The inner life of a restless intellect


May 24, 2016

Benedict Anderson

Indonesian scholar

The inner life of a restless intellect

May 21st 2016 | From the print edition

 

IN SOUTH-EAST Asia Benedict Anderson, who died last December aged 79, was an intellectual giant. In 1966 he was part of a team at Cornell University that published an influential report on what really happened during the violent takeover of Indonesia in October of the previous year. The report was leaked to the Washington Post and Anderson was eventually barred from entering the country.

He remained cut off from Indonesia for 27 years until the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship. But he found new passions, studying Thailand and the Philippines. In 1983 his meandering studies and wide reading led him to write the book he is most famous for, “Imagined Communities”, which explores the enduring allure of nationalism.

Benedict Anderson: Ilmuwan Amerika Pencinta Indonesia

by Yogira

Ada beberapa ilmuwan dan cendikiawan warga negara asing [WNA], yang sangat  mencintai Indonesia, bahkan akhirnya jadi WNI. Salah satunya Benedict Anderson.

Sejak dulu keilmuan seputar Indonesia mendapat selalu mendapat perhatian publik dunia. Mereka mengkaji berbagai bidang sesuai minat dan latarbelakang pendidikannya. Sekedar menyebut beberapa nama:  A. Teeuw, Katrin Bandel, Berthold Damshäuser [pengkaji kesusastraan Indonesia], Dieter Mack [pengkaji musik gamelan], Franz Magnis Suseno [pengkaji filsafat dan budaya Indonesia], dan Benedict Anderson [pengkaji sejarah dan budaya Indonesia]. Menariknya, Saking terlanjur mencintai Indonesia, di antara mereka akhirnya mengukuhkan diri sebagai Warga Negara Indonesia [WNI]. Sebutan “Indonesianis” pun melekat pada dirinya.

Baru-baru ini, Indonesia kehilangan salah satu indonesianis. Ya, Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson, meninggal di Batu, Malang, Sabtu malam [12/12]. Ilmuwan asal Amerika yang lebih dikenal dengan nama Ben Anderson ini wafat pada usia 79.

Ben adalah professor emeritus bidang studi internasional Universitas Cornell, Amerika. Sebelum meninggal, Ben sempat memberi kuliah umum tentang Anarkisme dan Sosialisme di Universitas Indonesia. Dia juga tengah menyiapkan bedah buku terbarunya bertajuk Di Bawah Tiga Bendera.

Ilmuwan kelahiran Kunming, China, 26 Agustus 1936 ini menerbitkan banyak karya tulis, baik dalam bentuk buku, jurnal, maupun artikel, antara lain:  Imagined Communities, Debating World Literature, Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia, dan Java in a Time of Revolution. Banyak karyanya yang menjadi rujukan studi mahasiswa dan akademisi. Bahkan Imagines Communities jadi salah satu  karyanya yang paling monumental.

Penjelajahan intelektual Ben di Indonesia menularkan kajian-kajian kritis, yang sempat ‘memanaskan’ kuping rezim Orde Baru lantaran pandangan dan analisinya berbau “kekiri-kirian”. Imbasnya, dia dilarang masuk Indonesia. Setelah Soeharto lengser, Ben kembali ke Indonesia untuk berkutat dengan keilmuannya.

Selama tinggal di Indonesia, Ben kerapkali berkunjung ke berbagai daerah untuk menjalani penelitian. Dari hasil beberapa kali kunjungan itulah, dia semakin suntuk mendalami Indonesia, terutama dari aspek sosial dan budaya. Salah satu yang menjadi cirikhas Ben dalam menulis adalah, ia acap menggunakan Bahasa Indonesia ejaan lama dalam beberapa tulisannya.    

Selamat tinggal Om Ben. Sumbangsihmu untuk Indonesia semoga terus berharga.

