Purposeful Imperfections

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Wheat Ridge

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kullerstrand

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (cover art)

“But it was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier than being a coward…to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax….Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, refusal to change–which made it, in a way, a kind of courage…The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him.” (p.171)

On the one hand (and this is a very large hand), I’m completely unable to relate to Dmitri Shostakovich, having never lived under the thumb of a repressive regime. Each time I would question his decisions or motives, I’d quickly remind myself that I haven’t the slightest clue of how I would have reacted were I in his position. The only thing I know for sure is that I bear him no envy.

Yet, thanks to Julian Barnes’s vivid and human portrayal, I ultimately felt deeply connected to the composer. The tension between pursuing one’s career and ambitions and devoting yourself to others; the neuroses; the fear of failure, of failing out of favor with the powers that be; the feeling that you’re doomed to cowardice. Man, I can relate, though again: Shostakovich was under far more pressure and stress than I will ever know. All the more reason for profound admiration.

These anxieties are still so prevalent, and Barnes knows it. This is why–along with the craft of his pen–The Noise of Time is such a moving text. So, push forward, embrace the irony and absurdity of it all, and remember that, in doing just this, you’re being courageous.

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann (cover art)

A hundred and one years after independence, we find a country expanding westward at a cosmic rate, fleeing the carnage of a civil war and inciting new conflicts and bloodshed en route. In pursuit of land, resources, and power, treaties are broken, territories are seized, battles ensue, and entire peoples are dispersed and destroyed. Those who were once allies are made bitter enemies.

For such a profound subject and monstrous text, The Dying Grass is often minute in scope. Yes, it covers the major decisions and events that made up the Nez Perce War, but its prime concerns are two reluctant leaders and a surrounding motley chorus of characters, who, when cobbled together, form the cast and cause of this violent and deeply unfortunate conflict. Throughout, William T. Vollmann reminds us that war is not solely the purview of generals but also forged from the thoughts, desires, and actions of its soldiers, civilians, and victims, many of whom care far less about politics and strategy than a new pair of boots, some land of their own, a rowdy evening at a saloon, or, often, returning home to their families and previous ways of life. By situating much of The Dying Grass directly on the ground, war becomes much messier and uglier but also more personal and tangible.

Vollmann’s fractured narrative, which, in giving voice to so many characters, pivots quickly and frequently between speaker, external/internal voice, and the past and present, offers more than enough cadence and momentum to propel the reader through this massive work. To steal a recurring phrase from the text, it’s “beautiful and automatic,” and–simply–a thrill to read.

What We Bought: The New World: Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970-1974 by Robert Adams

What We Bought: The New World: Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970-1974 by Robert Adams (cover art)

As with all of Robert Adams’s work, What We Bought is striking. Compositionally and aesthetically sound, the photos are also singular, notably in subject matter as well as what I like to call the “Adams Blowout”–the almost excessive brightness that you find in so many of his landscapes (which I used to credit as much to the high altitude light of Colorado as to Adams’s sensibilities, but he’s maintained this along the rainy, shadowy Northwest coast, so it’s safe to fully credit him).

Then there’s the personal connection. As one who grew up in Denver in the decade following Adams’s New West work, I find my connection to these photographs to be almost primordial. The cocktail of nostalgia and déjà vu they produce is visceral, and looking through a book like What We Bought is a meaningful if emotionally draining experience. I am grateful that an artist of Adams’s caliber chose to document my hometown at such a transitional point. These are annals, crucial to Denver’s cultural preservation.

In the introduction, Adams writes that “The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy,” and that Denver has been ruined. Yet, it’s been two decades since this was written–four since the photos were taken–and, in the interim, Denver has seen even greater booms (and all for same reasons as those previous: a near universal attraction to “the region’s natural beauty” or quality of life, as we’d label it today). Assuming that Adams’s motivation in taking these photographs was, at least in part, in hopes of sounding an alarm, then did he fail? Or, is it more accurate to ask if we failed? After all, where Adam’s saw destruction and unchecked growth, I mostly just see the sleepy cowtown of my youth.

