Johnson, Denis: Train Dreams ( with poems by Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas)

This month we read a novella, so coupled it with “What I expected” by Stephen Spender and “Do not go gently into that good night” by Dylan Thomas. The Book Group meeting took place despite the unavoidable absence of the proposer.

The absent proposer helpfully provided the meeting with his personal views on the book and the poems and the connection between them. These were read out at the start of the meeting and provided the stimulus for the ensuing discussion. His comments and observations are unashamedly plagiarized in this blog.

Poet, playwright and author, Denis Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany in 1949, and raised in Tokyo, Manila and Washington, D.C., the son of a US State Department employee. A chronicler of substance abusers living at the margins of society, Johnson himself had a substance abuse problem from an early age graduating from alcohol to hard drugs, including heroin before eventually overcoming his addiction.

He gained a Masters degree from the University of Iowa in 1974 and has received numerous literary awards including ; Whiting Awards, 1986, Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts 1986, Lannan Literary Award for Fiction in 1993 and the National Book Award for Fiction in 2007 for “Tree of Smoke”.

He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012 for “Train Dreams” (while it was first published in 2002 as a long short story in “The Paris Review” it became eligible for a Pulitzer for the first time when it was published, as a novel, in 2012.). Controversially the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that it would award no Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012. Johnson is currently the first visiting professor in Boise State University, Idaho, where he is contributing to the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program.

“Train Dreams” is a third person historical novella describing the life of Robert Grainier, an orphan shipped by train in 1893 into the woods of the Idaho panhandle. He grows up, becomes an itinerant labourer working on logging gangs, and falls in love. He loses his wife and daughter in a particularly devastating wildfire. The story is about an ordinary man in extraordinary times, struggling to come to terms with the loss of his family, and bearing witness to the radical changes that transform his country in his lifetime.

The proposer was given the book as a birthday present and was so captivated by it that he has read it 3 times in the last 12 months. He chose it as a book group read because it is short! He hoped that this would give the group more time to think about the contents at a deeper level than has been possible with longer reads. When reading the book he found himself questioning the “purposeful” activities we all indulge in, separating what matters from what does not.

He was drawn back by the excellent lyrical quality of the writing and the thread of understated humour. He commented that  Johnson makes an extraordinary novella from an ordinary life and he suggests that this may arise from his background as a poet, perhaps even from the years of drugs and alcohol abuse.

He considered that the novel “has a real sense of place: I imagine easily I am there and I believe in the characters”. He referred to the following passage as an example of  the lyrical prose to be found throughout the novella and which he thought so descriptively effective:

Animals had returned to what was left of the forest. As Grainier drove along in the wagon behind a wide, slow sand colored mare, clusters of orange butterflies exploded off the blackish purple piles of bear sign and winked and fluttered magically like leaves without trees. More bears than people travelled the muddy road, leaving tracks straight up and down the middle of it; later in the summer they would forage in the low patches of huckleberry he already saw coming back on the blackened hillsides

He also appreciated the humour which surfaces unexpectedly and provides such a contrast with Grainier’s bleak and often humdrum existence, e.g. through the matter of fact exchanges of Grainier with a man shot by his dog.

Sir, are you dead?
Who? Me? Nope. Alive.
Well I was wondering – do you feel as if you might go on?
You mean as if I might die?
Nope. Ain’t going to die tonight.
That’s good.
Even better for me, I’d say.”

He suggested that the contrasts drawn between the pace of the great global changes of the twentieth century and the local events that impinge on Grainier’s dull existence add pathos to his story. They reveal the passing of an age and expose the apparent mundaneness of his existence. He further described Grainger as a man who has no apparent expectation but is a man to whom things happen, and as a man who does not think deeply and creatively. He was a man of whom it might have been said, but nothing was ever said of him, that he had little to interest him.

