intensity, but “all his might” could get nothing for the buried boy. Herzog experienced nothing but his own human feelings, in which he found nothing of use. What if he felt moved to cry? Or pray? He pressed hand to hand. And what did he feel? Why he felt himself—his own trembling hands, and eyes that stung. And what was there in modern, post…post-Christian America to pray for? Justice—justice and mercy? And pray away the monstrousness of life, the wicked dream it was? He opened his mouth to relieve the pressure he felt. He was wrung, and wrung again, and wrung again, again.

The child screamed, clung, but with both arms the girl hurled it against the wall. On her legs was ruddy hair. And her lover, too, with long jaws and zooty sideburns, watching on the bed. Lying down to copulate, and standing up to kill. Some kill, then cry. Others, not even that.

I think Bellow packed a lot into this little tale to help him illustrate that kind of world he saw and the difficulty he had as an intellectual in dealing with it in his fiction. Herzog is tormented by the existentialism of life, the need to derive meaning from one’s own circumstances and on one’s own terms. He struggles mightily with this, and is intimidated by the ease with which others seem to master themselves and their surroundings.

A man may say, ‘From now on I’m going to speak the truth.’ But the truth hears him and runs away and hides before he’s even done speaking. There is something funny about the human condition, and civilized intelligence makes fun of its own ideas.

“A man” is, of course, Herzog, who wants there to be absolute truth in the universe but is becoming more and more convinced that there isn’t.

It all goes back to those German existentialists who tell you how good dread is for you, how it saves you from distraction and gives you your freedom and makes you authentic. God is no more. But Death is. That’s their story. And we live in a hedonistic world in which happiness is set up on a mechanical model. All you have to do is open your fly and grasp happiness. And so these other theorists introduce the tension of guilt and dread as a corrective. But human life is far subtler than any of its models, even these ingenious German models. Do we need to study theories of fear and anguish?

In the world Bellow describes in his courtroom story, theories of fear and anguish are superfluous. With such horror in the world, why is anyone postulating on its intrinsic meaning? And this final thought from very late in the book, about the pursuit of absolute truth and its role in shaping our society.

In the seventeenth century the passionate search for absolute truth stopped so that mankind might transform the world. Something practical was done with thought. The mental became also the real. Relief from the pursuit of absolutes made life pleasant. Only a small class of fanatical intellectuals, professionals, still chased after these absolutes. But our revolutions, including nuclear terror, return the metaphysical dimension to us. All practical activity has reached this culmination: everything may go now, civilization, history, meaning, nature. Everything!

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

An interesting read with tenuous small business applications. It makes the case effectively that crowds can be “wise,” that a diverse group of independent individuals can arrive at collective decisions that are better than any of its individual members and which, reliably, can be used to predict the future. Look at the stock market, for example, or the point spreads on Sunday football games. When they’re working correctly, they predict the future value of a company, or the margin of victory. And they only get out of whack when the crowd that’s driving them stops being diverse and/or starts talking to one another. The business application is for companies to set up internal “decision markets,” in which a diverse group of employees “buy” stock in certain projects as a way of indicating which they think will be successful. The collective wisdom of the group will be reliably right. The methodology is currently being used by some of the largest companies to decide which new products to develop and by a new wave of polling firms to help predict the outcomes of political elections.

I enjoyed the book, but more for its interesting facts and ideas than for it applicability to my business environment. For example, there’s a short section on the history of the United States’ intelligence gathering agencies. Those that existed prior to World War II were part of the different branches of the military, and they were completely surprised by the attack on Pearl Harbor, even though it was later revealed that they had information in their possession at the time that, if it had been shared and analyzed effectively, would have clearly revealed what the Japanese were planning. In the wake of this embarrassment, the CIA was created, with the express purpose of serving as the “centralized” agency, responsible for coordinating the activities of the other intelligence services and overseeing the collective gathering and analyzing of information. In this mission the CIA utterly failed, spawning instead a myriad of new intelligence agencies, each being run as its own little fiefdom and doing everything but sharing information with its neighbors. The result, sixty-some years later, was the surprise that happened on September 11, 2001. In more ways than I originally thought, Pearl Harbor all over again.

Another interesting tidbit is something called the “ultimatum game,” which is perhaps the most-well-known experiment in behavioral economics. To quote Surowiecki:

The rules of the game are simple. The experimenter pairs two people. (They can communicate with each other, but otherwise they’re anonymous to each other.) They’re given $10 to divide between them, according to this rule: One person (the proposer) decides, on his own, what the split should be (fifty-fifty, seventy-thirty, or whatever). He then makes a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the other person (the responder). The responder can either accept the offer, in which case both players pocket their respective shares of the cash, or reject it, in which case both players walk away empty-handed.

