Ava Bigtree is the undeniable star of Karen Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia!, and with good reason. She narrates at least half of the book, and her painful move toward acceptance of her mother’s death is clearly its centerpiece theme. But Swamplandia! is also a novel very much concerned with work. As a sort of veil of feminine mystery is lowered over Swamplandia! itself and Kiwi literally disappears from its realm, he seems to drop under the surface of the novel as well despite the fact that his story takes up the other half of its pages. And Kiwi is the biggest nexus between the novel and work.
Ava Bigtree’s older brother Kiwi never loved Swamplandia! and the cult of the Bigtrees the way she did; he wished they lived on the mainland so he could go to a real school and then college and have a good, white-collar job—not dress up as fake Native Americans to impress dopey tourists. And now that their mother has died, their grandfather has been sent to an assisted living facility, and their father has clearly abdicated all attempts at keeping a normal life going for the children, Kiwi emigrates.
On the mainland, he goes to work for The World of Darkness, the grotesque theme park that has ruined Swamplandia!’s business and attracts seemingly even more grotesque tourists. As an immigrant, he realizes that he doesn’t speak the language of his fellow employees, who quickly take to calling him “Margaret” because of his geeky social ineptitude. He is quick to find out that his SAT-word flashcards are not doing him any good in this environment, and he does his best to blend in, though he is constantly messing up. Just as Ava is back home re-learning how to live without their mother, Kiwi is doing
Continue reading Kiwi Bigtree, immigrant
Pastors and Masters has continued to prove difficult to write about. Usually when that happens I come up with some strategy for attack. Attack! Break it down, pull it apart, expose all the works inside, say something. I managed only the tinest bit of that in my post on its style.
Part of what stymies me is how much that style makes the novella about its characters. The characters are all excellent—utterly unusual and lifelike. But again, back to the style, the only way to really talk about them is by telling you nearly everything they say. I’m sure you have a picture of Mr Merry at this point; there is more, yes, but there’s not much more I can tell you without simply quoting the rest of his lines.
So in my reluctance to leave such a brilliant work with the mediocre one-post treatment, I will get to the other subject that interests me right now: work in Pastors and Masters. It turned out to be quite relevant to The Project.
The boys’ school is run by Nicholas Herrick, a seventy-year-old bachelor who has a degree and supports his 20-odd-years-younger sister, bachelorette Emily. He does so by running the school—but as I mentioned, all he does for the school is to read morning prayers to the boys.
He does one other extremely important thing: he holds a degree, and when it’s prize-giving day and the parents come, he gets to wear his academic gown. Mr Merry, the real schoolmaster, does not have this privilege, but he has something else. This something is continually alluded to by the Herricks and their friends, Mssrs Masson and Bumpus, fellow degree-holders who have remained in academia. But “[t]he quality of Mr Merry’s that gained him his bread was never alluded to
Continue reading “Dear Mr Merry! To support us all, so that people think it is Nicholas!”
I hoped to squeeze in a fifth Stoner post on Friday, but you know what Fridays are like—not super motivational. So you get one on Monday instead! On Thursday I discussed Stoner’s class mobility and status as a class protector. Rise pointed, in a comment, to his review of the novel, where he notes the elliptical nature of Stoner’s feelings about these matters: by the end of his affair with Katherine Driscoll, he admits to her that as it turns out, they are of this world: “[W]e should have known that. We did know it, I believe; but we had to withdraw a little, pretend a little…” But that is not to say that everyone is the same, and there are no boundaries and divisions—that Stoner isn’t still separated from his parents and his upbringing, and that he isn’t separated from the way Edith lived, and so forth.
All that is a winding preamble to the real question of my post: why doesn’t William Stoner have a harder time than he does entering his new class? When he first arrives in Columbia, where he has never been before, and the bus driver points out the university, the narrator says that “[h]e had never before seen anything so imposing.” But “[b]eneath his awe, he had a sudden sense of security and serenity he had never felt before.” Hi is immediately home, in some sense of the word.
At first I thought this was simply a relic of his rural upbringing. A man brought up to wrestle with something as difficult as the earth itself, the seasons, the sun, and all the wild creatures—what could intimidate him? But I don’t think that’s right, especially in light of the lines quoted above. There is simply never any question of
Continue reading Stoner leaves the farm
One of the things that interested me most about Stoner—at least, potentially—was its being about a child of farmers, raised to be a farmer himself, who goes on instead to perform a serious feat of class mobility and turns up an English professor.
Rohan Maitzen described Stoner’s parents in her post on the novel last year as people who “notably” “misunderstand and thus inhibit him.” I would agree that they fail to understand him, but I see in fact a surprisingly small amount of inhibition here. In fact, none. Much more notable to me is how quickly Stoner moves on and away from his parents and their lives. When he decides to change his major, he doesn’t tell them. This is understandable, given the fact that they will probably disapprove, and in some sense they are only giving him up as a farmhand to send him away to become a better one. Still, his failure to inform them at all of his change in plans—which is a drastic change, as he will not be returning to the farm at all—until his after commencement seems unduly harsh. They are, in fact, expecting him to return home with them then and there, and he lets them know that not only will he not be coming, he will be staying at school for several more years, and that everything is very different. Their reaction is stoical:
Finally his father moved in his chair. Stoner looked up. His parents’ faces confronted him; he almost cried out to them.
“I don’t know,” his father said. His voice was husky and tired. “I didn’t figure it would turn out like this. I thought I was doing the best for you I could, sending you here. Your ma and me has always done the best we
Continue reading “But bad as we are, we’re better than those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world.”
