"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, June 25, 2011

O'Brien's Novel Take on a Childe's Life

Byron in LoveByron in Love by Edna O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edna O’Brien’s writing style perplexes me. I remember being mystified by it when I read her excellent novel House of Splendid Isolation. I felt this disconnect again while reading Byron in Love. I was impressed with the tightness of the plot and the lack of excess in her prose. The trade off is I tended to feel a bit detached and unemotional while reading this book. At times, Ms. O’Brien’s poise and restraint as a novelist unduly bridled the sauciness of Byron’s story.

When I read Ms. O’Brien, I feel like I’m staring in through a mildly warped window at the characters. The scene appears slightly blurred and the sounds are a bit muffled. It is like O’Brien has me off to the side, watching from a discreet distance--as one might do when witnessing a couple argue in public. It’s a compelling style, but not the one I would pick for a biography of Lord Byron--especially one that is delivered like a novel. Yet I still feel this is a great book.

O’Brien’s unvarnished recounting of Byron’s scandals, as well as his chauvinism, challenged me (though I retain my affinity for him). I don’t believe one can take a serious look at Byron without acknowledging his great failures as a father and husband. But it also makes me consider one of the callous byproducts of traditional marriage culture. No child should ever be termed “illegitimate”, even when born out of wedlock to irresponsible parents.

This book also reminded me--as any objective biography of Byron should--of the rampant and abrasive hypocrisy that emanates from intensely heterosexual cultures. Byron could have been subjected to the death penalty for his homosexual liaisons. But when he engaged in heterosexual adultery, he was just fitting in. Ms. O’Brien brings this harsh double standard into sharp relief.

My chief complaint with this book is grammatical. O’Brien’s abrupt shifts between present and past tense annoyed me. Given her abilities and authorial maturity, I have to think the shifts were deliberate. I just found them acutely distracting. Other than that, I don’t have anything much to fault, except my lingering sense of disconnectedness with Byron in Love.

I’ll sum it up with an analogy. I love the musical Les Miserables. I also love composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. But even on his best day, providing his finest work, I cannot imagine Mr. Sondheim musicalizing Les Miz to my satisfaction. There is simply an incongruity between his style and the way my heart yearns to experience that story. This also sums up why I didn’t fall head over heels for Ms. O’Brien’s take on Byron, though I found the book excellent. In any case, I feel the definitive portrayal of Byron was written long ago, though its main character is a childe called Harold.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Spring into Waterloo Recreation Area

But First A Squirrel in Peril, aka Merkel Furniture

Yeah, I know this is a picture of a chipmunk. But Dictionary.com confirms that chipmunks are squirrels (albeit with Napoleon complexes). I nabbed a photo of this little fellow after he invaded Merkel Furniture in downtown Chelsea, MI. I felt bad for the critter. I can only assume store owners are not forgiving toward life forms that pee on the showroom floor (even if they are doing so out of primal fear).

Cinnamon Fern on the Bog Trail

I'm not sure why these are called "cinnamon" fern, though I am aware that a neighboring member of the class Filicinae has dibs on "Royal Fern." At any rate, the above is an early spring shot of said fern impersonating Childe Jake as he appeared in junior high school. Below is an image of the same cinnamon fern on a subsequent visit--this time it's impersonating Jake after he scored a lead role in his high school's spring musical.

My Favorite Overlook on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail

If I'm mistaken, Crooked Lake is named after the hedge funds that its lakefront property owners made their money in. It is a gorgeous portion of Ice Age leftovers, even when one finds himself coveting the palatial homes along the shore. This view is from the Hickory Hills Trail--one of several trails originating at the Gerald Eddy Discovery Center in the Waterloo Recreation Area.

For some 2012 images from the Lowland and Bog Trails, click here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Childe Battles with the Beast

Episode 3 in the Quest to Become a Transparent Eyeball

In a previous post I spoke of my quest to become one with Nature. I resolved to achieve this goal by using the method of the great Ralph Waldo Emerson. He spoke of transcendence as becoming "a transparent eyeball." Twice before, I have sought to reach this epiphanic state and failed. Then, a few evenings past, while sitting on my porch I made a third attempt.

Thus reposed, I began reading from the letters of Lord Byron. All of a sudden, I was confronted by a beast of the field.

This beast, having thoroughly upset my meditation, shied at a given finger. I supposed him prepared to yield. And having made explicit my wish that he depart, I returned to perusing the personal letters of Romanticism's Poet Laureate. Soon I felt myself caught up in the majesty of reflection. Around me, adolescent leaves rustled playfully in the breeze that blows eastward from yon Waterloo.

