Around 11:30 p.m., after the Ringling Brothers Circus, a newborn was found by a janitor in the toilet at the
Bilo Center in Greenville, S.C.
Around 11:30 p.m., after the Ringling Brothers Circus, a newborn was found by a janitor in the toilet at the
Bilo Center in Greenville, S.C.
1. Because one day I’ll be standing in line somewhere and some presumptive, baby-loving, beyond-middle-aged woman (the same sort you overhear asking people about their grandchildren and, when she hears there aren’t any, moans “Oh, I’m so sorry.”) will want to touch my belly. I could refuse and hurt her feelings, and she might look disgusted and change lines. Or I could let her touch it and she’d ask about its gender and name and due date and I’d have to decide between beginning a whole lie-based conversation and telling the truth. And because even if she didn’t touch me, or ask to touch me, she’d still look, and I don’t think I could deal with the looks of strangers who think that I got myself pregnant.
2. Because I get offended when people ask if I have kids. Just because I can doesn’t mean that I should. It’s not a tragedy that I haven’t had them, and there is no “yet” in that statement. I don’t want to hear about how I’ll change my mind or how my biological clock will magically start ticking or how I just haven’t met the right man yet, as if I’ll just wake up one day and want to put a baby in my belly.
3. Because of my tokophobia. I don’t like seeing pregnant women, thinking about giving birth, seeing babies—and that’s not even with my body. The thought of growing something inside of me, and feeling it move, kick, swim, for nearly a year, makes me nauseous. I don’t want a distended stomach and bulging boobs and inflated ankles. I don’t want to waddle around with one hand on my back and one on my belly. I don’t want to think about vaginal tearing or cutting or stretching that’s inevitable when someone tries to squeeze a living, squirming watermelon out of something a fist shouldn’t fit into, as they shit themselves and push against the worst pain of their life and something fights its way out of the neglected bush they haven’t been able to reach in months that is now open to a room full of strangers.
4. Because of my iatrophobia, especially concerning OBGYNs. I suffer through my ailments on my own, doctors be damned. You should know that by now. Broken bones, illnesses physical and mental, even recurrent issues keep me away from the office. And if I do have an appointment, I get anxious about it and reschedule, sometimes two or three times, before finally cancelling. I don’t want to be examined poked prodded biopsied cut sewn altered, reduced to a set of misfiring parts by nitrile hands. You were once so pissed off when I said I wanted to die before I got old; so mad that I wasn’t taking care of myself. I’m still deciding how much of my physical self I owe to you and how much of it is my own.
5. Because I like my body. Well, I don’t exactly like it, but I like it more now than I would like it after giving birth. I know you hated when I was a size two. And I wasn’t happy as a size eight. And I’ve just found the size in between unhealthy-small and uncomfortable-big and finally feel sexy again and how am I going to feel, and how am I going to get laid, when my size is “elastic waistband”? I don’t want the weight gain, the stretch marks, the leaking tits, and either a stretched out vagina or a Caesarean scar.
6. Because the birthrate will be something like four to one in the next few years, someone at work told me, but really we need a lot of babies to care for the growing elderly population, but what happens when all of these babies get old and need even more people to take care of them? And someone else at work said the only good reason to have kids is because you think the world is so wonderful that you want to bring another person into it. And actually I was thinking about joining the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement because I really don’t think more of us should be created. And besides, the more educated and successful you are, the less likely you are to even want kids, and I’d like to think I’m among those ranks—not that you’re not. And I’ve long been a fan of the Childfree By Choice movement, because they have more personal, less global reasons than the Human Extinction people. And the UN says the world population will be 9.6 billion by 2050, and we already hit 7 billion this year. And I go to cemeteries and see entire families of dead babies and think that that’s what survival of the fittest is all about and damned science and technology are keeping us around longer than we’re supposed to be and I wonder how many of us would have been dead babies if we’d been born in another time and about all the dead babies everywhere—no markers, no stones—millennia and millennia of them rolling ‘round in earth’s diurnal course, and the grieving mothers and surprised mothers and dread-filled mothers and unwilling mothers and how even now with all our science, we don’t and can’t control our birth at all, not entirely. Not in any way that’s meaningful on the whole.
