Gods of the Lost: Three short book notes

Gods of the Lost: Three short book notes August 31, 2019

It can be hard to tell gifts of the spirit
From clever counterfeits…
Mountain Goats

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. I’d read this before (of course?) but didn’t remember it well. It took me a while to warm up to this harrowing story of a demoralized, alcoholic priest in hiding from Mexican Communist authorities. Looking back, I respect the decision to open with “the bystanders”–the local dentist, the pious family, the surrendered priest-husband Father Jose, and of course the idealistic Communist lieutenant and his more normal, workmanlike subordinate. We spend a lot of time in short portraits of other lives, at the beginning, and all of these do pay off at the end.

The book began to work for me during the priest’s long-delayed attempt to escape the district where he’s being hunted, into a place where he’ll have more freedom and peace. This man, who chose the priesthood thinking it would be a soft option, is now lashed to the same desperate conditions as his people–not primarily even persecution, but hunger, exhaustion, harsh terrain and weather; jail, which is what the poor get, not martyrdom. He has finally become unprotected.

And he thinks of himself as simply incapable of doing otherwise. The understanding of what it is to be a priest has sunk in so deeply that even terrified (Greene is so good at depicting fear, the kind of fear that exposes you) and convinced that he is damned, he can’t persuade himself that his consecration no longer matters. He doesn’t believe he or anybody could be bad enough to undo it. One thing I took from Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate is the way the Soviet interrogators used people’s consciousness of their own weaknesses to destroy them. You can’t argue against the interrogator who knows what you really did do wrong; and this demoralization corrodes your conscience until you feel someone like you inevitably will give in, so why not now? You no longer have a place to take your stand. This may be a crass comparison, but that corroded despair reminds me of some of the emotions of late-stage alcoholism. And so I admit I kind of clung to Greene’s portrait of a man alcoholic, demoralized, utterly aware of his failures–and yet also aware that he is not relying on his own broken conscience, his own strength of character, but on a fact about the world outside himself, which he can’t change and therefore must suffer as he suffers the thunderstorms: Christ is King.

This book turns out to be something I’m obsessed with anyway: how hard it can be to distinguish humility and self-hatred. I loved the final confrontation–it’s really a confession scene, with the roles reversed–not so much for the musings on the terrifying love of God, though they’re right, but for all those small moments where we see who this priest is, what remains of him. He’s still got the well-trained Catholic in him, the cocktail-party Catholic who can make jabs at materialism, and they’re not particularly silly jabs but they make him giggle here, from fear and from awareness of the flimsiness of this kind of argument. I love that the arguments the priest makes are incomplete but pointing toward something real (“But if they want to suffer…”) and also, especially and more, love that all his concessions do so much more than his arguments to change the lieutenant’s view of him. I love that he defends others (“They didn’t all run”) but never himself (“Then perhaps we’ll be doing your Church a service.” “Yes”). Ah, there’s nothing so comforting as seeing a person rise to the occasion while thinking himself worthless and lost.

And nothing so challenging, to the Lieutenant in every reader.

Cordwainer Smith, The Best of Cordwainer Smith. What an odd book! Smith is the pseudonym of a CIA psychological-warfare expert and devout Episcopalian. These are science-fiction stories set in a far future where men and women travel the stars in telepathic partnership with cats and harvest life-extending drugs off the backs of extraterrestrial sheep; and sin and love and suffer just like now.

The stories are all set in the same universe, and this edition had a helpful note at the beginning of each story placing it in the broader context of, what, the Cordwainerverse I guess. The prose is a romantic variation on the Golden Age spacesuit style: like a simpler, maybe sweeter, heterosexual version of early Samuel Delany. You can feel the huge universe, unexplained and not entirely explicable, unfolding beyond the edges of the page. Many of these are moral tales, but only because if you make enough slices-of-life, lots of the slices will include moral choices.

Things I loved: Boy howdy, does this man love cats. I’m always here for a book where the author can’t hide his cat-farming tendencies. I loved the women, also. Smith wrote some of these stories in partnership with his wife, but even in the ones he wrote by himself, the women are vivid and unexpected: leaders of political movements, religious figures, spaceship pilots… and various overlaps of these roles. I enjoyed the metafictional aspects–apparently Smith was influenced by Chinese classics and storytelling traditions? I can’t speak to that, but there’s lots of attention to the structure of the story (a love story, a ballad, a legend) and the difference between the conventions of the tale and the experiences of the tale’s subjects.

