Thursday, June 27, 2019

William Stoner And the Battle for the Inner Life by Steve Almond

William Stoner
And the Battle for the Inner Life
© 2019 by Steve Almond
Ig Publishing
Box 2547
New York, NY 10163
ISBN: 978-1-63246-08-75


The title of this monograph on display at Porter Square Books grabbed my attention because reading Stoner by John Williams had provoked an abreaction five years ago. Once I read Almond’s introduction with my Sunday coffee I did not put it down except for bodily necessities until I finished it so I could go to bed. That kind of absorption is unique in my experience reading criticism.

For a book to have had such an emotional impact as this one has had on the both of us, Stoner is deceptively simple. Here Is Almond’s masterful succinct summation of the story:
Stoner, the only son of subsistence farmers, attends college, unexpectedly falls in love with literature, and becomes a teacher; he endures a disastrous marriage, a prolonged academic feud, and a doomed love affair, then falls ill and dies.

That hardly seems a story capable of meeting Aristotle’s requirement for a tragedy, but, as Almond will show us, William's genius takes his spare tale and infuses it with a power that is more than sufficient to evoke pity and fear and the weeping purging of those emotions.

The success of Almond's essay rests on a foundation he creates with his subtitle, “and the battle for the inner life,” and his willing engagement and perseverance in that battle. My engagement with Almond’s argument was created by the rhythm of his writing as he swings between lucid, if traditional, explication of the work, and narrative considerations of his own life problems elicited by Stoner. He has read the book some 13 times precisely because it provokes him to self-examination.

Here's a lengthy illustration from Almond’s third chapter, “Love Makes Us Zombies (aka Worst Marriage Ever).” First with a sample of his explication from the chapter’s middle:

The description of this honeymoon spends six excruciating pages. We know from the jump that Stoner’s abject desire will be met by dread, because the narrator tells us so. And yet these scenes are among the most heart-rending of the entire book, because Williams does just what most writers lack the courage to do: he slows down where his characters are most exposed and helpless.

Then as he concludes this chapter Almond, in his battle, charges into a territory that I would not have considered to be part of literary criticism, suggesting, as he does, when he shifts from an analysis of Stoner’s marriage into an arrestingly candid discussion of his own, that literature has a use as marriage counseling:

This is why Williams portrays them as zombies, I think: to suggest they have no conscious capacity to choose one another. Stoner is dumbstruck at the site of Edith and decides that he must marry her. She accedes to his ardor. They operate at the level of glandular instinct and social programming.
It's an extreme portrait, but anyone who has been in a long-term monogamy, especially a marriage, will recognize the outlines. Romantic love always begins with the dream, one designed to liberate us from the burdens of the past but inexorably bound to them. Erin and I dreamed of building a family impervious to the bullying and anxiety we'd experience growing up, though our relationship was fraught with elements of both.

I've often portrayed our romance as a tale of heroic self-determination, in which we boldly hurtled from long-distance lovers to rookie parents in a few exuberant months. But I was consistently controlling during our courtship, and Erin too often silenced her doubts and resentments, for fear I would abandon her. Like William Stoner, I fell in love with an idea and charged ahead, ignoring the woman I claimed to adore.

This approach reminds me of a mantra of my medical residency: See one; Do one; Teach one. I think Almond is advocating something similar: Read Stoner; Think about Stoner; Think about your life as you thought about Stoner, and, if you can be as honest about your failures as Williams is honest about Stoner’s failures, then the exercise may prove worthwhile. Indeed, later in the essay Almond will assert that this is the purpose of literature and that Stoner is supreme in fulfilling it.

That last sentence makes Almond sound all too serious, when he full of wit and self-aware self-deprecation. He follows chapter 5, “Everybody Loves a Good Fight (A Short History of My Many Feuds),” with chapter 6, “The Perfect Martyr,” which begins

The foregoing chapter should make two facts pretty obvious:
1. Most of Stoner is about a guy getting pummeled
2. The author of this book is somewhat pathologically inclined toward feuds.

And he is pragmatic when he shows us how these understandings that have come from his facing up to his feuds in the “battle for the inner life,” may have a use in in politics:

Edith and Lomax dominate Stoner in the same way demagogues dominate their political opponents; not through superior ideas or logic but the seductive force of uninhibited aggression. This is the secret sauce modern conservatives used to advance a plutocratic and bigoted agenda. At a primal level, they project a willingness to fight.
If John Kerry had turned to George Bush during any of their presidential debates and said, “In 1969, I was on the Duong Keo River killing the Vietcong and watching my friends bleed out. Where were you in 1969?” he would've been elected president. Just as Hillary Clinton would be president today if, during her second debate with Trump, she had turned to him and said: “Stop stalking me around the stage. It doesn't make you look tough, Donald. It makes you look like a creep who harasses women.”
But look: that's not who liberals are. They don't punch bullies. They go high, like Stoner, and wind up on the ground wondering what went wrong.

Almond applies this same intelligent analysis to the rest of the novel as Stoner deals with parenting, teaching, reading, writing, and death.