7. Because it’s good to have a steady income before you consider having children. Not only am I in debt but I also live paycheck-to-paycheck. You’d think, after half a lifetime of stomach problems and pregnancy “jokes” and comments from coworkers, I wouldn’t care if I actually was sick with child, but I don’t want to miss work and be sick and have to have “bed rest” and my job at the bakery is really physical anyway—it’d slow me down too much to be pregnant, and the holidays are coming, and they’d have to hire someone else.
8. Because I don’t want to spend most of a year as a sober non-smoker. Nine months. Or more, if we’re talking breastfeeding. That’s nine months without a drink, a cigarette, a bowl. How am I supposed to feel even more sick all the time but never smoke any weed?
9. Because I have ulcers, chronic heartburn, GERD, nausea, IBS. I can’t imagine the severity of stomach problems if I were pregnant. I don’t need to add constipation, gas, frequent urination, backaches above and beyond what I already have. Expecting mothers should be exceptionally healthy. Not to mention my anxiety and depression and agoraphobia—I’m not mentally healthy either.
10. Because it’s more complicated than you think. Because all clinics require surrogate mothers to have had at least one prior successful pregnancy, something I wish you and Mom had known before you even considered mentioning this idea to me. It must be awful to want children and not be able to have them, and here I am probably fertile as the Crescent, but I’ve spent the last thirteen years telling my body not to get pregnant, threatening it with abortion, and then I get an email from my mother one day asking if I’ll consider having a baby for my sister? I bought you a card to congratulate you on your pregnancy the first time you had in vitro and I’d rather throw it out than give it to myself, and long ago I decided I was fine with being the last Housman, and I don’t understand why your marriage needs a baby or why Mom needs to know that her family will live on after she’s dead, but again, how much of my body do I owe to my family, and how much of it is really my own? And now, even if I do get pregnant, I’m going to panic more than I normally would, because now I know the baby is wanted, truly wanted, just not by me, and I’m sorry your in vitro didn’t work and that you can’t adopt through normal channels because you don’t want to get rid of your dogs and you feel like your biological clock is ticking, but you’ve got ten good years left in you and maybe now’s just not your time, or maybe you need time to realize that a baby is more important than nine dogs, or maybe the world is trying to spare us a cemetery full of dead Housmans by just cutting them all off at the pass, and maybe that’s really okay.
Serves: Anyone willing to pay $23.00 a box ($11.99 after 7:00 p.m.)
1. Tie the apron. Stretch your fingers into the plastic gloves. Go to the cooler, that dark cell filled with raw meat in the back of the grocery store, and pull the chicken out of the cardboard boxes. Count the wings, breasts, and thighs–shapes you have memorized–and drop them into the green bucket. Try not to think about how cold chicken blood is when it has been refrigerated overnight. While you do this, hum along to the chorus of the song playing over the intercom, “If I had a million dollars…”
2. Haul the bucket to the sink and wash each piece. Try not to think of it as waterboarding the chicken.
3. Turn on that monster, the fryer. That big vat of boiling vegetable oil. Make sure it’s hot. The last time you cooked, you put the chicken in too early, and the breading got all slippery and slimy, the pieces hanging in lukewarm oil, suspended–chicken in purgatory. Be kind to the chicken. Give it no illusions of survival.
4. Roll the chicken around in the silver tub of seasoned flour and begin daydreaming about your Great American Novel, but become distracted by what you would do with a million dollars instead. You find yourself wanting to sit somewhere French with a typewriter while wearing a smoking jacket.
5. Notice that you didn’t put on the apron referred to in step one. Your belly has a certain prominence and somehow you can never keep it out of the flour. Put on the apron now so Drake the Adorable Stockboy won’t see your gut covered in bleached wheat. He calls you Fitzgerald because he knows your literary ambitions, but not your romantic ones. Wave to him when he makes his 9:00 a.m. appearance with the milk stacked on a pushcart.
6. Drop the chicken piece-by-piece into the fryer. (Of course, you will need to have lowered the wire basket into the grease first. If you did not do this step, grab a set of tongs from under the deli counter and fish the chicken out before it burns on the hot coils. That’s what happens when chicken has the freedom to do whatever it wants.)
7. Set the timer for the chicken.
8. Stir the chicken halfway through its cooking-time with a giant metal spatula to keep the pieces from sticking together. This will be around the time Drake comes over to flirt with you. Ask him what he would do with a million dollars.