Johnson’s summary of Grainier’s life is:

Grainier himself lived more than 80 years…. he’d never seen the ocean… he’d had one lover… owned one acre of property…. he’d never spoken into a telephone… he’d ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles and once on an aircraft… he had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him… When he passed away… he lay dead in his cabin through the rest of the fall, and through the winter, and was never missed

The use of superstition and the extraordinary add depth to the characterization of Grainier.  Examples are when he feels he has been cursed by a Chinese man who escapes from imminent lynching, when describing his search for his family, his decision to remain and resettle the land after the fire, his sole encounter with his wife’s spirit, and his later encounter with the wolf girl who he believes to be his daughter, Kate.

Kate is it you. But it was… Kate she was, but Kate no longer

The book group admired both the book and the proposer’s views of it. All were captivated by Johnson’s writing and hugely impressed by his ability to pack so much into so few pages. They felt that his startling descriptive power had given meaning to Grainier’s very ordinary life. Conversation initially focused on scene setting. We noted the importance of the development of the railways in America in the 1920’s and the use of labour drawn from, both other parts of the USA and abroad, including large numbers of Chinese. The work was hard and dangerous. Life was cheap and could be cruel. It was a hand to mouth existence. Death was an ever present, an accepted fact of life observed by Johnson in a shockingly matter of fact way. There was an acceptance of hardship and a “keep the head down” attitude seemed to be the norm.

The group marvelled at the quickening pace of change over Grainier’s life, cleverly revealed by Johnson’s references to events and to Grainier’s wonder at some of his experiences. The discussion then strayed into a debate about change and whether or not the pace of change today is any less than over the period covered by ‘Train Dreams”.

There were differing views on this. Some thought that change accelerates over time while others argued that the pace of change is less important than its impact on individuals and civilization as a whole. It was pointed out that Grainier had lived through a period of massive change, but that his changing world had very little practical impact on him or his way of life.

The Group was also greatly impressed by the sense of isolation achieved by Johnson and discussed the various ways that he had achieved this. In addition to the sense of place mentioned by the proposer, we thought that Johnson’s depiction of Grainier as a self-sufficient individual was a particularly important factor in building a picture of overall isolation. Grainier, with the possible exceptions of his wife, daughter and dogs, had no other meaningful relationships in his life The fact that these characters and the relationships between them, are only superficially described, has the effect of adding to that sense of isolation and loneliness.

This depiction of Grainier as a very private and lonely person is successfully cultivated through a number of references, e.g. the conversation between a widow and Grainier:

God needs the hermit in the woods as much as he needs the man in the pulpit. Did you ever think about that?” Grainier replies:

I don’t believe I am a hermit” but he reflects “I a hermit? Is this what a hermit is?”.

His loneliness is also reinforced by the description of his struggles to deal with “pulchritude” and with his associated self-loathing.

His desires must be completely out of nature; he was the kind of man who might couple with a beast, — as he’d long ago heard it phrased—jigger himself a cow.

The group particularly admired the evocative language used by Johnson, and the remarkable power and economy of words. His ability to convey the essence of minor characters in a few short sentences was admired by many of the group. For example, the Chinese worker, who was about to be thrown off a railroad bridge by Grainier and a group of his fellow workers, is described as “twisting like a weasel in a sack” and “weeping his gibberish”.

Finally the group considered the point made by the proposer about the purposeful activities in which we indulge, and we debated whether we engage in activities that are of any greater significance than those that occupied Grainier’s life. The ensuing discussion was destined to reach no meaningful conclusion, but nevertheless provided interesting insights into our differing views of our respective contributions to the world or to the society in which we live.

One reviewer of “Train Dreams”, said;

Johnson remains defined as a cult figure writer because of his early drug drenched fiction and hard boiled prose, but in Train Dreams he stakes his claim as one of the key voices in contemporary American fiction.

He goes on to describe the work  “A small masterpiece.”

While very few members of the Book Group had read much of Johnson’s work, or indeed sufficient contemporary American fiction, to be able to endorse the reviewer’s views about Johnson’s status, the Group was able to agree to describe Train Dreams as “A small masterpiece”.

In addition to “Train Dreams” the Group considered two poems with related themes: “What I Expected”, by Stephen Spender and “Do not go gently into that good night” by Dylan Thomas.