If both players are rational, the proposer will keep $9 for himself and offer the responder $1, and the responder will take it. After all, whatever the offer, the responder should accept it, since if he accepts he gets some money and if he rejects, he gets none. A rational proposer will realize this and therefore make a lowball offer.

In practice, though, this rarely happens. Instead, lowball offers—anything below $2—are routinely rejected. Think for a moment about what this means. People would rather have nothing than let their “partners” walk away with too much of the loot. They will give up free money to punish what they perceive as greedy or selfish behavior. And the interesting thing is that the proposers anticipate this—presumably because they know they would act the same way if they were in the responder’s shoes. As a result, the proposers don’t make low offers in the first place. The most common offer in the ultimatum game, in fact, is $5.

Seems like we’re wired to be both greedy and to punish greediness in others. And here’s the final tidbit, this one with a real business application.

Decentralized markets work exceptionally well because the people and companies in those markets are getting constant feedback from customers. Companies that aren’t doing a good job or that are spending too much learn to adjust or else they go out of business. In a corporation, however, the feedback from the market is indirect. Different divisions can see how they’re doing, but individual workers are not directly rewarded (or punished) for their performance. And although corporate budgets should theoretically echo the market’s verdict on corporate divisions, in practice the process is often politicized. Given that, divisions have an incentive to look for more resources from the corporation than they deserve, even if the company as a whole is hurt. The classic example of this was Enron, in which each division was run as a separate island, and each had its own separate cadre of top executives. Even more strangely, each division was allowed to build or buy its own information-technology system, which meant that many of the divisions could not communicate with each other, and that even when they could, Enron was stuck paying millions of dollars for redundant technology.

The important thing for employees to keep in mind, then, is that they are working for the company, not for their division. Again, Enron took exactly the opposite tack, emphasizing competition between divisions and encouraging people to steal talent, resources, and even equipment from their supposed corporate comrades. This was reminiscent of the bad old days at companies like GM, where the rivalries between different departments were often stronger than those between the companies and their outside competitors. The chairman of GM once described the way his company designed and built new cars this way: “Guys in [design] would draw up a body and send the blueprint over and tell the guy, ‘Okay, you build it if you can, you SOB.’ And the guy at [assembly] would say, ‘Well, Jesus, there’s no damn way you can stamp metal like that and there’s no way we can weld this stuff together.’”

The beneficial effects of competition are undeniable, but serious internal rivalries defeat the purpose of having a company with a formal organization in the first place, by diminishing economies of scale and actually increasing the costs of monitoring people’s behavior. You should be able to trust your fellow workers more than you trust workers at other firms. But at a company like Enron, you couldn’t. And because the competition is, in any case, artificial—since people are competing for internal resources, not in a real market—the supposed gains in efficiency are usually an illusion. As is the case with today’s American intelligence community, decentralization only works if everyone is playing on the same team.

This sounds a lot like a place I used to work. The lesson: give people the tools of make their own decisions, but only if everyone is clear about who your competitors are.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

March by Geraldine Brooks

Having never read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, I can’t tell how much more this novel would’ve revealed to me if I had, but I certainly enjoyed it nonetheless.

This is the story of the Little Women’s father, who evidently spent much of that novel away from them, and the things he experienced as a chaplain in the Civil War. It is extremely well researched and authentically written. Told in the first person, the voice is undeniably one of a 19th century abolitionist, and it is rich in the details associated with everyday life in that era. On top of that, it is an engaging and thoughtful narrative, with a main character whom I truly came to care about and think of as a real person.

March struggles through much of the novel, struggles with the slaveholding society he finds himself amidst and struggles with his own feelings of inadequacy and undeserved blessing. Again, I don’t know what kind of novel Little Women is, but I know it is often recommended for young girls, so I speculate that March finds himself dealing with issues that are totally out of the ken of his family back into Concord, New Hampshire. In fact, we see this disconnect very clearly late in the novel when the point of view switches without warning to March’s wife, who comes down to visit her husband in a Washington hospital after he is shot and takes grievously ill. With her husband unconscious, she has to piece together what happened to him and what he has been doing from the few mementos that are still in his possession and from the reluctant lips of a nurse and former slave who knew him from the time before he was married. She jumps to a series of mistaken conclusions, only a few of which are unjustified, but perfectly sensible from the perspective of the world she lives in. The life of an abolitionist in the North is, forgive the pun, much more black and white than the swirling gray mess that war and slavery can cause. March has acted in the best interests of those around him throughout his experience in the war, and has formed loving bonds with several, living and dead, because of the trials they had suffered together. He blames himself for their deaths, and wants to return to the fight in order to have a chance to redeem himself from those miserable failures. His wife understands none of this, and berates him almost savagely, not just for the bonds he had formed while away from her, but even more so for his desire to rekindle them rather than return with her to their family.

