June 27, 2013
Edinburgh is a place of absolute contrast and paradox. A sense of quality in men and things goes hand in hand with chaotic squalor. The rational squares and terraces of the New Town confront the daunting skyline of the Old. Slums still abut the houses of the rich. Wild mountain scenery impinges on the heart of the city. On fine summer days nowhere is lighter and more airy; for most of the year there are icy blasts or a clammy sea fog, the haar of the east coast of Scotland. Edinburgh is contemptuous of the present. In no other city in the British Isles do you feel to the same extent the oppressive weight of the past. Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox are a presence. The dead seem more alive than the living. There is a claustrophobic, coffin-like atmosphere that makes Glasgow, in comparison, seem a paradise of life and laughter. Moderate health is virtually unknown. Either people enjoy robust appetites, or they are ailing and require protection. Heady passions simmer below the surface. In winter the city slumbers all week in blue-faced rectitude, only to explode on Saturday evenings in an orgy of drink and violence and sex. In some quarters the pious must pick their way to church along pavements spattered with vomit and broken bottles.
Bruce Chatwin, ‘The Road to the Isles’
June 9, 2013
Bewilderment is more than just confusion or perplexion. It is, in its most literal sense, the paralysing disorientation of waking to find oneself lost in the wild and overwhelmed, overawed, by the encompassing wilderness. Perhaps one follows a path through the world that is suddenly swallowed up by a forest or perhaps the path dwindles away, losing all distinction, as barren expanses surround it and stretch out towards the horizon. When brought to a halt by some obstruction of one’s intended course, bewilderment is the fog that descends and occludes all avenues for onward movement.
Bewilderment of this sort is the soul of Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds and the closest thing to the narrative centre of this baroque and disquieting debut. Across twelve prose snapshots, each one pristine, the fog settles upon a nameless narrator and a young man named Tom whose lives are so alike as to be interchangeable. A boyhood spent in the mining towns of the Pennsylvania Allegehenies is cut short by a mother’s illness and the trauma of her painful death. Adulthood is marked by a westward migration, a flight towards some idealised liberation from the past, which strains a relationship with a father left at home to mourn the absence of his wife and his son and to seek comfort in an increasingly rigid Christianity. Time and again in Other Kinds, a young man awakens to find himself lost in the wilderness of a world that has reconfigured around him and wiped away the path he presumed to follow. What makes this collection so powerful, though, is the deftness with which it repeatedly reaches for something beyond simply conveying the young man’s bewilderment. Its power flows from the compounding of his figurative bewilderment, his standing dumbstruck before the thwarting of his intentions, with both a literal bewilderment whereby the mystery and magnitude of unfamiliar surroundings overwhelm him and a stylistic bewilderment whereby the drift from sentence to sentence, from snapshot to snapshot, stirs up an experience of disorientation for readers which echoes the experiences captured on the page.
“I am named after the place I’m from,” the narrator says in the third prose snapshot, ‘Thin Enough to Break,’ which typifies the governing aesthetic of Other Kinds:
It’s a lot of fog and smokestacks. Trailers parked in mud and dog shit. The roads circle places you don’t want to be. We had left the Chinese restaurant. The subject changed in the car to Christ.
“The man spoke in riddles,” Dad said, “for ears that could hear.”
Leafless trees dripped water and there was a war somewhere. The onions gave me indigestion, and this year the ladybugs were bad. Dad would vacuum them off the windowsills.
Posters on the campus I went to had asked me if Jesus was a Republican. The campus was far from the place I’m from. It was cleaner, more cluttered, full of people who knew enough about God to say he’s on their side. I spent my time there alone. Some days Dad called and said he hadn’t spoken to anyone all day. Birds pecked at the brown grass outside my apartment window.
“That happens to me, too,” I would say.
It was spring break and rain fell slow most days that week, melting mounds of dirty ice at the edges of parking lots and driveways. Our street stretched into the woods and each driveway had its own name. Smoke rose from a row of off-white houses.
I painted in my bedroom. The same canvases over and over. I tried to paint a vision I had. I was a little boy and I was in a field looking up. And up there, the sky was gray and an airplane was taking off. The plane seemed to be everything. It wasn’t flying away, or leaving me alone.
The bewilderment of the narrator is front and centre here. Having fled the decaying town in which he spent his youth, he finds himself alone and abandoned in a place he supposed would be more hospitable and then, returning briefly to his roots, he finds his father as deeply enamoured of theological trivia as the very people who alienate him in the place that is now his home. Crucially, though, his figurative bewilderment is compounded by both his literal bewilderment and the bewildering effect of the style in which he narrates events. His literal bewilderment manifests in the disjuncture between the world as he expects it to be and the aspects of the world that contradict expectations. Springtime brings with it the promise of natural vitality, and yet a slow rain falls over trees that are still leafless while birds in search of sustenance peck at lifeless grass. His stylistic bewilderment manifests in his attempts to strike parities between disparate and disorienting aspects of the world by focusing on them and naming each of them in succession — an attempt that produces only a stream of non sequiturs which suggests, deep down, an impulse to master the overwhelming world.
