Great Moments in Literature

“In those days, I knew nothing of what I’ve come to know of the upper classes, who seemed to my mind then either fat people in dusty wigs, half recumbent or mounted upon some unfortunate horse, in paintings with gilded frames, or thin people who stalked the globe, gathered loot, and discovered the sources of rivers already long known to unimportant people.”

—Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know, 2014

 

“STORM CLOUDS BLEED FROM THE HEART OF NIGHT. SHARP WINDS RIP THROUGH THE MANHATTAN MAZE OF CONCRETE, STEEL AND GLASS. DOWN BELOW, GLITTERY HIGH ROLLERS SLIDE UP IN THEIR SLEEK BLACK LIMOUSINES. AND UP ABOVE, SHEATHED IN JET AND SILVER, AN URBAN WARRIOR RISES FROM HIS CROUCH, GAZE FASTENED ON THE TALL TOWER PIN-POINTED BY THE LIMOS’ GLEAMING EYES.”

— Doug Moench, MOON KNIGHT, Vol. 1, No. 9, “Vengeance in Reprise,” 1981

Great Moments in Literature

“Time of a summer evening when the world is being downsampled toward grayscale. The air cooling, a change that seems to be caused less by the setting of the sun than by the fading of color; and the legions of cicadas falling silent, as if color was the thing driving them mad and making them scream.”

—Greg Hrbek, Not on Fire, But Burning, 2015

 

“DOES THE SOIL REMEMBER? CONSIDER THIS PLOT OF LAND, A FEW ACRES OF UNHALLOWED GROUND. HERE LIE THE ROTTED REMAINS OF A HUNDRED EVIL MEN, THEIR LIVES SNUFFED OUT BY THE SOCIETY THEY DEFIED. MURDERERS. KIDNAPPERS. RAPISTS. MEN WHOSE LIVES WERE A CATALOG OF PAIN AND DEATH FOR ALL WHO CROSSED THEIR BLOOD-STAINED PATHS. DOES THE SOIL REMEMBER? DOES EVIL LEAVE ITS BLACK STAIN EVEN ON THE INNOCENT EARTH? I KNOW. AND I WILL TELL YOU, IF YOU ARE STOUT ENOUGH OF HEART TO WALK A WHILE ALONG THE PATH I DAILY TREAD.”

— John Byrne, ACTION COMICS, Vol. 1, No. 585, “And Graves Give Up Their Dead…,” 1987

Great Moments in Literature

“On that snowy day when he asked to borrow all that money to take care of his sick sister in Georgia, Lily’s disgust fought with relief and lost. She picked up the dog tags he’d left on the bathroom sink and hid them away in a drawer next to her bankbook. Now the apartment was all hers to clean properly, put things where they belonged, and wake up knowing they had not been moved or smashed to pieces. The loneliness she felt before Frank walked her home from Wang’s cleaners began to dissolve and in its place a shiver of freedom, on earned solitude, of choosing the wall she wanted to break through, minus the burden of shouldering a tilted man.”

—Toni Morrison, Home, 2012

 

“Plants are like people. Writers are like plants. Therefore, and this may come as a surprise, writers are like people. Give them light, water, nourishment, a comfortable pot, and an encouraging word and they’ll grow. Really. They’ll blossom. They’ll create things of beauty.”

— Steve Gerber, HOWARD THE DUCK, Vol. 1, No. 16, “Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing: A Communique from Colorado,” 1977

My Writers — Rebecca Traister

mad

When the moment called for an evaluation comparing and contrasting the respective testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, The New York Times couldn’t have tapped a better writer than Rebecca Traister. As various pundits were fumbling through their evaluations of the markedly different temperaments displayed by the two figures before the legislative branch, Traister was in the rare position of being able to accurately cite a well-worn adage as credential: She literally wrote the book on the subject.

Traister’s essay, published in the Sunday opinion section of the Times, provided valuable insight to the uninitiated, likely preserved in happy ignorance by their own safe privilege, as to why Ford might feel obligated to remain intensely measured and why the man who followed her to the witness table felt emboldened to rant furiously, spitting out insulting, dismissive responses to the elected officials designing to question his suitability to serve on the highest court in the land. Traister drew on research she’d already done for her book Good and Mad, which bears the subtitle The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. With power, clarity, and historical evidence, Traister illuminated the persistent societal clampdown on women expressing any emotion much more heated that demure acquiescence. The piece is infuriating and heartbreaking. To the degree that it puts a diagnosis to a backwards, gender-specific prohibition against personal expression, the essay is also hopeful and inspiring. If a disease is identified, it can be combatted.