[][teks @firza/berbagai sumber | foto chaiwanbenpost.blogspot.com, niallodoc.wordpress.com]

Outside South-East Asian circles, Anderson’s prolific and diverse output is more obscure. This should change with the publication of his memoir, “A Life Beyond Boundaries”. As the title suggests, Anderson is an enemy of the bubble, whether nation, school or language. He returns again and again to an image in Thai and Indonesian cultures of a frog who lives its entire life under half of a coconut shell. “Sitting quietly under the shell, before long the frog begins to feel that the coconut bowl encloses the entire universe,” he writes. “The moral judgment in the image is that the frog is narrow-minded, provincial, stay-at-home and self-satisfied for no good reason. For my part, I stayed nowhere long enough to settle down in one place, unlike the proverbial frog.”

Reading Anderson feels like emerging from the coconut shell. You come away wanting to see films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai film-maker he admired, to learn Tagalog on the side or to read a grand Filipino novel, “Noli Me Tangere” (“Touch me not”), by José Rizal, which Anderson tried to translate line by line in an effort to learn Spanish. He praised Indonesia’s great young novelist, Eka Kurniawan.

Born in 1936 in Kunming, in Yunnan province, to an Irish father and an English mother, Anderson (pictured in China with his nanny) moved to Ireland, along with his two siblings, in 1945 after a brief period in America. His father died soon after; his mother became a guiding force. Anderson went to Eton and then to Cambridge, before going to Cornell as a teaching assistant. There, he met George Kahin, a leading expert on Indonesia whose lectures set Anderson on his path. This willingness to be open to new experiences and challenges was the key to his brilliance.

“Scholars who feel comfortable with their position in a discipline, department or university will try neither to sail out of harbour nor to look for a wind,” he writes, paraphrasing an expression in Indonesia. “But what is to be cherished is the readiness to look for that wind and the courage to follow it when it blows in your direction.” Although “A Life Beyond Boundaries” is about the life of a scholar, it is asides like these that give the book a universal touch. Anderson went to three privileged institutions of learning. They could have given him many opportunities to remain in his bubble. But he just wasn’t that kind of frog.

http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21699109-inner-life-restless-intellect-indonesian-scholar?frsc=dg%7Ca


May 15, 2016

NY Times Books of The Times

Review: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘The Gene,’ a Molecular Pursuit of the Self

by Jennifer Senior

 

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee

Thank heavens Gregor Mendel was a lousy priest. Had he shown even the faintest aptitude for oratory or ministering to the poor, he might never have determined the basic laws of heredity. But bumbling he was, and he made a rotten university student to boot; his failures drove him straight to his room, where he bred mice in secret. The experiment scandalized his superiors.

“A monk coaxing mice to mate to understand heredity was a little too risqué, even for the Augustinians,” writes Siddhartha Mukherjee in “The Gene: An Intimate History.” So Mendel switched — auspiciously, historically — to pea plants. The abbot in charge, writes the author, acquiesced this time, “giving peas a chance.”

Love Dr. Mukherjee, love his puns. They’re everywhere. I warn you now.It is Dr. Mukherjee’s curse — or blessing, assuming he’s a glass-half-full sort of fellow — to have to follow in his own mammoth footsteps. “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” his dazzling 2010 debut, won the Pulitzer and almost every other species of literary award; it became a three-part series on PBS; Time magazine deemed it one of the 100 most influential books written in the English language since 1923.

In his acknowledgments to “The Gene,” Dr. Mukherjee, a researcher and cancer specialist, confesses that he once feared his first book would also be his last — that “‘Emperor’ had sapped all my stories, confiscated my passports and placed a lien on my future as a writer.” The solution, he eventually realized, was to tell the story of the gene. It is his debut’s natural prequel, a tale of “normalcy before it tips into malignancy.”

By the time “The Gene” is over, Dr. Mukherjee has covered Mendel and his peas, Darwin and his finches. He’s taken us on the quest of Watson, Crick and their many unsung compatriots to determine the stuff and structure of DNA. We learn about how genes were sequenced, cloned and variously altered, and about the race to map our complete set of DNA, or genome, which turns out to contain a stunning amount of filler material with no determined function.

Many of the same qualities that made “The Emperor of All Maladies” so pleasurable are in full bloom in “The Gene.” The book is compassionate, tautly synthesized, packed with unfamiliar details about familiar people. (Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, used to rank the beauty of women on the street by “using pinpricks on a card hidden in his pocket.” Ick.)