In many ways, the scene reminds me of the one in Huckleberry Finn, when Tom Sawyer appears at the end of the novel, playing his usual games and tricks, and Huck is no longer capable of seeing the fun and frivolity in what appears to him to be matters of gravity and importance. In his time away from Tom, Huck has grown out of that childish phase, and in March’s time away from his family, he has grown, too, grown in ways his wife cannot possibly understand.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006, and I choose it for that reason. After listening to The Road by Cormac McCarthy (this one was an audiobook, too) I’ve decided to read or listen to all the Pulitzer Prize winning novels. Something tells me I’m going to enjoy them all.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck

I picked this one up a while ago simply because it had Steinbeck’s name on the cover. Turns out he was a devotee of the Arthurian legends and worked diligently for the last several years of his life to “translate” Malory’s fifteenth century telling into modern language with modern themes.

Funny thing happened while I was reading it. Steinbeck says in the introduction that he has for a long time wanted to bring to present day usage the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table…leaving out nothing and adding nothing.” But as I got deeper into it I became convinced that Steinbeck was playing a trick on everyone. He had started by simply translating the stories from Old English to Modern English, but midway into the book he had begun to insert his own stories, writing them with the same characters and themes as Malory, but creating new plots and new scenarios for them to engage in. Telling his own truths, as it were, with the props of another author. For example:

“Maybe it’s too simple, madame. But you know how children, when they are forbidden something they want, sometimes scream and storm and sometimes even hurt themselves in rage. Then they grow quiet and vengeful. But they are not strong enough to revenge themselves on the one they consider their oppressor. Such a one sometimes stamps on an ant, saying, ‘That’s for you, Nursie,’ or kicks a dog and calls him brother, or pulls the wings from a fly and destroys his father. And then, because his world has disappointed him, he builds his own world where he is king, where he rules not only men and women and animals but clouds and stars and sky. He is invisible, he flies. No authority can keep him in or out. In his dream he builds not only a world but remakes himself as he would wish to be. I guess that’s all. Usually he makes peace with the world and works out compromises so that the two will not hurt each other badly. There it is, you see.”

Now, that’s Lancelot talking to Morgan le Fay and some other witches about why some people decide to pursue the necromanic arts, but at the same time, that is pure Steinbeck. I found it hard to believe that these ideas came originally from the pen of Malory.

“Granite so hard that it will smash a hammer can be worn away by little grains of moving sand. And a heart that will not break under the great blows of fate can be eroded by the nibbling of numbers, the creeping of days, the numbing treachery of littleness, of important littleness. I could fight men but I was defeated by marching numbers on a page. Think of fourteen xiii’s—a little dragon with a stinging tail—or one hundred and eight cviii’s—a tiny battering ram. If only I had never been seneschal! To you a feast is festive—to me it is a book of biting ants. So many sheep, so much bread, so many skins of wine, and has the salt been forgotten? Where is the unicorn’s horn to test the king’s wine? Two swans are missing. Who stole them? To you war is fighting. To me it is so many ashen poles for spears, so many strips of steel—counting of tents, of knives, or leather straps—counting—counting of pieces of bread. They say the pagan has invented a number which is nothing—nought—written like an O, a hole, an oblivion. I could clutch that nothing to my breast. Look sir, did you ever know a man of numbers who did not become small and mean and frightened—all greatness eaten away by little numbers as marching ants nibble a dragon and leave picked bones? Men can be great and fallible—but numbers never fail. I suppose it is their terribly puny rightness, their infallible smug, nasty rightness that destroys—mocking, nibbling, gnawing with tiny teeth until there’s no man left in a man but only a pie of minced terrors, chopped very fine and spiced with nausea. The mortal wound of a numbers man is a bellyache without honor.”