The proposer described “ What I expected” as a poem about disillusionment with life and questions whether we should, like Grainier, simply accept “the futility and banality of it all”.

Spender suggests that one starts life with grand intentions and a hope to become strong with continual effort, but ultimately he “watches cripples pass with limbs shaped like questions”. In contrast Grainier has no ambition, no expectation and simply accepts whatever life throws at him. “Arthritis and rheumatism made simple daily chores nearly impossible”. Spender’s disillusionment arises from expectation, “expecting always”. Grainier on the other hand is not disappointed; he has no ambition, is contented and lives in the moment.

Dylan Thomas’s famous “villanelle” urges his dying father to cling to life; to resist the inevitable, despite the loss of sight, general health and strength, to fight to the end. To “burn and rave” against dying.

Granier passed away quietly, in his sleep, without fanfare:

He lay dead in his cabin through the rest of the fall and through the winter and was never missed.”

Perhaps he did “burn and rave”, but it seems highly unlikely and there was no one there to witness it. Grainier was at peace with the world and with himself, and no doubt died content and unconcerned.

It was suggested by some of the Group that Grainier’s way was best, but others thought that the world would be a much sorrier place if individuals simply accepted their fate without question or challenge. Indeed some went as far as to propose that the human condition required individuals to adopt a more aggressive approach to life.

In his concluding paragraph the proposer cynically stated:

These three works all put the human condition into perspective, and should cause you to pause as you go about your all-consuming and reality-denying business”.

All considered “Train Dreams”, together with the two poems, to be an inspired choice and thoroughly “purposeful” reads. They did indeed cause us to reflect on the meaning of life, and to question the worth of what we do. This is an enjoyable read, with potentially depressing consequences.


Jones, Steve: Almost Like A Whale

“Almost Like A Whale” is an updating of the “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin published in 1859. Introducing the book, the proposer said that Steve Jones was Professor of Genetics at University College London. According to his website, he had been on the BBC some 200 times. He had first heard of him on “Desert Island Discs”, where he had amused him by sending up the programme, selecting biology- linked songs such as “The Flight of the Bumble Bee”, and choosing as the object to take with him a stuffed effigy of Ken Clarke, for his services to Education.

Browsing through the book when it came out, he had been struck by such facts as that half the population of the world, including 100m Americans, think that the world is made in God’s image. Having purchased it he found it an engrossing read, with many striking facts. The initial section on AIDS had been excellent, and he had galloped through the book. He had read it at a time of terrorist attacks, which had heightened his awareness of the impact of religious systems. However, on re-reading the book now, he had found he had to wade through it. The novelty of the facts had worn off, and revealed the tediousness of the style, the fragmentation and the way he kept repeating himself.

On the other hand, there were plenty of good books that could not stand up to a second reading. In favour of the book was that it contained many striking facts about the natural world, and was for the most part engrossing and stimulating. It was an excellent concept to rewrite Darwin from a modern perspective. The title “Almost like a Whale”, drawn from Darwin’s book, won general approval, and was better than the American version “Darwin’s Ghost”.

The book had a particularly gripping beginning in its sections on the AIDS virus, and on the domestication of animals. Another striking story was that concerning the 5,000 cattle ranch abandoned by the Jesuits that grew into a swarm. The most moving section was that in which he examined how the relics of different species vanish over time, just as the relics of the First World War were already disappearing. This brought into perspective the insignificance of human life “sub specie aeternitatis”.

However, the structure of the book was disappointing. There were lots of holes, and great leaps between subjects. Although it started strongly, it soon became disjointed. The details were indeed striking, but were often not related to the conclusions. The book lacked the rigour of the scientific approach. We noted with amusement one reviewer’s conclusion that, of the books that rewrote great books, this was the best – surely damning it with faint praise given the paucity of books in that category. And a minor detail was irritating – the use of estuary English in the heading of the introduction “An Historical Sketch”.