But there are also crucial differences. Cancer is the troll that scratches and thumps beneath the floorboards of our consciousness, if it hasn’t already beaten its way into the room. The subject immediately commands our attention; it’s almost impossible to deny, and not to hear, the emotional clang of its appeal. In Dr. Mukherjee’s skilled hands, the story of this frightening disease became a page-turner. He explained its history, politics and cunning biological underpinnings; he traced the evolving and often gruesome logic underlying cancer treatment.

And in the middle of it all, agonizing over treatment protocols and watching his patients struggle with tremendous existential and physical pain, was the author himself.

There are far fewer psychological stakes in reading about the history of genetics. “The Gene” is more pedagogical than dramatic; as often as not, the stars of this story are molecules, not humans. Dr. Mukherjee still has a poignant personal connection to the material — mental illness has wrapped itself around his family tree like a stubborn vine, claiming two uncles and a cousin on his father’s side — but this book does not aim for the gut. It aims for the mind.

So what does this mean? That there are many excursions deep into the marshes of biochemistry and cellular biology. Bring your waders. It gets dense in there. Dr. Mukherjee can write with great clarity about difficult genetic concepts — he’s especially handy with metaphors — but the science gets increasingly complex, and it lasts for many pages. Even when the going is easy, readers should be prepared for parentheticals like this: “i.e., ACT CCT GGG –>ACU CCU GGG.”

Dr. Mukherjee’s explanations are sometimes so thorough they invite as many questions as they answer — from the most elementary (why is something that contains so many bases called deoxyribonucleic acid?) to the more esoteric (if, as he says in a Homeric footnote on Page 360, the Y chromosome is so unstable it might eventually disappear, will we still reproduce?)

I do not mean to suggest that Dr. Mukherjee has neglected to attend to big questions or ideas in this work; they just get lesser billing than I’d have liked. But any book about the history of something as elemental and miraculous as the gene is bound, at least indirectly, to tell the story of innovation itself. “The Gene” is filled with scientists who dreamed in breathtakingly lateral leaps.

Erwin Schrödinger in particular was one visionary cat: In 1944, he hazarded a guess about the molecular nature of the gene and decided it had to be a strand of code scribbled along the chromosome — which pretty much sums up the essence of DNA.

With each and every genetic discovery, a host of questions arose, both ethical and philosophical. What are the implications of cloning, of creating genetic hybrids, of gene editing? Is there any value in knowing about the existence of a slumbering, potentially lethal genetic mutation in your cells if nothing can be done about it? (Personally, I wish he’d dedicated 50 pages to this question — it’d have offered a potentially moving story line and a form of emotional engagement I badly craved.)

Does the genome have anything to tell us about race, sexual identity, gender? Do these three-billion-plus base pairs connect, in any way, to what we think of as “a self”?

Dr. Mukherjee answers these questions cautiously and compassionately, if at times too cursorily for my satisfaction. He notes, repeatedly, that for all we know about the genome, there is so very much we don’t — it is a recipe, not a blueprint, as Richard Dawkins likes to say. Yes, sometimes one gene controls one specific trait; but often, dozens of genes do, and in ways we do not understand (or cannot even fully identify), and they interact mysteriously with the environment all along the way.

But as research continues apace, we must entertain the sci-fi prospect of one day customizing ourselves and our children. For now, we’re burdened with more and more moral decisions to make as genetic tests become increasingly refined.

“If the history of the last century taught us the dangers of empowering governments to determine genetic ‘fitness,’” Dr. Mukherjee writes — referring to Nazism, eugenics, every genocidal experiment involving social engineering — “then the question that confronts our current era is what happens when the power devolves to the individual.”

But we are not apps. Dr. Mukherjee knows this, struggles with it. Is optimization really the point of life? “Illness might progressively vanish,” he writes, “but so might identity.”

A version of this review appears in print on May 9, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Molecular Pursuit of the Genetic Code. Today’s Paper.

