Saturday, February 15, 2014

Passage to Infinity

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. Penguin Press. 1,085 pages. $35.00

Thomas Pynchon writes precious little, as famous novelists go. His latest is only his sixth over a career spanning nearly fifty years; a book of short stories, a handful of reviews and essays round out his oeuvre. Interviews and profiles are of course all but non-existent; he's the loner who doesn't want to be found, the monk who gets to speak every ten years. His novels are crammed with more thought and story than anyone can be expected to easily process, and you sometimes have to take them slow for everything to fall into place, providing it does, and he offers no guarantees.

Just the opposite, in fact. Weeks before the publication of Against the Day, he seemed to be having second thoughts. In a self-penned, self-deprecating synopsis (which was later worked into the jacket copy) that appeared on, Pynchon described a historical novel set between the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and the First World War, featuring multiple characters and events, the author's usual "stupid songs," weird sex, and a few "contrary-to-fact occurrences." It ended on a cryptic note: "Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck." You can read a lot in those last words. Is he giving the finger to critics who might find the book overlong and obscure, as well as beating them to the punch? Is that "Good luck" as in "Buckle your seat-belts!" or "Hope I've made myself clear"? If that's the case, anyone who has followed his career since V may well ask "Why start now?" Doesn't this statement indicate a certain loss of nerve, as if even he's not sure he's really delivered?

There are reasons to think so. First, there's the background material, which involves the 19th Century treatment of abstruse concepts in physics and science, ones I'll freely admit are so far over my head I can't even see them and which I'll have a devil of a time trying to describe, because I only understand them at the edges, and I'm not even real sure about those. In his defense, I suppose it could be said that "non-trivial zeroes" and imaginary numbers and something called quaternions are hard to boil down into workable prose. On the other hand, he didn't seem to have any problem explaining entropy in The Crying of Lot 49. Still, as anyone who has read Gravity's Rainbow knows, Pynchon doesn't set a scene in its time and place so much as he backs into it, and if you want to really understand the historical or intellectual environment he's working in you may have to look elsewhere -- which raises the question of just how much a writer can fairly ask of a reader.

It's one thing to ask a reader to pay close attention to ruminative prose or layered psychological digressions; maybe another to ask him to research the very tough concepts which Pynchon himself is simply too lazy to explain.

I can already imagine the reaction of Pynchon acolytes, many of whom are no doubt used to this old objection, or who may not believe obscurity is a legitimate critical concern, or who may believe it's legitimate but unfair in this case, since a thing is not obscure if it can be grasped, you know, eventually. This is a writer, they will say, who feels no need to "talk down" to the reader, who expects a readership that is lively, smart, with-it, educated, literary, and who can pick up on the author's wavelength; who can hear a genius Charlie Parker solo where others hear static. They'll quote Blake: "That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care." Some writers think the simplest, most direct approach is the best, but that's not Pynchon, okay? He's not an Occam's Razor kind of guy. One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression and all that, yadda yadda.

Someone may even point me in the direction of Zadie Smith's recent Guardian think-piece, which is not about Pynchon but does address the issue of the difficulty of reading: "What I'm saying is, a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain ... Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it's a conjurer's trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more." Fine. I'll start by asking for a payoff that's worth the effort.

Second, there is Pynchon's style, which often feels just stubbornly, purposelessly enigmatic, not unlike the way Faulkner sometimes gets, where he seems to have this kind of passive-aggressive relationship with clarity. Its the opposite of economic and the essence of opaque. Random sentences go past florid and take a hard right at dense, and conversations are dull and contrived.

Third, there's the mega-episodic story, which juggles several sub-plots, many of which go off on dreamy, side-winding tangents and then sputter out, and which demands a high, if not total, recall of the book's many characters, most of whom are either barely or unmemorably introduced, and may vanish for hundreds of pages between appearances. The events, too, are hard to track, as Pynchon seems to pursue every available tangent, lighting a lot of fuses that never really take off, and by the end has so damn much story on his hands that you can practically hear him wheezing under the strain.

None of which should come as a total surprise to the seasoned Pynchon readers, as echoes of all of these complaints can be seen in criticism dating back to at least the early 1980s. Pynchon asks so much of the reader that I think his more submissive and faithful ones will ask if they themselves are not the problem. Am I reading this the right way?

Do you take the "Don't sweat it" approach and try to read it in big gulps, or do you roll up your sleeves and get all scholarly, filling the margins with notes and the end-paper with disquisitions of both glee and despair, ultimately spilling over into spiral notebooks, pages of which will be clotted with yet more notes, quotes, questions, tearful confessions of intellectual inferiority and woeful acknowledgement of educational gaps, as well as printing out one hopefully trustworthy Wikipedia article after the next on vector space, the Michelson-Morley experiment, lumineferous aether, Riemann's hypothesis, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and (speaking of things I should have known about) the 1908 Tunguska Event ?

Reader, I did all that. I read it once like a true fan, sinking into it for hours at a time, nodding my head, getting into it, and eventually waking up stone blind in the latter third, where I could no longer remember or care how the story wound up in the Balkans and why everyone was dodging bullets. Then I tackled it all over again, as I sometimes do with books that leave some kind of weird impression, this sense that I missed something, that there may be more to it than the sum of my worst objections, and that despite my resistance the overall mystery of it had somehow wormed its way into my head.

It begins, this enormous book, as a spoof and a sequel, written in inflated prose, detailing the latest misadventures of a gang of rowdy and pseudo-lovable adolescents we have apparently been following in an on-going series: the Chums of Chance, who tour the late 19th-Century world in their hydrogen airship the Inconvenience. All we do know, really, is that the Chums are mysteriously youthful, as they've been together for many years and still talk like they're 13, and they're just marginally innocent, since they serve as a roving surveillance crew for some mysterious employer they've never met -- a somewhat typical Pynchonian dilemma.

As we soon find out, the novel does not exactly belong to the Chums, although they will continue to float in and out of it. Once the Inconvenience crash-lands into the World's Fair, we're in a country with one foot in the American Enlightenment and one in the Gilded Age, where corporate interests are ready to exploit new discoveries as quickly as scientists can make them.

Our narrator, who has been reminding us of other Chums' adventures (The Chums of Chance at Krakatoa, The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis) loses interest in his nominal subjects as other stories take off; lots of stories will take off as the book continues, multiplying every few pages, with Pynchon sometimes tracking them to their end and sometimes abandoning them. There's the photographer Merle Rideout, single parent to Dahlia, who yearns to connect with the mother who deserted her at birth. There's Lew Basnight, an amnesiac who isn't sure whether he has committed a heinous crime or is about to, and who finds sudden employment as a detective. Most of all, there's the villain, Scarsdale Vibe, a wealthy silver magnate and a veritable old lefty cartoon of capitalism run amok.

In a novel where just about everything has a religious dimension, and even mathmaticians will start splitting off into sects of their own, Vibe is a true-blue believer in the capitalist gospel. He looks suspiciously on anything that doesn't involve profit -- like Nikola Tesla's experiments in providing free electricity, which Vibe is bankrolling only so he can make sure it never happens -- or anyone who tries to disturb its flow, like the union organizers who are agitating at his Colorado silver mine.

His dual opposite in this regard is Merle's friend Webb Traverse, a good-natured rebel who may or may not be the "Kieselguhr Kid," a Unabomber-esque mystery bomber who has been dynamiting Vibe's railways and has become something of an underground hero in the process.

Against all this very concrete business, something very abstract is going on at the edges: the material world itself seems to be jabbering away, working in unison, offering ominous signs and symbols of the world to come. The great topic of the day is light, specifically aether, the theoretical heavenly body that moves light through space. Tesla sees light as a means of liberation; Vibe sees it as a source of control. Debates, serious and silly, fanatical and skeptical, revolve around the possibilities: is aether God, real in every way except in being detectable? Can you, as some claim, talk to light? Should you, as the religious sect known as the Lightarians preach, worship it?

Light isn't the only natural element that seems to have conscious properties. There's also the double-refracting calcite known as Iceland spar, which can tell the future, may be proof positive that aether exists, may be the "sub-structure of reality," and may carry some holy scripture from beyond. The main thing it does is that it captures motion; it serves as a lens that can not just freeze time but unfreeze it, and it can see both behind and before.