9. When Drake says he would buy a boat, explain that a million dollars would buy far more than a boat. Do not betray your disappointment when he says he’ll buy a big boat.
10. If you forget to set the timer (like last time) take the chicken out as soon as you realize too much time has gone by and poke it with the thermometer. If you can poke through the breading without too much trouble, put the burnt chicken in the case and sell as much as you can before your manager comes back. If you have to unduly exert yourself to stab through the breading, throw the chicken away. Cover it in the wastebasket with paper towels. Pretend it never happened. Do steps 1-4 again.
11. When a customer calls, ask her, “What would you do with a million dollars?” When she says, “Oh, no! I just wanted the deli people,” reassure her and jot down her order.
12. Go to the cooler with two green buckets so you can accommodate the caller’s request for 39 skinless chicken breasts for her family reunion. Tear off the skin, and toss the chicken into the flour.
13. Don’t want more. Don’t ever want more.
In his memoir The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, Joe Wilkins captures the raw reality of growing up in eastern Montana where the land is dry and the work hard, but the stories are alive and resonating. Joe Wilkins’s clear prose illuminates the land, which burdens its settlers, as well as completes them.
Joe Wilkins describes two childhood friends in great detail. Both of these friends do not fit in the Big Dry, just like Joe himself who prefers listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, reading voraciously, and discussing philosophy rather than listening to Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, drinking beer, and mundane small talk. In “All Apologies,” Wilkins describes his friendship with Justin, a longhaired, pot-smoking “hippy” from Seattle. The two of them work as janitor’s assistants over the summer, forging a friendship over music, talking about girls, backbreaking labor, and dreams of a brighter, more interesting future far from Montana. Joe tells Justin stories of what they could be. He realizes his stories have the power to provide motivation and hope once Justin begins wanting to improve his life. But Justin comes from a broken home and he is forced to Montana after a fight with his uncle. Wilkins loses contact with him, yet still sees the spirit of Justin in strangers, whether it is the skinny boy around the corner, or in the woman smoking cigarettes ravenously, one after another.
In “The Big Dry,” Wilkins focuses on his relationship with Carlo Bernard, a poor boy with a disabled father looked down upon by the town. Joe Wilkins made an effort to treat him like a friend, unlike others. Carlo loved to tell wild stories about his family even though other kids teased him mercilessly. Carlo and Joe create a bond based on being outcasts in their community. Joe never questions Carlo’s stories and Carlo never judges Joe for looking at the stars or using words like beautiful. They admit their shame and their feelings of weakness. Even though they lose their closeness as they grow older, Joe still cares about him and wants him to be happy. There are several lamps in Carlo’s living room and none of them turn on. Wilkins ends this powerful section by writing, “This journey has been a dark one. Yet I pray someday each lamp may finally click on, and the world stream with seventy-watt glory, stream and fill with a kind of gentle fire” (197).
Joe Wilkins believes memory alone is never enough. A story can gather up the pieces that memory leaves behind. Stories help us understand and grow; they connect us to others in ways that we cannot achieve otherwise. Through storytelling, Wilkins tries to understand his father who died of cancer when he was just a young boy. We join him in a lifelong search for fathers: his storytelling grandfather, his little-league coach, his father’s old fisherman friend, a welder who fixes his broken basketball hoop, or his elementary school teacher who always had a new book for him to devour. Each of these men shapes him in some way. Near the end of his book Wilkins writes, “Many hands have held me. And I am here, and who I am because of them. How then do we reach out to those who have saved us, those who have delivered us from ourselves and unto ourselves? My mother prays. I try to tell out story” (197). Storytelling is Wilkins’s way of giving back to those who have influenced him because no one is solely responsible for self-creation. Stories guide us in contemplation, introspection, and self-discovery, but they can also lead us astray through lies or false hope. Writing his stories saved him, and they also have the power to save us through their truth and cathartic impact. As Wilkins writes, “It is when we recognize how stories fail us and how stories save us. It is when we have heard them both and tell, in the moment of our greatest need, the story that will save us” (169).
212 pages. Publisher’s Group West, Counterpoint Press, $24.00
If you ask a modern poet about rhyme, she will most likely tell you that it is dead. Or that it only exists as an archaic curiosity. The consensus seems to be that rhyme has no place in modern poetry. But if rhyme truly distances a work from contemporaneity, how is it so common in that most contemporary of genres, hip hop? How do hip hop artists make their work relevant while using such an “archaic” technique? And, perhaps most crucially, why do they rhyme? David Caplan, author of previous works on poetic form including the books Questions of Possibility and Poetic Form: An Introduction, addresses these questions in Rhyme’s Challenge.