Consider the trailers parked in mud, the small-town Chinese restaurant, the conversation about Christ, the war “somewhere,” the melting ice and the driveways with names, the painting and the vision of the airplane snared in stasis. How is any one of these things related to any one of the others? They are related only by the observing presence of the narrator himself, by his having associated them in prose and by his stance as the subject around which they coalesce. His attention is drawn to each of them as various aspects of an overwhelming world, and the act of naming them all implies an urge to alleviate his sense of being overwhelmed, but his failure to name them without elaborating on the relationships he sees between them extends the experience of bewilderment from the narrator himself to those who hear what he has to say. Stylistically, then, his use of words illuminates his desire to cope with his bewilderment even as the words themselves, shot through with non sequiturs, reinforce that bewilderment and experientialise it for readers by forging superficial connections between aspects of the world whose sole substantial connection is their having equally left him bewildered.
For some readers, perhaps, Other Kinds will seem to be little more than a catalogue of things that capture the attention of its wayward young men and burden them with their feelings of disorientation. Dirt roads running behind power substations in the middle of nowhere. A river overflowing its banks and blackening the nearby grass. Parking lots reeking of gasoline and the threat of impending rain. Chunks of ice in a stream, swept along by the strength of the current, slamming hard against one another, and tropical plants that smell “worse than rot because of something sweet in the stink.” ‘Ice Floe,’ the sixth prose snapshot, gives clear expression to the bewilderment that arises from these sorts of worldly phenomena. Having relocated to the Midwest, which is described elsewhere as a place in which “you can see the size of the weather, the long breaths of wind,” a young man stands paralysed both in and by his new surroundings:
There was enough wind that the clouds moved fast above the buildings. The town was on the plains and the flatness there changed the shape of the sky. It had been smaller at home. The wind felt different coming in from the emptiness out there — it was like he was standing at the spot where the world began to get round. He was exposed.
But additional structural features of Other Kinds amplify the affective power of these details, superseding the rote recitations of the form of the catalogue by calling forth variations in the sources of the bewilderment of its characters and in their responses to it. The twelve prose snapshots are broken down into three sections, each of which consists of a short italicised fragment preceding and thematically linked to three longer pieces. In the first section, a sense of shame about an impoverished upbringing, and the antagonising of that shame by others, is the source of a young man’s bewilderment. In the second section, under pressure to beat bach the silences that attend his bewilderment, he makes disclosures and personal confessions that only end up intensifying his awkwardness. In the third section, his difficult interactions with family members, with relatives who are ill or mean-spirited or somehow embarrassing, leave him flailing about in futile efforts to accept or ameliorate his troubling relationships. Yet, rather than appearing in three discrete sections, these variations on bewilderment work together in an accretive way so that, for instance, the shame experienced the first section becomes the prompt for the awkward attempts at speech in the second, and those awkward attempts exacerbate the family difficulties experienced in the third.
As Other Kinds unfolds, then, its bewildered young men increasingly strive to assert control over the very world that bewilders them and yet repeatedly meet with failures that only entrench and extend their disorientation. In the first section, for instance, the narrator, now at college in the Midwest, returns to the town of his boyhood and thinks over the time he spent with a girl he says he loved. Lost in a haze of emotional insecurity and unable to articulate his feelings for her, he recalls that he “made her a CD and labeled it Tonight and played it [in the car on the way to her house], thinking there were chord progressions that sounded like whatever it was I was pursuing.” His choice of music is therefore the voice through which he first attempts to steady his course through a world that leaves him alienated and adrift. In the second section, though, he inadvertently worsens his waywardness when he uses his own voice to try to steady himself. “She moved and talked in ways that made me feel smaller than I was,” he says of another girl who captures his heart. “I told her embarrassing things about myself. I thought saying them made them less true. As we flew to Chicago I had said I once tried to break up with a girl I wasn’t dating.” And later, in the third section, his failures of articulation resolve into a suppressed and inchoate frustration, a rage against the futility of living in a world that renders him insignificant. “As a child,” he admits earlier, shortly after having acknowledged the “war somewhere” out there, “I had imagined whole wars raging just out of sight, and my house rose from the violence as something sacred. … Out there men were dying and it was fine because they were just men and I was a little boy.” Now, towards the end of Other Kinds, the yearning for a war resurfaces. “There needed to be a war someplace close,” we are told in a glimpse of his boyhood thoughts. “The war, if it was a good war, would be in the summer.” Why should he not yearn for such a war? For someone so utterly bewildered by the world, the total chaos of war would extend his bewilderment to the world itself and so at last place him on a sort of equal footing with it.