And that’s Sir Kay complaining to Lancelot about the hassles of being seneschal, but I was sure it was really Steinbeck, not Malory, who not only put the words into Sir Kay’s mouth, but engineered the situation in which he had cause to utter them. But then I read in the book’s appendix—an amazing record of correspondence Steinbeck kept with his editor and publisher throughout his preparatory research and writing of the manuscript—that these are in fact stories from Malory. Steinbeck struggled hard to make them interesting and enjoyable for the modern reader, but at their core they are Malory’s stories. I think it is a testament to the work and skill Steinbeck poured into this work that he had me convinced that the stories were his, that they were dealing with themes and issues Steinbeck must have been concerned with in the 1950s, and couldn’t possibly have been related to any issue someone else thought relevant to the 1500s.

And the letters themselves—they are wonderful, giving us a glimpse as they do into the writer’s mind, a glimpse traditionally hidden behind the fiction, but here laid bare for all the world to see. One particularly is worth quoting in full.

I have been thinking about E.O. You know in the many years of our association there has been hardly a moment without a personal crisis. There must be many times when she wishes to God we all were in hell with our backs broke. If we would just write our little pieces and send them in and take our money or our rejections as the case might be and keep our personal lives out of it. She must get very tired of us. And also this must be a weary pattern. We pile our woes on her and they must always be the same woes. If she should suddenly revolt, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Instead of gloriously clean copy she gets excuses, and mimes and distress and former and future and bills. Writers are a sorry lot. The best you can say of them is that they are better than actors and that’s not much. I wonder how long it is since one of her clients asked her how she felt—if ever. It’s a thankless business. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a writer. The smallest activity of a writer it seems is writing. If his agonies, his concupiscence, his errors in judgment were publishable the world would be navel deep in books. One of the happier aspects of television is that is draws off some of these activities. Patience on a manuscript.

Now back to Malory or rather my interpretation of his interpretation to be followed, I hope, by my interpretation of my interpretation. As I go along, I am constantly jiggled by the arrant nonsense of a great deal of the material. A great deal of it makes no sense at all. Two thirds of it is the vain dreaming of children talking in the dark. And then when you are about to throw it out in disgust, you remember the Congressional Record or the Sacco and Vanzetti case or “preventive war” or our national political platforms, or racial problems that can’t be settled reasonably or domestic relations, or beatniks, and it is borne in on you that the world operates on nonsense—that it is a large part of the pattern and that knight errantry is no more crazy than our present-day group thinking, and activity. This is the way humans are. If you inspected them and their activities in the glass of reason, you would drown the whole lot. Then when I am properly satiric about the matter I think of my own life and how I have handled it and it isn’t any different. I’m caught with the silly breed. I am brother to the nonsense and there’s no escaping it. But even the nonsense is like the gas and drug revelations of the Pythoness at Delphi which only make sense after the fact.

I am working now on Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt, having lost a little time over the issues of the boys. It’s so full of loose ends, of details without purpose, of promised unkept. The white shield for instance—it is never mentioned again. I think I am breathing some life into it but maybe not enough. As I go along I do grow less afraid of it. But there must be some reverence for the material because if you reject these stories you reject humans.

There are two kinds of humans on the creative level. The great mass of the more creative do not think. They are deeply convinced that the good world is past. Status quo people, feeling they cannot go back to the perfect time, at least fight not to go too far from it. And then there is creative man who believes in perfectibility, in progression—he is rare, he is not very effective but he surely is different from the others. Laughter and tears—both muscular convulsions not unlike each other, both make the eyes water and the nose run and both afford relief after they are over. Marijuana stimulates induced laughter, and the secondary effect of alcohol false tears, and both a hangover. And these two physical expressions are expendable, developable. When a knight is so upset by emotion that he falls to the ground in a swound, I think it is literal truth. He did, it was expected, accepted. And he did it. So many things I do and feel are reflections of what is expected and accepted. I wonder how much of it is anything else.

Isn’t it strange how parallels occur. About a month ago, while doodling in preparation for work, I wrote a short little piece and put it in my file where it still remains. I quote from it.

“When I read of an expanding universe, of novas and red dwarfs, of violent activities, explosions, disappearances of suns and the birth of others, and then realize that the news of these events, carried by light waves, are records of things that happened millions of years ago, I am inclined to wonder what is happening there now. How can we know that a process and an arrangement so long past has not changed radically or revised itself? It is conceivable that what the great telescopes record presently does not exist at all, that those monstrous issues or the stars may have ceased to be before our world was formed, that our Milky Way is a memory carried in the arms of light.”

