Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Man Who Sailed His House

In the October issue of GQ, on newsstands now, Michael Paterniti tells the story of Hiromitsu Shinkowa, who drifted into the news last March. Two days after the Japanese tsunami, Shinkowa was discovered nine miles out to sea, alone, on the roof of his house.

Castaway narratives are a venerable sub-genre of nonfiction, even now, in the 21st century, when shipwrecks are far less common than they used to be. What distinguishes Paterniti's story from more conventional disaster narratives is its interiority. He gives us the sublime nightmare of the tsunami, but only to prepare us for the solitary trial—the guilt and regret and heartbreak and fear—that Shinkowa experiences during the two days he spends alone and adrift.

From the sea, Shinkowa fishes what he thinks of as "gifts"—a futon, a tatami mat, a marker, a comic book about superhuman soccer players. With the marker, on paper torn from the comic book, he writes messages to the living, which he scrolls into plastic canisters, also fished from the sea, and lashes to himself with string. Here in the order he wrote them are the words he thought would be his last.
On March 11, I was with my wife, Yuko. My name is Hiromitsu.
I just want to report that I am still alive on the twelfth and was with my wife, Yuko, yesterday. She was born January 12 of Showa 26.
I am sorry for being unfilial.
I'm in a lot of trouble. Sorry for dying before you. Please forgive me.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cushman Time Machine to Old New York

The Daily Mail this week posted a slideshow of color photos of lower Manhattan taken in the early 1940s by Charles Cushman. Cushman's camera was state of art for the time, and the result is a peculiar kind of anachronism: The images look much more recent than they are; what most obviously dates them are the abundance of hats, the abundance of boats in the river, and the abundance of wood (wooden baskets, wooden pushcarts with wooden wagon wheels). Those ephemeral artifacts measure time precisely. Rich material for archeology of the ordinary. (via Brain Pickings)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Julian Barnes's "Shipwreck": Disaster & Art

Last week in Ann Arbor and again today, home in New York, I thought of "Shipwreck," a chapter in Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. I was first introduced to the chapter and the book seven years ago by the writer Eileen Pollack, and I've taught it in nonfiction classes a few times since. Tonight I went back and read "Shipwreck" for the first time in a while.

Barnes published it  in The New Yorker in 1989 as a short story, but it could easily have been called an essay--or a history. Let's call it a story in two parts. The first part artfully but dispassionately narrates the wreck of a French ship, the Medusa, in 1816. A taste:
By misfortune, they had struck the reef at high tide, and, the seas becoming violent, attempts to free the ship failed. The frigate was assuredly lost. Since the boats it carried were not capacious enough to contain the whole personnel, it was decided to build a raft and embark upon it those who could not be put into boats. The raft would then be towed to the shore and all would be saved. This plan was perfectly well laid; but, as two of the company were later to affirm, it was traced upon loose sand, which was dispersed by the breath of egotism.
Before those "two of the company" are rescued from their hellish raft,  a great deal of dying and a fair portion of cannibalism has taken place. It's a masterful, suspenseful bit of narrative history, this first part, but what keeps me returning to "Shipwreck" is the second part of Barnes's story, a sort of making-of documentary about the famous painting, by GĂ©ricault, that the wreck of the Medusa inspired.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Nostalgia, Progress, and Michigan

Headed to Ann Arbor tomorrow to spend three days at the University of Michigan, where I spent two unusually fruitful years almost a decade ago. During those two years I wrote my first long piece of narrative nonfiction, an essay about traveling around the rust belt with a botanist turned tool collector named Tom Friedlander, whom I hope to see later this week. An adapted and abridged version of that essay appeared last spring in the Work issue of Lapham's Quarterly. Because I'm in a Michigan state of mind, here's an excerpt from the long version, "A Romance of Rust: Nostalgia, Progress, and the Meaning of Tools," which originally appeared in Harper's:
Southeast Michigan can be beautiful in leaf or under snow, but that winter it had hardly snowed at all, and the Friedlanders' nature sanctuary was a desiccated, khaki-colored wasteland. The silver blimp of a propane tank glowed between the bare branches of bushes planted to obscure it. Behind the house, where corn once grew, an ocean of goldenrod—still brown and dormant—stretched to the woodlot on the horizon. On the way to the tool barn, we passed the greenhouse Tom and Martha had built out of corrugated fiberglass. Two plastic barrels full of frozen rain stood sentry beside the entrance. Inside I could discern the shadowy forms of succulents (one of Tom's previous taxonomical obsessions) weathering the hostile biome in balmy serenity.

Although there was a barn-sized barn on the property—a dilapidated cavern full of owl shit, darkness, and mildewy hay where Tom kept the antique tractor he used to mow paths through the goldenrod in the summer and plow the driveway in winter—the prefabricated steel structure in which he stored his tools was scarcely bigger than a two-car garage. We entered through a side door, stepping awkwardly over three metal spheres huge as medicine balls while fluorescent tubes flickered on overhead.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Teju Cole on the Insular City of the Manhattoes

"This strangest of islands, I thought, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had a scant sense about what flowed around them. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused. I stood on the promenade and looked out across the water into the unresponsive night. All was quiet and lights called from the Jersey Shore across. A pair of joggers sailed softly toward me, and past me. Along South End, facing the water, there were rows of townhouses, small shops, and a little, round gazebo choked with vines and bushes. Out, ahead of me, in the Hudson, there was just the faintest echo of the old whaling ships, the whales, and the generations of New Yorkers who had come here to the promenade to watch the wealth and sorrow flow into the city or simply to see the light play on the water. Each one of those past moments was present now as a trace."