But what to my surprise, the beast tarried in my path. He hunkered down between me and the goddess of Surcease (known to the ancient Latins as 'Supersessus'). And so I strove to block the foe's advance.

Here upon these stones, I steeled myself against the opposition Nature had set before me. Again, my eyes roamed Lord Byron's letters as he detailed the wiles of seduction and abandonment. Oh great Childe of my heart's library!--great were thy conquests, yet great thy follies also.

(On a side note, what manner of dude becomes pen-pals with the aunt of his most jaded booty call? Woe is him.)

But what to my further surprise...

"Once more through all he bursts his thundering way--"
--Lord Byron, 18-something A.D.
"Can it be?" I thought to myself. "Am I being charged by a beetle? Surely he has lost his tiny mind. No sensible beetle would rush a 6'2" man holding a hardbound book. Unless...this beast cannot see me. Yes, it must be. I have become a transparent eyeball!"

In my transcendent state, I noted the sheen of the beetle's carapace. Filled with the benevolence Emerson must of have known while floating transparent in the woods, I relented. The beetle passed by my size 13 feet, unflappable to the last. Only then did I realize his true intent--and my folly

"'tis past--he sinks upon the sand!"
--Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 1: ln. 782

I looked on while the little fellow burrowed through a craggy egress in the concrete step. My world came into focus. Heed these words, good reader. When you find yourself being disregarded by one of Nature's creatures, do not assume you have become a transparent eyeball. You might have. Or you could just be standing, arrogant and foolhardy, between a beetle and his home. What an asshole ...me that is.

No natural beings were harmed in the making of this blog post.

How My Transparent Eyeball Quest Began

Read Episode 1 Here

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Norman Mailer's Gospel as Fan Fiction

**Fair Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers**

The Gospel According to the Son: A NovelThe Gospel According to the Son: A Novel by Norman Mailer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twice I was fortunate enough to hear Norman Mailer speak in person. He was the keynote speaker at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University, my alma mater. As Mr. Mailer spoke to our gathering, he mentioned The Gospel According to the Son. Why did he write it? As he put it, quite cockily, he’d read the New Testament gospels and felt that he could write the story better.

To be clear, he was speaking of the Gospels in literary terms, not theological. Simply put, Mailer felt the story of Jesus deserved to be told as a first-rate novel, and he felt confident he was the writer to do it. Not long after his remarks, I purchased a copy. But, as with many books I buy on impulse, I didn’t get around to reading it for several years.

The Gospel According to the Son was not what I expected, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I figured Mailer would construct his gospel along skeptical and profane lines. Not so. Skepticism is woven into this novel, but in a masterfully nuanced way. There is some of the profane, but it is surprisingly restrained. Mailer’s Jesus is devoutly celibate--a vulnerable human, open-minded and prone to passionate emotions. Yet he is also admirably righteous.

Now here is the spoiler: Mailer depicts Jesus as truly being the Son of God. There are plenty of points left open for interpretation in this book, but the question of Jesus’s divine status is not left in doubt. Mailer’s Jesus is the Christ.

As the story progresses, it becomes evident that Jesus really has visions and healing power. The author debunks some miracles, but not the biggest ones. Mailer’s Jesus, speaking in hindsight from the right hand of God, shows how the Biblical gospels are tailored for maximum persuasion and are rife with exaggeration. Yet still, Mailer’s Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and contends bravely with a real Satan.

Mailer succeeds in crafting a better narrative than the gospel writers. He converts their choppy and sometimes conflicting accounts into a single fluid and carefully paced narrative. There is a meticulously constructed conflict with the Pharisees. It feeds into the political tension between Jews and Romans, which Mailer renders adeptly without diverging into sprawling historical commentary about who really supplied the nails. And this lean, crisp plotline drives ever purposefully from manger to cross.

Mailer’s Jesus is multi-faceted, given to inner conflict and impulsiveness. He doesn’t have a perfect knowledge of his mission. In fact, much of the skepticism in the novel comes from the Son. Though poignant and engrossing relationships develop with John the Baptist, Peter and others, the arc of Jesus’s character explores the troubled and tenuous bond between Father and Son.

I do recommend The Gospel According to the Son, though as I’ve said it was not what I expected. Mailer proves quite content to err on the side of tradition by mostly honoring the spiritual outline set forth in the New Testament. As such, this is a surprisingly devotional work, rich with the same inspirational musing found in scripture, albeit delivered in an edgier manner.

By the end, I felt like I was reading an elaborate piece of fan fiction. It’s just that this particular Jesus fan was a two-time Pulitzer winner and not a devout Christian (I safely assume). I can even imagine Mailer typing the last chapter, looking over at a copy of the Bible and smirking, then saying aloud, “Father, forgive me. I know exactly what I’m doing.”

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