Caplan sets down his goals in a clear and captivating introduction. Rhyme, he tells us, is ubiquitous in contemporary culture, despite the scholarly consensus that it is nearly dead. Hip hop is his focus because its artists are “[t]he most daring, innovative, and conspicuous contemporary rhymers” (3). In order to set the foundation for future research, he examines hip hop’s use of rhyme in three different contexts: doggerel, insult, and seduction. While doing so, he discusses the history of rhyming in those contexts to show how the trends have developed over time. Parallel to the discussion of rhyme in hip hop, he shows how this intersects with the history of rhyme in English poetry: going from a sine qua non to something to be avoided. So he shows how hip hop “usefully challenges a host of entrenched positions in contemporary poetry, poetry criticism, and poetics” (23) and why contemporary print-based poets ought to re-embrace this still-vital technique.
Doggerel, comically bad verse, is the topic of “Reduced to Rhyme,” the first chapter of Rhyme’s Challenge. In the tradition of English poetry, a distinction is usually made between “real” and “intentional” doggerel. The first is composed in poetic incompetence, the second uses poor versification as a tool for parody. Now that rhyme is uncommon in English poetry, its use has been seen to lower any poetry to the level of doggerel. This is not the case in hip hop, where the use of rhyme is essential to the genre. As he discusses in chapter three, wrenched rhyme, a sign of incompetence in traditional verse, is considered, in hip hop, to display performative talent. The distinction, then, between the types of doggerel becomes less clear. Instead, hip hop doggerel can become meta-commentary, criticising trends in the genre by performing them parodically.
In the second chapter, “The Art of the Rhymed Insult”, Caplan discusses insult poetry. In Augustan poetry, when heroic couplets were the form of choice, insult poetry was hugely popular. As rhyme declined in popularity, so did insult verse. It has, lately seen a resurgence in popularity in hip hop. Unlike hip hop doggerel, which develops and innovates the earlier genre, insult verse in hip hop is fairly consistent in form and function with its literary predecessors. Strong end rhymes create memorable associations between the insulted and the rhyming insult, and imply other associations with epithets left unstated, protecting the speaker’s deniability while leaving no question about what they meant to say.
Love poetry is the topic of chapter three, “Making Love in Mirrors”. Rhyming talent has been an important part of seductive versification since time immemorial. Caplan discusses how the search for a suitable rhyme was an integral part of courtship. Hip hop does not approach rhyme-seeking in the same way. Unlike the Renaissance love poetry, which relied on both form and sentiment to seduce, hip hop presents rhyming skill as seductive in and of itself. Changing a word’s pronunciation to fit a rhyme is a sign of mastery of the language, rather than technical incompetence.
The contemporary poets who are the subject of the final chapter, “The Inheritors of Hip Hop”, grew up in a time in which print-based poets had, for the most part, eschewed rhyme as anything other than an archaism, its only use being to distance a poem from the present. The way that contemporary poets use rhyme has been influenced more by the hip hop that they heard growing up, than by their poetic predecessors.
In the conclusion, Caplan distills his argument. Rhyming culture changes over time: the innovative becomes cliché, the gauche and incompetent become mainstream. Although critics may decry what they term the low standard in contemporary rhyming, hip hop, with its polysyllabic forced rhymes, is not weakening rhyme but redefining it. Nor are forced rhymes its only contribution. With words entering the English language at an approximate rate of 8,500 a year, there are always new rhymes to be found. Currently, hip hop artists are the only ones taking advantage of the rhyming possibilities presented by the constant lexical additions. These rhymes make their poetry memorable, as a quote from the poetry editor of Paris Review illustrates (137-8). The new conventions in rhyme and the possibilities presented by our growing language need now to be embraced by print-based poets.
Caplan presents his argument well. As he moves through the chapters on the different uses of rhyme, he gradually builds up the case for the changes in standards of rhyme, and how hip hop represents the next step in a long history of changing trends in the use of rhyme. The illustrative verses that he quotes are excellently chosen.