Of course, with its undercurrents of war, its focus on the minutiae of disjointed experiences, its structuring of various prose snapshots around shorter italicised fragments, and its author’s stylistic preference for short, clipped sentences and plain, unadorned prose, Other Kinds channels no other work of literature more clearly than Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time. Often, too, its affinity with In Our Time even flows down from the stylistic and structural qualities of the collection of the whole to the various pieces that constitute it. In ‘We’ll Both Feel Better,’ for instance, when the narrator delivers a rebuke to a young woman who he believes he loves, his words are as shockingly understated and as devastating as those which deliver a similar rebuke in the final lines of Hemingway’s ‘The End of Something.’ And while I would usually hesitate to strike any association between a recent literary debut and In Our Time, one of the greatest debuts ever published, I made my way through Other Kinds with the sense that, for the first time in a long time, such an association would not be lazy, hyperbolic, or unwarranted. Almost every line, and certainly every space between one sentence and the next, simultaneously speaks to the bewildering experiences observed in words and strikes at the heart of the reader by making a bewildering experience of reading itself. Adopting a lack of self-assurance as an essential theme and absorbing that lack into its own aesthetics, Other Kinds takes bewilderment as a static state of being, a state subject to mere representation, and transforms it into a process of recurrent becoming by way of a dialogue with worldly phenomena whose own state of being is far from fixed. Rarely does the alchemy of subject, style, and structure produce results of such concentrated power, and rarer still is their combined effect as mesmerising, as involving, as intense, and as sustained as it is in this volume.
May 29, 2013
Michael now took to science and would engage with any of the teachers in religious, philosophic, and logical discussions; his long years of fanciful reasoning had given him an agility in argument; he found himself in his words, the schoolmen’s world, the world of pure verbalism. In Botany, once, having drawn thirty diagrams of the stages of union of two cells of the gutterweed, Spirogyra, which is thin and long like a green hair, a kind of frenzy took hold of him. He looked through the microscope and saw that not only was the series, taken as a series of poses, like a cinematograph, infinite, but that even wit all his care and preoccupation he could not seize the important moment of change. It was not there, it seemed to him mystic. When he saw a person going downstairs and compared the last appearance of that one’s head with the empty space when he was no longer there, the change seemed to him infinitely great, even impossible, a freak that could not take place in the natural world in which he breathed. In his imagination a thing was, and then disappeared, dark remained, and in between was a space of dreams, of nonentity. He held up his mind, a cracked and yellow mirror to reflect the machinery of the world, and in that dark space the world ceased for a moment to exist.
But at these times especially, he would fall back against his seat or lean on his elbow looking out of the window at the trees, and powerful visions would pass through his head; he laboured automatically to increase and perfect these visions, to make them logical, grandiose. He believed in intellectual miracles. He suffered states which were ecstasy, although they were not joyful but rapt and inhuman. In those moments he gave out cold as a genial person gives out warmth and love.
“I see no will or obedience in anything,” he said, “only the abrupt, spontaneous will and generation; to a certain point water is water, then it is steam or ice, there is no slow change, as I used to think, it is abrupt, and it is mystery. How blunt our senses are, how many thick veils hang between us and the world. How will we ever refine our eyes to see atoms and our ears to hear the messages of ants? … I wish to watch the ordinary movement of life and I see only a succession of dead, shed moments without interrelation: like a man walking through a hall of mirrors and seeing a thousand reflections of himself on every side, each one a shell of himself, and insubstantial. Time, tide, order, I cannot understand; I would go mad.”
Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of Sydney
December 29, 2012
At the beginning of last trimester, I decided to teach a class centered around Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. My motives were, above all, selfish. I had read the novel once before and found it so impressive that I had barely put it down before it began gnawing away at my thoughts and demanding closer inspection. First published in 1940, The Ox-Bow Incident arrived on the heels of the early successes of John Steinbeck and William Saroyan and it is very much a novel of the pedigree represented by their work. Its prose is plain and laconic. Its characters are sharply defined. Their interactions lead them to articulate and debate the moral dilemmas that would otherwise amount only to subtext, and the dramas that develop between them are staged so precisely, yet with aspirations to realism so insistent, that the absence of ragged edges underscores the artificiality of the whole. When appreciated as a novel of this sort, The Ox-Bow Incident must be hailed as one of the very best. As much as its artifices may constrain it, its characters and their dramas remain electrifying from the first page to the last. But its sophisticated approach to the demands and limits of its genre was not what appealed to me when I first read it. I couldn’t say exactly what it was that appealed, but I could sense that it was something else, some textual undercurrent, some motivational force that propelled the whole thing along. When I decided to teach it in class, then, I set aside several weeks in which to read it closer, page by page, to find out what that something was.
Bridger’s Wells, Nevada. 1885. A classic Western scenario. Two young cowboys ride into town. Their names are Art Croft and Gil Carter. Having just finished the springtime roundup of the cattle that roam free in the winter, their first destination is the local saloon. The bartender, Canby, greets them as an old acquaintance and delivers the unhappy news that, while Art and Gil were away, Gil’s old flame, Rose Mapen, left town, or was driven out. Canby also informs them that the local ranchers experienced some trouble with cattle rustlers, and those troubles are made plain when a man named Moore enters the saloon and approaches the bar. As the foreman of a ranch belonging to the town’s most influential landowner, Harley Drew, Moore reveals that every rancher in Bridger’s Wells lost cattle during the spring and that the combined losses totalled more than six hundred animals. As Art and Gil continue drinking and talking with Canby and Moore, the saloon fills up with an assortment of other townsfolk. Among them are two of the ranchers, the tempestuous Jeff Farnley and his embittered friend, Bartlett, who lost one hundred head of stock, as well as the town drunkard, Monty Smith, and the local preacher known only as Osgood. Suddenly, though, a young man named Greene rushes into town with urgent news from Drew’s ranch. Greene is another of Drew’s employees and he announces that one of his fellow ranchhands has just been shot dead by a gang of four riders.