Presently, though, I find myself in a position akin to Adams’s. The Denver of my early years–one quite similar to what’s found in What We Bought–is all but gone, replaced by a very large and rapidly-growing city. Is this just another case of history’s lessons going unheeded? Is all of this inevitable? Is it actually all that bad? Forty years on, Denver is almost unrecognizable from Adams’s photos, but it’s an even more thriving, diverse city–albeit one that’s more segregated and unaffordable.

I don’t have any clear answers, and I’m not sure Adams does either. But I do believe that spending time looking at and thinking about photos like those found in What We Bought is important, if for no other reason than it gets us asking these types of questions. What the next steps are, I’m unsure. Perhaps, it’s time to reconsider Adams’s critique–maybe we need to accept that these types of changes are more-or-less inevitable outcomes in our socio-economic system and learn to work with what we’ve got. Or, maybe we need to redouble our efforts. One thing is for sure, though: for all of Adams’s gloomy pronouncements, he was always able to find beauty, even in unlikely places. We owe it to ourselves, and Adams, to continue to do the same.

My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book Four by Karl Ove Knuasgaard (cover art)

Four books into the series, I was no stranger to the prolonged moments of slowness and inaction that periodically crop up in My Struggle. It’s to be expected from a project that aims to document seemingly all of a person’s life, and one of Knausgaard’s great accomplishments is keeping readers engaged and clamoring for more, even when the narrative drags. Book Five is no exception, though I did find it more trying than the previous installments. Here we trace twenty-something Karl Ove’s attempts at forging a writing life, which, for the first 500 pages or so, is mostly made up of bouts of acute self-consciousness that end in drunken escapades. Racked with guilt after each binge, our hero refuses even the slightest efforts at remedying the situation. It’s this recursiveness that makes Book Five a bit of a slog and, for me, induces a surplus of annoyance.

Yet, despite the many portions that try my patience or cause my interest to drift, Knausgaard always manages to reel me back in with insightful, beautiful passages like this:

Perhaps in a way because dialects grew from the countryside around them, the style of speaking originated just there, in that particular valley, where the pronunciation of one word, for example, had come into existence with the great oak tree, which was now almost a thousand years old, the pronunciation of another with the terrain being cleared and the ancient stone wall built. In other areas there were other words and other oak trees, fields, and stone walls. (p. 530)

Or this recollection from childhood:

The big square cooler bag Grandma would life out of the trunk. The dry moss in the cracks of the stone wall, all the smells there, some of them dark and moldy, if you lifted a stone, it could be dame underneath and tiny insects would dart in all directions. The same was true of the stiff grass, it smelled dry and hot, but beneath it, if you dug down a little, there were quite different smells with more presence and depth, akin to decay. (p. 585)

The final 150 pages, which detail Karl Ove’s first marriage and return us to the death of his father, are more than worth the price of admission. We know all too well what happens to his dad, as this is the core subject of Book One. By now, though, we have gained a completely different perspective, one deepened and colored by the thousands of pages in the books that follow. Being brought back to where we began is a lot like cresting a hill to glimpse down on a city or town you know and love but have been away from for a long time. You approach it with an utterly different understanding. It’s a moving, powerful experience.

Picton

Photo from the Bluebridge Ferry

Photo from Picton Harbor

Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books by Tim Parks

 Where I'm Reading From: The Changing World of Books by Tim Parks (cover art)

In Where I’m Reading From, Tim Parks chips away at some of literature’s loftier assumptions, including those regarding globalization, translation, writing professionally, and much more. I found plenty to disagree with, but Parks’s clear and welcoming approach makes the experience more akin to being a part of a dialog than reading a screed. And, oddly, in questioning literature’s function, Parks managed to rekindle my interest in reading fiction. Novels don’t change the world, he says, and that’s okay–the enjoyment derived from the experience of writing and reading them is sufficient reason to be glad they exist. It’s been a long time since I read literary criticism with such gusto. How refreshing.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (cover art)

