Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Ruthless Imagination of a Child

As a few of my twitter buddies pointed out, this review of Steven Millhauser's new and selected stories by Salvatore Scibona is exemplary, an essay as much as a review, which is what the best reviews are. And it contains this exquisite little meditation on childhood:
Many of the stories are set amid the 19th century passion for sophisticated mechanical inventions that were revolutionizing daily life at the time. But for all the formal and historical erudition here, the stories maintain a saving innocence. They are immigrants from the country of childhood, where the imagination, seeing a thing repeated, wonders what would happen if it were repeated again, and another time, and again forever? What if the rain never stopped and it flooded the whole world?
They more or less beg you to ask them what they are about. They seem to follow an inverted motto: A story should not be, but mean. As to the aboutness, here's a stab: These are stories about the adult's experience of the life his childhood self continues to lead after he has grown up. The adult mind doesn't destroy the child's mind, but only subsumes it. The clockwork automatons in this book, and the ladders of light up which a character can climb into the sky, and the sometimes asphyxiating lack of adult passion - all draw the reader toward the ruthless imagination of a child. Everything moves very slowly. The future will never come. The speed of growing up, from the adult's vantage, is dizzying; from the child's it is glacial.
So while these stories don't aspire to the pleasures and agonies of a dramatic narrative - the tales of change within a comprehensible world that children ask adults to repeat for the same reason it comforts babies to be swaddled - they do aspire to that other moment of childhood: You were alone in the dark, your imagination demanding, What if ... and then what if ... and then what if?
Scibona was one of the fiction writers The New Yorker anointed in its 20 under 40 series last year. Read his story "The Kid"--available online to subscribers--and you'll see why he made the list.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cole on Sebald: "Why shouldn't an essay be a novel?"

Teju Cole, author of Open City, which I'm presently reading, compiled for the Guardian a list of ten novels "of solitude." Here he is on Sebald's Rings of Saturn:
A novel of ideas with a difference: it is nothing but ideas. Framed around the narrator's long walks in East Anglia, Sebald shows how one man looks aslant at historical atrocity. Formally dexterous, fearlessly written (why shouldn't an essay be a novel?), and unremittingly arcane; by the end I was in tears.
I like that last sentence especially, though I'd quibble a little with the emphasis he places on "nothing but ideas." There are also in Rings vignettes, facts, a potted history of the silk-industry, a potted biography of Joseph Conrad. The ideas are the threads with which Sebald weaves together the factual debris he finds on his walking tour. They create patterns out of the entropy of history.

At some point I want to consider Sebald as a nature writer--a European nature writer. The contrast with American nature writing would be revealing, I think. As with John Berger (whose essay "Why Look at Animals?" was a crucial point of departure for many of my own thoughts on the bestiary of the imagination), the categories of natural history and human history are not in Rings of Saturn discrete. There's no hint of nature as timeless, apart.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Seaside Gothic: Wreckers and Robert Louis Stevenson

In England, the term for flotsam hunting is wrecking, a word that retains a trace of its piratical history. In The Wreckers: A Story of Killing Seas, False Lights and Plundered Shipwrecks, Bella Bathurst reports that British shipowners of the age of sail lost 10 to 20 percent of their revenues to shipwrecks. That's a lot of wrecks, and on more dangerous stretches of coastline, villagers happily welcomed the booty that washed ashore with the cadavers of the drowned. In some cases wreckers were known to lure ships onto the rocks. Bathurst begins The Wreckers with a spooky bit of family history recorded by Robert Louis Stevenson, son of a lighthouse engineer:

The Best Beachcombing in Manhattan

There is one decent beachcombing spot in Manhattan, if you like your flotsam local: a 100-foot-long wedge of sand beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. You can only walk the beach if you’re willing to trespass, squeezing through a narrow opening in the balustrade. It’s not the sort of beach most people dream about. You wouldn’t want to sunbathe there, or walk barefoot. But I like it. It’s one of those accidental places that make the city feel a little wild.