Where do you begin commenting on that? Isn’t that what all writers wrestle with? The nonsense from which the fiction is constructed, and the sense only coming—if at all—after it has all been written. Two other items worth quoting:

Arthur is not a character. You are right. And here it might be well to consider that Jesus isn’t either, nor is Buddha. Perhaps the large symbol figures can’t be characters, for if they were, we wouldn’t identify with them by substituting our own. Such a thing is worth thinking about surely.

- - - - - - - - - -

Alas! I can only agree with you—Arthur is a dope. It gets so that you want to yell—Not that again! Look out—he’s got a gun! the way we used to in the old movies when our beloved hero was blundering stupidly into the villain’s lair. Just the same as Arthur. But it goes further and even gets into the smart ones. Consider Morgan—without checking whether her plan to murder Arthur had succeeded, she goes blithely ahead as though it had. But this is literature. Think if you will of Jehovah in the Old Testament. There’s a God who couldn’t get a job as apprentice in General Motors. He makes a mistake and then gets mad and breaks his toys. Think of Job. It almost seems that dopiness is required in literature. Only the bad guys can be smart. Could it be that there is a built-in hatred and fear of intelligence in the species so that the heroes must be stupid? Cleverness equates with evil almost invariably. Is a puzzlement, but there it is.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I know why McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for this. It is an extremely powerful novel that operates effectively on two interconnected levels.

First, it’s a gripping story. A man and his son, trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. You feel for them. You want them to survive in this world gone mad. You want them to get away and be safe. The horror is real when they find the locked basement full of people who are being kept by cannibals for the stringy meat on their bones, one of them laying on a mattress on the floor with both his legs amputated and his stumps burned black to stop him from bleeding to death. Their flight from there, their concealment in the woods under a pile of leaves, their dark and dangerous trek—your heart is in your throat the whole time. And when they get away, and they find the bomb shelter full of canned goods, and plates, and silverware, and new clothes, and soap. The relief and joy in the father’s voice is palpable and strong and true.

I listened to this one as an audio book, and some random reviewer on the site I purchased it from cautioned against that, cautioned that you have to read and linger over McCarthy’s prose to really appreciate it. Having listened to it, I can see that reviewer’s point, and fully intend to get the hard copy and add it to the pile of books to read. But hearing the voices speak to you, especially in a scene like the bomb shelter, is an experience I will not soon forget.

But that’s only one level of the book. The other level is deeper and more primal, and is just as powerful on its level as the suspense story is on its. This is a book about every man and his son, the characters deliberately not given names to accentuate the archetypal role they are playing. And as this man struggles to protect his son from the horrors of their world, we see every man struggling the same way to protect his son from the horrors of his world. There are times when the man gets angry at the son, and he is immediately sorry for being so, and gives his son every indulgence they can afford, from the syrup in the can of cling peaches they find to the grape Kool-aid he finds and keeps until he gathers enough rain water to mix with it. He tells the boy things about their situation in ways they boy would understand, that there are good guys and bad guys in the world, and that they are part of the good guys and that they must “carry the fire” of the old world until they join up with other good guys so that the fire can be strengthened. He risks his own life to keep his son alive, to keep his son from harm, and does things the boy is frightened by or does not want him to do, because he knows that the act is in the child’s best interest. And at the end of the novel, when the man lays dying, he remains strong for his boy and tries to help him understand both what is happening and what he must do after the man has died.

“You need to go on. I can’t go with you. You need to keep going. You don’t know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go. It’s all right.”

“I can’t.”

“It’s all right. This has been a long time coming. Now, it’s here. Keep going south. Do everything the way we did.”

“You’re going to be okay, Papa. You have to.”

“No. I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you can’t take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?”

“I want to be with you.”

“You can’t.”

“Please—”

“You can’t. You have to carry the fire.”

“I don’t know how to.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Is it real? The fire?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”

“Yes, you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”

“Just take me with you. Please!”

“I can’t.”

“Please, Papa.”

“I can’t. I can’t hold my son dead in my arms. I thought I could, but I can’t.”

“You said you wouldn’t ever leave me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.”

“Will I hear you?”

“Yes, you will. You have to make it like talk that you imagine. And you’ll hear me. You have to practice. Just don’t give up. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

“I’m really scared, Papa.”

“I know. But you’ll be okay. You’re going to be lucky. I know you are. I’ve got to stop talking. I’m going to start coughing again.”

“It’s okay, Papa. You don’t have to talk. It’s okay.”

