The guest on this week’s Bookworm, a long-running radio show/podcast, was the author Lauren Groff. I have never read any of her books, hardly heard of her really, before this. She was on to talk about her new book of short stories, Florida (2018), which sounded interesting in its own right. She only made me pay close attention, though, when she cited one of my absolute favourite books, Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (2008), as inspiration for her own writing. When a person has taste like that, what am I to do but hang on her every word? I was fit to be sculpted by her opinions.
That’s why I can’t stop thinking of something she said later in the interview. The interviewer suggests that environmental degradation is central to the anxieties of many of the characters, particularly the young mothers that she writes. Do they struggle with guilt for having brought children into a world near an end? And Lauren Groff said, “I think we’ve all agreed not to freak out on a daily basis. If we were actually to react to climate change in an appropriate way we’d be running round with our heads on fire.” She articulated a feeling I’ve felt for a long time without ever being able to get down exactly. And this week, now that I have Groff’s words for I feel, I’ve been reading through her smoked lens rather more than is healthy.
At the end of last week I finished Them Dark Days (1995), by William Dusinberre, the book I wrote about at length in the previous Reading Diary. I won’t re-tread what I said then, and I won’t go into more detail about the facts of slavery. I bring the book up only to speak of a parallel I found very easy to draw between the vastly rich slaveowners of mid-nineteenth century South Carolina and the money men we revere today.
Slavery is something that white people have sought for generations to build a softening narrative around, for obvious reasons. If slaveowners were actually the charitable father-figures they made themselves out to be, and not cruel sadists who saw people as livestock to be converted into profit, then one need not feel bad today about honouring their legacy (by keeping their money for oneself, rather than, say, paying reparations to the descendants of slaves). Dusinberre presents the paternalist narrative, noting how alluring and effective it has proven, and then tears it down very easily. It is a forgery which rocketed in popularity only after abolition, intended to spare the necessity of guilt or indebtedness among those who benefited from the institution (that is, almost everyone but the slave themselves).
It is no labour to draw a comparison between this comforting, false narrative and the one we are spun by governments and newspapers about the benevolent capitalists who back them. Take, for example, the surely fictional Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX. He has been in the news this week for his preposterous comment about a man involved in the Thai cave rescue, but another recent tweet is more revealing. On July 10th, in response to somebody’s suggestion that he hordes money and resources, Musk wrote that he has “created jobs for 50,000 people directly and, through parts suppliers & supporting professions, ~250,000 people indirectly, thus supporting half a million families. What have you done?” This is the pitiful lament of the modern-day paternalist: the outsize influence he has on politics (as a Republican Party donor) not being enough to satisfy his ego, he makes the claim that he personally “support[s] half a million families.” The individual, he supposes, would be nothing without his kindness. Consider this position against that of the slaveholder who takes credit for the health and happiness of his chattel. If they’re procreating, they must be eager to share the bounty of their lives, and if they all stop to smile and wave as the master rides by, they must be thankful. These positions are very similar, I would suggest.
Of course, there is no material comparison between the situation of a slave and that of Tesla employee. The latter gets paid, has the freedom to live a life beyond the confines of her place of work, is less likely to be raped by her master and be forced to bear his children, and can change her job if she chooses. For all that modern wage labour does to oppress people, it is not slavery, and anybody who has read Them Dark Days would know why. Through the eyes of the slaveowner and the CEO, however, looking down from above, I don’t think the distinction is nearly so clear.
I also re-read Alan Garner’s Red Shift (1973) over the weekend. This is a novel I struggled to write about before, back in April, after I had read it for the first time. I said then that “Perhaps in a few weeks’ time, when I am drawn back into its world, I will be able to say more.” Well it took three months rather than three weeks, but I was right in one sense—I do have more to say.
As I went back through the book, I found myself rubbing out all the notes and underlinings I made back in April. I felt that I owed my future self this blessing. I know I will come back to Red Shift, and now I will be able to do so unfettered by asinine first interpretations. Reading it for the second time, there was a stirring of the order in my head to suggest that this might be my favourite book, at least in certain exulted ways.
There are three parallel narratives in Red Shift that take place in the same stretch of Cheshire across almost two millennia, one in Roman Britain, one during the English Civil War, and one in the 1970s. The last of these is the most developed, yet seems inconsequential to recount: a relationship between two people in their late teens, Tom and Jan, is strained when Jan moves away to London, and they are forced to meet only at weekends in Crewe. On Tom’s birthday, his father bakes him a cake, and the next time he sees Jan, they find an old church, and he has packed a lunch:
“‘—Happy birthday, dear To-hom;
“‘Happy birthday to you!’”
He looked at the cake in the middle of the table. “Did you make that?”
“Is it all right?” said his father.
The cake was the shape of a railway engine, the icing meticulous and coloured, with his father’s regimental crest on the side.
“Do you like it?”
“—We needed to show you were going far.”
“It’s great.” (68)
They sat in a pew and divided the sandwiches.
“What is it this week?”
“Banana and Spam. I thought I’d ring the changes.”
“What’s that other soggy?”
“My birthday cake. I saved the last piece for you.”
He unwrapped the driver’s cab of the railway engine. (85)
The two historical narratives deepen the present one greatly, providing it context and resonance, but I cannot help being disappointed when the focus shifts away from Tom and Jan. I want to exult them however I can; I’ll never forget them.
Red Shift is absolutely the most dense, most closely carved, most sensitive story I can think of, yet it can’t be more than thirty- or forty-thousand words. I know of nothing like Garner’s writing for inching gravity and swift undercurrent, to bear down on you and carry you away.
A final note: a couple of days ago, I received great news about a job I applied for. It means that I need to become an expert in something I don’t know much about as quickly as possible, and that’s why you may notice the next few instalments of the Reading Diary giving an impression of my immersion in literature for children and adolescents. I went to the library yesterday and plundered the shelves for the classics I can’t credibly claim to have read: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871), Anne of Green Gables (1908), stories of Peter Pan. They should keep me going for a few days. Beyond that, out of touch with the genre as I am, I would love to hear any suggestions on the best books written for children. I promise to read every one I’m recommended.