This Life Is Only the Wedding
Plus: Death is overturned on appeal, and more
Welcome, creatures! In this edition you get two short book notes; To Live and Die in Infrastructure Week; and a bit more.
I recently finished Stephen Carter’s novel The Emperor of Ocean Park. Carter is a law professor, and I think a mod con (moderate conservative not modern convenience… although moderate conservatism does seem both modern and convenient), and this was his first novel. It’s a complex mystery with a huge cast. It kicks off when Oliver Garland is found dead at his desk. Garland is the kind of guy whose own children refer to him as “the Judge.” He sat on the federal bench, and then Ronald Reagan decided a black conservative would be the perfect Supreme Court pick—at which point a catastrophic confirmation hearing destroyed Garland’s reputation and career. He pivoted hard to the right, and spent the last decades of his life giving embittered, self-indulgent “slouching toward Gomorrah” speeches for lily-white Republican audiences.
His son Misha has been far more deeply molded by the Judge than he would like—cagey, judgmental, self-abnegating Misha, loyal in the most unhelpful ways possible. Misha the cuckold, Misha the Christian, Misha the curmudgeon. Misha the depressive bourgeois, who is too willfully normal to take it seriously when his sister tells him that the Judge was murdered.
Okay, so the mystery I did not fully love. There’s just too much of it for me—too many conflicting schemes by too many shadowy parties. There’s a fakeout climax and then a long, long passage before the real climax, which is frustrating.
I did love Misha. I liked how rarely he knew which beliefs were truly his own and which merely aspirations, or hangovers from the Judge. This is a man who’d fail an Ideological Turing Test about himself, and I liked that, I like when people have no idea who they are. I liked the scene where he discovers that he believes Satan is real and he’s not just saying so as a bit. I ended up thinking that Carter does not demonize Misha’s unfaithful wife, although he skates in that direction toward the end. She reflects a lot of Misha’s own flaws, as Misha’s pastor points out. She’s Misha in shoulder pads, a career woman instead of an internal exile, and I don’t think the novel believes her form of pride is worse than his.
I’ll also say that there’s a scene where Misha is almost arrested. This book is from 2002 and I’ve read basically this exact scene, a man of color terrified in the swirling red and blue lights, in novels from the first half of the 20th century up through The Only Good Indians. It is a scene that always feels contemporary.
I also read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Slave (in a translation by Singer himself and Cecil Hemley). This is a totally different novel, an immersive, theological and anti-theological tale of a Jewish man who is enslaved after his entire family is massacred in a pogrom, and the Christian woman he falls in love with. Jacob, among the half-pagan Polish peasants, hangs on to as much of his faith as he can remember. He tells himself what he feels for Wanda is only lust (and it is, you know, partly lust). To give in to it would risk both of their lives, and, he believes, his soul. And yet when he closes his eyes, he sees her. And so a journey begins….
There’s so much in this novel—and it seems so fully to inhabit Jacob’s perspective. It feels old and strange, a voice from a lost time. That can be unpleasant. Jacob doesn’t really see the Poles as human beings. They’re bestial and they viscerally disgust him. (Wanda is an exception because she has “a Jewish soul.”) They have the morals of diseased cats—the traditional Jewish horror at sexual sin is fully on display here and, well, it’s maybe better when people don’t know that they’re righteous.
But that sentiment is a Mobius strip, because Jacob himself is a sexual sinner; he loses his own sense of righteousness, he learns to wander and deceive and to do things he can’t defend. He becomes a kind of holy fool, and I think this book would really appeal to anyone who likes other holy fool novels (I am trying to accept that I was the wrong audience for Laurus and my assessment of it isn’t the only one worth hearing, so I’ll just say that if you liked Laurus more than I did, you might like this too).
Both Jacob and Wanda ask the questions their experiences prompt. How can God allow such evil against His chosen people? Also like, how come His chosen people seem so much more concerned with fulfilling ritual obligations than with treating one another honestly and charitably? How can there be a God watching over a world where children are buried alive; how can the Jews have the truth if they don’t seem to care about it? The questions are put so sharply and directly—and they don’t get answered, thank God, they instead unwind in other ways, as they do in our real lives when we are at our best.
I loved this: the way things we’d call superstition are just called religion (among Jews as well as Christians), because the past is another country; the interlude with the Polish noble who’s aroused by being cuckolded, such a sordid nasty thing to include and yet the unfaithful wife is such a great creation, the kind of person who ends a long speech about the insouciance she’s learned to show in the face of violence with, “Do you ever drink in bed?”; Singer’s prose style, which clings close to the earth, resolutely avoiding abstraction, until suddenly it soars. I loved the image of this life as only the wedding—the marriage itself, which is the purpose of the wedding, only unfolds once we pass through the gates of death.
What Did the Romans Ever Do for Us?
The roads bear the names of the summi viri who sponsored them, but they were originally built under military supervision by work gangs, either local forced labor or slave labor—sometimes the same thing, for landowners were obliged to take responsibility for maintenance of sections of highway adjacent to their land. Cato lists mending the via publica as one of the tasks slaves can be given to occupy them on holidays (feriae; De agr. 2.4). The massive roads were so well engineered that some of them still exist, incised like the Interstate across the countryside—these roads, in the north, were built over droveways and trails made by the local inhabitants, and brought in the Roman colonists who displaced them; down those roads, in turn, went the former inhabitants, as slaves or just as displaced persons.
—Amy Richlin, Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy… idk, obviously this is about an era centuries before the life of Christ Brian, but it does make that cute little Monty Python scene hit different, no?
I did very short reviews of a whole bunch of movies, ranging in respectability from The Red and the White to Venom 2: Dubious Consentacles.
Annie Lennox, “Lullay Lullay (Coventry Carol)”
Black king via Wikimedia Commons. Lol perhaps I should mention that The Emperor of Ocean Park is also structured around chess.