In all of these actions we see not only the truth of what we would all do for our sons if we were in the same awful circumstances, but also the truth of what we do for our sons every day in our lives here and now. That is ultimately what makes the novel so powerful.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Crucial Confrontations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler

This one was recommended by my professional development consultant to help me deal with a situation at work. Here’s the entire method in 314 words or less:

THE BIG IDEA FROM EACH STEP

Choose What and If
1. What: Ask yourself what you really want. You can talk about the content, the pattern, or the relationship. To stay focused, ask what you really want.
2. If: Are you talking yourself out of a crucial confrontation? Don’t let fear substitute for reason. Think carefully not just about the risks of having the confrontation but also about the risks of not having it.

Master My Stories
Instead of assuming the worst and then acting in ways that confirm your story, stop and tell the rest of the story. Ask: Why would a reasonable person not do what he or she promised? What role might I have played? When you see the other person as a human being rather than a villain, you’re ready to begin.

Describe the Gap
Make it safe by starting with the facts and describing the gap between what was expected and what was observed. Tentatively share your story only after you’ve shared your facts. End with a question to help diagnose.

Make It Motivating and Easy
After you’ve paused to diagnose, listen for motivation and ability. Remember you don’t need power. In fact, power puts you at risk. Instead, make it motivating and make it easy. To do that, explore the six sources of influence. Remember to consider others and things as possible influences.

Agree on a Plan and Follow Up
Remember who does what by when and then follow up. This idea is simple and serves as its own reminder. Then ask to make sure you’re not leaving out any details or missing any possible barriers.

Stay Focused and Flexible
As other issues come up, don’t meander; consciously choose whether to change the discussion to the new issue. Weigh the new problem. If it’s more serious or time-sensitive, deal with it. If it is not, don’t get sidetracked.


According to the self assessment at the back of the book, my weak areas are “Choose What and If” and “Stay Focused and Flexible.” I should:

1. Not put off certain discussions longer than I should.
2. Make sure I talk about the root problem when people disappoint me.
3. Stop talking myself out of holding certain discussions by telling myself that it will be better to cope with the behavior than to risk an ugly confrontation.
4. Not get sidetracked when talking to others about problems.
5. Know what to do with new issues that get brought up during a crucial confrontation.
6. Know how to respond when people get angry in the middle of a crucial confrontation.
7. Stop letting people off the hook when they disappoint me.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

True North by Bill George

I’d heard a lot about this and I was looking forward to reading it. Now that I have, I’d have to say I was pretty disappointed with it. I was expecting it to provide a roadmap on how to develop leadership skills based on your own personal strengths and traits. Instead, it said the best leaders are those who are authentic, who base their leadership on their own personal strengths and traits, so go be that kind of leader. And then it gives a bunch a ridiculous examples.

Bill was CEO of a billion dollar corporation, and was having trouble turning it into a multi-billion dollar corporation. So he went on a six month sabbatical in Australia, found his authentic leadership, and came back and grew his company into a trillion dollar corporation.

Oh. Okay. Next time I’m having trouble, I’ll give that a try.

Many leaders go through a crucible when they have an experience at work that dramatically tests their sense of self, their values, or their assumptions about their future or career. I call this “hitting the wall,” because the experience resembles a fast-moving race car hitting the wall of the track, something most rising leaders experience at least once in their careers.

Well, at least I can relate to that. That last year at my previous place of work was certainly my crucible, and I feel very much like I’m just now beginning to find some of the confidence I used to have. It really tested my sense of self.

Many young leaders are tempted to take high-salaried jobs to pay off loans or build their savings, even if they have no interest in the work and do not intend to stay. They believe that after ten years they can move on to do the work they love. Yet many become so dependent on maintaining a certain lifestyle that they get trapped in jobs where they are demotivated and unhappy. Locked into the high-income/high-expense life, they cannot afford to do work they love. Ironically, not one of the leaders interviewed wound up taking a position predicated upon establishing wealth early so that they could later pursue roles they would enjoy.

It ain’t all about money, is it?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

FDR: The War President by Kenneth S. Davis

This is the fifth volume of a huge, multi-volume biography of FDR. It covers the years 1940-1943, and the saddest thing about it is that the author died near the end of writing it—which means that the series will never be finished.