A look at Southeast Asia through three anthologies


 

A look at Southeast Asia through three anthologies | Farouk A. Peru | Opinion | Malay Mail Online

I used to be a big fan of South-east Asian fiction. Admittedly, most of that fiction was Singaporean (traitor, traitor, I hear you yell!) but that was only because Singapore produced English fiction by the truckloads compared to Malaysia.

They had Gopal Baratham, Catherine Lim, Shirley Lim and others but we had the inimitable KS Maniam. Haunting The Tiger, pardon the pun, still haunts my reading from time to time.

Amir was there to promote Fixi Novo’s latest collections ― Heat, Flesh and Trash. I really adore the artwork which featured the durian prominently.

The collections bring together stories from South-east Asian urban life which has certainly changed from the last time I was home. I suppose it is technology and the Internet which brought those changes. We are now a “trending” society. Trends can literally take root in a few minutes all over the world.

In the anthology Heat, I especially enjoyed Zed Adam Idris’s story “Method.” In this story, Zed displays the thought streams of a hedonist and his method. Method to what exactly?

Ostensibly it is for guitar playing but I reckon it is also the outlook on life itself. Of course, when one lives on the edge as Zed’s protagonist, one is also liable to some risk. An overdose here and there. Zed does temper the rawness with a slight comedic feel to the story.

After the internal Heat of the durian, we open it to find golden flesh, aromatic (malodorous to some!) Flesh. In this anthology, I was attracted to Tina Sim’s story, “Her Lot.”

In the case of South-east Asian fiction, the only anthology I have is a book on prize-winning South-east Asian fiction circa 1994. That collection was mostly Filipino stories which, in all honesty, I could not relate to as well.

I was fortunate enough to attend the London Book Fair this year where I met Amir Muhammad and a coterie of Malaysian literary activists. I was star struck, of course, when I met Faisal Tehrani whose literary imagination rivals Salman Rushdie’s (without the need for cheap blasphemy, of course).

This story was placed in a section that if one were reading from cover to cover, one may end up skimming through. “Her Lot” is the story of an unnamed protagonist whose story is told by one who met her after her fall from grace.

It is a Singaporean tale which reminds me of our own Catherine Lim (who was born in Ipoh, don’t forget!). About an arranged marriage based on traditional values but which did not work out.

The protagonist’s fall from grace was juxtaposed with the injection of a racial other, which I found interesting. Perhaps this symbolises how traditions get “discoloured”, if you’ll pardon another pun.

Finally, we come to the process of cleaning up after the durian has been consumed and that is to take out the Trash. But Trash is definitely not trashier than the the first two anthologies.

 

In fact, I found it more pensive in parts. One story which caught my attention was “Flowers For KK” by M. Shanmughalingam. Another story told from a woman’s perspective, this time it is Indira who narrates what is basically a character study of her husband, King Kana or KK.

KK comes across as one who is not deliberately cruel but cold, clinical. He marries Indira’s sister apparently due to her own infertility. I was especially moved by Indira’s observations of KK’s language and how it twists and turns in accordance with his political posturing.

All in all, I highly recommend this durian anthology. Heat, Flesh and Trash will certainly tickle your existential bones.

Book Review:Scholarship and engagement in Southeast Asia, (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Press, 2016)


May 6, 2016

BOOK REVIEW

Oscar Salemink, editor, Scholarship and engagement in Southeast Asia, (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Andrew Alan Johnson

Thailand, for all its political stops and starts — or perhaps because of this — has unparalleled publically-engaged academics. Nidthi Eoseewong, Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thanet Aphornsuvan and many others relate academia to public life, pushing forward public discussion in a way that is enviable from a country (the USA, in my case) where scholarship is too often treated like either a business serving students or as a collection of irrelevant exotica.

Of Thailand’s public intellectuals, Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University looms large. Over the course of his career, Achan Chayan has worked to advocate for minority rights (risking death threats and accusations of treason) as well as building networks across Southeast Asian academic institutions.

He exemplifies the best qualities of a Thai public intellectual, and thus it is no surprise that the essays in the liber amicorum, Scholarship and Engagement in Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by Oscar Salemink, are ringing with fond memories and praise for Achan Chayan across generations of scholars. Indeed, it is telling that even non-Thai-speaking scholars refer to Chayan as “Achan,” the Thai term somehow capturing this sense of Chayan’s public role in ways that “Professor” nowadays fails to.