This book’s greatest weakness is its treatment of slam poetry. Apart from a brief mention in the introduction, in which he dismisses its relevance despite the influences and era that it shares with hip hop, citing its differences in cultural context, origin, and use of rhyme, Caplan avoids any mention of slam poetry. While his claims about its different context are correct, his dismissal ignores the slam poets who have had success in hip hop like Saul Williams and Guante. Even if their use of rhyme does not differ from the mainstream, their place as “inheritors of hip hop” ought not to be dismissed.
Through his examination of mainstream hip hop artists, Caplan does an excellent job of describing trends in the use of rhyme in the genre. His work provides a clear and concise foundation on which future work on the topic can be based.
Rhyme’s Challenge confronts the consensus about the morbidity of rhyme. Throughout the book Caplan shows how it is still a vital technique, worthy of examination. He emphasizes the utility of rhyme – it allows poets to embrace a rich historical tradition, and it makes their poetry memorable. Caplan’s analysis of how hip hop uses rhyme ultimately serves as an argument for why rhyme should be reconsidered by both poets and scholars.
Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture. David Caplan. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. Viii + 178. $19.95 (Paper).
Shirley: A Novel will be released by Blue Rider Press on June 12th for $25.95.
Shirley Jackson became a household name with her popular works The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, horror classics that paved the way for modern greats like Stephen King. Jackson penned psychological thrillers and sinister commentaries on small town American life, herself something of a recluse with few interviews to explain her mysterious persona. Susan Scarf Merrell’s upcoming book Shirley: A Novel attempts to delve into her enigmatic personal life in an homage woven around a character study of Jackson.
The story takes place in bucolic Bennington, Vermont in 1964, where Jackson lived with husband Stanley Hyman, a literary critic. In Merrell’s novel, Jackson and Hyman have an intellectual marriage, where an uncanny codependence exists despite infidelity and emotional abuse. This is witnessed by Rose and Fred Nemser, a fictional newly wedded couple staying with the family for a year while Fred teaches under Hyman at Bennington College. In a series of domestic yet nightmarish encounters, Rose becomes a disciple of Shirley’s, yearning to understand her sometimes mystical and downright terrifying mind. The relationship devolves into a strange, mother-daughter friendship; when Fred follows in Stanley’s cheating footsteps, the women bond further but this time in a twisted hatred over their limited options. Shirley, a relatively liberated housewife, contrasts with repressed child-bride Rose to infuse the story with the frustrated feminism of the 1950s.
Though not a psychological thriller like Jackson’s own work, Shirley guesses at the environment that produced such horror classics. As narrator Rose develops more involved neuroses about Shirley, the story itself drips with the anxiety and secrecy that drove Jackson to write. Rose becomes convinced that Shirley years ago killed one of Stanley’s amorous students, Paula Welden, who disappeared into the Vermont wilderness and has never been found. Rose finds herself drawn to the place Welden vanished, jealous of the Hyman children, and suspicious of Stanley’s intentions towards her. When she becomes convinced Shirley murdered Welden, Rose is banished from the house, forced to reconcile her mixed feelings towards her new baby and her hatred for her lecherous husband. The Nemsers eventually reconcile their marriage, and ten years later undertake a research project on the Hyman-Jackson household. Both search for evidence that they mattered to the infamous couple, but realize success lies in forging a path for themselves with mutual respect and love.
The Nemsers are clearly meant to mirror the Hymans in their fall from naiveté, at the climax of the story matching mistrust and cruelty with the older couple. Rose pays surprisingly little attention to their new baby at this point, a focus that drove much of the novel’s first half yet peters out thematically after Fred’s cheating. Although Rose and Fred’s struggle to achieve a mature marriage drives most of the exposition, the story also questions the nature of love and its manifestations. Jackson’s peculiar brand of love asserts itself as seductive and intimidating intellectualism, mixed with an indifference that sets Rose against the Hyman children. This also characterizes Jackson’s marriage with blasé and roguish Hyman, resulting in their crippling codependence and flirty antagonism. Their household comes off as both reliable and treacherous.
Merrell reveals that being a female writer in the 1950s meant anxiety— an unstable lifestyle, fear over the reception of one’s writing, repression of the true self in anything outside of prose. Shirley remains enigmatic: possibly criminal, possibly neurotic, loved fiercely by the people she most abuses. Her talent opposes Rose’s domesticity, but results in the same crippling boredom and self-deprecation.