And then there is his constant attentiveness to power, and the abuse of power. Humans in this future have made a lot of sketchy variations on humankind, a lot of unwise subcreations. They first try dehumanizing themselves, and then move on to imbuing robots and animals with human traits. The people-made-from-animals, or “underpeople,” have no rights and exist in something close to slavery. People get food and other necessities free from the government; “underpeople” work for a living, at grueling jobs with low pay, and when their usefulness runs out they’re put down. I picked up this collection because I’d heard of one story, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” in which a dog-girl becomes a kind of Joan of Arc figure. That story is great and weird in itself. There are all these unexplained moments which hint at deeper inequalities or emotions: the way the dog-girl has a dog’s loyal eyes; the way the underpeople’s secret haven is painted sewage colors and called “Clown Town.” There’s so much ornamentation–the dead lady herself, who’s somewhere between ghost, icon, and robot; the romance between the misfiled witch Elaine and “the Hunter,” which jabs into D’joan’s story at an angle and never quite fits; the fate of the dissident Crawlie.

To oversimplify a baroque tale: “Dead Lady” is a story about religious love, which is necessarily but not essentially political. D’joan’s tools (the D’ is for dog!) are a saint’s tools, and not actually the weapons of the historical Joan, or at least not her earthly weapons. Her story is powerful on its own but gains from appearing in the same collection as “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” about a cat-geisha or cat-escort who leads a political movement for underpeople’s rights; also about, as the title hints, the tragic unromance between the cat-woman and a human lord. The details of C’mell’s job, and her assumptions about the human lord, are so vividly and perfectly imagined, from the subtly revealing clothes she has to wear to the way she’s heard many, many men say they want to help the underpeople, right before they make “a very raw kind of pass indeed.” It would be easy for this genre to objectify C’mell; instead Smith imagines her, as a woman who’s had to live within her job and has learned some hard lessons from it.

The politics are far less strange than the… weaponized humility??? of “Dead Lady.” They’re more compromised; C’mell seeks concessions, not an overturning of her world’s order. But the two stories together suggest that these views of injustice can’t be separated. The concessions and the politics rely on the religious shock, and will in some way transmit that shock through the flesh of the social body, even if nobody wants that.

Stephen King, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. A nine-year-old girl steps off the Appalachian Trail, partly to pee and partly to escape her mother and brother’s ferocious arguing. She thinks she can get back to the path by a shortcut. That “shortcut” heads the wrong way, into the deep woods, where the girl will travel for over a week, alone–and touch her physical, mental, and spiritual limit.

It’s a great premise and by the end of this short-for-him novel King delivers. This paragraph from Rachel Manija Brown sums up why I wanted to read it:

If you read survival memoirs, you’ll notice that many real people who got lost in the wild, in addition to their suffering and fear and physical breakdown, also had some kind of transcendent or spiritual experience. In between periods of misery and despair, they came to understand themselves, the natural world, and some kind of greater force in a way which felt deeply and lastingly important to them, though many say that no attempt at description can convey what it was really like. King delves into this phenomenon, giving the book an atmosphere at once delicate and powerful, full of realistic and suspenseful wilderness details balanced with a satisfyingly ambiguous exploration of that which is inherently unknowable and indescribable.

(full review, though it has spoilers!)

There were things I intensely disliked about this book–primarily King’s ongoing love affair with cutesy-gross language. Bad times aren’t “the pits”; they have to be “the puppy-shits.” When little Tricia is afraid or sick she gets “butterflutters” in her stomach. This stuff is on almost every page and it almost drowns out the horrific sublimity of the sequence in the dead marsh, or the triumph of Tricia’s feast on checkerberries and beechnuts.

But everything in that paragraph above is done so well–the spirituality of raw survival, as experienced by a nine-year-old girl with only the religious education you get from watching baseball on TV and asking your dad questions when he’s half-drunk. Tricia considers three possible gods: an interventionist God who maybe even helps the Red Sox win (can God really be a Red Sox fan?); a capricious, good but weak god who satisfies less the more you care; and the God of the Lost, who is hunting her in the forest, a black-robed priest with a face full of wasps. Tricia confronts each of these gods, and her questions, her need and her strength feel completely true to life.

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