Monday, January 25, 2010

American Salvage

If the characters of Bonnie Jo Campbell's American Salvage introduced themselves to you, such a meeting would likely begin with a closed fist rather than a handshake, a headbutt instead of a nod. Curses, grievances, and cheap beer would spray the air, not to mention your Carhartt. Forgive the analogy, but Campbell's second collection of short fiction is making a name for itself, and for its author. A finalist for the National Book Award in the fall, American Salvage was also recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

And how else to describe Campbell's characters? Hard luck doesn't cut it; the rural Michiganders of Campbell's universe have, for better or worse (mostly worse), authored their own sometimes miserable fates. Gritty or tenacious won't work either; those terms welcome affinity, embrace, the part of us that roots for the underdog. And in fourteen short stories, Campbell catalogues violence, addiction, abuse, cruelty, tragedy, and cold hard fact (though dedication, too, with sparse, underscored moments of grace), and her characters aren't easy to root for. In "Family Reunion," a teenage girl abused by her uncle refuses to speak. Instead she directs her quiet rage at her surroundings, obsessively hunting (and killing) deer after deer, much to her father's dismay, until she pursues justice less circumspectly. No need to tell you who lives just across the river within sight of Marylou's scope. In "King Cole's American Salvage," a junk yard owner's troubled nephew unwittingly contributes to his uncle's violent demise. It's a fate neither can embrace nor recover from entirely. Each must embody a new self, and do so on the fly. One bears a burden externally, the other internally. And while both men's circumstances have resulted in different scars, as Campbell writes, "...each of their bodies [still] contained a core of platinum."

Needless to say, with Campbell, the hits just keep on coming. Her prose is terse, her sense of place unmistakable. Starkness abounds. If there's a flaw to her work, she sometimes crafts too dense a canvas, in particular in her shorter stories. But such instances are few and far between. And, as readers, we keep hoping for redemption, a true and righteous reversal of her characters' fortunes. But Campbell is nothing if not relentless. Perhaps the book's final story, "Boar Taint," offers our best chance. Jill, a young woman married to an older divorcee, has abandoned suburban life in Ann Arbor, choosing instead to live on a farm. The choice has given her a life whose hardships she was, in part, unprepared for even after preparing for them. On the surface, "Boar Taint" is the story of an errand, as Jill leaves the farm one day to purchase a boar from a bleak and cruelly reticent family who offer Jill an outward representation of her most internalized fears. The ultimate goal of her errand is breeding pigs, though, as a way to both supplement her income and suggest to herself (and her husband) that she's made the right choice with her life, and so she's forced to go through with it. The pig is, to all parties, a metaphor, and, what's worse, Jill knows it. But just when the story looks bleakest, when her errand looks like a lesson in failure, the story (literally) rises from its own grave. If the miracle is a metaphor for Jill's life, it's also a metaphor for American Salvage. And precisely why you should read this book. After all, sometimes the things we think will turn out the worst, and leave us smarting, end up feeling very sweet instead.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Hurt Locker

To date, the American films depicting the War in Iraq have been a mixed bag at best. Their collective efforts reflect nothing about the military conflict overseas. If anything, they show us the defining characteristic of our culture in the early twenty-first century: the desire to actively contextualize what’s occurring as it occurs, with analysis whose depth remains largely unquestioned by those who gravely depend on it. Perhaps the films have taught us valuable lessons, but it’s hard to recall what those lessons are when the moral to the story depends on the narrative’s conclusion. To put it another way: Hindsight may be 20/20, but do they even make a Blackberry App for that?

Some of the problems of these films, however, have also stemmed from their unwitting dependence on the war movie cliches of our century in a time when we no longer trust such devices as a whole, and for good reason. The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, succeeds by largely avoiding these traps. In the space of its 130 minutes, the lines between good and evil blur, but the great fog encasing the War and its origins is not overemphasized, let alone discussed. No larger narrative to the soldier’s purposes issues forth either, no discussion of the mission of the War. In fact, the characters merely exist in the moment, and their only hope is to keep on doing so. In the opening scene, Staff Sergeant Thompson (played by Guy Pearce), the team leader of a United States Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, is killed. (The film avoids big name performers, who, if they appear, are almost immediately ushered offstage, which is its own statement about the nature of armed conflict.) The opening scene, then, calls the rest of the movie into question: Anyone can go at anytime. Without warning. Thus, the pace is unrelenting, the adrenaline palpable. Parts of the movie take your breath away. Literally.