A smart, eloquent, and deeply personal memoir, Hold Still’s prose is ornate in a manner befitting the fecund, gnarled landscape of the American South, which serves not merely as the setting but as a primary force in Sally Mann’s life. Utterly blunt, Mann thankfully doesn’t balk at addressing life’s complexities head on, though every confession and insight seems to inspire a whole new set of quandaries. It’s a text that’s at once revealing and opaque, a tension Mann seems to revel in–especially within her art–and despite her poise and intellectual rigor, Hold Still is quite messy in places. It regularly left me conflicted and unsettled, and the process of sorting out my responses–to Mann’s art, decisions, ideas, etc.–was an engaging, rigorous, and gratifying experience.

Toward the End of Last Year

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The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick (cover art)

To my mind, The Legacy of Conquest is the single best volume on Western history, albeit I’m no historian but, rather, a mere kid from Colorado. It’s just such an engaging and succinct text, chock full of ideas that, at the time of writing in the 1980s, were groundbreaking and often controversial. A number of them still are, though, as proof of Patricia Nelson Limerick’s prowess and conviction, many have become far more commonplace in discussions of Western policy, history, and ways of life. For instance:

  1. Nature, far from being ours to control and profit from, has always proved a fickle partner. It’s one of the greatest barriers to sustaining life in the American West and has long left many of those seeking fortune there to feel somehow betrayed.
  2. The notion of property–especially land–was, and still is, one of the great conflicts between those living in the American West. Initially a mostly racially charged issue–the idea property to White settlers was wholly sacrosanct, whereas to the Native Americans it was, at least initially, fairly bewildering–property continues to be a source of class, race, corporate, and/or government-based conflict.
  3. Contrary to the still dominant view of the American West as a place for those seeking independence, the settling of the region was only possible through heavy government subsidies. The distribution of land, the control of Native Americans, and the railroads were all only possible thanks to substantial federal funding and support. We can now add many more items to this list, notably resource and public land management.
  4. Speaking of natural resources and public lands, in contrast to the prevalent ideas of the region’s bountiful and well-preserved landscapes, the West was founded on extractive industry: get in, get rich, get out. Touching on a couple of the earlier points: “The essential project of the American West was to exploit the available resources. Since nature would not provide it all, both speculation and the entrepreneurial uses of government were human devices to supplement nature’s offerings.” (p. 86)
  5. The belief that there was some kind of pastoral “golden age,” which the West still conjures, is, and always was, a myth. In fact, Western settlers often experienced the same feelings, because there “…is a pattern in Western civilization, long preceding Jefferson, to attribute ideal values to rural life that reality cannot match.” (p. 131) The same goes for natural disasters, times of resource scarcity, and other events that cause people to feel that life was simpler, easier, and better in the past. “The fur trappers coming into the Rockies in the mid-1830s could regret having missed the real boom times of decade before…” (p. 152) This nostalgia for the past is one of the longest-running misconceptions in the American West.

That’s a pretty impressive array of ideas, all of which bolster Limerick’s central thesis that, far from being a long lost, nostalgia-inducing era, the nineteenth-century West is, in many ways, very much alive in the present. Which is not to say that Limerick always gets it right, nor have many of her insights lead to tangible resolutions in the decades since The Legacy of Conquest was written. Sadly, as the West continues to grow, many of these issues continue to give rise to a strange mixture of denial and stubbornness which, in turn, often leads to more conflicts and more exploitative policies and ways of life.

Limerick, I suspect, would be the first to concede this. History, she tells us, is never resolved, nor should it be. It’s is a dialog, one that circles back on itself in light of new discoveries and modes of thought, always being reworked and, ideally, calibrated with each new generation of historians, readers, lawmakers, and Westerners. And the work is never done.

“The clashes and conflicts of Western history will always leave the serious individual emotionally and intellectually unsettled. In the nineteenth-century West, speaking out for the human dignity of all parties to the conflicts took considerable nerve. It still does.” (p. 221)