Friday, May 21, 2004
A couple more for the stack, but first: it's a great pleasure to have new work out (given the years of wait until the novel grinds its way out). My collaboration with Brian Hall is up here or on my site here.

So that's the writing. On the reading front, I got pointed to the very solid The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie. Elie interweaves the biographies of four American Catholic writers: Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day. He traces the evolution of their writing lives and their faith through their reading, writing, and through the ways faith was made manifest through their lives. Given that Merton and O'Connor are two of my BIGS, it is hard to imagine that I would not like this book--I did like it, but am a little puzzled that I didn't fall down raving about it, or feel absorbed in it and sent off into swirls of subsidiary reading as a result of what I found in it.

First the good: Elie does a tremendous job with the structure of the book itself--this may be the best thing about it. He has themed chapters that are gently suggestive of what is happening in different ways to these four very different lives (The School of the Holy Ghost, Convergences). Each chapter is broken into pieces from each of their lives, and there were times when this was tiring--you wanted to finish out the arc of a particularly compelling story before you had to backtrack into a less compelling moment in another, not-quite-parallel. (And I have continued to find Percy someone I think I should like, but don't really). But as the shifting stories palled, I found the underlying suggestions of the chapters pulling me back into seeing parallels, to ferreting out what Elie was up to in combining the arcs in this way. This may seem like an odd thing to praise, but I was struck a number of times during my reading by the care and insight it showed. He never bludgeons you with it, and it is never so oblique that it didn't contribute to the meaning of the biographies--and that is a fine line indeed.

Most of the rest that is very good is that Elie is very well read in his authors, and that he stays out of the way of their own writing and reflections, which are terrific. He brought in biographical information that I didn't know (more on that in a moment) and used letters to illuminate points of progress and stall.

One biographical point that I got stuck on was this: I hadn't realized that Merton fathered a child as a young man. And having found that out, I couldn't shake the realization that it essentially disappeared after that not only from his life, but from his reflections. He included it in The Seven-Storey Mountain and it was cut by the censors, but it does not seem to have returned anywhere in his later thought--not the child itself as bearing a role in his life, not the idea of the child and what its life might be like out in the world, not the idea of being a father and what life that might have brought. This has cast a pall over Merton entirely for me--it seems fundamentally cowardly, and his life in the monastery as incomplete for not encompassing his whole person and the entirety of his place in the world. These are hard words to write--Merton is certainly one of the writers and thinkers that I most admire, whose struggles have been some of the richest for illuminating my own batterings around. I don't really know what to do with this--how to put Merton to rest again--it raises Emerson a little in my estimation. If there are later writings of Merton's on this subject, I would love to hear about them.

The Life landed a little flat at the end--it was a very rich exploration, but I didn't end with a sense of destination, of conclusion. During the reading, I was often wondering where Elie fit in this process--was he a Catholic? Was this a part, for him, of becoming one? The title is a pilgrimage not pilgrimages--is it his? As I said above, I was glad he stayed out of the way, but (in direct contradiction, I realize) there were times when I did want to hear from him--wanted his experience to somehow pull together the threads into the larger conclusion that I was looking for from the book. This was not, I think, the book Elie was writing (though I would still be interested to hear about it) (3.5 stars)

The other book I finished was lighter and more personal, Paul Collin's Not Even Wrong. This is about Collin's autistic son and some explorations of autism and autistics (from Peter the Wild Boy to Henry Darger to Newton and Einstein). As the father of an autistic daughter, I have my own store of ideas and histories here. Collins is a good writer--brisk, clear, thoughtful. But I found the book itself slight, and his seeking after a story of glorious potential for his son (while understandable) a little irritating--an overreaching sense that he needed to link his son's struggles to a set of gifts so much greater than ordinary that he seemed to be reassuring himself rather than trying to see his son honestly. This is a part of all of the autism lit, especially Asperger's--an idea that the neurological differences are opening a door into works of genius if we can only see the connections (and our brutal, dismissive world can shelter our children in the right way). To be fair, Collins does provide an accurate views into the moment-to-moment reality of his life (to have a three year old with a huge vocabulary that has never called you "Daddy" is wrenching). But I still came away with the sense that he was protesting too much in digging out the legacy of achievement to surround the idea of his son with a greatness that he may or may not reach. (Much more striking to me was the conversation with the doctor about the probability that Morgan would always live at home.)

I don't want to diminish the potential of any one, any child, especially not my own wonderful bright light, but I kept hearing echoes of the boasting parents that I associate with New York City--the my child this and my child that parents who are trying to find a story to tell about their children that is worthy of their own image of themselves. My daughter is mainstreamed in a supportive class with a teacher whose patience and ingenuity in finding ways to draw her in amazes me. And still the reality of our days is much more the struggle than the flashes of genius--she is so stressed by the difficulty of managing in this environment that she cries about going to school on some days, and I feel like an ogre for drawing her into it, or Procrustes with my iron bed, stretching and cutting to find a way to fit her into it.

Clearly I'm bringing a weight onto Collin's book that I think it was not meant to bear--for those coming at this world from the outside, I think it may be a wonderful window in, and it may be. For those inside it already, I am not so sure--interesting and honest, but it feels like he is at the beginning of it, rather than in a moment where he has some reflective distance that would be valuable to me--3 stars.

As an endnote, he mentions Temple Grandin's book Thinking in Pictures--I was surprised not to see Donna William's book Nobody Nowhere--as the best book written by an autistic person about the inside of that world. Hearing Donna William's voice (in an interview on NPR now almost 10 years ago) remains one of the most striking moments in understanding autism and its connections--and lack of connections--to our own humanity. For anyone interested, I highly recommend getting a tape of it (from the FreshAir archives)--it is unforgettable.


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