[A brief word here about this crazy rock. I'm a sucker for writers who pull the "truth is stranger than fiction" card, when the most bizarre and far-fetched elements actually prove to just be good research. I honestly thought Iceland spar was made up until I Googled it. Turns out there really is a clear, doubly-refracting form of calcite by this name and, as it does in the book, it had an impact on both the development of optical lenses as well as the camera, and yes, by golly, it can be found all over, even in New Mexico.

All of which would make me feel really dumb had I not discovered that even geologists in Iceland don't know Iceland spar exists, or at least they don't know it by that name.

Not long ago, my geography-minded friend Amanda told me she was going to Iceland for a week and promised to bring back a nice chunk of the substructure of reality. She returned convinced I was trying to make a fool of her. All week long she asked the good folk of Iceland about their native spar and they looked at her like she was nuts -- even the English-speaking residents of the Icelandic Geological Society. The more I told her about all the references to it on the Internet, the more she looked at me as if I had sent her on an international snipe hunt.

Not so!

There's also a meteorite -- a barely visible, King Kong-sized, shape-shifting object unearthed on a Vibe-sponsored Arctic expedition to harvest Iceland spar -- which apparently wages war on New York City, a "catamite from hell" that makes the city its bitch. To all who can hear it, (only a handful, and they wind up going crazy) it offers a direct message of warning: "The man-shaped light shall not deliver you" and "Flames were always your destiny, my children."

Is this a key event in the book? Actually, it's a red herring, one of many, a pseudo-pivotal fictional event involving a meteorite whose main function is to foreshadow the very real Tunguska Event of 1908, at the opposite end of the book, where what appears to be a meteorite (no one was around to see it, so no one's ever been completely certain) blasted 800 square miles of Siberia.

Whatever the meteorite means in perspective, one thing becomes clear in the day-to-day world of the novel: the immediate future belongs to the Scardale Vibes of the world, who crush everything that stands in their way. Vibe, who may well be the Chums' secret employer, always gets others to rid his life of any "inconvenience," which is why he orders a couple of lowlifes, Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, to knock off Webb Traverse.

Traverse and Vibe are the polar opposites of Pynchon's world -- the doomed working-class hero versus the voracious corporate thug whose money always ensures success. As a mining engineer, Webb has tried to raise his children free of the Vibe influence, which runs deep. Webb's three sons and daughter don't want to spend their lives fighting the power; two older ones, Frank and Reef, consider working for Vibe, and the youngest, Kit, an electrical engineering prodigy, risks permanent estrangement from his father by accepting a full-ride Vibe-sponsored scholarship to Princeton. Webb's wild child daughter, Lake, aims for a better life by leaving home,.

With Webb's death, the Traverse children are left with a legacy of guilt, denial and ultimately vengeance -- thus setting off the main plot, the clothesline on which most of what happens will hang. While Kit tries to balance a bright future against the slow awareness of his benefactor's evil, Frank and Reef plot the deaths of Vibe, Sloat and Deuce; Reef also takes up the presumed legacy of his father by occasional bombing. Lake, off on her own, unknowingly marries Deuce, who shares her with Sloat, both of whom get off on defiling the daughter of their victim, which Pynchon for no obvious reason finds gratuitously, pornographically funny.

Meanwhile, up in the sky, the Chums get a new mission, which is to find the Sfinculo Itinerary, a mysterious 13th Century map which actually predicts the geography of the future, and which seems to have come from another dimension into this one, as its author "imagined the earth not only as a three-dimensional sphere but, beyond that, as an imaginary surface..." and which in turn may lead to Shambhala, which besides being a Three Dog Night song is either Inner Asia, inner contentment or the point of infinity; views differ. The Chums, these "fictional" characters who often seem to be invading and manipulating the finite world of the novel, also learn that their course isn't strictly set in this world, and that they themselves are being manipulated by forces from the future.

Characters spin like pin-balls from one international locale to the next, crossing paths along the way: the Traverse sons looking for the killers, Lake slowly waking up to the realization of who she married, Dally leaving Merle to head to New York to find her mother and having a series of adventures as an actress, the Chums in the sky with the map. Somewhere in the midst of this, Pynchon drops another story, a clinker, which involves a bi-sexual Russian spy (or something) named Yashmeen Halfcourt, who prefers women but who is also the object of desire of the homosexual Cyprian Latewood, who becomes her sex slave against his orientation if not his will. Both are connected to a mystical London-based counter-terrorist group called TWIT (True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys; ha ha, Pynchon make joke) which uses Tarot cards and seances to detect and root out its presumed enemies. This is where the novel starts chasing its tail, as the leaders of TWIT have this grand theory of an international plot where the two main coordinates appear to be doubles.

To make a too-long story short -- a story which misses no opportunity to get side-tracked -- Yashmeen and Kit both enter each other's orbit at Gottingen, Germany. Kit, who considers himself a pronounced vectorist, committed to the proposition of three-dimensional reality, is here because Gottingen has become something of an international headquarters for the quaternionists, whose commitment to the idea of a fourth dimension has made them the outcasts, the "Jews" of mathematics. Gottingen is also the former home of the late G. Riemann, the mathematician who became famous for a mathematical problem which I do not understand, but which has obsessed Yashmeen all her life.

Kit and Yashmeen's specific obsessions aren't clear to me, and likely won't be clear to many, but their larger goal, and Pynchon's larger interest, is skirting reality altogether. Both use numbers as a haven of rest from real-world problems, not unlike the character of David in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, so brilliantly played by Dustin Hoffman; the mathematician who would rather drift into the pure reality of numbers than face the violent reality of human life. Debates rage over the possibility of "bi-location," in which a person can simultaneously be in two places at once, and about getting out of the trap of time altogether; off the track of history, which seems predestined for the kind of exploitation and destruction set in place by capitalism and commerce, or at the very least thwarting it. Shambhala represents the goal, conscious or unconscious, of getting back to the past, to a pure, Edenic state prior to the fallen world of the 20th Century. Just as the Chums are in search of the map, and finally come into possession of it, Kit dreams of a "set of directions, an itinerary, a map to a hidden space," that can take him back to "the beginning, the nameless station before the first, in the lightless uncreated, where salvation does not yet exist."

They yearn for a time before the fall, a world where there are no laws and no blind determinism. Pynchon takes the ideas of Karl Marx (history is predetermined and free will is an illusion) and Friedrich Nietzsche (any set of events is bound to repeat itself) and sets them against the dawn of a new century, where capitalism has run amok, wars and revolution are rumbling in the distance, and new breakthroughs in physics, science and religion are offering the means to either exploit people further, to jam the gears of history, or to defy time altogether -- to get out of three-dimensional reality before it eats you alive.

Pynchon's novels generally involve a search of some kind, usually for a missing document or a key piece of information, and Pynchon himself is on an imaginative every-direction-at-once search of his own: where did it all go wrong in American life? The historical backgrounds of his novels are rife with possibility: there's the Renaissance-era back story to The Crying of Lot 49, where a secret mail system dating from the Elizabethan age carries over into mid-1960s America, and serves as a reaction against government interference. Among the many threads of Gravity's Rainbow is a focus on the way behaviorism and psychological conditioning help create and sustain war. The two real-life surveyors of Mason & Dixon are astrologers who find themselves doing the devil's work: working for the secretive and exploitative East India Company, which trafficks in drugs and which will lead to creating the line dividing slave and free.

Pynchon, once again taking a generous slice of American history and giving it not just a big-picture approach but one that is both cosmic and complicated, is on the same search in Against the Day, and the late 19th and early 20th century gives him more than enough to work with. It's the Gilded Age and the last gasp of the American Enlightenment, where new advances in science hold the keys to both rampant capitalist exploitation and liberation.

It's the Age of Time, where physicists are debating the meaning of time, the speed of light, the possibility of other dimensions and parallel universes, and in Pynchon's world, the possibility of avoiding a violent world to come by going back to before the whole idea of time began. Hard-headed rationalism grades into the realms of the mystical and the unexplained, linear gives way to abstract, and the novel itself operates as if in a time-warp: a piece of dime-store fiction that seems to have been overtaken by a visitor from elsewhere -- a shaman perhaps who, as one explanation has it, sees time "spread out not in a single dimension but over many, which all exist in a single, timeless instant," not unlike the way Futurist painters would see in 1910, and we meet a couple of those, too.

