27 March 2008


In the novel How the Dead Dream, a boy who loves the engraved presidents on U.S. paper money grows into a relentlessly acquisitive but likeable young man who studies his acquaintances and precisely calibrates his own demeanor so they'll invest in his development schemes. Sounds like a setup for a satirical target, and author Lydia Millet does in fact observe her character with affectionate humor.

But, as she continues to follow her wealthy entrepreneur, T., she writes some of the most powerful scenes of loss that I've ever read. T.'s losses are mostly not financial; among the most important for urbanites like me is the shattering of the boundaries between T.'s all-encompassing pavement/glass/steel universe and the scary world of dirt and flesh and decomposition. She manages to lead him into stark episodes of confrontation, bewilderment, and reconciliation without making him into an object lesson; he can in fact take at least some credit for his own humanization.

Since finishing Millet's book, I've read two more novels, and only toward the end of the last one, I realized that "loss" was a theme in all of them. The middle one was a delightful one-evening treat, almost as delicious as the Louisiana food it described--Poppy Z. Brite's D*U*C*K. The chefs of the New Orleans theme restaurant at the novel's center stage, Liquor, have been asked to cater the annual banquet for a convention of duck hunters and conservationists. The substance of the book is composed of recipes, relationships, kitchen sounds and smells, and the shifting rivalries among the city's restaurants as they try to steal each other's celebrity chefs. The stakes are high for Liquor's owners as they feed 300 hunters with a seven-course meal, with each course using ducks one way or another--and with Rickey's childhood football idol as the after-dinner speaker.

So where's the loss? Almost nowhere in the book itself, but even so it's between every line. Brite explains that she wrote it after the Katrina disaster, but it's as if the hurricane hadn't hit the city. It's the tension between the completely credible fictional scene and the reality we all know that made me feel hollow inside even as the banquet came to its satisfying conclusion.

Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved: A Novel was the third in my "loss" series. This novel dominated my life for several days as I followed the reminiscences of an art historian, Leo Hertzberg, about himself, his scholarly wife, his best friend (artist Bill Wechsler), Bill's wife, and the sons of both households. Hustvedt is wonderful at describing both the best and the worst of the world of artists, galleries, academicians, critics, and the changing fascinations of the public. Laziness, lust, and genuine heroism motivate her characters--sometimes nearly at the same time.

At times her style is deceptively pedestrian--this happened, and then that happened, and after that something else happened--and therefore somehow achingly believable; she wrote not a syllable of useless cleverness.

Inevitably, the more these people loved each other, the more they had to confront the crushing realities of abandonment, betrayal, decay, death--or perhaps temporarily find little devices to avoid them. For Leo, the greater gain came from thinking about reality, reflecting on reality, and of course that is the reader's gain as well.

As I read Leo's closing reflections, I thought of the title of one of John Yungblut's last Pendle Hill Pamphlets, On Hallowing One's Diminishments. Not that I'm in the mood to hallow any of my own diminishments, but I love the fictional companions that these authors have given me as I confront my own losses.

I guess it's no coincidence that I started reading this series of books around the first anniversary of my mother's death.

More books on this theme: Losses, part two.

Righteous links:

Here is the fascinating Financial Times interview with Russia's president-elect Dmitri Medvedev. You can read it with hope or you can read it with cynicism, but nobody can deny that he's put an impressive agenda into the public record. (Background article here, including video links.)

The ongoing (but thankfully fading?) noise about Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama has made me keep my eyes open for stories about living one's Christian life in the public spotlight. I appreciated these two articles in the Martin Marty Center's newsletter, Sightings: Brett Favre, Catholic Hero, and Public Preaching. By the way, the Sighting I mentioned last week, about Obama's church, is now online as well.

The Google Blog presents this appreciation of Arthur C. Clarke.

There's more about great grief and loss in this post from Stan, the Thorny Quaker--and about the times when just one word can mean restoration.

Marketing writer Seth Godin contributes, in his own way, to the discussion of whether Hillary Clinton should end her primary campaign. I think it's his way of stating the principle that I like to call "remember what you know."

Buddy Guy still loves to show off his one-handed guitar playing. Likewise, Rick Estrin of Little Charlie and the Nightcats usually treats his audiences to another bit of blues showmanship: playing harmonica with no hands. Nobody combines wonderful musicianship with sheer fun better than Little Charlie and the Nightcats....


Judy Brutz said...

Dear Johan, I appreciate you posting on losses and particularly in referring to John Yungblut's "on Hallowing Our Diminishments."

I'm finding that Parkinson's is a great spiritual teacher as is progressive chronic bronchitis. Living with both, I let go more, not always with joy. What is left when the body will no longer allow being an activist? I'm hoping when I am no longer able to speak vocal words that I will be a loving presence bringing blessing.

I invite you to view my blog Commit to Blessing which is about my journey in letting go and living, being blessing.

Please give my greetings to Judy.
I have fond memories of knowing you, Johan.

Many blessings, Judy

Johan Maurer said...

Judy Brutz!! What a delight to get your comment. I've added your weblog to my list. And you're right in the next state. I hope your invitation to exchange stories of eldership gets a good response.

Chris M. said...

Your description of Millet's novel reminded me of William Gaddis's J R. From the website www.wiliamgaddis.org: "J R is a satire on corporate America and tells the story of the 11-year-old schoolboy JR Vansant who builds an enormous economic empire from his school's public phone booth, an empire that touches everyone in the novel, just as money - the getting of it, worry about the lack of it, the desire for it - shapes a great deal of the characters’ waking and dreaming lives."

Anyway, I loved it. A challenging book.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Chris. I'll put it on my list of books to look for. It sounds a little like how Millet's T. started out.