But for all of his book’s virtues and Almond‘s insights and humor that claimed my attention for that Sunday, a flaw in the last chapter brought me up short with its unconscious white privilege. Here is the flaw, which continues to rankle me:

My mom made it through the hike [during which her husband bullied her] but wound up in the ER with a racing heart. When we met the next day, she had recovered physically, but was uncharacteristically subdued. I assumed she was ashamed, though I can see now that I was ashamed. She glanced down for a moment and then said very quietly, “Stevie, I was the n[xxx]er of this family.”
Why would my mother – who had marched into segregated restaurants with African-American students and demanded service – utter such an indefensible word?
She was struggling, I think, to convey how powerless she felt, the enormity of the hurt she'd experience living within our family, nearly all of it invisible. The word was meant to startle and offend, in the same way Yoko Ono and John Lennon meant when they released “Woman Is the N[xxx]er of the World.” or maybe it would be more accurate to say that she was simply unburdening herself of her most closely guarded secret: the sorrow of her inner life.

This is the one place in his essay where, I think, his public exposure of a private detail doesn't work. I find his apology for her insufficient; it reveals a failure of the inner life of his mother and of Almond. I think it reveals that, because of their white privilege, neither of them know what “n[xxx]er” means in its historically American context, which is far uglier and more complex than what it means in the context of, say, Conrad’s The N[xxx]er of the Narcissus. Almond’s list of his mother's liberal credentials and his speculation about her motive does not excuse her lapse nor does the equally egregious example he gives of Yoko Ono and John Lennon's use of the word. John was British and Yoko Japanese so neither of them could have known the ugly extent of the word in American usage. We know his mother isn’t aware of what the word means in these United States because she has the leisure to play Bach and Mozart, because she's a graduate of Yale Medical School, because she's a psychoanalyst, because the day before she made this claim she had been on a vacation hike in the mountains, and because she (and Almond) don’t have to worry about him being shot at a routine traffic stop. They are Jews so they should know that Almond’s mother isn’t the “n[xxx]er” of her family for the same reasons that a goy who survived Auschwitz isn’t a survivor of The Holocaust.

In an ideal world Ig Publishing would recall this edition until Almond could do battle with a revision, but ideal worlds can be dangerous, so let’s hope in the world we have that this book will get to a second printing and that by the time it does he will have found the resources in his inner life to craft an adequate revision. But, I must admit when I saw Almond's book on display at Porter Square, I was primed to pay attention and my attention was rewarded with an essay as engrossing, in spite of its genre, as I once found John Williams’ masterpiece; when I finished I had to reread Stoner and Almond’s criticism has enriched my re-experience of the novel.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

From the Bloc 11 Cafe: Interview with magician Evan Northrup

Magician Evan Northrup at the Bloc 11 Cafe

From the Bloc 11 Cafe: Interview with magician  Evan Northrup

I met Evan Northrup at my unofficial office at the back of the Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square, Somerville. Northrup certainly has a stage presence. He speaks in an upbeat cadence and flashes a winning smile. I have never interviewed a magician before, but from my childhood I remember some darkly attired men, pulling an unfortunate bunny out a top hat, or of the enigmatic smile of an attractive woman about to be in cut in half, and miraculously brought back to her whole state.

Northup portrays magic as a mixture of slight of hand and practical psychology. His mission statement is to bring the magic of life to his patrons.

Northrup has volunteered at the Artisan's Asylum outside of Union Square for a number of years. He finds inspiration for his work from many of the creative types who work there. As he goes from work space to work space, he picks up ideas from this high tech buffet of- the- grid inventors, artists, and artisans.

Northrup used to live in Somerville. Like many artists I have interviewed he has left our city to live on Beacon Hill in Boston. It is ironic of course—but he and his wife found a better deal there!

Northrup is not only a magician, but he provides stage craft and illusion services to such theaters in Boston as the LYRIC STAGE, and the HUNTINGTON THEATRE. He told me, “ I once developed a metal illusion for a production of ' Beauty and the Beast. ' It was basically a framed wood enclosure that included metal to ensure stability for the Beast.”

Northrup, who is a graduate of Brown University, recalls some of the very first projects he provided magical design, and special effects for.  He reflects, “ My very first production was at the Gloucester Stage. They were putting on a performance of 'Carnival.'" At the Huntington Theater in Boston, Northrup was involved in the production  of“I was most Alive with You”--a production performed by members of the deaf community.

Northrup is not your dad's musician. He sees magic through many different lenses. He told me,  "Respected scientists now study magic's effect on the brain. MRIs are employed to see how the brain reacts when it is exposed to magic.” So Northrup infuses many different sources in his work.

Northrup said in the past he did his act for children, but now he likes to do it for adults. He reflected, “ I like to get adults off-guard. I want to challenge their assumptions."

Northrup performs in many venues—weddings, private parties, but he seeks more corporate work—to make the daily nut. He is working on an idea using magic to explore the dining experience. He envisions diners choosing what they want to eat, and then have it materialize on their plates--also an appointment of floating candles could be thrown in the mix.

Northrup is a student of the “ Spanish School of Magic.” In this school of thought there is an emphasis on magic theory. Northrup said, “ American magic is more procedural. The Spanish School has  more contextual content with magic—rather than simply tricks.'

Northrup performed a few tricks for me at our table. One that I took interest in was when he changed one dollar bills into twenties. Boy—would I like to know that guy's secret!