Hovering over it all is the spirit of someone who is not a character in the book at all: the great historian Henry Adams. The Exposition occupied much of the time and thought of Adams, who saw in it one of the signal events of his age and education: the dynamo, which become for him "a symbol of infinity" and "a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross." Just as Medieval France once worshiped the Virgin, so did America now worship an energy that would operate independently of the means to control it. Pynchon's novels are all, in one way or another, about this kind of unchecked energy and exploitation, where the industrial world has become a force subject only to its own natural laws. His heroes, such as they are, want to jam the gears, to become, as Henry David Thoreau would put it, as a "counter-friction to stop the machine," and he holds out here a kind of dim prospect for success.

The thing of it is, Against the Day is a lot more interesting when it's over than when you're actually reading it. It's maybe not a great, transcendent novel that breaks the formal boundaries of literature, but the plot makes a rather bold transcendent leap, and when I finally closed it for the last time -- when a long journey that begins in one world finally ends in another, possibly purgatory -- I couldn't help but think that it had gained perspective, that it had really gone somewhere. There's something fiercely smart, imaginative, sympathetic, deeply humane and -- despite the fact that it misses no opportunity to point out the terrors of religion -- almost weirdly Christian about it; a sense that even in the next world we take the sins of this one with us, along with the possibility of grace.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Part I

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in 1954 in Nagasaki and moved to England at the age of five -- facts that would considerably shape his writing career. He straddles two cultures, one steeped in guilt, one steeped in colonialism, both still coming to terms with the events of the past. The past, likewise, is never far from his first-person narrators, most of whom are living in denial of some sort, hoping to make sense of their lives or struggling to come to terms with their unacknowledged role in recent history.

From the beginning, Ishiguro proved a writer of extraordinary promise. In his somber and poetic first novel, A Pale View of Hills, Etsuko, a mother who has recently lost her eldest daughter to suicide, recalls her pregnancy in post-war Nagasaki. While Etsuko gives us fair warning that her memory is unreliable, it may not be until the end of this deceptive, elegantly simple book that we take in the full impact of her words, when a surprise ending forces the reader to re-examine the story.

Post-war Japan was also the setting for Ishiguro's next novel, An Artist of the Floating World, where the artist Masuji Ono faces a series of social complications in trying to marry off his youngest daughter. A once highly-regarded imaginative painter, Ono is forced to face up to the fact that he squandered his gifts to create propaganda for Imperialist Japan.

Ishiguro probed this kind of theme even further in The Remains of the Day, his best-known novel and a most impressive achievement. Ishiguro writes in the voice of an aging English butler in the late 1950s, and does so with compelling ease.

Stevens, the long-time head butler at Darlington Hall, has always prided himself on his position, on his ability to be of service to a "great
gentleman." As he reviews the past, he comes to consider that this devotion to duty has done no good for himself or the world -- he has missed any chance for love, and by doing the bidding of his Nazi-sympathizing employer, he has only been a cog in the century's great wheel of misfortune.

The Remains of the Day was Ishiguro's breakthrough novel; it won the 1989 Booker Prize and was later made into an Oscar-nominated Merchant-Ivory film. As if to throw off whatever the public had come to expect of him, Ishiguro's next novel, The Unconsoled, was a complete surprise: a dream novel in which a concert pianist arrives in some mystical European town for a recital he doesn't recall ever scheduling. With its sudden perceptive shifts, bends in space, and general illogic, the book brought to mind one of the late films of Luis Bunuel, where dream and reality change places so much as to be indistinguishable from each other. The book probably confused as many people as it enthralled, but read under the right circumstances (a long undistracted weekend, say) it's a hypnotic experience -- even if, as with most dreams, you're not sure just where you've been after it's over.

In September of 2000, Ishiguro released his fifth novel, While it was far more traditional than The Unconsoled, this story of a detective trying to find the key to an elusive mystery moved in a similarly dream-like way.

Born in turn of the century Shanghai's International Settlement, Christopher Banks has been raised in Edwardian England since the age of ten, following the sudden disappearance of his mother and father. Being orphaned at an early age has created a rupture that will not heal; Banks, who devotes his life to solving other people's mysteries, still nourishes the hope that he can solve his own, and that his parents, decades later, are still alive. While Banks reveals a lot about himself, he raises as many questions as he answers; he's a remote character in many ways, and the only people he seems capable of making any connection with -- however slim -- are other orphans, like the social butterfly Sarah whom he nearly marries, or his own adopted daughter Jenny.

The mystery of his life finally reaches closure when he returns to the war-torn Shanghai of 1937, when China is locked in battle against both Japan and Mao's Communists. As Banks stumbles through rubble and carnage, seeming like some absurd character out of Kafka or Beckett, he does manage to discover a terrible truth that alters the shape of his world, learning more about his own largely unexamined life than he ever wished.

Although Orphans would be nominated for a Booker Proize in England -- losing, ultimately, to Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin -- the critical reception was somewhat mixed. James Wood in The New Republic called it "a surreal allegory of the ways in which we are the prisoners of our childhoods, the criminals of our pasts, always guilty with memory." Pico Iyer in The New York Review of Books said it "may well be Ishiguro's most capacious book so far, in part because it stitches together his almost microscopic examination of self-delusion, as it plays out in lost men, with a much larger, often metaphorical look at complacency on a national scale."

The daily and Sunday New York Times reviewers, not atypically, were split. Michiko Kakutani found that while the book "gets off to a mesmerizing start, it soon devolves into an uneasy composite of his last two novels, costumed in the lurid clothes of thriller." Michael Gorra said that "Ishiguro has with each novel become a stranger and less predictable writer," and called Orphans his "fullest achievement yet." Paul Gray in Time said that while the author "is a master at evoking unsettling moods," his latest work is "a whodunit with no real who or it."

Ishiguro discussed the novel in some detail in a September phone call to his home outside London.

Yemassee: Let's start with the obvious. You were born in Nagasaki and moved to England as a child. The protagonist of your latest novel, Christopher Banks, is born in Shanghai and moves to England when he is 10. How personal is this book for you?

Ishiguro: It's not particularly personal in that sense. There's not a great deal of correlation between Christopher Banks' movements from Shanghai to England and mine. It's only in a more general sense, I guess; the themes about wondering what racial identity you have and so on might be a territory I'm familiar with, but there's very little similarity in the circumstances, emotional and physical, around Christopher's journey to England and mine.

Traditionally, I've never really written what you might call "thinly-disguised autobiographical fiction," not because I'm against it, I think there've been some very fine books that have been written on that basis, but it's never suited me. So when I started to write, I always used protagonists who at least, on the surface, are very different from myself. When I was a young man, I wrote from the point of a view of an old man, or a middle-aged woman, or something like that. And I always found that paradoxically easier.

But I think what happens after a number of years about this kind of a question is you become quite self-conscious about it as a writer. There's almost an element of my having put in certain things knowing that people would assume there's some autobiographical parallel. It was obvious to me, when I started to write this story, if it's about a child who moves from the Far East to England, in some sort of way people would assume it's autobiographical, and there's a kind of a little teasing thing you find yourself getting into by doing that, you think "Oh yes, we'll play a little bit of hide and seek with readers" and leave them speculating as to what extent this parallels my own journey; his memories, his nostalgia for his childhood and the Far East. But the book isn't really autobiographical in that sense at all.

Yemassee: How much of your own childhood did you draw from, as far as Christopher's relationship with his friend Japanese friend Akira? I'm thinking particularly of their fantasies of what the real world is like.

Ishiguro: Once again, I can't really think of anything that's directly referring to anything in my childhood. There's no game that's described there that's specifically like anything I played with any friend. Of course, when I came to England I had a lot of English friends, but I don't recall a friendship really exactly like that one of Christopher and Akira -- two boys who are really estranged from their cultural backgrounds.

The personal link with Shanghai and the International Settlement of that period goes through my father, and my grandfather [who are] both purely Japanese. My father was born in Shanghai, because my grandfather was an industrialist, and he was charged with setting up Toyoda in China in the Twenties and Thirties. Toyoda today is a car company, but in those days it was a textile company. That's why my grandfather was there, and he lived in one of those big houses in the International Settlement with other business entrepreneurs and industrialists from the west . My father was born there and indeed he lived there until the war broke out.

I don't really know many details of my grandfather and my father's life there. I grew up knowing that they had lived there, and the grandfather was the one I had lived with in the first five years of my life. We lived in my grandfather's house. So I knew there was this past life in this wild, strange place.

Yemassee: What was strange about it?