Some wondered if following Darwin’s original had acted as a straitjacket, which explained some of the structural weaknesses, given the difference of contemporary interests and issues from the nineteenth century. On the other hand, it was clear from the muddled and repetitive introduction that Jones could not write in a logical sequence. Perhaps it was his awareness of this weakness that had attracted him to following a predetermined structure. But, while Jones seemed incapable of developing an argument, the sections of the original quoted showed that Darwin was much more effective.

The author’s smart, glib persona was all-pervasive, and – suitable as it might be for television – was not attractive in this context. The egotism displayed in the introduction – “To rewrite ‘The Origin of the Species’ is more than most biologists would dare” – hit the wrong note right at the outset. There was a lot of flag-waving in the book, and enjoying showing how clever he was. For example he devoted two pages to the size of the penis, which was an irrelevance to the argument and merely an attempt to entertain. Jones was famous a populariser of science, but he seemed to be an attention-seeker, a showman.

Given the book’s avowed objective of convincing creationists they were wrong, we debated if it would be effective in this role, and concluded it would not. Partly this was because it was very difficult to overturn such deeply held beliefs by argument – intelligent design was a seductive metaphor. But more it was because we did not feel the book was enough of a polemic, of a sustained argument, to be fit for purpose. The book also raised some of the objections to natural selection theory – such as the question of how such a complex organ as an eye could evolve -without satisfactorily disposing of them.

We debated whether Jones would have done better to write a different book on the subject that did not follow Darwin’s structure. He might have written a serious book on creationism from the point of view of science. One starting point might have been the Human Genome Project. But we still felt he would be let down by his weakness in structuring an argument.

The discussion then ranged wider. One issue we debated was that – if you are trying to communicate – was it not essential to be entertaining? These days many historians, scientists and philosophers were turning into showmen – was this necessarily a bad thing? It depended on whether they could communicate in this way without distorting the ideas they were dealing with. Scientists were now meant to be able to communicate – e.g. to talk to schools, or policy-makers – and few were good at it. They were by nature interested in the nature of things, whereas the artists were interested in feelings, people and ideas.

Bill Bryson’s “ A Short History of Everything” was a good example of getting the balance right between entertainment and factual communication. In Jones’ case he did well with his sections on AIDS and the domestication of animals, but

then the book went downhill.

An issue not covered by Jones was the impact of modern medicine on heredity. Would modern medicine and better diet mean we would not die of the same hereditary defects as our ancestors? And what were the implications for the process of natural selection of the intervention of modern drugs?

We picked up on Darwin’s statement that animals were descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. One member drew attention to Bryan Sykes’ book “The Seven Daughters of Eve”, which explains the theory of human mitochondrial genetics. Sykes explains how modern humans can be classified into seven mitochondrial groups, descended from seven specific prehistoric women or “clan mothers”. All seven of these shared a common maternal ancestor, the “Mitochondrial Eve”.

The member also drew attention to an entertaining article by Sean Nee in the journal “Nature” and its accompanying evolutionary tree. This modern version of the evolutionary tree shows how plants and Animals are but small twigs on an immense tree, dominated by microscopic forms of life. Nee states:

“We are still at the very beginning of a golden age of biodiversity discovery, driven largely by the advances in molecular biology and a new open-mindedness about where life might be found. But for this golden age to be as widely appreciated as it should, our view of the natural world must change…. For all of the marvels in biodiversity’s new bestiary are invisible.”

Jones’ book might not have found great favour with the Monthly Book Group, but it was certainly stimulating debate, which now ranged into the dangerous areas of politics, religion and sex.

We decided it was important to stick up for Darwin’s theories in the modern world, and with the chilling potential impact on foreign policies of believers in theories of creationism or Armageddon.

We also noted that religious belief and evolution were not necessarily incompatible, and that the last Pope had been said to be sympathetic to the theory of evolution. Indeed Darwin had continued to belief in religion for some years after conceiving his theory, but had lost all faith after the death of his daughter in 1851. He had of course been reluctant to publish because of the accusations of heresy that might follow.