It’s a good read. Scholarly and tedious in some places, but absolutely fascinating when viewed through the prism of today. FDR’s war against fascism and GWB’s war against terror, and the political climates they existed and exist in, are fascinating to compare with one another. Imagine today’s Congress giving GWB the power to loan battleships to Pakistan so they could use them to fight against Iraq. Imagine there being a strike at Ford Motor Company and GWB sending the U.S. Army in to break it up so the workers could go start making bullets and bombs. Imagine John Kerry saying that he fought hard against GWB because he thought he’d make a better president than him, but that GWB won and he was going to support him in this war effort, and would go on a global tour demonstrating to our allies and enemies alike that our political parties are unified at home. Here are some more interesting tidbits:

Thus the swirl and tangle of events, problems, and challenges through which Roosevelt must pick his way and to which his responses are and will be shaped by his sense of himself, of his own innate and adherent capacities. On this morning of rare passivity his self-felt identity is in some respects no larger, no more formidable, than the one his intellectual critics ascribe to him in their moments of severest censure. He completes his breakfast. He puts aside the newspapers. He rises from his bed (he must have help to do so), dresses himself (he must have help to do so), then rides his wheelchair down into the library living room to begin the (for him) relatively meager activities of the day. And as he does this his consciousness of self, within which his awareness of physical dependency upon the strong arms of other men may be somewhat sharper than usual, has nothing in it of the conqueror’s egotistical willfulness. Indeed, against the massive challenges he faces, he measures exceeding small, far smaller than others do, the powers he can wield—the innate powers (of mind, of will) granted him by almighty God, plus the powers that are his by virtue of his high office—and is reaffirmed in his conviction that he cannot actually dominate even immediate events of major importance, much less change the direction or set the course of world history. He can only nudge here, tug there, prod at this point, brake at that one—he can only cautiously encourage the energies of change or, if the impendent change is of the foundations of the present American domestic order, discourage them—as he attempts to guide the turbulent torrent of event, upon which he is otherwise and in general borne irresistibly, toward what he perceives or conceives to be God’s goals.

Such perceptions or conceptions are, for him, highly tentative. They derive from and depend upon information that is imperfect and uncertain—information he obtains, for the most part, not through a thoughtful study of subject matter, but through three kinds of prayer. Two of these are objective, impersonal, almost devoid of religious feeling. One of the two might even be deemed empirically “scientific” insofar as it consists of various kinds of poll taking, various ways of defining the nature and measuring the strength of public opinion on specific issues—this on the tacit assumption that the will of the majority is the will of God. The other of the two is a species of teleological gambling, essentially superstitious—a kind of betting aimed at achieving not material prizes, but signs of divine approval or disapproval of something he contemplates doing. For instance, he may assign to this or that small happening a large significance, saying to himself that if the trivial event occurs within an immediate time span (the next minutes, perhaps, or before he can count to ten), it means that God approved what he has considered doing; if it does not occur, God disapproves. Or he may see as a sign of divine approval or disapproval his luck at cards when he plays poker or, as he does far more frequently, Miss Milliken, a game of solitaire of which he is fond.

The third kind of prayer, however, is truly religious insofar as it is intensely subjective, profoundly emotional, imbued with a sense of awe and personal dependency; and it is this prayerfulness, which is in perfect accord with his somber nostalgic mood on this gray wintry morning, that he now employs, or by which he is now caught up. He looks backward into time. Seeking stability, permanence, eternality, amid or underlying the unceasing flow of eventful change, he contemplates or (more accurately) feels his way into the past—his own individual personal past as well as the historic past of this little Hudson River town in which he grew up. And he does find permanence there. The past presents itself to the remembering mind as a completed reality wherein one can see how events conform to one another, are fitted together through the operations of casual efficacy, this thing happening because that thing does and in turn causing something else, shaping a structure from whose order the contemplative observer may learn something of the workings of God’s mind, something of the nature of God’s will. The lessons thus learned are highly qualified, however. Roosevelt knows well that the past never exactly repeats itself, is therefore no mirror of the future into which he can look for precise instructions as to what he should now do. He realizes through his feeling self that the past as persistent memory is the very stuff or substance of the living flowing present through which it extends, as an ongoing but continuously changing pattern of event, into anticipated, apprehended future time. This is the mainstream flow of the world, this the felt essence of his profound conservatism. And on this morning of gray melancholy, he in his present self and the boy he remembers himself to have been here at Hyde Park—also between this Georgian mansion that is now his one true home and the smaller, more modest Victorian house in which he was born; and between the town of Hyde Park today and the Hyde Park of distant and receding yesterdays. By this awareness his sore and weary spirit is somehow soothed and refreshed, his optimistic faith restored.