The dead man’s name is Larry Kinkaid. Farnley, a friend of Kinkaid, leads the charge to form a lynch mob in order to exact revenge upon the riders. Bartlett, as a victim of rustling, offers backup. Osgood, as a man of the cloth, feels a moral obligation to halt this spirit of vigilantism before it spreads to the other townsfolk, and it is with his protestations that the novel begins to soar. Osgood entreats Farnley and Bartlett not to turn to vigilantism as an expedient solution to a reported crime whose details remain unclear. “[I]f such an awful thing has actually occurred,” he says, “it is the more reason that we should retain our self-possession. In such a position… we are likely to lose our reason and our sense of justice. … [L]et us not act hastily; let us not do that which we will regret. We must act, certainly, but we must act in a reasoned and legitimate manner, not as a lawless mob. It is not mere blood that we want. … We desire justice, and justice has never been obtained in haste and strong feeling.”
For Osgood, a “reasoned and legitimate” response to the crime involves sending for Risley and Tyler, respectively the sheriff and the judge with jurisdiction over Bridger’s Wells, so that the mob can be transformed into a legally constituted posse under official leadership. But Farnley and Bartlett sneer at Osgood. ”We know what Tyler is,” Bartlett growls. “If we wait for Tyler… there won’t be one head of anybody’s cattle left in the meadows by the time we get justice. … Is it justice that we sweat ourselves sick and old every damned day in the year to make a handful of honest dollars, and then lose it all in one night to some miserable greaser because Judge Tyler… says we have to fold our hands and wait for his eternal justice? Waiting for Tyler’s kind of justice, we’d all be beggars in a year. … What led rustlers into this valley in the first place? … I’ll tell you what did it. Judge Tyler’s kind of justice, that’s what did it. They don’t wait for that kind of justice in Texas any more, do they? … They go and get the man, and they string him up. … Maybe if we do one job with our own hands, the law will get a move on.”
When Osgood fails to respond to Bartlett’s outrage with enough passion to inspire others to hear his case, Arthur Davies, the town storekeeper, steps in and pleads for restraint. ”If we go out and hang two or three men,” he says, “without doing what the law says, forming a posse and bringing the men in for trial, then by the same law, we’re not officers of justice, but due to be hanged ourselves. … [O]ur crime’s worse than a murderer’s. His act puts him outside the law, but keeps the law intact. Ours would weaken the law.” By and large, however, Davies’ arguments fall on deaf ears and, soon enough, Farnley and Bartlett are joined by Bill Winder, the stagecoach driver whose route extends from Bridger’s Wells to Reno, and Gabe Hart, Winder’s right-hand-man. When Gil Carter is also drawn into the emerging mob, Davies sends a clerk to Judge Tyler’s residence and asks Art Croft to go along as well. Davies’ intention is to execute Osgood’s proposal, to seek Tyler’s intervention so that the mob cannot act until Sheriff Risley arrives. The townsfolk are waiting for a leader, Art understands, and Davies wants Risley to step in before someone entirely unsuitable volunteers. At first, things go according to plan. When Art arrives at Tyler’s residence with Davies’ clerk in tow, Tyler is suitably angered and agrees to intervene. But then, when Art and Davies’ clerk return to town with Tyler, Tyler’s intervention is derailed by a mob that has grown in their absence.
Although Bartlett is nowhere to be found, having ridden out to recruit his two sons, the mob is momentarily galvanised by the arrival of a grotesque old woman, Jenny Grier, who rides in and takes Tyler to task in full view of the townsfolk: when Tyler threatens to charge one of the men with “impeding the course of justice,” Grier tells him that “you can’t impede what don’t move anyway.” Then the mob is galvanised for good when the townsfolk make way for Willard Tetley, a one-time Confederate cavalry officer who inspires fear and thus obedience in all the other townsfolk. Riding in alongside his timid son, Gerald, Tetley is exactly the sort of leader whose arrival worried Davies. In response, Davies makes one last attempt at persuading the townsfolk not to take justice into their own hands. Seizing on the fresh revelation that Greene, the young man who brought news of Kinkaid’s death, did not actually witness the murder, he pleads for the townsfolk to entertain reasonable doubt about the validity of Greene’s report. But his entreaties are powerless to diminish the sway of the testimony of Tetley’s Mexican ranchhand, Amigo, who reports having seen several men on horseback fleeing the valley alongside forty head of cattle. With Risley still stationed on Drew’s ranch, far outside the town, his deputy, Butch Mapes, agrees to deputise the members of the mob and so to give their actions legal sanction. Tyler insists that Mapes is acting illegally, since a sheriff’s deputy lacks legal authority to deputise others, but his objections are disregarded by Mapes and by those who agree to swear Mapes an oath of loyalty. Setting their sights on revenge for the death of Kinkaid and the theft of six hundred cattle, twenty-seven men and one woman set out to hunt down the suspected murderers who have fled into the nighttime wilderness surrounding Bridger’s Wells.