We discussed how Victorian intellectuals wrestled with loss of faith, and that few were willing to renounce their faith publicly in the way George Eliot did. However, only 50% of people had attended Church in 1850 (a figure which had shocked the Victorians) – perhaps church going had predominantly been a middle-class activity. A. N. Wilson’s book “The Victorians” was recommended.

And would Darwin consider himself an intellectual? Probably not – he would see himself as a working scientist. And for the British the term “intellectual” or “intelligentsia” has a pejorative connotation in a way it does not have abroad.

The discussion then ranged on to the impact of sexual selection on steatopygy amongst women in Africa, at which point your scribe put down his pen, and focussed on the excellent home baking which had just arrived

Jenkins, Robin: The Changeling

We felt that this was a first class novel, which merited wider recognition outside Scotland. Underneath the amiable, laconic style lay a vision of how aspiration and reality could differ widely, and of how character and events could intersect to bring tragedy despite the best of intentions. It was a very Scottish novel, not just in its portrayal of the contrasts of the slums and coastal beauty of Western Scotland, but in the bleak Calvinism of its perspective on life. [Do not read on if you do not want to know the plot]

The novel – involving a schoolteacher, Charlie Forbes, and a schoolboy, Tom Curdie, in the fifties – was set in a period when most of the Group themselves had been at school in Scotland. Some found the apparent lack of previous contact between the well-off Forbes children and the slum children to be implausible; others found it matched their own experience. One ex-teacher found the cynicism of the headmaster plausible but not the altruism of Forbes. However, for another, the plot of a teacher taking a poor child on holiday with his own children replicated his personal experience of what his headmaster father had done.

The suicide at the end of the book came as a shock to us all. There was a lively discussion of whether it was plausible that a boy of this age and with the tough personality portrayed would commit suicide. Some felt that it was out of character, or at least that the novelist had not shown enough of Tom’s character. Others felt the novelist had successfully stressed that Tom’s tough, taciturn independence was a coping mechanism for slum life, and had demonstrated how exposure to the Forbes family had fractured this carapace. One pointed to a contemporary example of a suicide at this age. However, without the intervention of events – the visit of Tom’s friends Chick and Peerie, and then of his family – the tragedy would not have happened. The proposer of the book, reading it for the second time, had picked up several prefigurative uses of hanging imagery.

Tom’s stealing was an important mechanism of the plot, and of the changing attitudes to Tom of members of the Forbes family. The middle-class view that stealing was completely unacceptable was a turning point, even if, it was pointed out, stealing was often common to both rich and poor children. Tom’s use of stealing as a device to keep the Forbes family at bay later developed into an unsuccessful search for forgiveness and acceptance through a confession – could the Forbes really accept him as he was?

There was much debate about Charles and his failed role as good Samaritan (the role set out in the opening two paragraphs). We rejected the possibility that his apparent altruism was motivated simply by hopes of promotion – a more complex set of motives is portrayed. Intriguingly, Charles reaches a stage of apparent self-knowledge, and promises himself and his wife that he will henceforth be less ambitious. But far from leading to a happy resolution, this change of viewpoint helps to precipitate the tragedy.

We also noted the ambiguity of the title “The Changeling” – is Tom indeed the changeling, as cruelly described by Charles, when Charles himself was really the agent of change? – as well as its echo of the Middleton/Rowley Jacobean tragedy.

Although Charles’ wife Mary seems, on the surface, to be portrayed quite affectionately, underneath we felt she was portrayed in a harsh light, lacking empathy for both Tom and her husband. The only character empathising fully with Tom is a child, Gillian – reflecting a theme echoed in The Cone-Gatherers (Jenkins’ masterpiece which some members of the group had been inspired to read as well).

Stylistically we noted the pervasive authorial voice, often explaining characters’ feelings. On balance we felt this was quite a successful technique. Language was used with great economy, but this non-lyrical style made it difficult to evoke the beauty of the West coast. On the other hand, the grimness of the Donaldson’s Court slum was vividly evoked, with one member saying he would never forget the description of it as a place in which even the splendour of a tiger would be extinguished.