Apollo and Athena Walk into a Bar (Art Meets Science) is the title and theme of volume #22 of the Southern Indiana Writers’ Group’s Indian Creek Anthology Series. The members of the group are, more or less annually, invited to write on a particular theme, which is reflected in the title. As a relatively new member of the group, I have had work appear in this and the previous two volumes. For the last two of those three I have also been the editor (see Dec. 19, 2017 and Oct. 31, 2016 blogs), though without the technical and artistic skills of T. Lee Harris, who is responsible for this beautiful cover and much else, the physical book would not exist.
As I write in the introduction to this volume, the boundaries between fact and fiction, like the border that divides science and the various arts, are often blurred:
“The success, for instance, of any prophet, or physician, or atomic physicist, might be fired as much by inspiration as by reason; as the invention of any fabulist or poet might be touched by reason as well as by imagination. The borders that seem to separate these and all things – including the many faces that we and the gods wear, over the course of a day or a lifetime – are confused, fluid, flexible.”
In respect to the many faces of the gods, the title story by Eli Cobb (author of The Guardian Series: Sacred Words; Lucifer’s Tears; Neptune’s Poison; Raven’s Conspiracy) is most direct, as I write after the asterisk:
“The Apollo and Athena who occupy the shadows of master-fabulist Eli Cobb’s title story would seem to be a more plebeian sort of god or goddess than those ancient inhabitants of Olympus. And Cobb’s Neptune (or Poseidon), who in her story has opened a bar ‘centuries ago, back when the Old Gods first fled the Mortal Realm,’ spends his evenings bringing wine glasses to a perfect shine and fulfilling the bartender’s roles of listening to woes and telling jokes. At center stage and no less vividly drawn is an all-too-human Cambion lawyer who, while continually interrupting Neptune’s joke, presents a mirror image to the joke’s subjects who remain offstage, never uttering a word but exuding, nevertheless, a distinct aura.”
My own contribution to the set is a hybrid story-essay called “The Map Is Not the Territory”: “whose uncommon mix of components includes the American Transcendentalist philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; the perspectivist literature of Miguel Cervantes; the paradigm-shattering science of quantum physics; and the mystic yet profoundly pragmatic secrets of Eastern religion. But if that mixture sounds intimidating, relax: it all begins with the anonymous ramblings of a certain Everyboy, whose journey from boyhood to the dawning of old age provides the glue that holds all of those unruly elements together.”
It was by no means certain, as I entered into the thick of this story-essay’s content, that I was going to be able to make it work, but somehow – at least according to its readers, so far – it seems to have largely succeeded. The interweaving of this loosely autobiographical character and some of the texts that have mattered to me along the way (including my own early prose poems in a chapbook called Quixotics, excerpts of which appear on this website under “Publishing History / Book Excerpts”) was a deeply personal exercise woven into a fabric of internationalism, in much the same way (I hope) that Greta Thunberg’s very personal campaign for climate sanity has grown to such worldwide significance.
Certainly I am here concerned with the same big issues; and I have to tell myself that the tiny drop of my writing might have 100th of the significance of that wonderful young woman’s reasoned yet emotional activism. As I write, I am planning to attend an event in Evansville, Indiana or Louisville, Kentucky (I am situated about half-way between those cities, in the midst of mostly rural or small communities).
But I digress.
“The Map Is Not the Territory” is a piece of my writing that I have been quite pleased with. So I hope that a few of this blog’s readers will take a look at it and the other fine material in these pages. The anthology also includes work by Jen Selinsky, T. Lee Harris, Brenda Drexler, Andrea Gilbey, Bonnie Abraham, Marian Allen, Jeannine Baumgartle, and Janet Wolanin Alexander.
(from my personal journal for 9/7/19; edited / adapted):
River, by Esther Kinsky, translated by Iain Galbraith. 2014/2018. Oakland, California: Transit Books. 357 pages.