Ishiguro: Well, my early childhood had been in Nagasaki. When I say Nagasaki to a lot of people they might immediately think of the atomic bomb, but the Nagasaki I remember was a very tranquil place. Then I moved to Home Counties, England, a very quite, suburban existence. Then occasionally I would come across these big massive photo albums depicting this weird city where everyone's going around in these white tropical suits, carrying guns. They were dangerous times, in fact there were a lot of kidnappings for one reason or another. That was very common then. There was a lot of anti-Japanese activity on the part of the Chinese Communists, because in the early 1930s the Japanese had already invaded the northern areas of China. And the Chinese nationalists and the Chinese Communists were having an underground war, so people were killing each other. It was generally a wild place because there was no law and order, and there were huge amounts of money going through it. When you look at these photos, they do look like they're from some 1930s movie. I'd always imagined China to be a more picturesque, slightly more primitive place, but you look at photos of Shanghai during that period, you see these massive huge skyscrapers that look like colonial buildings. It does seem like more than a couple of worlds away.

Yemassee: In a less romantic way, it sounds like the movie Casablanca -- all these different cultures, an undertone of violence and the threat of war breaking out at any moment.

Ishiguro: Very much so. In fact I saw Casablanca again recently. There was a DVD release of it and I watched it for the first time in years. I was very impressed about it. You're right, there is that sense of all these people almost randomly thrown together from different backgrounds, but they're all waiting to get out. The premise there is that it's a stopping-off place.

The big difference is that the Shanghai people at that time didn't realize how temporary the whole thing was. You look at those buildings -- they've obviously been put up by people who thought they were there for good. There was a kind of false sense of solidity about that community. When I was researching it I read a lot of guidebooks written at the time. I have one that's 1936 or something, it's just a few years before the whole thing collapsed. When you actually read a guidebook, it's all in the present tense, and it's very clear that the people writing it don't have an inkling that it's all going to come down like a pack of cards. They assume that this is something very, very solid, and of course huge amounts of money went into it. The buildings were vast, and in their own way are very impressive. And they thought they were there forever. And of course it fell with the Japanese coming in and the Communist takeover.

Yemassee: Let's talk about the character of Christopher Banks a little bit. Blindness is a motif in the novel, and a key word that's used is disorientation. Christopher is always on the outside looking in, and never sees himself the way others do. It seems to be because he's still in that land of childhood, still fighting this very old battle, where other put people have either put their past behind them, or put it safely away. The past is something he can't ever avoid. I'm not sure that's it, though.

Ishiguro: No, I think that's very precise. That's almost the way I would see it. To me, much of the book is an attempt to write about that part of us that, although it's completely irrational, we don't let go. It's a child's logic. A child's view of the world. A logic that's kind of instilled at childhood about the way the world works, about why something has gone wrong. A lot of us carry some of that logic with us, right into adulthood. Actually, it continues to exert an influence on how we behave, although we would perhaps rationally reject this kind of child's logic.

In Christopher's case, yes, he still operates according to this logic of a child that, yes, the world fell apart because his parents disappeared, perhaps that was because he couldn't do anything to stop it, but if only he was a better detective he would have been able to stop it. So the answer is to become a better detective. He grows up to become what he thinks is a detective, so that he can somehow, maybe even now, put it all right. At some level, this is completely mad. But I see people around me all the time whose behavior is I think is influenced by some crazy bit of illogic like that.

That's kind of where Christopher's narration is coming from. It's not that I'm just mucking about with realism and non-realism. I'm trying to locate the narrative somewhere in an area between our unconscious motives and our conscious motives in doing things in life.

Yemassee: Christopher fears he is not English enough and Akira says he's not Japanese enough. There's a sense both have of not really belonging to their culture because they live apart from it. When Christopher brings this up to his Uncle Philip, he is told that one day conflicts will end "because people have changed. They'll be like you, Puffin. More a mixture. So why not become a mongrel. It's healthy." Is he right?

Ishiguro: He backtracks from that pretty rapidly. Christopher tells him things might fall apart if you did that and Philip thinks a minute and says "Yes, you're probably right."

People can't really function unless they feel they belong to a certain pack. This is the difficulty. It's a very contemporary question. It's put very crudely there by Uncle Philip, but that notion is one of the big hopes behind people who encourage or support the idea of a multicultural society: racial boundaries are breaking down, countries are becoming very multicultural, and that somehow this is healthy. Indeed, countries, too, through institutions like the United Nations or the European community or whatever, and on the business side through multinational corporations, these traditional borders are getting less and less, and we're mixing more. There is a kind of idealistic theme behind all this, that perhaps this would lead to less conflict. Certainly, that was one of the ideas behind the European community, after a century of Europeans butchering each other, there was this hope that if you could actually integrate things at the economic level there will be less chance of another European war. Of course, the United Nations came directly after the Second World War, explicitly to try and prevent another global war of this kind.

One suspects it's a much more complicated task than meets the eye at first. There is something in our natures that make us want to identify ourselves in groups or packs.

Yemassee: In his essay on Philip Larkin, your contemporary Martin Amis had this to say: "...everybody is `racist,' or has racial prejudices. This is because human beings tend to like the similar, the familiar, the familial."

Ishiguro: Well, that begs the question "What is familiar?" Traditionally, that might have been the case, because black people tended to live with black people, white people tended to live with white people.

What's very interesting in the latter part of the twentieth century is that people start to live in these mixed communities. It's interesting that when we talk about these things we very easily revert to color-coding, but there are many communities in which color is irrelevant. The divide -- and sometimes it is a very bitter divide -- is not along color lines, [as we see] in Northern Ireland or in the former Yugoslavia. Particularly people from the British backgrounds or the American background, because of peculiar histories of colonialism in Britain and slavery in America, we do tend automatically to think in terms of color. But you look at it from the point of view of many other people around the world: at the heart of Central Europe is the divide between the Jews and Catholics, for instance, [which] runs right through twentieth century history and accounts for a lot of things that have happened. Between Protestants and Catholics there's a very bitter divide as well. And of course in the Middle East we have the Israeli-Arab divide. I think it goes much deeper than color.

Martin may well be right in saying "Yes, we like the familiar" ... I think we're moving towards the point where people are not so unfamiliar with people of different colors, but nevertheless there are other cultures that people find very alienating. I think people find countries with very strong Islamic dogma very intimidating in the west. It's not to do with the color of the skins of people in those countries. That's become a new kind of fear. Not long ago, people in America looked at people who were Communists in that kind of way as well, as a threat.

Yemassee: Often, England seems to me a more multicultural place than America, as far as literature is concerned. England has writers representative of a lot of nationalities, people like you, Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, and Ben Okri. I don't know that we have anything here that compares to that. We have white and black male and female writers, but England seems more of a melting pot. Is that a fair assessment?

Ishiguro: Well, it depends how you're defining melting-pot. From here, looking at America, America looks like a melting-pot, it's literary culture, but of a different sort. You have to remember that Britain has this history of colonialism, and that a lot of the empire basically came to an end in the 1950s and the 1960s, and so there's kind of a ready-made bunch of people who are educated in the English way, who are almost quasi-British, in a way, but not living in Britain, but in these old colonies. Hanif Kureishi's a bit of an exception, because he was actually born here in Britain to, I believe, a Pakistani father and an English mother, or perhaps it's the other way around. I don't know him very well.

But Ben Okri and Salman Rushdie, they went to school, respectively, in Nigeria and India, and I imagine they went to schools that were more British than the British schools because these were countries very much modeled along the colonial lines, seeing the British method as the best way. And then they came to this country to study further. Rushdie came when he was ten to go to public school here. I don't know when Ben Okri came. The point I'm making is that the recent history of Britain means that there is a ready made group of people all around the world who know other countries and who often write directly about the whole colonial or post-colonial experience. That's what they lived through, or are living through. To some extent, Nigeria claims Ben Okri, and I know that a lot of people in India regard Rushdie as an Indian writer.

Looking at America from here, it does strike me as a very multi-cultural literary society as well. You have, as you said, white male writers, black male and female writers, but your big writers are people like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Alice Walker -- there's a whole lot of very distinguished black writers, of the top league. You have a lot of Jewish writers who are very overtly Jewish; they write about the Jewish-American experience. And more recently, lots of the books we hear of, from America, seem to be written by a younger generation of people who are writing about the multicultural experience -- Amy Tan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Oscar Hijuelos.

Yemassee: You mentioned that people often consider Rushdie an India writer. How are you regarded in your own native country? What response do your own books get in Japan?

Ishiguro: That I find quite difficult to assess, to be honest, partly because Japanese reviews tend to be very polite and enigmatic, and you have to kind of read between the lines.

Yemassee: Do they consider you one of their own?