Despite Merrell’s good intentions, the novel essentially fails to portray Shirley Jackson’s inner life. Shirley remains a distant matriarch, betrayed by the weak prose style and Rose’s immature narration. While Rose and Fred are necessary for the premise of the novel, serving as the lens through which Merrell explores the Jackson’s marriage, Rose’s preoccupation with money drives the story away from Jackson and any revelations concerning her enigmatic life. Rose herself fails to mirror Jackson or divulge the necessarily imaginative and secret inner life of a 1950s budding female intellectual. The novel loses a sense of driving plot, and becomes simply a domestic tableau of Jackson and Hyman’s tumultuous marriage and Jackson’s early death. The causes of both are glossed over, in the pursuit of Rose’s anxieties.
Merrell succeeds in revealing but not developing the gender inequality of the 1950s, and the resulting marital problems that likely plagued Shirley Jackson among many other women. Although Merrell simplifies the female experience of that generation, her attempt at a character study of Shirley Jackson is the most successful aspect of the novel. Truthfully, just as much insight about Shirley Jackson could be ascertained by reading her work.
Even as children we were more exposed,
less beautiful at night. You remember
what it was like, there, hidden under thin blankets
in the summer when we wanted to sleep naked
or float on rafts in your pool.
Yes, yes, we were different than our parents
who needed to talk through those nights,
every night, red wine in tumblers
or coffee mugs. We were not allowed to listen.
Why were we always alone?
I knew not to ask.
After dinner we sat damp from the shower,
our hair wrapped in towels, listening.
I still don’t know what you thought about–
Even back then we understood something
about the nature of silence.
These men in robes they told us once: the very nature of sin is contagious.
One coughed in his hand and blessed the bread, God’s body is not contagious.
They spoke of a snake racing through wet grass,
quivering muscles and dark venom growing contagious.
(Mrs. Freisner wore red lipstick that day,
I found her beauty contagious.
She charted out desire on the chalkboard, thin fingers tousling
her black hair. Careful, she wrote, lust can be contagious.)
Eve’s skin, silky and soft. Her lips, red, and the apples–
How soft is a moan? Enough to forget how the contagious
gets inside these bones, underneath my skin.
I brush my lips against yours, find your taste contagious.
It is estimated that on February 21, 1916, the first day of the battle of Verdun, one million artillery shells fell. The fighting would go on, a war within a war, for 10 more months. The casualties were staggering. Limbs avulsed, bodies sprayed, bones pounded to mud. Those that survived the mortars often went mad from the ceaseless explosions. An ambulance driver called Verdun the slaughterhouse of the world. A writer likened his time at the front to a rainstorm of paving stones and building blocks.
At Verdun advance was impossible and likewise withdrawal. The way a fire makes its own wind, Verdun sustained itself, a blood-letting that demanded only more blood to let. This was, for the first time on this scale, mechanized warfare, the materiel of industry. Machine guns, flame throwers, poison gas, artillery shells weighing as much as a horse. The machine gun alone made for rates of death previously unimaginable and gave a certain edge to the defender. The battle and the war were waged like this: shelling, advance, resistance over and over again. The Germans took ground in the early weeks but they lost as many men as the French in doing so. When momentum of the German attaque brusquee petered, they slowly surrendered their gains and more lives. 300,000 died. That number, however, swelled—in the minds of the partisans, in the estimation of historians and memories of the cultures—as if the facts weren’t grand enough to express the horror. The massive ossuary over which a cold monument was erected in the town contains a mountain of human remains, yet merely a third of all the French and German soldiers who died in the battle. Most soldiers in most tombs go unknown.
Verdun was without decision. It led to no political changes, no significant re-drawing of maps or even battle lines. What was won was dear and unable to be held. What was lost was clawed back at the expense of exterminated souls and rubbled townships. Verdun was an infernal equilibrium. Pointlessness seemed to be its point.
But our psyches abhor life and especially death without meaning. Apologies for and mythologies of the battle began even before it was over. To the commanders, the western front presented the inescapable logic of stalemate. The Germans had little reason to attack at Verdun; the French still less reason to defend it. Yet the armies were massed, the trenches dug. The butchery therefore commenced. And continued for almost a calendar year. To the soldiers in the trenches the battle was a miserable existence of mud, artillery roulette, little contact with command or comrades, and little explanation of what the hell was going on. But to Politicians, journalists and novelists as well as filmmakers and musicians on both sides, Verdun was so terrible that it easily “lent itself to symbolic and allegorical overload.”