My engagement with Achan Chayan came 10 years ago, when I was a graduate student doing field research in Chiang Mai. Like the best of mentors, Chayan, rather than imposing his own idea of what was important about my project, helped me think critically about my own work in multiple ways. As Michael Herzfeld remarks in his conclusion to Scholarship and Engagement, it was only later, after having completed my book, that I realised the depth of Chayan’s inspiration.

Overall, the volume is well put together, although a few essays ramble, and could have used another pass to refine and sharpen their general points. The book’s three sub-sections, too, are awkwardly titled. For example, “Politics, Activism, and Cross-Border Politics in the Greater Mekong Subregion” is the second, and “Scholarly Activism in the Greater Mekong Subregion” the third. These sections roughly correspond to an overview of Chayan’s work, its impact upon historical and anthropological work, and the thorny issues surrounding policy and minorities.

Charles Keyes opens the volume with the first section’s solo chapter: a brief biography of Chayan’s work and its impact upon Thailand and Thai studies. In an era when most work on ethnic minority issues was done by foreigners, and in the face of pressure from official state organs, Chayan pursued a principle of “speak[ing] truth to power” (p 17), pushing for a vision of Northern Thailand as a multi-ethnic and environmentally sustainable society with links across the region. It was a work that, as Keyes notes, was not without risk, and his chapter empahsises the personal commitment that Chayan gave to his causes.

In the second section, Olivier Evrard gives an example of socially-engaged history of the sort inspired by Chayan. Looking at French and Siamese records, Evrard charts the changing status of Khmu migrant labourers in the early 20th century. At first, these workers were governed by treaties between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, but as colonisation set in (external in the case of Laos, internal in the case of Siam), old relationships and networks became something else from the viewpoint of the central state: labor recruiters became traffickers, and migrant teak workers turned into a threat.

Evrard reminds us that migrants, as a category, are in fact created by state policy. This theme of the mismatch between detailed awareness of local situations and top-down policy returns in Christopher Joll’s chapter on Thai policy-makers’ essentialist understandings of the conflict in the South as compared with a multi-causal approach of the sort emphasised in Chayan’s work.

Shigeharu Tanabe’s chapter also deals with the issue of social engagement, looking at Northern Thai Buddhist meditation practices aimed at extinguishing the self that nonetheless provide a vehicle for addressing social problems and resisting political repression. It’s a welcome rebuttal to too-simplistic characterisations of Buddhist meditation as entirely inwardly-focused (Tanabe takes a well-placed jab at Deleuze here) and shows how practice, especially in the Northern kuba tradition, can be focused on social as well as personal transformation.

Katherine Bowie’s chapter takes a very different turn to more historically-focused studies, focusing instead upon her own experience of engaged scholarship in the 1970s. In an account reminiscent of classic anthropological fieldwork memoirs (see Powdermaker 1966; Levi-Strauss 1955,;Descola 1996), she describes a problematic introduction into a post-military coup Northern Thai field site and the tangled web of village politics that she encountered. As she attempted to assist in the organisation of a mat-weavers’ cooperative, class and other tensions within the community came to the fore in ways that were productive both for her scholarship as well as – eventually — the mat weavers themselves.

In the final major section, contributors address the thorny ground of development interventions, which too often avoid a deep engagement with local civil societies. Rosalia Sciortino, the former regional director for the Rockefeller Foundation (among others), effectively shows that theory is not divorced from practice even on the development side. This was particularly so during the 1990s when new technocratic interventions (the sort of thing dreamed up in TED Talks or Thomas Friedman columns) based around quick solutions and neoliberal integration came to replace civil society-based, locally-informed ones.

This philosophy of intervention oddly recalls those from the 1950s that fetishised the power of Western scientific knowledge to divine all of the solutions to the developing world’s problems. Similarly, in Ronald Renard’s contribution, we also see the fallout from a move in policy away from community-based solutions. He looks at the end of opium eradication projects in the isolated Wa region of Myanmar that emphasisedthe social origins of opium cultivation and addiction solutions focused on improving conditions for farmers, and the rise of a new, top-down approach that focuses upon law enforcement.

