Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grafton's W is for Wasted: Well-Woven and Warm

Reflection on W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton.(New York: Putnam's, 2013.)

One pleasure of reading Sue Grafton's latest detective novel is to appreciate her skill in weaving nearly a dozen different strands into a single net.  Another pleasure, something of a surprise to me, is that she touches our emotions in unexpected ways. 

As detective Kinsey Millhone tells us right away, the story connects the deaths of two men who never knew each other.  One is an unscrupulous Private Investigator named Pete Wolinsky whom she knew slightly, and one a homeless man who carried her name and number in his pocket.  We learn Wolinsky's story through third-person flashbacks (presumed to be Kinsey's speculation after the fact), interspersed through Kinsey's forays into the homeless community and a distant town where the homeless man left wife and children years before.

Encounters that seem incidental do figure into the eventual grand design.  There's the young loser who sings, his sisters (one sluttish, one shy), their mother and their family's ex-neighbor with dementia, the P.I.'s long-suffering wife, Kinsey's sometimes boyfriend Dietz the P.I. in Nevada, an ugly encounter with "Boggarts" ("bad fairies" among the homeless), and researchers studying pharmaceutical  remedies for addiction. There's Kinsey's encounter with details from her paternal family history.   Oh, yes: her landlord adopts a cat named Ed.  I kid you not: all of these are interconnected by the time we reach the page-turning finale.

Along the way, we meet the rotund and rebarbative Pearl White, and her young buddy with blonde dread locks and braces, Felix.   Kinsey opines about the homeless several times, seeing sometimes no harm in them, and yet resenting how Pearl games the system.  A frustrated businessman tells Kinsey how he faces a life of debt over his own wife's $90 K hospital bills, while "some program" will take care of Pearl if she ever gets sick.  A funeral on the beach for the homeless man and one of his homeless friends near the end of the book took me by surprise, bringing tears to my eyes when passers-by were stopped by the solemnity of the occasion.  The eulogy includes this observation:

Both the urge to rescue and the need to condemn fail to take into account the concept of [the homeless people's] personal liberty, which they may exercise as they see fit so long as their actions fall within the law.  ...The homeless have established a nation within a nation, but we are not at war. (483)

Others we meet, who seem to be unsympathetic, do gain our respect, if not our sympathy, thanks to telling details imagined by Grafton.  The shy youngest daughter of the homeless man seems to be way off-topic when she tells about a Great Dane always jittery about going to the vet's, for fear of being put down. When the time came to put him down for real, the cooing and petting of his humans calmed him, for once.  "If I'd been there," she says, thinking of her father's death on a lonely stretch of beach, "I could have held Daddy's hand" (224).   The detective Wolinsky is certainly despicable in many ways, but his adoration of his wife, his shame, and his determination to please her, make him sympathetic, too. 

As we've come to expect, there's a suspenseful action-packed showdown involving the cat and a scalpel:  pretty creepy and exciting.

My only complaint is with Grafton's editor.  Must encounters of substance be separated by pages of detail about Kinsey's eating, grooming, and driving?  I swear, one passage told us how Kinsey stopped the car, turned the key in the ignition, put on the parking break, opened the door. etc. etc. etc.   There was so much of that stuff early in the book that I would not have pushed through except that I've come to trust Grafton's judgement in the long haul.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Weight of Bernstein's Mass

Jubilant Sykes in Mass, conducted by Marin Alsop
President Kennedy's widow asked Leonard Bernstein to write a mass for the opening of JFK's memorial arts center in 1971.  What Bernstein wrote is probably far from what she had in mind. I've sometimes called it Bernstein's Mess,  But, God help me, I love it intensely.

I'm not alone in feeling this way.   A quick search netted this gem of observation from someone who wore out her LP of Mass with repeated listening, as I did:

For myself, I love [Bernstein's Mass] but also find it cheesy and corny at times, not just dated; feel it relies on a reaching and sentimental twist to find its ending amidst a lot of devolving hyperbole. I also find it incredibly beautiful, especially in its details--more beautiful, the more closely you look at it.  (from a blog by Elizabeth Tamny)

Between forty minutes of stuff that's "cheesy and corny" but fun, and a half-hour of "devolving hyperbole" at the end, there's a half-hour of music that has color, variety, ingenuity, beauty, and a weight that has anchored it deep in my own life.   Let's take up Ms. Tamny's suggestion to notice the "details" that make this section of Mass "more beautiful, the more closely you look."

