Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Far Country

One thing that I truly miss about graduate school is that I don't get to read as many books as I used to.

At various points in graduate school I was reading several books a week. At least 3 or 4 for classes, one or two more for my own research and interests, and then usually another one or two for just fun. I was processing information constantly and my brain brimming with ideas, and so my blog posts in those days were longer and sometimes crazier, deeper, more convoluted to say the least. Since I started teaching my amount of reading as diminished. I still read for research and to prepare for classes, but the amount of reading that I do for simply fun dropped so much in 2009 and 2010. Last year I tried my best to start up reading a little bit here and there just for fun, but still failed miserably.

I did read a few books here and there, and some of them really made an impact on me. A case in point is the book a far country by Daniel Mason, which was given to me as a birthday present by my girlfriend's mom (an avid reader herself). Most of the books that I read are sci-fi, fantasy or popular mainstream fiction and so this book was different for me. Although you could call me "intellectual" my preferences for reading are far from the usual "intellectual" "great writing choices." I don't keep up with winner's of prizes, whether they be Pulitzer, Booker or even Hugo. But that being said, I do enjoy good writing, although my idea of good writing is always a mixture of high and low culture.

I did enjoy a far country, far more than I thought I would. The story itself isn't very interesting. It is about an ambiguous world, where people in the country suffer with drought and poverty, and the cities are potential paradises with modern inventions, plenty of jobs and opportunities. A young girl, with some sort of vague intuition or latent psychic ability is sent to the city to help an aunt care for her child. She hopes to run into her brother who left for the city earlier to work as a musician. In the city she finds a fantastic new world, which is full of misery and division. She lives with her aunt and cousin in the slums that surround the city and are regularly filled with people coming from the country. Those in the Settlements as they are called bus in and out of the city giving it life by working the jobs that few would want, by being the cheap, invisible and disposable bodies that any high functioning society needs, but pretends largely to not exist.

As I said, the story is gi minagahet, boring. The young girl goes looking for her brother and at the end of the book finds him. There are not great and even interesting revelations along the way. The girl is born with a latent power, which plays almost no purpose in the book, even though it is mentioned on the back cover in the description as if she'll be using her powers to do jedi mind tricks.

The power of the book is the way it is written. The way that the author presents to you, what by virtue of the story is a very boring, drab, dull, and sad world, actually gives us an uneasy and intriguing life. The struggle of farmers, trying to get by, to ekk out an existence with a savage surrounding world of fickle weather, greedy landlords, malicious illnesses, and always far too much misery for any person or family to seemingly handle. It could belong to any country and many different times. That was something that made the story of The Seven Samurai translate so well into The Magnificent Seven. It was not the similarities between warrior classes, but rather the fact that the Japanese and Mexican peasants is actually a much more universal tale that provides the perfect depressing backdrop. At the end when the peasants are celebrating, and someone remarks that it is actually they who are the real winners, it is a celebration of the universally rough and weatherworn life of the small-scale farmer, and how they embody an element of human suffering and dignity.

We are given this bleak life, but not any real directions as to where it exists in our world. It feels like out world, but where would it be? It feels like the South at times, sometimes the Southwest. Sometimes the Midwest. Sometimes it could be somewhere else. The author keeps things very vague and as a result, the world which is so lacking in color and so faded, actually becomes infused with the life that we paint into it. The struggle to locate it, means that we give it life in our attempt to mark it on familiar terrain, to drag it, sometimes kicking and screaming, onto our a set meaning on our cognitive map.

The city has the same effect. It feels like it is from the 1920's, 1930's, 1940's, it could even be today. There are ways in which so many potential times are overlapped that it becomes a sort of literary magic eye puzzle. You pick a time and certain elements vanish, pick another and they reappear, but something else is lost.

I found this refusal to name names and give the audience a clear and precise sense of the landscape and the location very interesting. While for part of me it made the reading frustrating, I soon realized that the frustration was not because of the writing or the writer, but rather myself and the way in which the writing was depriving me of a common shortcut for reading. We already have mental maps of times, places, ideas, and so when we read we drag those out and they fill the spaces in for us. If a book doesn't say it, we can imagine it, we already have a general idea stored in there for us. As I read through the book I kept wanting that shortcut. I wanted the author to write, Mobile, Alabama, 1955 or Juarez, Mexico, 1887, or anything like that, to give my mind a break and just let me lazily fill in the gaps with some already known details. The author stubbornly refused and it made me constantly have to re-read, reimagine and recreate the world of his novel.

This is why I came to eventually truly appreciate this story. The unassuming, almost quietly drab way of creating this world, almost seemed to imply a universality to this tale. As if it could take place in so many places, with so many possible languages used to string it together, in several different recent time periods. There was a way in which, while you could argue the author created something very personal and unique, he was still trying to create universal moments and images that would resonate with so many, that would feel real and feel textured regardless of how you read it, or whether you were like me and hoping to get a Proper noun or an exact date for what and where the story was unfolding. That's why for me the world of the story started to feel very real and very true. By not relying on what the reader already knows, the author starts from blank life and gives you a bare set of details, but gives them to you in such a sincere way that they stick. The simplicity and the almost pure way that they appear on the page makes them feel more real, gives them an aura of truth.

A case in point was my favorite passage from the book, which I have typed up below. In it, the author describes the people who make their way from the poor, always swelling settlements around the city, into the city to work. His descriptions of the women, those who work in the factories, as maids and as prostitutes are so vivid and capture so much emotion and tension in such a cramped space was a sight to behold.

If you are looking for an interesting read this year, I encourage you to check out a far country. In the meantime, check out the passage below:


In the morning, sitting on the doorstep with Hugo on her lap, she watched the people descend from the Settlements and crowd the buses to the city. They were day maids and factory day-shifters and construction men. At night, others came down: the cleaners of factory plants and the girls who said they were waitresses, the night-shifters and the night guards.