Building upon this connection between the assumptions of international (and national) organisations about local communities, Oscar Salemink’s own contribution to the volume examines the issues surrounding Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Vietnam. Salemink argues that the discourse of ICH in Vietnam creates certain possibilities and limits others, giving ethnic minorities a space within the state but limiting their role (and, interestingly, forcing the state to promote practices that they had just a few years before denounced).

But this also applies to scholars — in a state where open opposition is unproductive or impossible, Salemink argues that scholars are forced to work within the limits of state discourses. In Myanmar, however, Mandy Sadan shows how both state and resistant approaches carry their own risks. State discourses that present minority studies as “traditional” and (Kachin) minority studies dominated by the Baptist Church and ethnonationalism both fail. As a corrective, Sadan advocates for an as-yet unrealised middle ground along the lines of Chayan’s Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) for the highlands of Myanmar.

Overall, these essays are largely productive in looking at the history and potentiality of engaged scholarship on (for the most part) ethnic minority issues in mainland Southeast Asia, a note driven home by Michael Herzfeld’s excellently-written conclusion. Some essays (Evrard, Tanabe, Saelmink) are useful additions to the scholarly field in their own right. Others (Sciortino, Sadan) are interesting insights into the deeply hierarchical nature of national and international interventions, and some (Joll, Keyes, Bowie) reflect implicitly or directly upon Achan Chayan’s own profound impact on scholarship in Southeast Asia. In addition to the topical focus of each chapter, the book will be of use to those studying activism, development, or fieldwork ethics in the region and beyond.

Andrew Alan Johnson is  Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College

Review of Scholarship and engagement in mainland Southeast Asia

 

 

‘The Adventurist,’ an Executive’s Search for Meaning and Small Raptures


May 3, 2016

J. Bradford Hipps’s bright and large-souled first novel, “The Adventurist,” is set in the New South of gleaming office towers and tract houses and conference centers. This is where the region’s major cities, he writes, have “begun to except themselves from their soil’s bony history.”

His novel’s hero, Henry Hurt, is a programmer and an executive with a company called Cyber Systems. Henry is a droll and chivalrous if mild fellow who may remind some readers of Binx Bolling, the New Orleans stockbroker who is the protagonist of Walker Percy’s classic novel “The Moviegoer” (1961).

The slight resemblance is intentional. This novel begins with an epigraph from “The Moviegoer” (“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians”) and it shares some of that novel’s buoyant yet searching tone. But Mr. Hipps is his own writer, and he’s one to reckon with. He has grace and insight to spare.

“The Adventurist” is that relative rarity, a business novel that’s interested in what people get out of their work lives. Henry is no Babbitt; he is far from smug or vacuous; he is not a dupe. But he is good at what he does and takes pride in it. He is 34 and single and aware of “satisfactions like a thick wallet.”

Henry’s sister, an altruist who lives back home in Minneapolis, is convinced he is made for a higher purpose. He tells her: “The day I hold forth on digital security at a dinner party is the day I quit. What moves me to work is money’s comforts, yes, and also a community of smart, mostly efficient people; the sense of place that a good office gives.”

The author J. Bradford Hipps. Credit: Alan Krathaus

He’s aware that, in admitting you crave money, “you set yourself up as a satirical creature.” He can live with that, for now, at any rate.

“The Adventurist” is about the small and then the large ways in which Henry’s life begins to fray. Cyber Systems has a bad quarter and may go under. He and other executives are forced to go on a barnstorming tour to drum up new business. His lack of efficiency at romance tortures him. His beloved father is in the early stages of dementia.

Mr. Hipps is as adept as a gifted playwright at setting a scene. Important moments in “The Adventurist” occur in airports and snowed-in hotel bars, where the electricity flickers. The author writes about these places with a casual vividness that put me in mind of Walter Kirn’s novel “Up in the Air.”