A dozen years ago, I gather, this beach didn’t exist, making it the perfect beach for New York, capital of change and chance. It came into being when tides began depositing sediment behind a little pier built not long ago as a kind of scenic underlook, a good place to take snapshots guaranteed to resemble postcards, the great bridge looming in the background. At the northern end of the beach are the remains of a derelict pier, concrete posts topped by tentacles of twisted rebar. The sand at the southern end of the beach is silty. At the northern end it’s gravelly. A trellis supporting FDR Drive rises out of the gravel, and on the steel of the trellis some latter-day Hart Crane has spray-painted a couplet: 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In the Northeast U.S., Fewer Riddles on the Sand

In the vicinity of the insular city where I live, there aren't really any good beaches for beachcombing. In general, so far as beachcombing goes, the Atlantic Northeast compares poorly to the the Pacific Northwest. The Gulf Stream is largely to blame. Just look at it.

It firehoses up the eastern seaboard and then, right around Cape Hatteras, turns east and goes shooting across the Atlantic carrying long-haul flotsam with it (the beachcombing in Cornwall, England, is supposedly superb).  Here in the Northeast, except for the rare donation from the southbound Labrador Current (which originates in the Arctic) or from an errant eddy, the wrack on our shores tends to be local. Here in the Northeast beachcombing tends to be practiced by amateur naturalists on the lookout for seashells, pebbles, and the like, whereas in regions with plentiful flotsam and jetsam, beachcombing is more like amateur archeology. There is no Atlantic counterpart to Amos Wood's Beachcombing the Pacific.

Allegorical Readings of Kids Books: Very Hungry Caterpillar

I never imagined I'd have much competition when it came to allegorical readings of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but I do, over at Bark. A contributor named jason, averse to capital letters, has a post up under the tag "unnecessary reviews":
these collages were lovingly created, layered, and labored over.  this was the work of an artist passionate about his vision.  the second thing i noticed about this book was that it was a striking metaphor and symbol for america, and a poignant foretelling not only of our excesses as a nation, but also our insistence on fairytale delusion when confronted with the cold hard fact of our sad gluttony.  i love this book.   
Funny. In Moby-Duck, in a section discussing Eric Carle's Ten Little Rubber Ducks and the tradition of "it-narratives" (about inanimate objects) in children's lit, I write the following:
Carle has always preferred allegory to realism. Think of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, his best-known book, the protagonist of which, a gluttonous larva with eyes like lemon-lime lollipops, is an entomological embodiment of childish appetites. He's born on a Sunday, binges for a week, and then the following Sunday nibbles contritely on a leaf, in reward for which penance, he pupates, abracadabra, into a butterfly, an angelic butterfly. It's a Christian allegory with which any American child can identify, an allegory about conspicuous consumption: The Prodigal Caterpillar, Carle might have called that book, or The Caterpillar's Progress.  
In his Ten Little Ducks, on the other hand, there are no choices, no consequences. There is only chance...Carried along by ocean currents, rather than by the lineaments of desire, [the toy ducks] drift passively about, facial expressions never changing. (Moby-Duck, 18)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Micro-Excerpt, Dangerous Job Edition: On Fowling

Many of the earliest and bravest Arctic explorers were fortune-seeking prospectors who went in search not of silver and gold but of ducks. Fowlers, these feather-hunters were called. Female eider ducks line their nests with breast feathers--known to those shopping for an excellent parka or comforter as eiderdown. Eider ducks are by nature docile and defenseless birds. Hence their preference for cliffs.

