“Do you remember 1970? If you remember, then you were alive when there were almost twice as many plants and animals, forests and fields, as there are now. … I will die in a world that is half as abundantly beautiful as the one I was born into. My children will tear out half the pages in their field guides and throw them away. … Oh for heaven’s sake, people say; change happens. Evolution is a game with winners and losers. If it weren’t for the dinosaur extinctions, there wouldn’t be human beings. Hoorah for the Fifth Extinction! Maybe so. But there is a distinction between change and destruction, and that is the difference between death and murder. … We are like people who live in the penthouse of a hundred-story building, Daniel Quinn writes. Every day we send workers down to remove blocks from the foundation, so we can make our penthouse bigger, fancier.” —Kathleen Dean Moore
“I thought I was breaking down, but why was I breaking down? There was something I had to protect, some image of myself that I had to protect, and what was the image? A nice guy, a decent guy, a religious guy, a compassionate guy, a smart guy, a beautiful guy? Whatever the images of myself that I had to protect, to defend, they were making me unhappy, and the unhappier I got the more withdrawn I got.” (May 1988)
Spent some time with Rainer Maria Rilke this morning. From the second of his “Duino Elegies”:
Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas, I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul, knowing about you.
Where are the days of Tobias, when one of you, veiling his radiance, stood at the front door, slightly disguised for the journey, no longer appalling; (a young man like the one who curiously peeked through the window).
But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars took even one step down toward us: our own heart, beating higher and higher, would beat us to death.
Who are you?
I didn’t intentionally pair these two books with each other as my winter break reading. One, Random Family, concerns an extended, rambling family that starts in the South Bronx and drifts in all sorts of directions, none of them good. Some family members stay put; others end up in decaying Troy, N.Y., or various prisons. The second, Without You, There Is No Us, couldn’t be more claustrophobic; it’s a memoir of a Korean-American writer who spent six months teaching English at a science and technology university near Pyongyang, North Korea. On the surface, the books couldn’t have been more different.
In Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Jessica, her brother Cesar, his gal Coco, Jessica’s beau Boy George and a further cast of dozens are completely unanchored and untethered in the South Bronx: deep poverty, unreliable family ties, unchecked drug use, random and domestic and drug-related violence, teenage boys and girls with multiple children by multiple partners, unstable and unsafe and ever-changing living arrangements — they live in a world where terrible options and terrible choices go hand-in-hand, where, even if they tried to get out, there’s no way to know where to go and probably no way to get there. As the author writes at one point, even if someone in these circumstances does absolutely everything right (and that would be exceedingly hard to do), success still requires an enormous dollop of rare luck. And Jessica, Coco, et al, are anything but lucky.
By contrast, regimentation, obedience and order thrive among the students of Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Lessons, classes and private living areas are monitored and reported on. In the writer’s class, students sit up straight and demand more homework; out of class, they march and sing in platoons, attend self-criticism sessions and spend breaks assigned to construction sites. They are only dimly aware of something called the Internet, and many claim to have turned down offers to study abroad. They make enormous, uncomplaining sacrifices to build “the great and prosperous nation” that they genuinely believe is the envy of the world. It is really one massive prison organized to serve the regime, and learning to blindly obey but never complain is a necessary survival skill. The strange title of the book comes from a strange song the students regularly sing; you is then-dictator Kim Jung-il, whose image, words, and control are plastered on every space and seep into every corner of consciousness.
The two books couldn’t seem more different, as I said. Yet, when I set aside Without You, There Is No Us after just having finished Random Family a week earlier, I was struck by just how much the people in them had in common. They are all struggling through lives with meager options; both books are filled with “young people trying to outrun their destinies,” in the words of one of the books’ publishers. They are confronted by social structures that are overwhelming to any individual, and they respond predictably. The Bronx drifters and the North Korean student-soldiers are both trying to get by within a rigged system, to extract whatever meager advantage it allows while avoiding the worst of where the system drags them. The details differ — if you made a continuum labeled “order” at one end and “chaos” at the other, images of the people in these books could illustrate the respective poles — but the dynamic is the same.
The tragedy is that, in both books, we see glimpses of the people who, under different circumstances, they could become and want to become, but will never actually become. Beneath guarded exteriors, they mull over impossible possibilities. They cry over distant, broken and unfulfilled relationships. It’s no wonder that one word both authors throw around freely is “love.”
I should mention that, while enjoyed both books, Random Family offers a completely different level of depth and complexity. The writer spent more than a decade with her subjects, visiting their homes and tagging along on family gatherings, emergency room visits, meetings with social service workers, and more. It is immersive, engrossing and unforgettable, and the writing is extremely sharp and deft.
“This is what it is to be a stranger: when you leave, there is no void.”
“The pauses last too long. The tension is that of a waiting room, and I wonder why I have come, why I have chosen, yet again, to recover the impossible.”
Two small examples of why I enjoyed this gracefully written volume.
The 1838 photograph required a seven-minute exposure, long enough that people and horses passing through this busy Parisian street leave no trace. But one man stopped long enough to have his shoes shined as Louis Daguerre stood above with his lens open. That man and his shoeshiner are the first humans captured in a photo.
This is the scene as Daguerre saw it and as his lens caught it. The photographic print was a reverse, with the street swooping on the left, adding to the surreality.
At least, that’s what they tell me here. I haven’t cross-checked any of this.
So it’s come to this. I’m quoting McSweeney’s. But it is what I read today.
“You had no trouble criticizing me when I couldn’t pay for dinner, but you never thanked me for going to the trouble of ordering it in the first place.”
My current favorite poem
written published this month: “Untitled.” It’s by someone I worked slightly with, or rather near, awhile and then interviewed for the first time just a couple of weeks ago.
I’m tempted to quote my favorite line, but why ruin for you the pleasure of reading it for the first time in the poem, where it belongs?
“Socks are like lingerie for men. Only you know it’s there under your pants, but then when you walk, you give a little peek of what you’ve got on underneath.”
Full piece here.