This novel caught my attention, recently, by means of a review at the Reading in Translation website. It stood out to me because of the reviewer’s emphasis on its slow, meandering pace – a pace that gives precedence to close observation over plot. Indeed, it is definitely a book for slow, thoughtful reading. One of my first impressions was its being a worthy exercise in Thoreauvian mindfulness. Close observation, close reading. Read too quickly (or fail to stop and look back a couple of paragraphs – or even further – to clarify something: that is an important part of mindful reading, as good teachers of reading comprehension remind their students!) and you will miss some subtle transition from the present moment on the margins of bustling London to an earlier moment in the Big City itself, or some other memory of a childhood in Germany, on the Rhine – and back again, as often as not. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is a book that demands to be re-read – as I hope to do in the not too distant future. I am anxious to capture it whole, if still not swiftly, uninterrupted by the other books I was already into as I started this.
The plot, such as it is, the plot of the present moment, at least, involves an unnamed narrator who for vaguely defined reasons has abandoned her previous life in the city and disappeared into the semi-wild hinterlands, more or less between country and “town” among marginal beings living marginal lives in their poor neighborhood and in closer proximity to nature. The central plot, simply stated, is her life (and its intersection with a few others) from the perspective of this outsider among outsiders; her gradual and unassuming integration into that community and then its dissolution in a series of leave-takings, including her own to an undefined somewhere in Eastern Europe.
But this story is told in fits and starts, in seemingly but not entirely random order. And as happens in the real rhythm of ordinary lives, the past intrudes: the narrator’s memories, which can occupy whole chapters as jogged by circumstances and reflections. She reflects on her past, to be more clear, as she takes long strolls along the River Lea and its environs, in relation to other rivers where she has spent time. The central conceit, then, is a narrative that flows somewhat in the manner of a river’s rush toward the sea – and ours, transient beings as we are, toward death – which along with war and its resultant displacements and the question of borders, among other things – is a constant concern.
“Every river is a border; that was one of the lessons of my childhood,” our German-born narrator says, through the median of Esther Kinsky, our German author. “It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. […] What if the river, beyond its capacity as a border created solely by its own course, is also a border between countries? Could its flow, the incessant press of its water toward an estuary, be more powerful than its significance as a line fixed to determine belonging? Does the water carry something away with it, leaving the stateliness of state-borders diminished and apparently subject to depreciation? Isn’t it saying that what we really belong to is the gaze toward the other side?” (pp. 167-8)
Later, in a similar vein but from a different angle, our author / narrator writes:
“[…] I stood in the estuary between the sea and the river, between the rows of lights that were Sheerness to the south, and the gay blaze of colour that was Southland’s lit-up amusement park on the northern shore, between the enormous cupola of unbroken darkness over the sea in the east, and the distant glow of London in the west. Nothing began here, and nothing ended, and maybe that had been the message of the blinking lights I had seen from Sheerness” (p. 343).
Nothing began here, and nothing ended. The borders – arbitrary lines – between here and there, between river and estuary and sea, between one shore and the other, are blurred. The Río Grande (not one that our narrator visited, but what more vital one is there in our own national discourse today in the U.S.?), beyond its capacity as a border created solely by its own course, is a border between Global North and Global South. But could its flow be more powerful than its significance as a line fixed to determined belonging? Isn’t it saying that our gaze, in El Norte, toward El Sur – toward other – is what we really belong to? Isn’t it time we realize that our national boundaries are as arbitrary as the divisions we make of the human race into fictional races? Isn’t it time we realized that we are all inhabitants of our only planet Earth (there is no planet B – forget about Mars!) and that we drown or burn or go up in a nuclear haze together?
Into the ears of our national and international leaders, not to mention the media and the general public that is so busy (in Neil Postman’s words) “entertaining ourselves to death”? (That is, if not working to “make a living” until we drop.)
The real star of this literary show is the beautiful language. Iain Galbraith, in his translation, certainly captivates. Esther Kinsky’s German original, for its part, has won a number of prestigious prizes. It is comforting to know that there is still a market for thoughtful literature in no particular rush to reach its destination. And at least some market for literary translation in this country. We surely do need a broader range of perspectives than is presently allowed into the national discourse. River, for those who have mindful ears to hear, is a vibrant contribution to that potential dialogue. And perhaps, when or if I do get around to that second reading, I will stop on more examples of that beautiful language and on some of the episodes that have most touched me.