Ishiguro: This is a very interesting question. No, I don't think they do. My first two books were actually set in Japan, and I think then I was invisible in Japan. My kind of gimmick, if you like, around the rest of the world, was here was a guy writing in English about Japan. That was my initial calling card. People thought, oh, he's kind of a Westerner, but he's also a Japanese. But in Japan, that was the one place where it didn't account for very much. They didn't know me at all. They just thought I was another Japanese writer, writing about these things from ages ago. That wasn't what they were interested in at the time. It's only when I wrote The Remains of the Day, a book set in England, that I was noticed in Japan, and then people started to wonder: "Oh, this is interesting -- he's Japanese, but he's written this book set in England. He seems to be a British writer."

I went to Japan the week after I won the Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day in England; it was literally the following week I arrived in Japan. People were very interested in me there as a social phenomenon, rather than a literary figure. A lot of press greeted me, there was this big press conference, but there weren't questions about literature. It was all about racial identity. They were curious to look at me and figure out whether I was Japanese or English.

Japan is going through now what America went through at the beginning of the century, and what Britain went through in the 1950s. Japan remains a very racially homogeneous society, still today. It is still relatively rare to find foreigners in Japan. But recently, by which I mean the last 15 years, it has become more normal to encounter, particularly in the larger cities, people who aren't Japanese. And I think this whole question about how do you relate to people who live in Japan who have some right in Japan, but who are not Japanese, that's come into their orbit for the first time recently.

But the other thing that's affecting them is what happens to Japanese children of these people posted all around the world with these multinational corporations. It is a big worry for them, in some ways being this very homogeneous, enclosed island race. The fear that your child will lose his or her Japaneseness, because they've gone abroad, is a very big issue in Japan. And there's a whole problem of kids who've spent two or three years abroad, and come back, and they're ostracized at school. This is one of the biggest social problems in Japan, and they often have special schools and classes for what they call "returnees." A friend of mine used to actually just specialize in dealing with the returnee problem -- and they're bullied, and not accepted, rather in the way my character Akira is.

It seems to be a growing problem, because so many Japanese children are spending a year or two years out, because of the nature of the world now. Japan lives on international commerce and industry, and you can't do that unless Japanese are living all around the world, running these offices.

And so, the interest in me is I'm seen as a kind of prototype. I went a generation before the masses of kids went out there. They look at me to kind of figure out what can happen to Japanese children when they're brought up abroad. And I'm both their worst nightmare and a sign of hope, because they see they can make a career abroad, they can be accepted, particularly because I seem to have made a successful career with the English language, which seems to be a formidable barrier for a lot of Japanese people. They think, if someone can do that, then it's possible for them to do anything abroad. We don't have to worry, in that sense -- it's possible for a Japanese child to grow up abroad, be accepted in a foreign country, and overcome all these obstacles, and become a part of the establishment. So that's comforting.

On the other hand, they look at me and say "Oh look, he's lost all his Japaneseness, he doesn't know how to behave, his body language is all wrong. He can't read Japanese."

Yemassee: He's an Englishman.

Ishiguro: Yes -- he's turned into a freak. And so this troubles them. I might be doing a disservice to people who read me in Japan, but I think by and large, to the extent that people have heard of me in Japan, they've heard of me as this interesting case. And I think that probably goes before any consideration of my books.

Yemassee: You take a lot of time between books, three to four years to produce a novel, on average.

Ishiguro: Well, when I talk about this I'm always aware that this sounds like a very decadent complaint I have, but the nature of life for a writer today, who has any amount of success, or at least has publishers aspiring for success on behalf of you, is that you spend an enormous amount of time promoting. This is something that has grown and grown and grown -- even in the last, say, 12 years, it's grown out of all recognition.

I think the perception of a writer has subtly changed. He's gone from being a slightly anonymous figure, a printed name on the page, to a kind of figure that people want to know about, in the way that people always want to know about actors.

Yemassee: Does that bother you, that you can be seen less as a writer, and more as a celebrity?

Ishiguro: I feel ambivalent about this. This is fine if this is a supplement to the reading experience, but sometimes it's like the book is being cut out. You just make a direct line to the author by reading about the author in magazines, and you go along and hear the author talk, and ask the author questions, and then you've kind of somehow had that event -- and you don't really have to read the book. This is an exaggeration, but there's a tendency towards that. What was essentially a supporting act is becoming the act itself.

I think people will look back on this period and look at the actual literature that's produced and start to see that the way the industry has gone has had a profound influence on the nature of the actual writing, in one way or the other -- both in terms of how much has been written but also in terms of what has been written. This is the environment in which the writer writes now.

Yemassee: You think maybe Thomas Pynchon had the right idea? Just avoid it altogether, and that in itself makes its own publicity?

Ishiguro: I've had a lot of discussions about this. A lot of publishers have said to me that Thomas Pynchon would not be allowed to do that today. If he was publishing V, today, there is no way that any publisher would agree to publish a huge, difficult book like that, however good they thought it was, if the author said "I'm not doing any publicity. I'm not doing any interviews. I'm not going on tour." There is no way that book would get published, and if it did, nobody would read it. It would just disappear. We have a situation here where the whole book industry can't operate without the author participating, in some kind of way. That somehow inadvertently got built into the whole thing. I think the day when the Pynchons and Salingers could say "Here's the book, I'm hiding away," I don't think that's on anymore. It's interesting that Don DeLillo, who used to do that, finally had to go a big world tour.

Yemassee: What's a writing day like for you?

Ishiguro: When I'm writing I actually put a stop to all the promotional activities. I do it all in one block. I've said that after Christmas, I'm going to start writing. Between Christmas and August, I'm just going to write. Then I go into a completely different kind of rhythm, which on the surface is dull, and kind of routine, because my daughter's going to school, it has to necessarily revolve around the working day. I can't do anything eccentric, like write in the dead of night or anything like this. I usually like to start work around nine. I have an hour's break for lunch. I usually finish around six. But usually there's a bunch of phone calls to get through toward the end of the day, so I finish my actual writing around four, and then take care of some of the business. And then I'm through around six. I don't do anything in the evening. I spend that with my family.

Yemassee: Do you do a lot of reading?

Ishiguro: I find it difficult getting the reading in. When I'm writing, I tend to do very little reading, partly because of the time factor, but also because -- you've probably heard other writers say this -- somebody else's prose can affect you. Not so much their deeper techniques or ideas or themes, but I find their prose very catchy. It could just be to do with me, but some people just reflect other people's accents very easily. If I'm reading Conrad, I start to write in this rather turgid, kinda weird prose. It's very difficult to keep a particular voice in my head if I'm adopting another voice as a reader.

Yemassee: Who do you like reading, when you read?

Ishiguro: Increasingly, these days I'm trying to catch up on classics. I've suddenly started to panic; the possibility that I would not read some very famous books, because I would die first, suddenly struck me for the first time, because I always thought I had an infinite amount of time to read all these famous books. I'm not that well-read. I wasn't somebody who read a lot as a child or as a teenager. I wasn't particularly interested in books very much. So I've got a lot of catching up to do.

Now, I'd like to read Proust, for instance -- I've only read the first two volumes [of In Search of Lost Time.]

Yemassee: Do you like it?

Ishiguro: The "Overture" [from Swann's Way
] I've read a number of times, and it had a profound influence on my writing. I read that quite early on in my writing career. And this kind of drifting in and out from one time to another -- I learned a lot from Proust. I've always meant to read the entire thing. It's been sitting around on the shelf for many years. It's not always the most readable thing, because what comes after the "Overture" I found very dull.

Part II 

Yemassee: I found When We Were Orphans both similar to your previous novel, The Unconsoled, and different. Both have protagonists who are faced with a kind of obstacle course toward reaching a goal, which only seems to recede further away. But Orphans is a good deal more earthbound. Was it a conscious move on your part, to do something where the surfaces are a little more solid?

Ishiguro: I guess so. The Unconsoled, I decided, would kind of take place in this dream-logic world. I didn't necessarily see the need to carry on setting all my books in that dream world. To some extent, I'd probably had enough of it. I spent about four years immersed in that dream world. A lot of people just couldn't make head or tail of The Unconsoled, though I'm gratified to see that over the years here in England people seem to be coming around to it, reading it again and so on. When my book came out here in April, a lot of the reviews spent a lot of the space talking about The Unconsoled, so a lot of people wanted to write about that book as well as the new book. It was a book that baffled a lot of people, frustrated a lot of people, made a lot of people angry. In a way, I wanted to talk about some similar themes through a completely different kind of technique, using a relatively fast-paced story.