To harvest eiderdown, you had to rappel down an Arctic cliff on a braided seal-hide rope, coax the mother duck from her nest, and then, dangling hundreds of feet above the icy, rocky surf, plunder her feathers, pocketing a few of her pale green eggs for tomorrow's breakfast, being sure to leave at least one, so that she would pluck more feathers from her breast, which you could come back to harvest later. Then you'd wad the harvested feathers into balls and lob these down to a boat pitching around in the rocky shallows below.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

DJ Spooky & the Book of Ice

On September 22 at McNally Jackson books on Prince Street, I'll be appearing in conversation with Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky the Subliminal Kid. Miller has just released The Book of Ice, a companion volume to his Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, a 70-minute, multimedia symphony that incorporates and interprets samples of ambient sound Miller collected on an expedition to the icy continent in 2007. Around the same time Miller was traveling south, I was heading north, to the Arctic, and both of us have in our own ways attempted to make sense of the histories, meanings, and data recorded in the ice. Hence the pairing. A taste of Terra Nova, after the jump:

Where will the tsunami wreckage go?

I was recently asked that question at a talk I gave. The University of Hawaii's International Pacific Research Center answered it by animating the likely drift route of the debris carried out to sea by the tsunami that struck Japan last March. You can watch the animation here. Or click on the low-res movie below.

 Here's how the IPRC captions the animation:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The So-Called Garbage Patch, Post 1

I get a lot of questions about the so-called Garbage Patch. Here are some answers. In the summer of 2005, when I began my researches into the castaway toys, I'd never heard of the Garbage Patch. Nor, I suspect, had most people. Since then the phenomenon has gone through the familiar life-cycles of a news story. First came the sensationalism. Then the story began to smell of Old News. Then came the debunking. By now, the Garbage Patch is rumored to be a myth. It isn't, though the name is misleading and a portion of fancy has muddled the facts. That's usually how it goes with storytelling, journalistic or otherwise, especially when it comes to the sea. (Melville: "In maritime life, far more than in that of terra firma, wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to.")

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Chatwin: "Australia"

"In my childhood I never heard the word 'Australia' without calling to mind the fumes of the eucalyptus inhaler and an incessant red country populated by sheep." --Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

Babel: Other Adventures

"Because, in order to accomplish the things I must do, I will have to travel a lot in the forthcoming years and face some other adventures. But that can't be helped. I have picked a hellish trade." --Isaac Babel, in a letter to his sister, December 20, 1926

Sailing Alone Around the Room

The year after I finished wandering around the northern hemisphere,  I hardly ever left my room. I went from nomad to shut-in. Either one, extreme vagrancy or extreme solitude, can do weird things to your head.

I'd fitted out my room so efficiently—desk pressed against the bed, mounted book shelves climbing all four walls—that it had a nautical feel. I often found myself thinking of my room as a boat with a desk for a cockpit, a keyboard for a helm. In it, motionless, I went pitching along through mental crests and troughs. To one wall, beneath the plywood shelves, I'd pinned a cheap map of the world on which I charted my own drift routes and those of the castaway toys and by which I sometimes navigated, trying to get the coordinates right.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Overboard! Photo of an actual container spill, details and photographer unknown, via the Shelter Island Historical society. No one knows exactly how many fall off every year. Estimates range from the hundreds to as many as 10,000. Merchant mariners tell me occurrences like the above are altogether common. Record is the 407 containers the APL China lost on a single night (a few pics here). Anyone with more pics like these, I'd love to see them.

6 True Castaway Tales, via

6 True Castaway Tales, via
In 1992, a Chinese freighter tipped violently during a storm and dumped a load of plastic bath toys—7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks—into the open sea:

"Where had they gone? Into the Arctic? Around the globe? Were they still out there, traveling the currents of the North Pacific? Or did they lie buried under wrack and sand along Alaska's wild, sparsely populated shores? Or, succumbing to the elements—freezing temperatures, the endless battering of the waves, prolonged exposure to the sun—had they cracked, filled with water, gone under? All 28,800 toys had emerged from that sinking container into the same acre of water. Each member of the four species was all but identical to the others—each duck was just as light as the other ducks, each frog as thick as the other frogs, each beaver as aerodynamic as the next. And yet one turtle had ended up in Signe Wilson's hot tub, another in the jaws of Betsy Knudson's labrador, another in the nest of a sea otter, while a fourth had floated almost all the way to Russia, and a fifth traveled south of Puget Sound. Why? What tangled calculus of causes and effects could explain—or predict—such disparate fates?"