Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

6.08.2011

A Three (of Five) Star Review

Resistance by Barry Lopez

I'm going to do something very unusual for me and write a review before giving a book its proper consideration. I've only read half the book at this point, the first four of the nine stories, and am debating whether I want to go on, so I thought processing my thoughts might help me come to a decision. This way I'll have them captured as either half a review (with more to follow upon completion) or a review of a half.

Here's my sticking point: Each story is meant to be by a different person telling his or her own tale--a very diverse group of globe-travelers from all walks of life, with different backgrounds and vastly different experiences--yet they monotonously share the same voice, perspective, values, and conclusions; Lopez doesn't even seem to attempt to differentiate the characters through his writing choices, so it's as though he's writing as himself just from different imagined circumstances that don't seem to have changed or impacted who he is. It's false, empty play-acting based on superficial cliches and stereotypes instead of real, multi-dimensional characters. So if I don't buy the people who are speaking to me as people, then what's the point in listening to them?

What makes it particularly frustrating is that I do appreciate what they have to say. The common theme behind the stories is that they are meant to be about "resistance." Resistance to what? From the opening story:

The human imagination, the letter speculated, was a problematic force, its use best left to experts. An imagination in the wrong hands, missing the guidance of democratic reasoning and fed the wrong ideas, an imagination with no measure of economic awareness, was a loose cannon.

Their responses are their stories of how they have come to resist. The ones I have read so far have all shared a similar pattern: each narrator was in some way scarred or traumatized and had to overcome his or her own resulting resistance to love, and only through learning to actually and fully love again were they able to move on to something creative and meaningful. It is through their personal journeys that they discovered stories that became political.

And therein lies my other quibble with Lopez's writing choices: these stories don't feel personal. Despite the countless blurbs and reviews praising the quality and beauty of his writing, it never feels confessional or intimate to me, but instead literary, remote, and analytical. I can't find a way to connect with these people, even when I can get past the sameness of their voices. And no matter how skillful, I can't consider writing beautiful or exemplary if it gets stuck being an intellectual exercise instead of communicating something that feels genuine and that draws me in.

So maybe I'll try one more story and go from there. We'll see.

UPDATE, upon completion of the book: What I really wish Lopez had done, instead of writing a collection of short stories himself, was edit a collection by different writers who could authentically be what he has attempted to create. I think that could have been much more powerful.

But, at the risk of repeating what I wrote earlier, I’ll expand a bit on my thoughts now that I’ve read the whole work. This is a fictional collection of epiphanal stories by an international diaspora of like-minded highly educated and sociologically and anthropologically literate Americans living abroad, critical of the hegemony of their country’s cultural imperialism and destructive economic values. From the initial story, which also serves as an introduction to the rest:

For the ordinary person, love is increasingly elusive, imagined as a strategy.

We believe [humans] are creatures in search of proportion in life, a pattern of grace. It is balance and beauty we believe people want, not triumph. The stories the earth’s peoples adhere to with greatest faith . . . are all well patterned. And these templates for the maintenance of vision, repeated continuously in wildly different idioms . . . these patterns from the artesian wells of artistic impulse, do not require updating. They require only repetition. Repetition, because just as murder and infidelity are within us, so, too, is forgetfulness. We forget what we want to mean.


And so we have a repetitive collection of stories from wildly different idioms, each making the same point in different ways. By coming at it from so many different cultures and perspectives, Lopez shows how vast the interconnected web of impact is that he would have us resist, economic, cultural, and environmental impoverishment on many levels. By reading more of the stories, I was able to gain a greater appreciation for the depth of what he is saying. And, I found, the stories I was able to better connect with myself came later in the book.

At the same time, my earlier criticisms hold, that there is an undermining tediousness in the repetitive singular voice of the supposedly diverse characters, characterized by a particular intellectual pretentiousness (e.g. Lebensraum was what I wanted, please forgive me, freedom from the suffocating interlock of venal desire, dire warning, Teutonic competition, extreme overreach, and sophisticated oblivion that had become, in the dim tunnels back home, everyday life).

The theme that is repeated throughout is that political resistance comes through personal wisdom; you have to figure yourself out, how to heal your wounds and make yourself healthy, before you can figure out how to do so for the world. One example, that I think might speak to some I know:

I was conscious of the emotions of love, so the necessary partings sometimes made me feel like a cracked vase, something from which the water had drained and in which the flowers had withered. It was a long while, of course, before I understood that my arduous efforts to be kind to each person, my expressions of compassion and acts of generosity, my will to accommodate were all a sort of mask. I could express love strongly, but I could not accept it, could not allow myself to be loved.

I could not, then, really claim to know love.


And another, that most spoke to me of all the stories:

In those cities I got to know some of the hospice workers and through them witnessed, once again, they physical damage caused by the humiliations of industrial manufacturing, the Western plan to create wealth.

I wished in my reveries to be like Minty, free of any need to judge, acting as a vessel of forgiveness and joy . . .

All I needed to do now was to reduce somewhat the level of suffering where I encountered it, to moderate the levels of cruelty to which so many remained inured. I still wanted such people--the indifferent--to be held accountable. I wanted someone to entreat with them and subject them to the spirit of the law. But mine was no longer the voice to do it. I had no more plans for reorganization and reconstruction. I had nothing, anymore, to sell.


And, finally, a bit of a conclusion:

Whether I understand the stories in every particular or not, I regard them as a kind of protection against what menaces every person--despair, conceit, failure of imagination. It is this feeling I want to give back: not thank you or every blessing on you but I wish for my life to protect your life.

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