The mob has not been riding very long before Art Croft, abreast with Gerald Tetley, finds himself and taken as an audience for the young man’s explication of the novel’s overriding theme. Gerald despises his aggressive, domineering father and quietly opposes the actions of the lynch mob. “You can’t go hunting men like coyotes after rabbits and not feel anything about it,” he warns Art. “Not without being like any other animal. The worst animal. … At least coyotes don’t make excuses. We think we can see something better, but we go on doing the same things, hunt in packs like wolves; hole up in warrens like rabbits. All the dirtiest traits. … [We're hunting] our own kind. A wolf wouldn’t do that; not a mangy coyote. That’s the hunting we like now, our own kind. … We have all the pack instincts, all right…”
Human beings are pack animals, according to Gerald Tetley, and countless episodes in the novel dramatise this theme. Before the novel begins, Rose Mapen is driven out of town by rumours that she is a whore, rumours spread by a pack of women who are jealous of her attractiveness to their husbands. As the lynch mob begins to form, Art realises that its formation is inevitable from the point at which it attracts a crowd of onlookers, “an audience that ha[s] to be played up to.” And, when Art scans the faces of the men in the mob, he admits that it would be unlikely, “man for man,” for any of the men to be talked into doing anything rash, but that they can no longer think straight because they are too “stirred up or feeling they ought to be.” In other words, opposition to the formation of the lynch mob was always bound to be a lost cause. The very formation of the mob put the townsfolk in a position from which they had no other choice but to sign up or lose face, and, as they were struck by a sense of terror at the prospect of losing face, they felt themselves impelled to join the human pack.
In a sense, then, the member of the mob who is most terrified of losing face is also the one who most terrifies the others — the alpha dog, Willard Tetley — and so, as the hunt proceeds, the elder Tetley takes pains to show no weaknesses and to distract his subordinates from noticing his terror. The mob captures three men in a valley known as the Ox-Bow. Tetley demands that the captives confess to killing Kinkaid and stealing the cattle. But when Gil senses that Tetley is unsure of the guilt of these men and demands that Tetley discuss his doubts with Judge Tyler, Tetley suggests in front of the mob that Gil’s own “stomach for justice is cooling.” And when Davies insists that Tetley read a letter written by one of the captives because it proves their innocence, Tetley responds with an ironclad refusal to entertain the doubts it would raise: “[I]f it’s an honest letter it’s none of my business to read it,” he says, “and if it isn’t I don’t want to.”
The end result is a tragedy made all the more disturbing because foreshadowed with such clarity that it appears almost foreordained. Despite insisting on their innocence, the three captured riders are hung in a grotesque spectacle. In an effort to coerce his son into overcoming his timidity, Willard Tetley forces Gerald to kill the leader of the riders, a young man named Donald Martin. Because Gerald can’t overcome his timidity after all, the hanging goes awry. Martin’s neck doesn’t snap. The noose starts to strangle him so that he must be shot to death while he hangs. And shortly thereafter, just as the mob sets out on the return journey to Bridger’s Wells, Sheriff Risley shows up in the company of Harley Drew and none other than Larry Kinkaid, alive and well. When a gun went off at Drew’s ranch earlier that day, Kinkaid was struck by a bullet but was only left unconscious. The entire lynching was conducted so hastily that the mob overlooked the possibility that there weren’t actually any killers to be brought to justice, and so, to the horror of those who took part in the lynching, a terrible experience of injustice confers validity on the arguments of Osgood and Davies.
There is unmistakable artistry to the precision with which moral and political positions are staked out, to the cogency with which a theme is articulated, and to the clarity with which the dramatisation of that theme underscores the strengths and weaknesses of those positions. From beginning to end, the unfolding of events is so crisp and clean and so orderly as to make overt the exercise of authorial control. But why? After reading The Ox-Bow Incident for the first time, I knew on some level that these elements of the novel were what I most admired about it. When I returned to it last term, I kept those elements in view. Why this precision, this cogency, this clarity? Why the overt exercise of control? Why this insistence on orderliness? Why the authorial determination, the sheer resolve, to exercise a degree of control sufficient to ensure such precision, cogency, and clarity in the telling of the tale?
The Ox-Bow Incident is narrated by Art Croft, one of the two cowboys who rides into Bridger’s Wells in the novel’s opening pages, although, unlike his partner Gil, Art is less a participant in the narrative action than a cipher for its notation. He embarks on the journey to Judge Tyler’s house at the behest of Davies, he reluctantly accompanies the lynch mob into the wilderness, and at one point he is accidentally shot and incapacitated, but otherwise nothing much happens to him beyond his spectatorship of events that are driven by others. At first, then, it is easy to see Art as similarly passive in his role as narrator. Since his simplistic retelling of events appears as unassuming as his presence at the scene of the crime and as unadorned as his contributions to the lynching, the novel seems to take the form of Art’s first-person monologue offering nothing more than a straightforward record of who did what to whom and why. But I think it would be a mistake to accept the novel’s apparent simplicity without taking a closer look at it, particularly since two quiet remarks, made in the first fifty pages, imply that the form of the novel is something more than a monologue and much less straightforward than it seems.