The same day Traister’s article appeared in the Times, I bought her book. Writers need to be supported, especially those that are making arguments against the darkening power structure in this alarmingly regressive time. Good and Mad covers the same ground as the article that inspired my commerce, but with greater depth and more expansiveness. Although Traister is obviously energized in the claiming of her own anger in the wake of the disastrous administration haphazardly assembled by second-place finisher in the country’s most recent presidential election, she doesn’t resort to a purely polemical diatribe. Without giving an inch on her right to be honestly aggrieved, Traister offers a considered, meticulous accounting of the long history that’s brought women to this point, including the progress that has been made, the victories won and lost in the past, and, more importantly, acknowledgment of the yet tougher judgment rendered upon women of color who dare to show their justified rage. She owns her notches of privilege, too.

Especially in recent years, I’ve tried to look past my own blinkered existence to learn the discomfort and hardship of others, particularly those who carry with them some signifier — of skin color, of gender identity, of religious belief, of familial heritage — that makes them an automatic target in this place and time where instinctual uncertainty about difference is weaponized by a ruling class fearful of citizen unity. My education has been just successful enough that I wasn’t surprised by much in Traister’s writing, but I was still grateful for its thoroughness and vivid sense of purpose. I’m prepared to celebrate the fury.

Great Moments in Literature

“Fiona had written poetry when she was Adam Henry’s age, though she had never presumed to read it aloud, not even to herself. She remembered quatrains daringly unrhymed. There was even one about death by drowning, of sinking deliciously backward among the river weeds, an improbable fantasy inspired by the Millais paintings of Ophelia, before which she’d stood enraptured during a school visit to the Tate. This daring poem in a crumbling notebook, on whose cover were doodles in purple ink of desirable hairstyles.”

—Ian McEwan, The Children Act, 2014

“FOR DAYS — FOR WEEKS — A THOUSAND THINGS TRIED TO TELL ME THE TRUTH! …MY MAILBOX EMPTY OF HIS LOVE NOTES…MY HOME DESERTED BY HIS LAUGHTER…MY TELEPHONE DEAD WITHOUT HIS VOICE BREATHING LIFE INTO IT…”

— unknown, SECRET HEARTS, Vol. 1, No. 67, “Believe Me, Beloved,” 1960

My Writers — Jennifer Egan

goon squad

It’s no shock that first Jennifer Egan book I read was A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her previous three novels had their fans, of course, but Goon Squad was something of a sensation, a must-read even before it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Simultaneously deeply felt and rambunctiously deconstructionist in execution, the novel is impactful, less because of any elements of its plot (or overlapping plots, depending on how one looks at it) and more due to its vividness of emotion and wonderfully wooly ideas. I don’t remember about the chapter “Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake,” but it certainly sticks with me that it’s rendered as a fully convincing PowerPoint presentation. And it’s engaging to a degree that far exceeds usual instances of such formatting tomfoolery. Other authors easily get bogged down in the gimmickry of the technique, but Egan makes it an avenue into keeping her fiction fiercely connected to the moment.

I started with Goon Squad, but the book that put me in awe of Egan’s talents was the next one she released: Manhattan Beach. The novel is structurally and creatively about as far from its award-winning predecessor as is reasonably possible from the same author. A story of family hardship and seedy crime around the years of World War II, the book is meticulously researched, its details interlaced with the pure fiction in a way that properly heightens the authenticity. Again, Egan artfully achieves a feat that is often clumsy in other hands. The researched material is ever-present, but not in a manner that signals a desperation to employ all the outside reading. Instead, it’s there in way that feel as true as the casualness with which the names of apps or websites or perpetrators of political dismay are invoked today. Egan understands how the components of society become part of the pattern on the fabric of life.

Much as I adore these novels, there may be nothing more valuable about Egan’s current contributions as a writer than her commitment to pursuing assignments away from the comfort of fiction. As the studious approach to Manhattan Beach suggests, she has a journalist’s empathy and instincts, recently demonstrated by a lengthy cover story on the opioid epidemic for The New York Times Magazine. Plenty of novelists give non-fiction writing a spin from time to time, but it’s often in the form of observational essays or personal reminiscence, keeping them in the safety of drawing on little more than their own notions. Egan went out and reported, having tough conversations with people in pain. Basically, Egan does what anyone with her talents should do: She finds the stories that need to be told and writes them.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors. Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone they thought they were Dumbo.”

—Elif Batuman, The Idiot, 2017

 

BUT, OF WHAT AVAIL IS COURAGE? OF WHAT AVAIL IS GRIM RESOLVE…AGAINST A FOE WHO CANNOT BE DEFEATED??

—Stan Lee, THOR, Vol. 1, No. 151, “–To Rise Again,” 1968