Yemassee: When We Were Orphans struck me as quite cinematic. The action of the book was so exterior. It moved at a very rapid pace.

Ishiguro: I used plot in this book perhaps more than I've used it before. Even books like The Remains of the Day, which is a pretty accessible book, is not very plotty. This is the first time I had a go at a traditional plot, if you like, and there's a kind of traditional denouement at the end, when Uncle Philip appears at the end and says what happened. To some extent, it began as an idea to do a kind of pastiche of a certain kind of adventure story or detective story of that time. I didn't really have that much heart in terms of wanting to do a full-blown pastiche. That kind of faded away a little. But when I started the book I did have this notion that yes, it should actually contain a plot. That wouldn't be the most important thing about it, but there should be a kind of mystery, and it should actually have a proper resolution, you should actually find out what happened to people. It just came with the territory. It was this kind of book I was writing.

Yemassee: Do you find Christopher markedly different from your other characters? In this book, unlike some of your others, the evil is less inside the character than outside him, threatening to engulf him.

Ishiguro: He's in quite a different position from people like Stevens the butler [in The Remains of the Day] or the artist [in An Artist of the Floating World]. Those earlier characters are certainly people who are trying to come to terms with something. They're trying to come to terms with ideals that took them somewhere they didn't want to go, and they realize that perhaps it is too late now to redeem their lives. They've given the best they had to something they didn't want to support. It's all about their struggle to come to terms with what's happened. That's not really Christopher's battle.

That character who looks back and very painfully comes to terms with a less than flattering reflection of himself -- that was a character who did fascinate me in the earlier part of my writing career. But after The Remains of the Day I felt I had covered that fairly thoroughly. I finished The Remains of the Day in my thirties and somewhere in between my mid-thirties and the time I hit 40, I think there was something about the way I viewed life in general that that way of looking at life didn't appeal to me much anymore. In a way, it's kind of a young man's way of looking at life, that you set out with a set of principles, political views, whatever, and then you go out there on the playing field and you use these principles as a guide and at the end of the game you see whether you've done well or not.

In a way, books like The Remains of the Day were written with that assumption in mind, that you measured your life toward the end by how well you stuck to your ideals and you may well find, because you didn't know enough or the world was too complicated a place, you took a wrong turn here or there, but you can see a clear road down which you've come, and perhaps you can identify the wrong turnings. I think somewhere along the way, after I'd finished The Remains of the Day, that pattern of how one views one's life didn't really ring true for me anymore. I thought things were perhaps not as controlled as that. Laterally, I've become much more interested in the fact that a lot of what we do is beyond one's control. We're often motivated by completely irrational things, and we often choose our vocation, who we associate with, who we live our lives with, who we marry according to some crazy irrational scenario, of wanting to fix something that can never be fixed.