First, how about that prose, huh? Second, how about that insight into the mind of a historical figure. Reading this makes me think that this Kenneth Davis could become FDR if he wanted to, could get into the wheelchair, put on the glasses, clamp his teeth down on the cigarette holder, and become Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I also like what this passage says about being a leader, about how a leader’s power is confined to nudging, tugging, prodding, and braking. Because, boy, that is sure what it feels like for me. But what strikes me most about this passage is the way FDR, the leader of the free world at one of that world’s most critical turning points, allowed his mind to be swayed and decisions to be made by cryptic messages he thought he was receiving from God while he played solitaire. The weight of the world teetering on a precarious fulcrum and there he is, looking for answers in the turn of the next random card. GWB would probably be proud.

There’s a one page summary in the FDR book about the sinking of the Bismarck which is one of the things I stumble across in history books sometimes that I immediately want to know more about. I therefore ordered a copy of Sink the Bismarck! By C. S. Forester, evidently the authoritative expert on the subject.

As a “man of action,” Hopkins, like Roosevelt, was the opposite of ideological, and like Roosevelt, he thereby avoided a typical fallacy of the ideological mind, namely, the conclusion that what people do (history, that is) is wholly determined by forces—economic, in Marx; organismic in Spengler; Christian in Toynbee—that are themselves ahistorical and beyond human control. In both Hopkins’s and Roosevelt’s conviction, if more vividly in Roosevelt’s than in Hopkins’s, human beings were by God’s will free to choose; though they worked out God’s grand design, they must do so through the anguish of personal choice, guided by such signs of His will as He permitted them, human freedom being integral to God’s design. But in eschewing both ideology and the quest for fundamental causes, Hopkins, like Roosevelt, also eschewed coherence and fundamental consistency in his dealings with current event. The whole of his mental concern was with the event itself, and about this he asked questions of “what” and “how” to the virtual exclusion of “why.”

This passage is a lot like the whole book. I find it interesting as hell but I’m uncertain as to what it exactly means.

He presented his proposals to Congress on April 27, as a seven-point “economic stabilization program.” Each of the points, in his statement of it, was preceded by the phrase “to keep the cost of living from spiraling upward.” They were: 1) heavy taxation to “keep personal and corporate profits at a reasonable rate, the word ‘reasonable’ being defined at a low level”; 2) price ceilings, including “ceilings on rents for dwellings in all areas affected by war industries”; 3) wage controls (“we must stabilize the remuneration received by individuals for their work”); 4) stabilization of “prices received by growers for the products of their lands”; 5) increased purchase of war bonds by “all citizens” to prevent their using war-increased earnings “to buy articles which are not essential”; 6) strict rationing “of all essential commodities of which there is a scarcity”; 7) discouragement of credit and installment buying joined with encouragement of “the paying off of debts, mortgages, and other obligations.”

Can you believe this? Can you imagine GWB proposing this to help finance the war against terrorism? Roosevelt later defined the “low level” he would keep everyone’s income at after taxes as $25,000. That’s 1942 dollars. Today that would be $282,812.50. Okay, I guess that’s not that bad.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

The latest audiobook and the first listened to on the new iPod my wife got me for my birthday. It was good, but not quite as good as All the Pretty Horses. I really liked the theme—that something has changed in the world and that criminals today are a different stripe of evil than they were in the past, and that old law enforcement officers are among the only ones who can see this change and reflect on what it all means.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell certainly fits this mold and is one of the primary characters through whose eyes we see the story. Another is Llewellyn Moss, a young man who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad and makes off with a couple of million dollars of dirty money. The third is Anton Chigurh, the hired killed sent to get back the money and kill whoever took it. Chigurh is truly vicious—living and killing according to a code that only makes sense to him—Moss is in way over his head and winds up dead, and Bell is tracking along behind them, trying to catch up and put a stop to it but always arriving a few hours too late.

There’s a scene where Moss and Chigurh confront each other and Chigurh gives Moss a chance to save the life of his wife by handing over the money. Moss refuses and manages to excape, but after Chigurh has killed Moss, he goes at the end of the novel to kill Moss’ wife, even though there’s no longer any need to do so except Chigurh’s own twisted sense of justice.

There’s another scene where he puts a man’s life on the line according to the flip of a coin and lets him go when the coin comes up the way the man calls it.

I just Googled it to find out how to spell Llewellyn and learned that the Coen brothers are making a movie out of it. I put it on our Netflix list.