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In this multifaceted collection of dreamscape stories and arabesque concrete poetry, Keith Nathan Brown invokes a wide range of literary and non-literary forms—from poetry to scientific report, from short story to mathematical proof—as a way to explore the gray area between mind and body where selfhood finds its origin. These thirty three fictions, poems and hybrid texts are arranged in thematically-related sets and subsets to simulate a travel guide to “cross-conscious interstates.” Whether induced by illness or intoxication, or inspired by music or meditation, each psychoactive text offers itself as a node in a larger conversation about time, identity, meaning and the human bond. Philosophical in scope, psychological in depth, at turns witty and cerebral, at turns brooding and surreal, Embodied twists language—literally and figuratively—to open up portals of heightened reality and, more importantly, to activate a sense of discovery and awe in the face of everyday existence.
By Shya Scanlon
New Dead Families, 2012
Jack Lightning and Jo: Angel calls her “Mrs. Lightning” like she never left, isn’t her walking up a desert path to the door for her son who isn’t there, for what should have been healed or the lies she conceals–Jo and her love for Jack unfolds, blossoms of bones and desert. Alex is not in Arizona, nowhere there, not tunneling, except some hospital room awaiting news that there is no such thing as Border Run no more, only ImPass-owned wall impenetrable. But in pages, love seeps: animals, one’s land, family, community and the ones we don’t even know we are a part of–work, words and desert, deceased or sick, the ones arriving in the parking lot or by bus and the child departed, or sacred tradition like the cry of the mountain before us.
These disparate pillars (fiction, nonfiction, plays, poetry) might well support a funhouse, which is how I like it. I’ve deliberately left off books by anyone who was/is my teacher, mentor, colleague, or friend—even if only on Facebook.
1. Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales
2. Bullfinch’s Mythology
3. Ovid’s Metamorphoses
4. The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim
5. War & Peace (Here come the Russians. If I were allowed to possess only one book for the rest of my life, Tolstoy’s masterpiece would be it.)
6. Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
7. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy
8. Fathers and Sons, Turgenov
9. Dead Souls, Gogol
10. The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky
4. Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The great novel of ideas.
5. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. Of course the inventive typography is wonderful, but the pathos within the erudition makes this book sing.
6. Blindness by Jose Saramago. Taught me the power of a “what if” premise.
7. Snow by Orhan Pamuk.
8. The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg by Deborah Eisenberg. Compression, compression, compression. She is the best at it.
9. The Collected Stores of Flannery O’Connor by Flannery O’Connor. She knows the human heart, all that is wicked and all that is good.
10. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Contains two of best short stories ever written. The rest are pretty good too.
It’s tempting to see the world of The Tree of Life as one where nobody shits.[i] Granted, for all the beautiful moments, there are ugly ones too – the young brothers in the film see a crippled man, thirsty prisoners, the drowning of a child – but these feel like examples, like the Buddha’s Four Sights (what politicians would call ‘teachable moments’). [ii]
But teaching us what? By the time we’ve got to the ending, where the characters are reunited in the afterlife on a beach, the film has answered a family’s grief over their dead brother and son, RL, by pointing to The Creation on the one hand, and the promised End on the other – a cosmic Putting Things In Perspective.
The afterlife with your loved ones; voiceovers that say, ‘Love everyone!’; shots of angelic figures and natural beauty: the threat of kitsch never leaves this film. True, there’s a wonky kind of radicalism to be admired in making these days an earnest piece of religious art. And not everything that is earnest is kitsch. [iii]
But an earnest answer to suffering, an ending that gives you a triumphant vision of paradise?… In an early scene, RL’s grandmother tries to comfort his mother by saying things like “the pain will pass” and “life goes on.” It’s a testament to the struggle in Terrence Malick between the Artist and the Preacher that the film goes quite a way to answering those platitudes with some of its own.
You’re God’s answer to Job
The Tree of Life starts with Bible verses, Job 38: 4,7: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” This corresponds to and pre-empts what RL’s brother Jack says in voiceover: “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When You aren’t.”
In response, we get: the creation of the universe and the Earth, then the tree of life, starting with microbes and leading to dinosaurs.[iv] We get a close-knit if dysfunctional 50’s family unit: saintly mother, tough-loving father, three brothers and their childhood memories. Finally, we get the end of the universe and the dead assembled on a beach at dawn, waiting for the light.
More than context, the cosmic bookends of the film try to show the beauty of existence / the connection of everything / how Nature compares against Grace. This is more than Job got. In fact, God in the Bible pretty much ducks Job’s complaints, answering his question with a long series of questions (“Where wast thou…?”). So why is The Tree of Life being more definitive?
It depends on what level you take the reality of its various sequences. RL’s violent end (which is also exemplary) is the problem of evil that sums up the rest and, from a certain perspective, it remains a problem. Malick might have finally got round to filming his theodicy. Question is, does he really buy it?
If one tried to construct the Temple of Literature from only the fifty “pillars” below, it would collapse spectacularly. Nevertheless, here is a contingent group of titles that, to paraphrase Christopher Higgs, if I hadn’t read and reread over the years, I wouldn’t be myself. How much that is worth, I’m not sure.
1) Djuna Barnes—Nightwood
2) Charles H. Kahn—The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (an edition of the fragments with commentary)
3) William Shakespeare—Sonnets, Tragedies, most of the Comedies . . .
4) Eileen Myles—Inferno, The Importance of Being Iceland.
5) Charlotte Brontë—Jane Eyre, Villette
6) Jane Austen—Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion
7) Marquis de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom, Julliette
8) Shoshana Felman, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation” (from Writing and Madness)
9) Herman Melville—Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, The Confidence Man, and the shorter works
10) Sir Thomas Browne—Urn Burial, Religio Medici, correspondence