The buses were full in the morning. There were long lines, and the fare collectors packed the aisles as tight as possible. The buses lurched through the city, rumbled forward in traffic, swung tight curves, dove into tunnels, shook until they seemed ready to fall apart. Sometimes they broke down, abandoned their fares in worried crowds that set off walking for the nearest stop.

In the industrial neighborhoods, the factory day-shifters got off first, filing into looming steel amphitheaters. They donned light blue bonnets and face masks, and took up their places on the factory lines, where they welded in showers of sparks, turned, clamped, cut, twisted, dipped, sprayed, bolted, hammered, lathed, until the end-of-shit bell rang, stopping only for lunch on the cold aluminum tables of company cafeterias.

The construction workers got off at crowded street corners, boarding unmarked vans trawling for day labor. On the tops of skeletal towers, they touched talismans of Saint Barbara and wrapped shirts around their heads to protect themselves against the sun.

The maids role all the way to the Center, where they changed for buses to leafy districts with electrified fences. They stood before cameras and let guards buzz them in. The guards were there brothers or their cousins or neighbors in the city or from the towns they had fled during the droughts. They rode service elevators up terraced apartments called Villa Italia, Le Beaumont and Edificio Cezanna, and learned to shadow the movements of gilded women in dark sunglasses. They mopped the same floors they had mopped the day before, and washed lipstick from Danish crystal. At lunch, they carried silver trays and smiled politely, and listened from the kitchen door to stories of Parisian parfumeries and tans in Miami. When they bosses left in chauffeured cars, they went to the balcony and watched the distant airplanes, smoked and flicked the ash with secret pleasure toward the sapphire blue of the swimming pools below.

Then the maids folded their aprons and took the elevators back down. The construction men lay down their tools, and the factory workers shook out their hair from the light blue bonnets, removed their gloves and masks, and filed out of the great buildings, where they caught the buses back to the periphery, shouldering their way out through the night workers waiting to get in.

The buses went back. Now the watchmen crowded in with the cleaning women, factory night-shifters and the girls who said they were waitresses. The women who were old and free from the tyranny of once being beautiful watched the girls tug on their short skirts with a mixture of sadness and anger. The night guards also watched the waitresses, inhaling their heavy perfume as the bus swayed. They also felt sadness and anger, but also felt desire, too, which made the sadness and anger stronger. The girls who were the shift workers in the factories and still not freed from beauty's tyranny watched the waitresses and saw the necklaces, nail polish, pumps and the men's eyes travel to the edges of their skirts.

The girls who were shift workers in the factories remembered the first time a friend whispered, They aren't waitresses, and learned how much they made. Time and again, they considered the possibilities but said No, which they told themselves was a final No, but each night they reconsidered as they rode into the Center. They told themselves with pride, I would never do that, They make more by suffering more, and they rubbed their elbows and wrists swollen from turning and clamping and cutting and twisting, and their rashes from dipping and spraying, and their wondered if this was true. Then they told themselves, It is a different suffering, a soul suffering, and they thought of the great cold rooms and the whir of motors that made all conversation impossible, the masks that kept the dust out but also kept them from smiling to one another or mouthing words. They told themselves, But it is dangerous, and they thought of the gears and belts and flying metal shards, and friends who lost eyes and hands to mechanical things that couldn't hear them scream.

The girls in the short dresses saw the girls in their factory clothes and remember the first time they heard of the grinding monotony of the plants. They thought, I won't do that, I won't slave for a month for what I make in a week, and they thought of their faces pushed into the rotten carpets of cheap motels and minutes that seemed like hours. They told themselves, I would die of boredom, and thought of the same foul words from the same men, the same musty smell below the same bellies, the same haggling, the same damp beds, the same sharp edges of broken floor tiles, the same mildewed ceilings. They told themselves, Poverty is worse, Minimum wage is worse, and they thought of the cost of lipstick and stockings that the stupid men tore in fits of false passion, the price of contraception and injections of penicillin. Then they thought in the end, But I am beautiful and shouldn't work in a factory, and stared at their reflections in the vibrations of the glass.

They joined buses from other corners of the periphery as they descended on the Center. Now it was the cleaners of the industrial plants who got out first, on the corners of empty blocks with graffitied walls and barbed wire. They watched for shadows as they walked to the gates, waiting as the guards fumbled with the locks. In the black and echo of empty corridors they mopped and sang childhood songs from the north, thought of home and watched the rectangles of sky for dawn to come.

Then the night-shifters got off and took up spots on the factory lines and turned and clamped and cut and twisted and dipped and sprayed until the end-of-shit bell rang. stopping only for midnight lunches on the cold aluminum tables of the company cafeterias.

Next were the guards, who left meal tins in supply closets and checked the chambers of their guns. They waited in the empty lobbies of the black-marble banks and watched the entrances. They imagined figures moving through the dark. They learned that if you stare long enough, you see men where there aren't men, that in the darkness of the empty lobbies of black-marble banks, that night-men emerge from the artificial palms, the swirls in the marble, the reflections in the floor. They knew that some guards never learned to tell the different between real men and the night-men who appeared and disappeared and would never rob anything. They laughed at stories of friends who broke the glass on alarms or fired rounds into the marble, who trembling, tried to explain what they had seen. They said they would never do this, and fantasized at night of gallant rescues, newspaper headlines and thankful executives who emptied coffers of gratitude into their hands.

The last to get off were the girls, who walked until they were beyond the lights and then stopped, to tug their skirts above the white triangle of their underpants and pace the shadows of the overpasses, to smoke anxiously as they walked towards cars idling at the edges of the dark sidewalks, where in the morning they caught the buses once again for home.

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