On the surface, the film explores the lives of three soldiers as they finish the last months of their tour in an EOD unit in 2004. And, while the film avoids cliches, its characters are familiar archetypes we already know from past war movies. Sergeant JT Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie, is the dutiful soldier who operates by the book and leads by example, even if he doesn't agree wholeheartedly with what's being done. Blond-haired Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) embodies each men’s fears and anxieties; in fact, he's a ball of nervous energy you know won't escape the movie without scars, physically and psychologically. And the third character, the centerpiece of the movie, Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner, is a familiar character who remains difficult to classify. He's somewhere between Apocalypse Now's Captain Willard and the man he pursues, Colonel Kurtz. James’ job is to disarm bombs while Sanborn and Eldridge provide both cover and communication. James has disarmed nearly 800 or so bombs in a row with obvious success. Instead of shrinking from conflict, he pursues it, craves it, and, as the film suggests, develops an addiction to facing his own mortality, sometimes to the detriment of the those around him. His character illustrates the notion that the very thing which affords us survival is often that which brings our survival into question in the first place, a fitting metaphor for the War on Terror. Is James crazy, or heroic? Probably both. Probably neither. Some have labeled The Hurt Locker as the defining movie of the War in Iraq. That remains to be seen. Suffice it to say it's a movie we should all watch, at least once, if only to understand what's happening, on a human level, on the other side of the world.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Destruction Myth

For a handful of years, Mathias Svalina has been an important voice in the collective and disjointed chorus of 21th century American poetry--through individually published (and sometimes anthologized) poems with a surrealist bent, and through the publication of chapbooks either individually or collectively written. Now comes his first full-length collection, a handsomely-designed book worthy of celebration, merit, and envy.

On the surface, Destruction Myth feels simple. Consider its title page: forty-four poems called “Creation Myth” followed by one concluding, longer work, “Destruction Myth.” (The vast majority of poems here are prose constructions). In addition, Svalina’s language is monosyllabic, his vocabulary accessible. Yet, simplicity exists on the surface alone. In fact, simplicity ends once you flip past the title page. The book’s opening lines illustrate this, and more:

In the beginning everyone looked like Larry Bird
but everyone did not have the name Larry Bird
& this was confusing. Everyone had a headache.

The response to Svalina’s work, especially lines like these, is laughter, and certainly comedy defines his voice on occasion. (How else do you read lines like, “After the beginning of everything the suicide rate increased dramatically,” or “In the beginning there was a void. A tuba”?) However, somewhere behind the closed doors of these poems a smoke alarm blares, and not because everyone has forgotten to change the batteries. No, in a dark corner of the apartment, maybe a closet we didn’t know existed, a small conflagration burns, fueled by objects and artifacts not usually flammable, and ones we didn’t even know we owned.

To achieve its end, surrealism requires a bevy of rhetorical special effects. Reversal, for example (though, not in the sense of peripeteia), is one of the tricks Svalina uses. In many of this volume’s sometimes comic, sometimes tragic post-post-modern myths, the creation of mankind is a kind of afterthought, as though humanity was born into a world already created, its streets paved, its traffic lights flashing from red to yellow to green. Only, perhaps, its bureaucratic impulses aren’t preemptively churning:

In the beginning there were only streets.
There were streets that led to cliff,
Streets that led to patches of dandelions....

There was, however, no Department of Transportation
& over the millennia the streets dissolved into cracks & weeds.
Eventually the living things arrived....

In other places, nonsense governs, and Svalina’s poems echo, therefore, the world we live in now by strange compliment rather than contrast: “In the beginning there was nothing. But the nothing smelled like bacon. No one could figure out how nothing could: a) have smell & b) smell like bacon.”

I could go on. Beyond the tricks, though, what these poems articulate has more to do with the stories we tell ourselves (how we interpret them, how we let them influence our lives and beliefs) rather than the details of the stories themselves. No reader will read the poems of Destruction Myth literally, or even be tempted to. No reader will confuse the voice of Mathias Svalina for a god. (No reader I know, anyway). Yet, the question this book poses places us before the mirrors of our own existence: If we can’t take these myths literally, how dangerous is it, then, not to treat the mythology of our own life in the same way, especially in terms of our past and how it helps to understand our present while also directing our future? Where, then, do we draw the line? Or, can we? Perhaps, as Svalina himself might suggest, we ought stop drawing the line, because the lines have already been drawn for us. Instead, we ought to start drawing outside of them. As soon as we can. It’s the only way to create a new and lasting mythology