when you love one thing
you can love another
and that is owning
that is something to live with
you can forgive everything
|—||The Grass Harp, Truman Capote (via bencilkimyon)|
|—||The Grass Harp, Truman Capote (via bencilkimyon)|
Bernard Malamud recounts a few years in the life of a shopkeeper and his family in The Assistant. Morris Bober is a poor immigrant who runs a grocery in New York that was once successful. Morris’s money troubles are the ground condition of the novel and Malamud concisely and completely uses the details of the first few pages to set up the hardship Morris under he is running his store.
The novel opens with a wind that “already clawed” as Morris pulls in heavy cases of milk before dawn. The action is simple, he is opening his store, but already the reader sees how early he is at work and the reader feels the unpleasantness with Morris as the wind “flung his apron into his face.” His first customer of the day offers complaints and three pennies before he can even turn on the heat in the store.
Morris continues to set up the store “chewing on a roll, not tasting what he was eating” as he waits for his next anticipated customer to come in and spend his customary twenty-seven cents. The reader sees Morris in stasis. He is subsisting (on the roll) but he has no sentient pleasure (the taste). Most of all, this second mention of a dollar (or rather a cents) figure sets up the expectation for the reader that each of these meager pennies counts for Morris. He is hungry for the cash, not the roll.
Then a little girl comes in asking for credit. The reader already feels with Morris what a hardship this is. At first he refuses her, but she cries and he give in. Morris is not an unkind man. When he records the debt, he has to fudge the figures for his wife. This is the first mention of Morris’s family and why he might be working so hard. It also sets up a constraint in that despite how valuable each penny is, it is more valuable to him to not upset his wife than it is to collect the correct amount. Malamud writes, “His peace—the little he lived with—was worth forty-two cents.”
Sitting at the counter, Morris observes how “the store looked like a long dark tunnel.” There is no escape from this store or from his life except the final escape. In fact throughout the book, Morris looks at many possible ways to escape the store, but because of his honor and his obligations (along with some bad luck) the only way he eventually escapes the store is through the long dark tunnel into the light.
Morris continues to wait for his twenty-seven cent customer who is also his tenant, but the tenant has gone to another store for his groceries. Competition recurs throughout the book as the perceived success of the competition shapes Morris’s relationship with his assistant and constrains Morris’s lifestyle. The threat of other stores holds Morris’s livelihood in by a thread and it likewise holds the store by a thread.
Morris considers selling in these first few pages as he does again and again throughout the book, but he always comes to the same conclusion, “[B]ut who would buy?” The reader can feel the dreariness of this world closing in. There is no escape from the misery of this store or this life.
The section ends as two customers come in and buy sixty-three cents and then forty-one cents of goods from Morris. “He had earned his first cash dollar for the day.” Because Malamud has detailed the long list of activities Morris has done before this moment and gone over the many threats to the sparse living he makes, the smack of the sum total of one dollar in receipts for the day is stunning. I felt how hard and long Morris had to work for that one dollar, and the drudgery leading up to that revelation said more about Morris and his life than I imagined it could. Although inflation has changed the value of a dollar since the fifties when this book was written, the figure of one dollar remains iconic.
Because Malamud made Morris a good man and a hard-working man, I wanted to sympathize with him. I felt wrapped up in his plight. I worried that there was no escape. And because he set it all up in these first few pages, I was able to carry all of these concerns throughout the book. I have heard it said many times that the seeds of the novel are in the first few pages or in the first chapter, but I haven’t noticed it so acutely before. The beauty of how Malamud sets up the book is that it is very simple and straight forward. It doesn’t feel set up; it feels like a story unfolding. It feels like the start of a day and it doesn’t feel explained, but everything the reader needs to know is there. The story is shaped in those first few pages.
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of The Assistant from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.
Frequent readers of this blog will know how much I appreciate spare language. Inner China by Eva Sjödin and translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida shows brilliantly just how much horror can be wrought with the sparest of language. The story of two small children who hide in the woods to escape sexual abuse is remarkably restrained. And therein lies the power of this poetry.
The narrator, the protector whispers to her mute sister:
Dark hard. — And quiet, I say. Not a word to Mother, not to anyone.
Otherwise you are dead dead.
Those sentences take on the feeling of a heartbeat when you are so scared and small that the biggest sound in the world is your heart is pounding in your chest and your ears. The staccato two beats of “Dark hard,” “Get it,” and “dead dead” are so simple and so strong.
Throughout the book, Sjödin takes what would normally be a list of items and removes the punctuation as in, “Nettles brushwood thistles grow down towards the river.” The cumulative effect of these run-on lists is the feeling of rushing and running away. There’s an immediacy and she uses it judiciously.
Sjödin also uses simple yet unusual images in Inner China. The narrator describes how she and her sister are “empty inside like carbonation.” A soda is usually a happy thing for a child and many delight in the fizzing and sparkle, but here she sees the other side of that and I wondered, worried, that something as simple as a soda pop was part of their torment. Though why I should cling to the idea of a soda among all the other pleasures of life these girls have foregone…
As much as I read about suffering and sadness, sexual abuse and rape are topics I usually avoid. It’s easy for the writer to slip into what I feel is description for the sake of titillation, and I just can’t bear it. Sjödin does none of that. She provides very little description of the acts. Instead, she builds a feeling of menace. Early in the book she writes, “There is someone who eats children eats children” and combines it euphemistically with “He sticks it to me on the sly.” It’s clear what is happening to these girls, but the language is pulled back just enough that I found myself denying what was happening for much of the book. This adds another layer I felt like I could have been the mother of those girls, refusing to see what was in front of me.
I adore recommending books, it’s like sharing an intimate part of your soul, but I’m only just now learning to reach out to friends to create reading lists for me. Inner China was recommended by Gwendolyn Jerris, a gentle and poetic soul who is likely to hide the things that really hurt but will tell you the real truth if you ask her. Invaluable qualities in an artist and a friend. I asked Gwendolyn because I knew I needed something quiet that spoke loudly and boy did she deliver. Don’t wait as long as I did to start asking for what you need. Your fellow readers are wonderful resources and sometimes what scares you most is just the right thing.
I will not deny that this is a difficult book to read. In fact I wouldn’t recommend it to most people just for the sheer emotional impact of it. I’ve kept it nearby in my office in the days since reading the book I think because I knew it wasn’t done with me. And I wasn’t going to write about it for this blog, but it is a beautifully written book. And it’s important sometimes to read outside your comfort zone in order to stretch and grow as a writer. I am grateful that Gwendolyn trusted me enough as a reader to recommend this book. Writers like Grace Paley can show you how to unpack an image in a few spare words, but even she got shelved relatively quickly. I think I’ll be living with Sjödin on my coffee table for a good long while yet.
What books linger on your coffee table or next to your computer? What are they teaching you?
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of Inner China from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.
Adapting Kafka’s The Trial for the Western Stage
When I read that New Century Theatre Company was staging Kenneth Albers’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s
I Live Under Your Sky Too is a massive (32-feet wide) installation by artist Shilpa Gupta, erected by the sea on Carter Road in Bandra, Mumbai.
The installation features the text “I live under your sky too” written in three languages — English, Hindi and Urdu — using LED lights with the individual words intermixed. The lights go on and off, highlighting the sentence in each language alternately. Read between the lines and the message is one of religious, national, political, class, and gender harmony.
“…Reading the right one at the right time can make all the difference.”
-Brandon Sanderson, Alcatraz and the Evil Librarians series