The Haggard Heroes Recall Their Lost Pal


For most of his final years, the poet James Dickey’s life was in free fall. Professionally, his stock had dropped; the prices for books and readings fluctuated, and there was always the looming threat that his old lies would be exposed. That was the least of it. His home life was a nightmare: he was a hardened alcoholic and an incurable womanizer, and his much younger wife Deborah was a heroin addict who often took out her rage on him. Their lives, to read Henry Hart’s biography, were a swirling maelstrom of liquor, adultery, and verbal abuse on his side and dope, prostitution, theft, and late night calls from violent drug dealers on hers. Worst of all, both were trying to raise a young daughter, Bronwen, born in 1981. The possibility that she would be placed in a foster home was very real.
Somewhere in the mid-1980s, Dickey started eating lunch every Tuesday and Thursday at the University of South Carolina Faculty Club with English Department stalwarts Don Greiner and Benjamin Franklin. They called themselves the “Haggard Heroes,” from a poem Dickey adapted in their honor from Samuel Johnson: “Where culture’s haggard heroes find repose/and safe intellect defy our foes.” Sometimes, to fill in the fourth chair at the table, they invited a “mystery guest,” who was either Bronwen, or a bright student or another professor. The guest was generally expected to keep up with and contribute to the lively, intensely literary talk.
Teaching, and these lunches, “were the only semblance of order in his life,” Greiner recalls. “He would eat lunches with us on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then go teach, so he had order from noon to five o’clock. Then he’d go home to that chaos with Deborah.”
Always at the forefront, of course, was Dickey’s expansive personality, easily eloquent on subjects both literary and domestic, his conversation peppered with brilliant judgments, well-remembered quotes, tall tales, and statements guaranteed to shock all but the most jaded.
In that regard, both Greiner and Franklin had been well-trained. One of Greiner’s first meetings with Dickey, recounted in Hart’s book, is typical. The year was 1969, Greiner’s wife Ellen was very pregnant with the couple’s second child, and Dickey patted her belly.
“That’s some wife you’ve got there,” he later told Greiner, and then crudely joked that he had just had sex with her. Greiner’s response: “Well, you’re doing better than I have in the last six weeks.”
“What Henry Hart inadvertently left out is that what Jim was doing was testing me,” he said. “Ellen’s word for it was ‘He was baiting us,’ and we refused to take the bait. And we became among his best friends.”
Greiner said his wife got a call the next day from a university gossip: “The phone call went something like this: ‘Do you know what that outrageous James Dickey did last night? He had his hand on the stomach of a wife of a poor, untenured assistant professor, and the assistant professor couldn’t do anything about it...’ and Ellen said ‘Wait a minute, I was the woman, and it didn’t bother me.’ And there was this -- click! -- silence.”
Dickey was forever “pushing, testing the person with him, be it male or female, to see how the person reacts. If the person reacts calmly, or refuses to be insulted, then the subject is dropped and Dickey is ready to buy you a beer. But boy, if you react, as if ‘You’ve insulted my integrity,’ Dickey kept pushing and pushing and pushing. That’s why he liked Ben and me, and [USC classics professor] Ward [Briggs] and Matt [Bruccoli], because we would say: ‘Oh, Jim, for God’s sake! Grow up!’”
Hart marshals considerable anecdotal evidence of Dickey’s racism, with numerous instances, even up to his last years, where he would freely use the word “nigger.” Did his friends ever see that?
“I think he had leanings in that direction,” said Franklin. “I would not call him a hyper-racist, by any means, but he would make assumptions” based on race. Franklin recalls the time Dickey asked a black waiter who he was backing in an upcoming boxing match with Mike Tyson, “the assumption being that a black male would be interested in that. Now that is not a major deal, but that is kind of an incipient, minor, low-keyed racial attitude.”
Greiner, again, sees it in light of Dickey’s outrageous personality.
“I think he deliberately used words we don’t use today to test you. If you reacted with horror, he would keep using it. If you just sloughed it off, if you didn’t see yourself as the defender of political correctness, then the conversation would move on. He was always testing. Of course, he didn’t keep that up with us because we just didn’t bite.”
They also became used to his lies, some of which they believed, some of which were transparently silly. Franklin recalls Dickey coming to lunch and announcing that he had been nominated to the Archery Hall of Fame, or his fantasies in earlier years that Jimmy Carter had asked him for advice on policy matters. While Dickey did send letters of unsolicited advice to Carter, “he presented it as ‘Jimmy asked me...’” Franklin recalls.
But part of the irony of Dickey’s life, for Greiner and Franklin, was that he did have very real accomplishments. It wasn’t enough for him that he was America’s most famous poet, or that he had written a good novel titled Deliverance; he would later brag that he had virtually made John Boorman’s film of the book as well. And while he didn’t fly 100 missions, he did fly 38, and won five Bronze Stars.
“He had enormous accomplishments,” Franklin said, “but he just would not leave well enough alone.”
His sense of his own importance could sometimes lead to ridiculous extremes. When the local Catholic church refused to allow a non-Catholic to be Bronwen’s godfather, Dickey personally appealed, unsuccessfully, to the Pope.
When Dickey’s many bloated myths eventually started falling apart, he counterattacked by de-mythologizing himself, conceding that a lot of his public persona was just made up.
“In letter after letter, he’s writing and saying, ‘I am not Hemingwayesque, I do not know a great deal about the woods, I don’t want to get on the Chatooga River and paddle down.’ I think Dickey was trying to have a preemptive strike against a biographer who would say ‘Here’s the Dickey myth, let me destroy it for you,’” Greiner said. “I think Dickey was trying to destroy it already.” By then, it was too late.
Dickey’s constant drinking was a form of release, Greiner said, from days spent living in a private world, which is always at war with the one on the outside.
“Remember James Joyce’s famous comment? ‘The enemy of the artist is the perambulator in the hallway.’ There you are -- and look at the estrangement between Jim and his sons.” (Both Christopher and Kevin Dickey kept their distance from their father; Christopher Dickey didn’t even know about Deborah’s 1991 arrest in a drug raid until he found it on the Internet three years later.)
Dickey had typewriters in several rooms and floated between them. “When he got blocked, he just moved to the next typewriter. Well, you do that all day, day after day...”
“Jim had the natural inhibitions that most of us have,” said Greiner, “and that alcohol freed him.”
James and Deborah Dickey made varying attempts at controlling their demons. Jim would swear off drinking, Deborah would get detoxified, but it was never long before either or both slipped.
“Jim started coming to our houses on Sunday afternoons,” Greiner said, “and it became pretty regular. We would call one another to warn the other that Jim was just leaving our house. What Jim wanted of course was conversation, to get away from Deborah, and alcohol.”
Greiner said it got to a point where he closed the draperies and wouldn’t answer the door, because he knew Dickey was drunk, would demand more and -- worst possible scenario -- might drive home drunk and kill someone in an accident. (Both James and Deborah Dickey certainly had their share of car wrecks, once while picking up Bronwen from summer camp.)
But even in his cups, Dickey’s gift of gab never deserted him.
“We would have wonderful conversations,” Greiner said. “The more alcohol he had, the greater the conversation was. He was brilliant. But I was afraid if he had any more alcohol he wouldn’t get home, and only occasionally would he let me drive him home and leave his car at my house.”
Franklin said the neighbors used to laugh at the sight of Dickey driving his blue Miata into the center of Franklin’s yard. Dickey would already be loaded, and then would have beer with Franklin. They’d talk for three hours and, upon exiting, Dickey would usually take a quart of beer from Franklin’s refrigerator.
“He was out of control,” Franklin said. “And my great fear was ‘What would happen if this guy in fact would run into someone and kill a pedestrian or another driver?’ If he wants to kill himself, that’s one thing, but if he takes someone with him... I lost sleep over that one. My conclusion is I was not strong enough to stand up to him, on that.”
Although Dickey was the most highly-paid member of the USC English Department, and was still raking in profits from books, screenplays and readings, he never carried money, not even credit cards. He was, Franklin said, “oblivious” to money; he could be intensely generous but just as intensely tight-fisted. Franklin recalls at least one bizarre incidence when Dickey called him up and asked for a loan.
“He called up and said ‘Do you have twenty-five dollars,’ and I thought that odd. It so happened that I did have twenty-five dollars and he said ‘Could I borrow it?’ and I said ‘Sure.’ So twenty minutes later up pulled the van, Deborah driving. Jim got out and came to the door and I handed it to him. There weren’t even pleasantries. He just took that and went.”
Franklin immediately called Ward Briggs, and told him what had just occurred. Briggs told Franklin he had just became part of a drug transaction; Deborah needed a fix. Briggs also told him he’d never see that money again, but Dickey surprised Franklin by paying him back at the next Tuesday’s lunch.
For a man whose public persona was one of hunting, war, women, liquor, and risky behavior -- and who came to believe his own myths -- the private story was much different.
“One of the ironies in that context,” said Franklin, “is that he was really an abused husband.” There are many instances in Hart’s book where Deborah brained her aging and sickly husband with whatever was handy. The intense friction between Dickey and his wife, who was becoming increasingly violent under the influence of heroin addiction, spread to those who were Dickey’s friends. Franklin recalls when he and Greiner tried visiting Dickey, and Deborah Dickey wouldn’t let them in. Dickey, in a back room, overheard them and interceded. He was glad to see them.
But that isn’t all about him the two friends remember.
“Let me explain what I mean by generous,” Franklin said. “At these lunches, he would bring two copies of the latest book for which he had written an introduction. He was all the time bringing us books that he had contributed to, with generous inscriptions.”
He had the typescript of To the White Sea copied and signed -- a rare copy, as Dickey later made editorial changes to the book. Greiner remembers Dickey giving him the typescript of a poem he wrote in honor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, among many other thoughtful acts.
“Whenever I needed a letter of recommendation, back in my early career, it was there. He wrote it. Greatest literary mind I’ve ever known and extremely generous -- but not with money, because he never carried any.”
Ultimately, Dickey hit rock-bottom, a fact that became painfully clear to Greiner and Franklin one day when he showed up late for lunch. Franklin looked across the Horseshoe and saw Dickey propped up against the gate but making no movement toward the group -- when he finally did move, it seemed to take an eternity for him to move a hundred feet. As he approached a step near the table, he looked up at Greiner and Franklin and just said: “Help me.” Both noticed that Dickey’s skin was a deep yellow.
“It was obvious that this guy was in serious trouble and jaundiced,” Franklin said. “From that point forward, it was nothing but straight downhill. He’d have moments where he would be much better, but he was on a pretty constant descent. One aspect of that, though, that I think Henry also talks about, is that if you need evidence that he was dedicated to teaching the students, and to this university, that day was it. Because we insisted that we either take him to a hospital or a doctor or somehow see that he got medical care and he would not do that. And why? Maybe some of it was bravado, I don’t know, but he felt an absolute dedication to those students who were waiting right over here at two o’clock, and he insisted on going there. We, in the end, got him there.”
After that experience, about four years before Dickey’s death, neither man ever saw him take a drink again. Of course, by then, “his health had been shattered,” Greiner says.
“Even after he must have known he was dying, I don’t know that he regretted [drinking],” said Franklin. He vividly remembers walking back from lunch with him that day, and stopping at the bridge over Pickens Street. Dickey couldn’t continue walking and sat down. He told Franklin: “Nine out of ten of the greatest experiences of my life involved alcohol.”
“He never detailed them,” Franklin said, “but he seemed to be saying that he doesn’t regret what has happened to me because of alcohol.”
We were “watching a man die,” Franklin said, “and it began at that lunch with us. Of course, there was a long prelude to that.” At the very end, through a special arrangement with USC, an emaciated, cirrhotic Dickey was teaching classes at his house, an oxygen tank at his side.