There are also indelible scenes at a strip club and a Nascar race. (Both outings bring Henry to something close to despair.) A stolen kiss occurs on a Ferris wheel. At the strip club, the men lined up along the catwalk remind him, bleakly, of Communion-takers at the altar rail. Henry views the Nascar race as an “imperial spectacle.” He observes how the “bright-painted sponsorships would shame coral fish.”

Mr. Hipps’s prose is reliably this crisp. A co-worker has “trouser creases sharp as the prow of a destroyer.” A man throws back his whiskey with “a quick pelican jerk of the neck.” An old man has a mouth that is “pinched in a sort of bitter embouchure, like a trumpeter.”

These kinds of observations are the buttons and clasps of this writer’s attire. The fabric of “The Adventurist” is made from Henry’s search for meaning and for life’s small raptures, what he calls “these little junkets into beauty.”

Throughout the novel Henry fights what he calls “the pall,” a sense of desperation that seeps in at an afternoon’s margins. He wards it off in small ways. (“The remedy is obvious: to the laptop. Metaphysical dislocation is no match for a to-do list.”) He can’t always keep it at bay.

He has given up on television because the final episode of a good series sends a ghostly wind through him. “The program ends, the darkness rises, and the strings play elegy for me, not them,” he says. “There is nothing left but to stab the remote and sit in the awful quiet.” The Midwesterner in Henry longs for a hearth; the electronic one has let him down.

He is aware, at the Nascar rally, that he does not fit in. Amid the rowdy tailgaters he feels on display, and not in a good way. About how others see him as a figure of derision and almost desire to hoot, he remarks: “No matter how liberal a person’s sentiments, how tolerant and unprejudiced his cardinal humors, he is glad to see the outcast, to know conclusively it is not him.”

There is drama in Henry’s attempts to maintain his equilibrium. There is yet more drama, genuine human stuff, in his awareness that many dozens of lives are in danger if he and the other executives can’t keep Cyber Systems afloat. People have families and mortgages; at least one is in the United States illegally and might get thrown out.

Henry has an outsider’s sense of the South, a sense that keeps his transistors alert. “I am forever being outflanked,” he sadly reports, “by Southern manners.” He envies a certain kind of confident Southern man, about whom he says: “His is a discerning shtick of which the Southerner is king: wicked-sounding but affectionate, droll, imperturbable above all.”

Who is Henry? He turns out to be a fool for love, among other things. He acquires a physical as well as an intellectual crush on a married co-worker. He adores the way that, in conversation, “a heartfelt obscenity, deployed just so, activated her pleasure centers like a neon sign.”

“The Adventurist” activated most of my cranial pleasure centers. It’s a brisk and polished and somehow very American novel. It moves confidently, that is, until it can no longer pretend to do so. It delivers to the reader internal wounds that will fail to clot.

BOOKS: Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition


April 26, 2016

BOOKS

Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition

When Charles J. Shields’s biography of Harper Lee came out in 2006, it was hailed as the definitive study of the famously private author and her singular 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Like so many journalists before him, Mr. Shields (above) was rebuffed when he asked to interview Ms. Lee and her closest relatives. He found surprisingly little correspondence from her in library collections. So to reconstruct her life, he interviewed 80 people, including friends, former classmates and neighbors, and parsed her novel for autobiographical clues. The resulting biography was about as intimate a book as a scholar could write about an author who kept the world at a distance.

But a lot changed over the next decade. After Mr. Shields’s biography was published, Ms. Lee filed lawsuits against her former literary agent and the museum in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. In 2011, Ms. Lee issued a statement through her lawyer denying that she had authorized another book about her, “The Mockingbird Next Door,” by the journalist Marja Mills. Mr. Shields decided he needed to update his biography.

He was already at work on the new edition in 2015, when Ms. Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins, announced that she would release a second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which she wrote in the mid 1950s. The novel, which portrayed Atticus Finch, the hero of “Mockingbird,” as a racist, shocked readers and scholars.

The new edition of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” out Tuesday, paints a more nuanced and in some ways perplexing portrait of Ms. Lee, who died in February at age 89, leaving many questions unanswered. Below are edited excerpts from a recent phone interview with Mr. Shields.

Q. In the decade since the book was first published, Harper Lee’s career and legacy has changed dramatically. How does your understanding of her now differ from how you saw her when you published the biography?