The first remark appears early on, just after Art and Gil take their seats in Canby’s saloon and Gil tells Canby about how the winter he has just spent with Art. Because they were on duty while the cattle roamed free, Gil and Art had to sleep together in a tiny shack in the depths of the snow-covered mountains. Gil, a born conversationalist, was irritated by Art’s introspection and quietude and, more importantly, by his preference to sit by himself and write rather than shooting the breeze with his partner. “[H]e wouldn’t talk,” Gil complains, “and somebody had to. He’d sit there reading his old books like he had a lesson to learn, or writing all the time, scratch, scratch, scratch. It got on my nerves.” The second remark appears when Art sets off to visit Judge Tyler as the lynch mob forms in town and a thunderstorm gathers in the distance. “The sky was really changing now, fast,” Art says. “[T]he wind was down to earth and continual, flapping the men’s garments and blowing our the horses’ tails like plumes. … It was a heavy wind with a damp, chill feel to it, like comes before snow, and strong enough so it wuthered under the arcade and sometimes whistled, the kind of wind that even now makes me think of Nevada quicker than anything else I know.”
Those two short words, “even now,” are loaded with significance, as is the subsequent detour into the present tense. Here but nowhere else in the novel, Art suggests that the events he recounts are not at all recent, are perhaps years in the past, and this suggestion obtains further significance in light of Gil’s complaints about Art. The narrator of this novel is a writer — an obsessive writer, according to Gil, struck by an irrepressible need to write — who acknowledges himself as such when he includes Gil’s complaints in his narrative, and who thereafter situates himself at a temporal distance from the events he narrates. In combination, then, these two remarks raise the possibility that The Ox-Bow Incident is not some abstract monologue spoken or thought by its narrator but may in fact be an accumulation of words set on paper in a written document which the narrator construes, fleetingly but quite explicitly, as a retrospective detailing of exactly what happened in Bridger’s Wells and what happened later in the Ox-Bow. This possibility becomes a likelihood, I think, given the extraordinarily careful attention that Art, as a man besotted with words, pays to the words of the men who argue about the virtues and vices of forming the lynch mob. If the precision, cogency, and clarity of The Ox-Bow Incident are at issue alongside its orderliness and overt authorial control, then these aspects of the novel beg an interrogation of Art Croft and his condition after the lynching. Something about what happens in the novel, which has already happened to Art before the novel begins, compels him to recount what has happened with all the precision, cogency, and clarity that calls attention to the control he exercises over his act of recounting. For Art, then, the act of recounting must also implicitly constitute an attempt to answer or ameliorate the compulsion to recount, a compulsion that must have arisen from the events he recounts and that entails the style in which he recounts them.
What is the source of that compulsion? My sense is that it is the disconnect between Art’s values and priorities as a writer and his behaviour as a member of the lynch mob. This disconnect slowly grows wider throughout the novel until it reaches its full extent when Risley, Drew, and Kinkaid appear in the aftermath of the lynching. The formation of the lynch mob begins in the face of Osgood and Davies’ careful, eloquent arguments against it. Many other men do not heed these arguments, but Art gives them some credence. ”I thought at about it,” he says of Davies’ argument that the proper, procedural judgement of a crime requires careful deliberation and thus requires enough time for hot tempers to cool down. “I can see how the time would count,” he admits, and later, when Davies asks him to approach Judge Tyler so that deliberation can be set in motion, he admits that “Davies is right.” Later still, when the lynch mob strengthens in anticipation of Willard Tetley’s arrival, Art even hopes that Davies might ultimately convince the townsfolk to abandon the mob: “I thought it would be a good time for Davies to tackle them again,” he says, silently urging Davies to return to rhetorical persuasion and so to pre-empt Tetley’s seizure of power. These remarks suggest that Art, a writer inwardly immersed in words, at first respects the words of others who similarly respect words and is given to follow the course of action that those words open up.
Unfortunately, though, Art’s respect doesn’t endure. He too succumbs to the will and whims of the human pack. ”Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else,” he admits as he begins to side with the lynch mob, “and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones. There are a lot of loud arguments to cover moral cowardice, but even an animal will know if you’re scared. … Davies was resisting something that had immediacy and a strong animal grip, with something remote and mistrusted. He’d have to make his argument look common sense and hardy, or else humorous, and I wasn’t sure he could do either. If he couldn’t he was going to find that it was the [influence of the] small but present ‘we,’ not the big, [societal] ‘we,’ that shaped men’s deeds, no matter what shaped their explanations.” Finally, then, although Art respects words in themselves and largely respects Davies’ use of them, he also senses that certain circumstances render them weightless, even futile. He is, in his own way, true to his name: the abstract, aesthetic connotations of “Art” are counterbalanced by the earthbound palpability of “Croft,” the name given to a small patch of self-sustaining farmland fenced off from the wider world. At last, beyond only sensing the futility of words in the face of the lynch mob, Art submits to that futility and sets off with the others gathered under Tetley’s leadership.
