Monday, April 23, 2007

Jim Webb, Lost Soldiers 2001; Marilyn Robinson, Bible study, 2004

Almost two months since my last post on "Call Me Ishmael."
During that time, I finished my book, published a trimmed-down piece of it in Rolling Stone and wrote a review that's part of my thinking for the next book. Also, the name "Ishmael" has been thrown into temporary disrepute by its appearance (as "Ismail") in red ink on Killer Cho's arm.

My reading life has been dominated by Jim Webb, the novelist-turned-senator about whom I'm writing a profile. Which means I've been immersed in national epic, historical fiction, thrillers, and history-as-destiny. The most enduring work is probably the first, Fields of Fire, but the later thrillers, more conventional in form, have their own pleasures. Here's a great pulpy line from Lost Soldiers (2001), from a scene in which Dzung, a former South Vietnamese soldier, is being coerced into committing an assassination for the communist regime: "The reality of what Manh was putting before him crept up Dzung's spine on soft little scorpion's feet, causing him to shiver."

Some might take issue with the shiver -- a cliche? -- but I think it's perfect. The art of the thriller lies in adding nuances to recognizable notes. The image of a scorpion walking up a spine does just that. The scorpion's body looks like vertebrae, a spine upon a spine Develop that picture, and you'll see that this is a subtly clever twist on the old shiver routine. The scorpion -- Dzung's government counterpart -- looks much like Dzung. Worse, from Dzung's moral perspective, the scorpion uses Dzung to control Dzung, ascending his spine like a ladder. Dzung is complicit down to his bones. Are a scorpion's feet soft? Probably not -- but they surely feel that way, given that a scorpion is as light as an insect. There are no heavy blows here: Manh doesn't beat Dzung down, he gives him a gun. That is, he makes him a scorpion.

The subject of this post isn't Lost Soldiers, however, since I'll have plenty of space in Rolling Stone to write about Webb's books. It's another thriller, another collection of familiar notes in which smart readers and writers have been finding unexpected nuances for thousands of years. The Bible, of course. As I was sorting through some old papers tonight, I find a little pocket notebook. Paging through, I realized it contained some notes I'd made in 2004, when I attended a Bible study led by one of my favorite novelists, Marilyn Robinson, author of Housekeeping and Gilead. (Here's an essay about Robinson by Chris Lehmann.)

Peter Manseau and I were in Iowa City on tour for Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, staying with our friend Laurel Snyder. Laurel told us Robinson taught a Bible study in a church basement, and after several drinks, we decided to venture out into a snow storm to find it. Our method: Peering into windows of churches. It took us about a dozen tries, but we found her. Robinson didn't seem surprised at three snow-covered strangers stomping into the middle of her class. Laurel hung back, but Peter and I pulled up chairs. "Fetch these boys some Bibles," Robinson instructed one of the bearded poets who'd become her disciple. Robinson's students were mostly writers, but she's serious about her Bible, a self-declared Calvinist and, if I recall, an ordained minister.

My notes from the evening are fairly cryptic. I'm going to write them down anyway, and then throw out this little notebook. I don't share Robinson's beliefs, but I'm fascinated by her gods.

Literature, says Robinson, proceeds by pushing toward definition. The messiah is a definition of how God will act in history. Which is to say, a counter-intuitive definition, since the messiah's action is that of literature. "The revolution that goes on continuously," says Robinson, "is a refining of definitions."

Would that it was so simple. But Robinson detects in the story impulses toward universalism and impulses away from universalism -- a literary rubber band.

Or, a "pulse." "We have broken His heart a million times over." And every time we do, God responds. "The whole Bible is God trying to say, 'I take this very seriously.'"

But we just won't listen, and we keep knocking God around. God, says Robinson, can be understood at times as like an abused wife -- an interesting idea about who holds the power in this relationship between humanity and the divine.

Then Robinson says: "What would we do without feeling like we're on the dark side of justice?" I'm not sure what she meant by that, but I wrote below it, "asked in a tone of gratitude." She follows with: "As soon as language of justice emerges, it becomes metaphysical." So perhaps this all means that we're spared the abstraction of one of the things that matters most to us -- justice -- by being on the wrong side of it. There are moments of justice in this world, she says, but not where we expect them (or create them?)

The last coherent note I made was: "Humanity will be betrayed by authority."