(from my journal for 9/8/19, edited and with additions):
My personal acquaintance with Michael Corrigan (though we have never met in person) goes back close to a decade and a half when he was a fiction editor at New Works Review and my essays, fiction, and translations began appearing in its pages; and he continued to be during the year that my son Jonathan and I took over for a few issues. During those early years, I read an essay Michael published in those electronic pages and which would grow into his memoir A Year and a Day, about the initial year of grieving over the sudden death of his beloved wife. I found the essay, and later the book, profoundly moving. Subsequently I also read his earlier autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Shanty Irishman, which I also enjoyed (see my blog for Aug. 14, 2012).
This new book is fiction – a novel – though intimations of those other books are present: the protagonist, Thomas Brewer, has lost his wife, also suddenly; he, too, is Irish American; he too is based (when not in the United Kingdom) in California where Michael grew up, went to university, and learned about all the cut-throat decadence of life in and around Hollywood, where both have tried their hands at screenwriting (Brewer with one spectacular success, though he abandons that life fairly quickly; Michael, I don’t recall what modest success or failure).
Anyway, quite opposite of Kinsky’s slow-paced, meandering book, this one is action-packed, at its core a thriller-police drama involving, among other things, a couple of terrorist plots and violent conflict with the hired thugs (motorcycle gang members, who finally come over to Brewer’s side) of the movie mogul and transparent Trump figure who runs for and briefly becomes governor of California. There is also plenty of sex, love, and what ends up being a very poignant story of selfless and sacrificing friendship. I also appreciate all the allusions to literary writers from Shakespeare to James Joyce and from Homer to Virginia Woolf and even Franz Kafka, to name a few. But the novel reads like a popular one without putting on literary airs, though the protagonist is also toying with the idea of writing a serious literary work.
“‘They say my book-in-progress,’” we read at one point, “‘was neither a popular novel nor great literature but something in between’” (p. 64).
I wondered, at this point, if this passage might fit the present work. And perhaps it does, though by the end its literary heft has come through rather powerfully. I am persuaded that it is something of a literary novel in disguise. Though it probably does not rise to the level of great literature. Not in the way that Mario Vargas Llosa’s little police drama ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Who Killed Palomino Molero?), for example – in my inexpert judgment – does.
But the main thing to know about Thomas Brewer is that he is a man who violently dreams and whose dreams sometimes seem to predict an imminent future. It turns out, as neurologist and love interest Susan Fredericks helps him to see, that this condition may be partially explained by a neurological ailment called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, which might lead to the debilitating condition – similar to Parkinson’s Disease – called Lewy Body Dementia; which is what Robin Williams had and which led him, rather than go down the terrible road he faced (and that he didn’t want to put his wife through), to commit suicide. But the neurological diagnosis does not explain the weird prescience, which seems to have something of old Celtic magic in it.
The novel’s first paragraph presents, in a sense, a perfect microcosm of all that will follow, and is mirrored by the epigraphs (by Shakespeare’s Hamlet who has bad dreams; by Bob Dylan who dreams of mermaids; and by Stephen King who fears losing his mind) on the facing page:
“Thomas Brewer has done this before, moving like a pinball through a surreal nightmare only to awake in a different physical place. In this dream, he is drowning in a natural rectangular pool until a dolphin pushes him toward the light surface and onto a board. Then Brewer lies in a fishing boat at sea, an old man watching as a topless woman with seal-like skin pulled up around her waist and legs breathes into his mouth, bringing an ocean scent. Something warm fills his brain. With a gasp, Brewer wakes up on the floor ten feet from his hotel bed. Feeling groggy, Brewer slowly dresses and packs. On the nightstand, a photo of Brewer’s late wife, Ruth – astride a white horse – looks back at him. In his mind, he hears Ruth’s voice: ‘My God, Tommy, these nightmares will destroy you.’ He will pack her photo last” (p. 3).