Art is too self-effacing, either not sufficiently self-aware or self-centred, to confess to what I think motivates his words: a deep sense of regret for his actions as a moral and political agent, which could only have followed from the suppression of his writer’s instinct to heed the words of Osgood and Davies. He experiences some difficulty in breaking away from Osgood and Davies not without some difficulty — “Every minute it was getting harder for Davies to crack [the other townsfolk],” he says. “It just seemed funny now to think I’d been listening to an argument about what the soul of the law was. Right here and now was all that was going to count” — but break away he does, and this misguided breaking away, viewed from a position of retrospective regret, justifies and perhaps even demands the precision, cogency, and clarity with which he determines to recount it. Why else so overtly control the narrative if not to give due credit to those whose arguments were finally proven valid and to criticise those who brazenly denigrated them? Why else would Art make himself barely more than an exacting stenographer of other men’s words if not to retrospectively give those words the respect they did not receive in the heat of the moment? This regret, feeding a desire to make amends in print for dismissing potent words in life, is the textual undercurrent of The Ox-Bow Incident that I hoped to find when I re-read the novel; this is the motivational force that propels the whole thing along. The novel’s overriding theme, then, is not something that emerges from the writing so much as the writing itself emerges from the theme. The novel can only begin when the writer inside Art Croft reasserts its authority over the wretched moral and political agent that led him to participate in the lynching — when the human being inside the narrator overpowers the animal whose instincts led him to join the pack — and the precision, cogency, and clarity with which moral and political positions are so carefully staked out, and the control with which the resultant dramas are staged and orchestrated, are as much the stylistic flairs of an extended narrative as they are each one tiny step on this writer’s textual journey towards apology and feeble restitution.
November 21, 2012
The knower of The Known World displays the extent of its omniscience by glazing the narratives of various characters with extraordinary disclosures that are temporally and causally severed from the events unfolding on the page. As these sorts of disclosures accumulate, they open a disjuncture between sentences that are necessary for narrative cohesion and those whose lack of necessity casts them as indulgences — indulgences which ultimately offer little more than an announcement of the knower’s presence and an aggrandisement of its abilities. Here, for instance, is a paragraph on the activities of Anderson Frazier, a Canadian muckracker who visits antebellum Virginia and writes “a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors.” The knower takes a short step forward in time, beyond the Civil War, to reveal that “[t]his series [proved to be] Anderson’s most successful,” and then leaps headlong into the future to reveal that
nothing was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States. The pamphlet on slaveowning Negroes went through ten printings. Only seven of those particular pamphlets survived until the late twentieth century. Five of them were in the Library of Congress in 1994 when the remaining two pamphlets were sold as part of a collection of black memorabilia owned by a black man in Cleveland, Ohio. That collection, upon the man’s death in 1994, sold for $1.7 million to an automobile manufacturer in Germany.
The information gleaned from this temporal leap, presented as only an aside in a much more straightforward narrative, serves no discernible purpose other than to demonstrate the knower’s ability to leap into the future and so disclose knowledge unobtainable by others.
Elsewhere, the knower furthers its self-aggrandisement when it makes certain disclosures for the purpose of amending the inferior knowledge of others. Sometimes, for instance, the knower rectifies knowledge preserved for posterity but wrongly recorded. After noting that “[t]he census of 1860 said there were 2,670 slaves in Manchester County,” it reveals that “the census taker, a U.S. marshal who feared God, had argued with his wife the day he sent his report to Washington, D.C., and all his arithmetic was wrong because he had failed to carry a one.” At other times, the knower not only rectifies knowledge that has been wrongly recorded but also restores the knowledge lost when records are destroyed. After detailing the arrest of a man named Jean Broussard, a thief who attempted to sell another man’s slave in 1855, the knower notes that the records of the Broussard trial “were destroyed in a 1912 fire [which] killed ten people, including the Negro caretaker of the building where the records were kept, and five dogs and two horses.” Despite their destruction, however, knowledge of the trial survives through the knower: after noting that the trial lasted less than one full day — “the trial itself [ran through the] morning and the jury deliberations a portion of the summer afternoon” — the knower goes on to tell the story of one of the men who took part in the deliberations. Unsatisfied with simply disclosing its knowledge of its world, the knower gravitates towards lapses and losses of knowledge which require amendment and clarification. With this gravitation, the knower construes its own knowledge as comparatively precise and therefore superior in ways that call attention to its presence and its capabilities.
More than that, the knower also shows an attraction towards attempts at recording knowledge which omit crucial details insofar as they are made by those who lack the omniscience of the knower itself. In the early sixteenth century, for instance, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller sketched out a great map, entitled ‘The Known World,’ which was the first of its kind to feature the word ‘America.’ Finding a copy of the map adorning a wall in the office of John Skiffington, Sheriff of Manchester County, the knower notes that “[t]he land of North America… was smaller than it was in actuality, and where Florida should have been, there was nothing.” Calvin Newman, the brother of Henry Townsend’s widow, is similarly drawn towards a world whose totality will forever elude him. Harbouring a secret and forbidden love for Louis Robbins, the adult son of Henry Townsend’s former master, Calvin plans to start anew in the north after having long been captivated by “one of the first photographs ever taken of life in New York City,” a photograph of “a white family sitting all along their porch… [with] a dog looking off to the right.” The dog is what most captivates him because, a moment before the shutter snapped, the dog appears to have been “transfixed” by “a whole world off to the right that the photograph had not captured.” Yet instead of allowing that world to remain as unknowable to readers as it must be to Calvin, the knower goes on to reveal the backgrounds of those people and the name of the dog beside them. Time and again the knower follows characters who fumble through their world as if through shadowed corridors, but then it forces them to recede from view as it illuminates the world so that what escapes them does not escape readers as well. While the omniscience of the knower might otherwise allow for a clear observation of the lives of these characters, that omniscience insinuates itself, like a pane of clouded glass, into the space between them and those who read about them.
