Eyes Open, Eyes Closed

Something woke him in the small hours of the morning. Things moving in the dark. He took his flashlight and trained it out along the trees until it ghosted away in the dark fields downriver. He swept it toward the woods and back again. A dozen hot eyes watched, paired and random in the night.

He held the light above his head to try and see the shapes beyond but nothing showed save eyes. Blinking on and off, or eclipsing and reappearing as heads were turned. They were none the same height and he tried his memory for anything that came in such random sizes. Then a pair of eyes ascended vertically some five feet and another pair sank slowly to the ground. Weird dwarfs with amaurotic eyeballs out there in the dark on a seesaw sidesaddle. Others began to raise and lower.

Cows. He agreed with himself: it is cows. He switched off the flashlight and lay back. He could smell them now on the cool upriver wind, sweet odor of grass and milk. The damp air was weighted with all manner of fragrance. You can see it in a dog’s eyes that he is sorting such things as he tests the wind and Suttree could smell the water in the river and the dew in the grass and the wet shale of the bluff. It was overcast and there were no stars to plague him with their mysteries of space and time. He closed his eyes.

Cormac McCarthy, Suttree

No Evaluation Without Justification

Two weeks ago, while I was at Sydney airport awaiting a flight back down to Melbourne, I opened Dan Chiasson’s review of Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories on my iPhone. I read it on the spot, then I read it twice over; and for two weeks now I have left it open on the iPhone so that I can pull it out at a moment’s notice — or in a moment of boredom — and read it over again.

It is arguably the best book review I have read in about a year, maybe more. It hits all the right targets. It contextualises Davis’ work, it quotes liberally from the Collected Stories, it identifies her overall aesthetic purpose, it illustrates the ways in which particular stories advance that purpose, and it evaluates the extent to which Davis makes an engagement with that purpose worth her readers’ time — that is, the extent to which she makes her book worth reading.

Our current critical environment usually demands only that book reviews deliver a thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict on their particular subject. Reviewers need only identify whether or not a book is worth reading before their job is considered done. Justifications for their evaluations no longer seem to enjoy a place in critical discourse. In this review, however, Chiasson goes far above and beyond what is now required of him; and, in doing so, he simultaneously advances a careful and persuasive evaluation of the book at hand and reminds us why a reviewer’s justifications for an evaluation are not dead weight to be thrown overboard but rather the ballast that keeps the review afloat and on a steady course.

Read it, and read Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories as well.

Meeting a Hermit

I found in one of my rambles up the hills a real hermit, living in a lonesome spot, hard to get at, rocky, the view fine, with a little patch of land two rods square. A man of youngish middle age, city born and raised, had been to school, had travel’d in Europe and California. I first met him once or twice on the road, and pass’d the time of day, with some small talk; then, the third time, he ask’d me to go along a bit and rest in his hut (an almost unprecedented compliment, as I heard from others afterwards). He was of Quaker stock, I think; talk’d with ease and moderate freedom, but did not unbosom his life, or story, or tragedy, or whatever it was.

Walt Whitman, Specimen Days

In Pursuit

The hounds crossed the snow on the slope of the ridge in a thin dark line. Far below them the boar they trailed was tilting along with his curious stifflegged lope, highbacked and very black against the winter’s landscape. The hounds’ voices in that vast and pale blue void echoed like the cries of demon yodelers.

The boar did not want to cross the river. When he did so it was too late. He came all sleek and steaming out of the willows on the near side and started across the plain. Behind him the dogs were falling down the mountainside hysterically, the snow exploding about them. When they struck the water they smoked like hot stones and when they came out of the brush and onto the plain they came in clouds of vapor.

The boar did not turn until the first hound reached him. He spun and cut at the dog and went on. The dogs swarmed over his hindquarters and he turned and hooked with his razorous tushes and reared back on his haunches but there was nothing for shelter. He kept turning, enmeshed in a wheel of snarling hounds until he caught one and drove upon it and pinned and disemboweled it. When he went to turn again to save his flanks he could not.

Cormac McCarthy, Child of God

Two Trees, Through Their Own Eyes

The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as [the girl] went up, and to reach farther and farther upwards. It was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth; it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit creeping and climbing from higher branch to branch.

Sarah Orne Jewett, ‘A White Heron’ (1886)

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There was the oak tree in front of the house, much older than the neighborhood or the town, which made rubble of the pavement at its foot and flung its imponderable branches out over the road and across the yard, branches whose girths were greater than the trunk of any ordinary tree. There was a torsion in its body that made it look like a giant dervish to [the children]. Their father said that if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread its arms and bask in the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa.

Marilynne Robinson, Home (2009)