It is on this point—the battle as it was and the battle as it has been memorialized—that Paul Jankowski’s book Verdun is particularly useful. Scholarly yet readable analyses of the realities and myths of Verdun are the highest achievements in his enlightening study of the battle. The book properly begins with an examination of the general facts of warfare at the time, but also of the daily, indeed, weekly and monthly, particulars of this very battle. Here is the stuff of traditional military history: the plans, the tactics, the strategies and contingency of battle. With this material Jankowski is adept, but not much will be revelatory to anyone who read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. The industrialized savagery of World War One rearranged humanity’s psychic furniture, causing great crises of faith that would lead to modernism itself.
Jankowski intends more than fife and drum military history or beginner’s social theory. He offers understanding of war and ourselves: the way they are fought and the way we remember them. Battles and wars, Jankowski suggests, often define cultures, but just as often cultures define battles, transfigure them. These constructions can depart quite far from actual events. Both fact and legend have realities we must understand. We make narratives of our war-making, narratives that flatter, apotheosize, vilify, dehumanize, excuse and defend. Jankowski makes his case refreshingly with a wide array of source materials: Of course official transcripts, reports and documents, but also newspapers, magazines, soldiers’ letters home as well as mail plucked by military censors, movies, novels, memoir, music. He uses the flotsam and jetsam of culture to make a cultural argument. Humans wage war but war also wages humanity. Ignoring the chiasmus we remain stupid.
But ten months. How did it drag on so long?
Here, too, Jankowski delivers the goods and his answer is keystone to his larger thesis. War is a snare built to trap the fowler. The German general Erich von Falkenhayn, claimed in memoirs written shortly after Verdun that his intention all along, was ausblutung, bleeding the enemy, intentionally waging a war of attrition. Jankowski calls the strategy either paradoxical at best—an attack with no design to conquer, or mendacious at worst. In the memoirs, Falkenhayn referenced certain memos to the Kaiser outlining his strategic thinking to bleed the French with or without victory—”proof” of his aim from the outset—yet no memo has ever been produced and Falkenhayn’s account has had to bear little scrutiny since. In truth, Falkenhayn likely thought little of Verdun beyond suspecting France would defend it. His larger aim was almost certainly to breakthrough the French line and create a war of movement that would favor his superior numbers and better mechanization, but there were better targets along the Muse for this tactic. Falkenhayn chose poorly. Joffre, the French commander, all but ignored fortifications around Verdun suspecting a Falkenhayn would feint at Verdun and attempt a true piercing move above or below. Once engaged, both men had committed their men to quicksand. The armies were trapped, by strategy and tactic, by their leaders’ pride and vanity, by their very own bravery.
After ten months without taking Verdun Falkenhayn insisted that ausblutung was his goal all along. Post hoc rationalizations are propagated, believed and even though disputed they live a life in the common understanding. The plot is familiar to even casual students of America’s recent wars. War goes on because men are brave, proud, craven and vain.
Verdun became the battle that “made France,” France’s Thermopylae, a testament to its union, its people, a high point to generations hence. But Verdun became these things only gradually as the transmitters of culture—artists, politicians, novelists— appropriated the battle for their own purposes. The Germans too molded Verdun, from a town valuable only because it held value for the enemy into a cautionary tale about the dangers of abandoning the noble field soldier. For the British and Americans, Verdun is mostly an emblem of the Great War, the war not to end all wars, as it was said, but the war to really show what war could do.
Watching a Federal charge at Fredericksburg fail, Lee famously said to Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” In his analysis of Verdun, Jankowski shows us just how fond we have grown despite, or perhaps because of, how terrible war is.
VERDUN The Longest Battle of the Great War
Oxford University Press 2014
Go to Google Maps (not right now, later), click satellite view, type Spain. Look to the southern coast, west of Almeria. Turn off the labels. What you’ll notice is a white patch, a salt flat. A bleached desert maybe. And as you plummet hundreds of miles like an anvil you’ll be amazed because what you’ll actually see are greenhouses – thousands of them, pressed together like grains of rice. Half of Europe’s vegetable crop is grown here. By most accounts, the place is something of a dystopia.