William Stoner’s seminar on the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature in the fall semester of 1931 is important both to the novel and to my own purposeful reading of it. On the one hand, it is critical to the plot (I feel like I should say, critical to the trajectory of Stoner’s life), and on the other, it provides a twofold example of Stoner at work: both succeeding and failing spectacularly in the same class.
The seminar is one that has grown increasingly popular, and it’s full. A student Stoner has not met before, a Mr. Walker, comes to his office to beg special permission to be enrolled—without this seminar, he will not graduate on time. Quizzing him about his own specialization (Romantic poets), Stoner is disinclined to let him into the course, but relents. The first session has already met; Mr. Walker will begin with the second session.
On that second Wednesday of the seminar William Stoner came into the room a few minutes late; he spoke to the students and began to arrange his books and papers on the small stained-oak desk that stood squatly before the center of a blackboard wall. He glanced at the small group scattered about the room. Some of them he knew…. Charles Walker was not among the group. Stoner waited a few minutes more, shuffling his papers; then he cleared his throat and began the class.
“During our first meeting we discussed the scope of this seminar, and we decided that we should limit our study of the medieval Latin tradition to the first three of the seven liberal arts—that is, to grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic.” He paused and watched the faces—tentative, curious, and masklike—focus upon him and what he said.
“Such a limiting may seem foolishly rigorous to some of you;
Continue reading “He spoke more confidently and felt a warm hard severity gather within him.”
One question that never fails to come up in discussion of the writing about work I’m searching for is whether it’s not just too boring to write about. For some people, the answer is clearly yes—which, again, are the chapters everyone hates in Moby-Dick? I don’t think those people will care much for Kipling’s tales of the cod fishery either. But there is no objective “boring,” and they are sure not boring for me.
It was not too boring for John Williams to write about work in Stoner. At the second link above, I quoted some early descriptions of Stoner working on his parents’ farm. There is more of that, and there is also something I’d like to get into later this week: as John McGahern notes in his introduction to the novel, “living” is just as much work for Stoner than the actual work he does. The novel, in some sense, is simply work-oriented. For now, just a taste of that, along with his teaching.
Though he was to teach only the fundamentals of grammar and composition to a group of unselected freshmen, he looked forward to his task with enthusiasm and with a strong sense of its significance. He planned the course during the week before the opening of the autumn semester, and saw the kinds of possibilty that one sees as one struggles with the materials and subjects of an endeavor; he felt the logic of grammar, and he thought he perceived how it spread out from itself, permeating the language and supporting human thought. In the simple compositional exercises he made for his students he saw the potentialities of prose and its beauties, and he looked forward to animating his students with the sense of what he perceived.
But in the first classes he
Continue reading “He now spent nearly all of his free time in the study”
I’ve been struggling all day with “Zapatos.” I find it very difficult to write about short stories—which frustrates me even more because I really like the form. But I will not capitulate; I will do my work. (I swear, I will give up on the work jokes soon.)
T.C. Boyle opens the story with the enigmatic sentence, “There is, essentially, one city in our country.” The country is never specified explicitly, but it’s pretty clearly Chile.
The point about this country, regardless, is that the people there really like to wear Italian leather shoes. “Oh, you can get by with a pair of domestically made pumps or cordovans of the supplest sheepskin, or even, in the languid days of summer, with huaraches or Chinese slippers made of silk or even nylon,” the narrator admits. “But the truth is, what everyone wants—for the status, the cachet, the charm and refinement—are the Italian loafers and ankle boots, hand-stitched and wtih a grain as soft and rich as, well—is this the place to talk of the private parts of girls still in school?” Let me just take a moment to say, I want these shoes.
Anyway, the narrator’s uncle sells them, or tries to. The margins are not good—imported shoes are heavily taxed, along with most other imported consumer goods. People are always walking by the uncle’s shoe store in their fine Italian footwear that he knows fell off the back of a truck, or whatever happens in China (we do find out). And he is determined to compete.
So we learn that the country has two free ports, where you can buy things duty-free—but to get them back into the city, you have to pay duty, “the same stultifying duty merchants like Uncle Dagoberto were obliged to pay.”
And why then
Continue reading “Zapatos” by T.C. Boyle
I don’t like to say that “the work project is under way,” or that it’s gotten under way, since my last week’s post on it, because really the work project was always under way—or at least, it has been for several years. It’s just one of those things that I notice when I read, which is probably, of course, why I thought about doing a “project” on it to begin with. But I have dug in. To some work, you could say.
Anthony suggested the anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ford Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, a volume that had been on my shelf for several months, making me feel rather guilty for not working on this project in earnest sooner. I hoped it would give me some ideas for further reading at the very least*, so I started in on it shortly after writing my description of the project. I have read the first six stories: “Business Talk,” by Max Apple; “The Gully,” by Russell Banks; “Me and Miss Mandible,” by Donald Barthelme; “Unjust,” by Richard Bausch; “The Working Girl,” by Ann Beattie; and “Zapatos,” by T.C. Boyle.
Of these six, two show absolutely no work—in “Unjust,” a sheriff is accused of sexual harassment and the story follows his difficulties at home while he’s on administrative leave, and “Working Girl” gallops away from work as quickly as it can and into what one might call “the rest of life.”
In a third story, “Me and Miss Mandible,” Miss Mandible is at work during most of the present action of the story, but she’s teaching the narrator, which is at the very least an unusual depiction of work.** There is also some reference to the work the narrator used to do, though only in very general
Continue reading “Is it true what you told me jest now, that you never done a hand’s turn o’ work in all your born life? Must feel kinder awful, don’t it?”