Repeatedly, of course, the knower turns its omniscience to more traditional purposes by laying bare the innermost torments of characters involved in some dilemma or disaster. Calvin’s urge to outrun his love for Louis is only one among many. Oden Peoples, one of Sheriff Skiffington’s nightwatchmen, privately worries that his Cherokee blood leads his colleagues to look down on him. William Robbins, Louis’ father, works hard to maintain the secrecy of his longstanding love for his slave Philomena, but he loves her so deeply that the secrecy of the relationship produces in him a sense of shame which he feels he must also keep secret. As the knower uses its omniscience to disclose the details of these characters’ lives, it engenders sympathy for them and thereby serves the humanist ideal. Often, however, it has hardly begun to engender sympathy for them before it veers away from them to treat their fates as playthings and as excuses for further displaying the extent of its omniscience. Moses, the deputy overseer of the Townsend plantation, is subjected to an especially heartless disregard. Having spent a lifetime hoping to someday rise to the station of master, Townsend’s death impels him to comfort his old master’s widow, Caldonia, by telling her stories about her husband’s youth and about how, years ago, Townsend and Moses worked together to build the plantation from nothing. Moving back and forth in time to find Moses at various moments in his life, the knower details a personal history of disturbing contradictions and complexities. It poisons Moses with a devastating concoction of unassailable loyalty to Townsend, burgeoning love for Caldonia, aspirations of advancement and grandeur entirely unfit for a slave, and nostalgia for the youthful vigour that slavery has stolen from him. But then, after drifting away from Moses’ conversations with Caldonia to sound the depths of his memory, the knower uses an image of the young slave to leap ahead to the end of his life and close down his entire story with a single sentence — quiet, simple, direct, and blunt — which casts a chill over the heartbreaking passages preceding it. When the young Moses pauses in his efforts to help create the Townsend plantation, taking a moment to gather his thoughts and perhaps to recover his breath, we are told that “[h]e was standing less than ten feet from the spot where he would die one morning.”
Although the knower knows the details of its world in all their abundance, it cannot resist the discussion of details whose disclosure is not required by the causal connections between events that advance the narratives of The Known World. The result of this lack of resistance is the disclosure of details with an implied sense of urgency that is not equal to the momentum of the narratives they interrupt and with an attitude that implicitly reduces the importance of those narratives to mere occasions for the very disclosures that interrupt them. By virtue of its own omniscience, then, the knower is crippled with a sort of indifference. It cannot sustain a focus on the details that are most integral to engendering sympathy for the characters it follows, and so it cannot give itself over to them in a way that honours the essential demand of humanism. It discloses a great deal about all of them but appears to care nothing for any of them. Rather than simply the humanism of the myriad narratives it contains, what makes The Known World remarkable is the tension it strikes between that humanism and the inhuman deism of its knower. When the knower’s calm, disconsolate disclosures give the novel a form that countervails the humanist substance of its narratives, the prose that must be flayed in order to reach those narratives emerges as a quality of greater substance.
The novel knows all this about itself, as is made evident in its final pages when Calvin arrives in Washington, D.C., and by chance encounters Alice Night, one of the slaves on the Townsend plantation who has long since run away. Alice is “a woman people said had lost her mind” after “[a] mule kicked her in the head and sent all common sense flying out of her,” and she was known for her habit of leaving the plantation after sunset to wander aimlessly through the surrounding forests, “mapp[ing] her way again and again through the night.” Now Calvin beholds the outcome of Alice’s endless “mapp[ing]” of Manchester County. In a Washington saloon, he beholds two walls on which are hung two enormous, three-dimensional, bricolage maps that serve as implicit correctives to the incomplete cartography of Martin Waldseemüller. The first is a map of Manchester County rendered in awesome detail, “a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure,” which marks “all the [county's] houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells.” “It is what God sees when He looks down on Manchester,” Calvin says, although he notes that “[t]here are no people on this ‘map’.” On another wall nearby is a map of the Townsend plantation that appears similar to the county map but shows one important difference. “There is nothing missing, not a cabin, not a bar, not a chicken, not a horse, [and n]ot a single person is missing. … [E]very single person is there, standing and waiting as if for a painter and his easel to come along and capture them in the glory of the day. Each person’s face… is raised up as though to look in the very eyes of God.” So, for all the breadth and accuracy of her vision, Alice is crippled in a way that echoes the crippling of the knower and, as such, the knower is drawn to disclose the details of her visions. Panoramic perception diminishes human scale. The broader one’s view of a world and the more expansive one’s knowledge of it, the less distinct are the individuals who experience it and the less important their experiences appear to external observers. As goes the madwoman, then, so goes the knower, so freely drifting through its world that it vacates the world and rises above it, distances itself from those who live in it, and then details their lives with an aloofness that stands at odds with the warmth its omniscience might otherwise afford them.