Of course, in the end, none of the above will matter.
“No one remembers Shakespeare’s children,” a drunken William Faulkner once snarled at his daughter, and he was right. If people remember anything about Dickey, it won’t be the drinking or the ugly behavior or the way he tortured his first wife or the way his second wife tortured him. Where does Dickey stand, and what about his art is worth preserving?
Franklin notes that Dickey’s rare book prices are at an all time low -- “his present reputation, if that’s any gauge of it, is not all that exalted.” Dickey also had a hell of a time trying to sell his papers; years before his death, his own university library balked at paying the $350,000 price tag. The papers were later snapped up by Emory University.
“That was a huge mistake on the part of this university,” Greiner said.
I cited an influential Atlantic Monthly article from October 1967, where the poet Peter Davidson said that James Dickey and Robert Lowell were only the only two poets at that time who had any claim on being considered “major.”
“Dickey’s work,” Davidson wrote, “is a search, in a sense, for heaven on earth. He seeks order and resonance in the inchoate; ransacks through obsession, through trial and error, changes of costume and skin, through transformation of personality and the accidents of experience, to discover some sort of relation between the human and animal worlds, a bridge between the flesh and the spirit, and, more than these, a link between the living and the dead.”
Thirty-three years down the road, Greiner, who teaches Dickey’s poetry, thought Davidson’s ranking proved correct: Dickey and Lowell do loom the largest over American poetry from 1960 onward. Among other contenders, he said, there may be Sylvia Plath, but she died too soon and poets have to judged on more than feminist politics. Richard Wilbur has a “classicist formality” and is a “master of language,” but no major Wilbur poem is on par with Dickey’s best work.
That’s no assurance of future posterity, though, Greiner said.
“I’m not convinced that Lowell and Dickey, fifty years from now, will have the same kind of stature that Eliot, Pound, Frost and Stevens continue to have. Those four poets have entered the pantheon, and they’re there forever.”
Greiner’s praise for Dickey does not include his work from about 1970 on, which critics generally agree was where he peaked.
“The artist has the right to be judged on the best work,” Greiner said. “It makes no difference to me that Melville wrote Mardi; the point is he wrote Moby-Dick. It makes no difference to me that Ezra Pound wrote some cantos that are full of fascist rhetoric; the point is wrote Canto One, Three, Thirteen and Forty-Five. That’s what matters.”
“Jim was a poet of risk,” Greiner said. The lingering images in his poems are ones of war, animals, sex, blindness, machinery, and death. “What he was trying to do -- and I think it worked beautifully, when he succeeded -- I’ll use the word the some critics have used, but I think it’s accurate: exchange.”
A poet like Wallace Stevens, he said, would start a poem with a realistic description (“She sang beyond the genius of the sea”) and then try to push into more abstract, imaginative territory, “and even though he knew that transformation could not be permanent, he longed for it to be permanent.” Dickey “caught the pulse of American readers in the 1960s and 1970s” because he would start with a realistic image, seek transformation, but always return, changed, to the real world.
“It wasn’t like Keats longing to be with the nightingale. Dickey wanted to be with the nightingale, and then return back to his mundane existence, changed by the experience. When you read his poetry carefully, the word ‘change’ is in a lot of poems.”
In Dickey’s “Cherrylog Road,” a young man has sex with Doris Holbrook in the back of an old Pierce-Arrow in a junkyard. The lovers part: “We left by separate doors/Into the changed, other bodies/Of cars...”
“He goes back to his life, but he’s changed forever, whereas Stevens would have longed to keep the kid in the junkyard with Doris Holbrook forever, and that would not have been possible.”
Similarly, “The Lifeguard” starts with a realistic scene, with the guilt-wracked title character laying still amidst “a stable of boats.” In the middle of the poem, he thinks the child he had failed to save has returned to bless him. The poem returns, at the end, to the reality that no such salvation is possible.
Dickey’s style, too, was significant: “That rising trimeter line is extraordinary for the kind of poems that Dickey is writing.” Dickey’s switch to a split line, creating a so-called “wall of words” effect where words and phrases are spaced across the line, led to some great poetry but, for Greiner, it also precipitated a decline. In time, Dickey’s strength, the narrative, was lost. The poems became more abstract and opaque.
Dickey arrived at an opportune time in American poetry, Greiner said; the late 1950s, when poetry was beginning to break with formalism. Dickey was “seen as a fresh new voice, with an obvious lyrical talent, on top of his narrative.” But where T.S. Eliot said “The poet must escape from personality,” Dickey took the other direction; he “poured his personality into his poems, so the reader could feel a personal contact.”
Dickey’s 1960s poetry often put him right in the thick of controversy, with attacks coming from both right and left. His poem “May Day Sermon,” which is full of sadomasochism (for which Dickey had a private fetish) was deemed pornographic when it was published in the Atlantic Monthly, and could have cost him his position as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress. Major poems like “The Firebombing,” in which a World War II pilot reflects on dropping napalm on the Japanese, was deemed hawkish by Robert Bly. Bly also found racism in Dickey’s poem “Slave Quarters,” where the narrator imagines himself a slave owner, conceiving a child with his own property.
Dickey, whose public positions on Vietnam and race were always in public conflict, only relished the controversy. Greiner points out that Dickey supported Eugene McCarthy for President; then again, Dickey also said he was no fan of appeasement and at times was staunchly in favor of America’s involvement in Vietnam.
“Bly totally misread ‘The Firebombing’ for his own political ends,” Greiner said. “He knew that that poem was not about Vietnam. It’s a poem of retrospection where the narrator is looking back 20 years, from 1965 to 1945, telling us what he did and admitting at the end of the poem that the poem is about the guilt of not being able to feel guilt. That’s what the poem is about.”
Greiner notes the poem’s closing lines: “Absolution? Sentence? No matter;/The thing itself is in that.”
“I’m not being absolved, because I can’t feel the guilt, I’m numb, is the point,” Greiner explains. “You can sentence me, it won’t make any difference -- I’ve already done it. It won’t do any good. I’ve already dropped the bombs.”
Greiner said Bly deliberately overlooked lines in the poem -- “This honored aesthetic evil” -- which suggests a narrator who has ambiguous feelings about the destruction he has wrought.
“What Bly wanted was for Dickey to write a poem on the level of [Russian poet Yevgeny] Yevtushenko, who was parading around the United States. ‘America, the stars on your flags are the bombs that you drop’ and all that. It was political hogwash. Nobody’s gonna read Yevtushenko’s poetry anymore.”
Similarly, Bly misses the boat on “Slave Quarters,” Greiner says. “Every initiated reader knows not to identify the voice in the poem or novel one on one with the author. The author is creating. Bly knows that.”
Not that Bly broke Dickey’s heart. Dickey never hid his opinions on the competition, and offered his own harsh assessments on Bly, James Merrill, John Berryman, Lowell, and Plath (a whiner, he often said) all his life. But those opinions could change on a sudden whim. Hart’s biography asserts that for all his avowed dislike of women poets like Plath, Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton (with whom he had a torturously unconsummated relationship), he couldn’t have written Puella -- his experimental cycle of poems written from a sustained female perspective -- without them.
Greiner compares him to Frost, who would help any poet he did not see as a rival. Although he often criticized Lowell -- whom he called “Lord Dreary,” derisively punning Lowell’s poem “Lord Weary’s Castle” -- he could also be charitable.
Franklin points out that Dickey would acknowledge the significance of Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead,” which he found superior to his old friend Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”
When Lowell came to USC to read, Dickey turned to Greiner and said “Don, tonight it’s as if Shakespeare and Johnson were meeting at the Mermaid Tavern, and only time will tell which of us is Shakespeare.”
“It’s clear that Lowell was his rival,” Greiner said, “even though they became friends toward the end of their lives.”
Dickey’s opinion of Lowell considerably improved after the latter died, which was not unusual, says Greiner. He also praised John Berryman to his face, bad-mouthed him to others, and then said “Berryman was the best of us” after that troubled poet leapt to his death from an interstate bridge. Greiner thinks Dickey’s professions of guilt over Berryman’s death -- he had given him a bad review not long before -- was just ego on Dickey’s part.
“I don’t think Jim really thought that he had helped push Berryman over the edge by something that he might have said. I think Jim liked that notion” that he could have.
Dickey’s poems, “up to or about Deliverance, were revolutionary,” says Greiner. “They’re mesmerizing. They have an incantatory tone, when I read them aloud in class. Students feel the pulse in him. They are riveting.”
Dickey’s star was truly in the ascendant when he published Deliverance in 1970. The well-known novel about four men on a weekend canoeing trip that ends in rape and murder encapsulated and solidified everything about the Dickey myth, as did his appearance in the film as the sheriff. It meant more money, more fame, more readings, and more excess. Dickey had the power to do anything, and he did a lot.
“The whole hoopla over Deliverance, where Jim took his outrageous persona, in effect, on the road, and played the redneck sheriff -- I think it hurt him,” Greiner said. “I think it brought him all that money and then he started demanding more and more money for the readings.”
Deliverance is “mesmerizing. I think it’s a terrific book. But it’s not Moby-Dick or The Golden Bowl or Absalom! Absalom! or The Great Gatsby.”
“However the novel he preferred is Alnilam. “ said Franklin. “His second novel is his great novel, which is the one no one knows. It was vilified for that kind of dual narrative.”
“Which I think is the brilliance of it,” said Greiner.
Greiner said that while Alnilam is no Moby-Dick either, it will probably be rediscovered the way Moby-Dick was, seventy years after its publication, or the way Robert Coover’s 1977 The Public Burning is getting renewed attention now.
“I think there will be critical attention paid to it. I don’t think you’ll have readers flocking to it, because it’s too hard. Dickey’s technique is absolutely brilliant. On the one left hand side of the page you have the blind narrator telling what he thinks is going on, and on the right hand side you have the objective narrator telling the reader what is literally going on. The possibilities for irony are endless there, because the reader knows what’s going on; Cahill doesn’t know, but is thinking what’s going on on the basis of sound and feel.”
Franklin remembers how anxious Dickey was to get early approval on his final novel, To the White Sea, and asked opinions of the book not long after it came out. Part of the anxiety, said Greiner, is due to the fact that Dickey’s opus of collected poems, The Whole Motion, sank like a stone. Critics barely noticed it.
“There’s a life’s work,” Greiner said, “and it got no play at all.”
For the best of that life’s work, he quickly ticks off six poems: “Falling,” “The Performance,” “The Lifeguard,” “Cherrylog Road,” “The Fiend,” and “The Firebombing.”
For Greiner, Dickey’s major poetry comes as close as any to meeting the standard laid down by Robert Frost: “The utmost of ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of.”

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