Some readers have found the introduction of the REM Sleep Behavior Disorder and Lewy Body Dimentia distracting. Indeed, when I first read the synopsis on the back cover, I wondered if it didn’t sound a little like a slightly moralistic movie on the Hallmark channel or something, which is faithfully followed by a public service announcement about where to go to get help or to read more about these terrible conditions.
But, aside from introducing the character of Susan Fredericks, psychologically intriguing in her own right, I think I have discovered a more important way in which the inclusion of this particular diagnosis is justified: the fact of all that the diagnosis does not explain adds depth and complexity to the plot; the particular dream that comes true in the good doctor’s life, and which may have helped her to avert a personal tragedy, is one example. Together, the inexplicable and prescient dreams are what – in juxtaposition to the medical diagnosis which proves true, in its progression in Thomas Brewer’s mind and body – fortifies the feeling of other-worldliness that ties the scientifically knowable to the Celtic mythology that becomes so vital: to matters of the heart and of imagination, in other words, from which science also takes some inspiration.
So, despite my early misgivings, I am not bothered by this medical intrusion into a story that seemed to be about clairvoyance: the trick is in the juxtaposition and then the reconciliation of the two. Nor am I concerned with the lapses of time that occur in Book Three, the novel’s shortest section and which serves the function, more or less, of epilogue or denouement.
Finally, it should be said that this is not a book without a social and political conscience, though this consciousness never overtakes the story itself. And while the Trumpian figure of Donald Morrison may seem a bit too transparent (at one point he even repeats, verbatim, one of Trump’s more infamous statements), the objective tone of the narration, and the distinctness of this figure from the one we know so well, save it from mere political caricaturizing and even show a bit of restraint. Likewise, while Brewer is himself horrified by the justifications people give for buying into Morrison’s authoritarian campaign, this segment of our population in the run-up to the 2016 election is given their voice and even their dignity.
Again, as with the juxtaposition of medical diagnosis and mystical / mythical perception, the novel’s presentation of characters within their sociopolitical condition is extremely complex. The CIA agent who at first afflicts and then seems to befriend our protagonist is one example of that complexity. Brewer himself is a complicated fellow, shaped as much by his near death in a terrorist attack as by his profoundly affectionate love and respect for several women, one of whom – a bisexual, but principally lesbian (perhaps pansexual?), Irish woman with a notably Celtic name – will become his end-of-life caretaker.
One of those women, too, his British literary agent, is a black woman who dies in childbirth and whose infant daughter might also be his. But she also might belong to a black African and Parisian student who is thought, initially, to be a terrorist. Without giving away any more than the back-cover blurb suggests, the question of whether he was – and if so, when he became – a terrorist is a disturbing plot element that lends much sociopolitical significance to the novel. The frank depiction of how black Muslims in France are racially and religiously profiled – distant mirror, perhaps, of the afflictions of black and Muslim people in our America – is excellently drawn.
I only worry that the way things do play out in Paris might only reinforce the prejudicial attitude toward every black Muslim as potential terrorist threat, worthy of constant surveillance and harassment, however circumspect and well-mannered they might seem. But the degree that Brewer is haunted, throughout the rest of his life, by his responsibility for those events might tend to redeem both himself and the novel from that weight of conscience. His actions are completely understandable and perhaps even partially excusable, within the complex web of circumstance in which he finds himself trapped.
Thomas Brewer, then, flawed and troubled as he is, emerges in my judgment as a man of integrity. Likewise, whatever the book’s flaws might be, I think that by all reasonable standards Michael Corrigan’s novel holds up pretty well. It is itself a book with a moral or ethical conscience, one that strives to be more than just another popular thriller, and for the most part succeeds in that endeavor.
So if a thriller-police drama with a heart and a touch of literary sensibility sounds like something you would like to curl up with of an evening, or if it sounds just right for someone you love, I think that Brewer’s Odyssey would make a fine holiday gift – for yourself or that other someone.