A. Somehow, she managed to pack a lot into the past 10 years. When I first published the biography, I saw Harper Lee as the sole author of the book, as if it had sprung fully formed for her forehead. After “Go Set a Watchman” came out, that became a touchstone against which to evaluate “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Without the benefit of having another book in hand, I took “To Kill a Mockingbird” at face value. Now I see it in a different light. I see the influence of her editor, Tay Hohoff, much more now. “Go Set a Watchman” is highly autobiographical. I think she exposes more of herself than she really wants to.

When I started looking at the amount of litigation in her life since 2006, it was depressing and very revealing. That was of a piece with the entire third act of Harper Lee’s life, which was endless “he said, she said” and unresolved disputes.

Q. Reviews of “Watchman” were mixed, but even people who found it to be vastly inferior to “Mockingbird” agree that it sheds new light on her creative process and her thoughts on the Civil Rights movement and Southern politics. Where do you come down on the Watchman debate? Should it have been published in her lifetime?

It’s an important cultural document. But I would never hold it up to a class and say, “You must read this, it’s a classic.” If anything, it’s a good book about what not to do. There’s too much exposition and not enough dramatization.

Q. Harper Lee apparently was not a fan of your book about her and told friends not to read it. Did you ever learn what she objected to?

A. The objections were kept very general. I heard she and her sister Alice were not happy with the biography. I heard from a friend of hers that they did not like the portrayal of their mother. They were very sensitive about that. Mrs. Lee was a manic-depressive. I tried to be as discreet as I could, but since it plays into “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I had to answer the question. Where’s the mother in “To Kill a Mockingbird”? She’s in her room, not speaking to anyone, or leaving the house without permission. Harper Lee identified more with her father than her mother.

Q. You discovered a newspaper article that she wrote, without a byline, about the Kansas murders that she helped Truman Capote research. How did you come across it, and what does it suggest about her role in shaping Capote’s “In Cold Blood”?

I went back to look at newspapers in Garden City, Kan., and I stumbled across a little mention in a column that said, our visitor Harper Lee will be writing about what’s been happening on the case for the F.B.I. magazine The Grapevine. Then I contacted The Grapevine. They said, Yeah, there’s been a reference to that over the years but we can’t find anything. I told them to look in the spring of 1960. There indeed was an article than only Harper Lee could have written because it was so full of info that would later appear in “In Cold Blood.” I speculate that there was no byline because she really didn’t want to tread on Truman Capote’s story. It’s a long flattering article about the great work chief investigator Alvin Dewey is doing on the case and how Truman is going to get to the bottom of it. It was an unselfish act from a friend.

She wrote letters to her agent about having a huge crush on the investigator.She uses the phrase “drop-dead handsome.”

Q. Since her death and even in the months leading up to it, there have been batches of her private letters that have come up for sale at auctions. Do you worry that important documents that offer clues about her life and work might be slipping away into private collections, rather than collected at a library where scholars can study them?

A. I would like to see her estate make a genuine effort to round-up some of these letters and put them together in an authoritative text. It adds to the narrative of the life, but if these continue to come out in dribs and drabs, postcards from the Gulf Coast and Christmas cards, as a researcher who prides himself on being very organized, I dislike the sense of things unraveling. I would like to see them collected in a big fat book of letters.

Q. She stopped giving formal interviews for the most part in the 1960s. What questions would you have most liked to ask her, if you could?

A. I would have liked to have asked her whether her father did indeed change his views on segregation at the end of his life because the gentleman was only alive for a short time after “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out. I’d like to know if it was the book and daughter that changed his mind, or did he see the direction things were going?

I would like to know the answer to whether she was every deeply in love with someone. She’s obviously a woman of deep compassion. She’s a keen observer of human drama; that empathy is at the core of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I would like to know if she had the blessing of ever being in love with someone. Freud said the two components of a contented life are love and work. We know a lot about the work side of Harper Lee and not so much about the love side of Harper Lee.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/26/books/harper-lee-biographer-charles-shields-on-his-latest-edition.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fbooks&action=click&contentCollection=books&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=0

 

 

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