Now do Moscow (later) and this one is a little trickier. Outside the blotch of city, look to the southwest to a solitary blue-gray form that resembles a moldy blini. The Agrikomibinat Moskovsky contains 300 acres of growing space beneath Communist glass and provides fresh produce to 800 Moscow markets daily. Growlights kick on at night and hopefully the workers sleeping nearby in housing units have effective window blinds.
In his debut novel (and second book), Josh Weil invents his own solar spectacle, the Oranzheria, which shares the scope of Almeria’s hothouses and the basic function of Moscow’s agri-city. But Weil goes a few steps further – his Oranzheria is a glass roof structure that covers the entire Russian town of Petroplavilsk; “Vast hectares of panels stretching across an endless scaffolding of steel, it spread northward from the lakeshore, creeping over the land like a glacier in reverse.” The novel, set in an alternate present, is haunted by the zerkalas, orbital mirrors that hover above the city and redirect sunlight to produce “the first place on earth illuminated by the sun for every hour of every day for all the seasons of the year.”
Animals flee to the countryside, away from the nightless cycle. Roosters stop crowing. Indigenous flora shrivels. The Oranzheria is devised and funded by The Consortium, whose research division develops GMOs to grow under extended photoperiods (think Monsanto). The rusty town is revived – most citizens work on the Oranzheria, where shifts are long and arduous and pay is minimal, but at least they are working and the grocery stores are stocked again. We follow two loving brothers, Yarik and Dima Zhuvoz, opposite in every way, who work on the Oranzheria and for the better part of four hundred pages are manipulated by various ideological factions until they become essentially unrecognizable to each other.
The story itself is a nod to Russian folklore and to the empire’s storytelling tradition. Dima quotes Pushkin aloud in the town square and this public recitation eventually sows seeds of revolt. At times, Weil goes straight Chekovian; “When he pulled the covers off, her whole body—so small! so shrunken!—tightened at the cold, her hands flapping for her nightgown’s hem.” Weil splices the present with flashbacks to the brothers’ childhood with Dyadya (Uncle) Avya, a drunk storytelling farmer. The flashbacks serve not only to develop character but also to acknowledge and celebrate Russian cultural heritage. The most significant memory, which opens the book and tremors throughout, involves young Yarik and Dima paddling out to sea on a dinghy at risk of being swallowed by the Chudo-Yudo, an heirloom sea monster. Another interlaced memory involves their father’s suicide.
Most striking is the length Weil goes to cover his scientific bases. His description of nature’s response to the mirror light, to the endless glass ceiling, is nothing short of fantastic. “Far off the river, the egret rose towards the sky until its wings brushed the glass, then dipped again, skimming the water, and flew on, and tried again. Sipping his tea, Dima watched it—its sudden rise, the shock and flutter, swooping down in frantic flight and panicked rise again—until the flicker of white disappeared into the small space between the distant river and the distant glass.”
Weil writes the brothers with tenderness. Yarik is the family man, the realist. Dima takes care of their senile mother and dreams of resettling the old family farm to live off the land, but they must save enough money to buy it back. Yarik entertains Dima because he loves him and that’s really the only reason – but reason enough. They have good hearts and virginal desires.
Prodding them are wacky Gilliamesque characters sans humor, who are responsible for raising most of the stakes. One of them is Yarik’s Consortium boss Bazarov, nicknamed The She Bear, who ventures into Bond territory. In one scene he makes a surprise entrance by crashing through the wall of a worksite trailer using a large earth-moving machine, like a kid on a plaything, almost killing people. Another secondary character, Vika, serves as Dima’s love interest and is the pseudo-leader of an anti-Consortium guerilla group. Her foulness, in language and appearance, is beyond Thunderdome.
The book is strongest in movements not harnessed to its plot, and once that kicks in, priority falls to sequence of events, away from richness of world. Larger themes of runaway capitalism, corruption, agribusiness, work vs. leisure and environmental ownership are accurate and intriguing but stretch dialogue in the story’s interior. The brothers, especially Dima, are often confused or cornered, creating expository loops of dialogue – “What do you want?” “Why do we have to want anything?”
Weil expertly establishes an eerie realism in the first quarter of the story. The world of the great glass sea is foreboding and beautiful. And as he channels the inflated nature of folklore, introducing villains so villainous, rebels so mutinous, actions so grand and symbolic, the realism grapples with a whimsical outrageousness. That Weil lands on his feet is impressive.