For me, the heart of Mass begins with Bernstein's setting of Psalm 130, De Profundis ("From the Depths"). The basses sing from the depths of their range.  Punctuated by timpani, and built up with overlapping imitations in chorus and orchestra, the music reaches ever-upward, until a breaking point when the chorus dissolves into choral yapping, a foretaste of the musical chaos to come.  This section ends on the words Spero! Sperat!   ("trust" or "hope")

During the next several minutes, Bernstein will open up the fourth wall in a few ways. The Celebrant, central character in this theatre peace, will mention members of the cast by name in prayer.  Bernstein will give us a look into his own process for composing, as his Celebrant will appear to improvise a couple of melodies.   A few minutes later, the Celebrant will sing in Hebrew, for no apparent reason except the words' personal resonance for their Jewish composer.  I'm not complaining; I'm touched.

After the chorus sings "Sperat!" a boy's choir continues the "hope" theme singing "My soul waits for the Lord" in Latin.  We've heard the tune before, at a similar moment of repose early in the Mass, when the choir sang the words, "Almighty Father, incline Thine ear."  The boy sopranos sing it simply, but the adult choir echoes each phrase with near-frantic urgency.

This little interlude builds to an instrumental version of the same tune, orchestrated to sound like dance music in some Middle Eastern bazaar, the strings a little off-pitch, the beat something odd (I'm guessing 7/8).  The libretto describes a "fetishistic dance" adoring the sacraments.  It's thrilling and meant to be more visceral than spiritual.  We heard it early in the Mass, a setting to the words In nomine Patris et filii, ("in the name of the Father and of the son"), and we'll hear its distinctive beat throughout this section, sometimes just on bongos, an ominous thread underlying sweet music.

With "Our Father," Bernstein deliberately reminds of how Mass began, to draw our attention to significant differences.  At his first appearance, our Celebrant, dressed casually, strummed a guitar and told us to "Sing God a simple song.../ Make it up as you go along."  In the numbers that followed, he donned more and more ecclesiastical garb while street people and marching bands and rock singers and whatnot all had their say.  The celebrant thus appeared to be more and more alienated, both from his flock and from that "simple" faith he proclaimed at the start.

Now, heavily robed, he literally re-composes that faith.  He sings "Our father" accompanied by one finger on a piano, as if he actually might be making it up as he goes along. The phrases meander to the upper edge of his baritone range, where he sounds exposed and vulnerable. His "amen" reaches up a fifth, sounding more like a question than a statement; and that interval becomes accompaniment with guitar clearly meant to remind us of "Simple Song," only the text here expresses resignation, regret, and determination to "go on" even when "our illusions fail." 

Now he does indeed go on, ringing the sanctus bell.  What follows is a delight all the more delightful against this dark background.  Two groups of boys toss around the phrases of the Sanctus as in a game.  The orchestral accompaniment climbs from deep down to high above the boys' highest notes. Like fireworks, the orchestra bursts at the pinnacle, notes cascading like sparks.

The orchestra subsides mostly to just the bongos that echo the beat for that "fetishistic dance" (nomine patris), a beat soon taken up by woodwinds and strings.  But first, the Celebrant continues to re-compose his faith from the ground up, plucking a couple of guitar strings and seeming to improvise a melody from the pitches: "Mi alone is only mi /  but mi with sol / means a song is beginning grow... take wing, and rise up singing / From me and my soul."  Without pause, he proclaims, Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! Hebrew for "Holy."

With that bongo still going strong, the Choir takes up the Celebrant's "Kadosh" and sings in Hebrew, "All the heavens and earth are full of His glory," while a pair of flutes chase each other upward like playful birds ascending.   The volume and density increase, and then the Street Chorus joins in for "Holy Holy Holy" in English. They subside. Then it's back to "Kadosh" for a bigger finish on the Hebrew phrase, "B'shem Adonai!" (In the name of the Lord).

This part of the Mass is sweet, mysterious, and somehow painful to hear.  Certainly the strange mixture of English, Latin, and Hebrew is part of the mystery;  the intertwining of the voices and instrumental parts, tending upwards, expresses yearning.   It is music and text beyond doctrine, beyond ethics and morality, operating on me at a level I don't fully understand:  that's where my faith comes from.  While there is much music in the world that I can say I love, and much that has an emotional effect on me, Mass is in a class by itself.

Back around Bernstein's 70th birthday, I wrote him a fan letter telling him all this.  I also confessed to singing parts of Mass in the car at times when I've been most exultant and most frustrated.  He hand-wrote an appreciation of my appreciation.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Peter Abrahams' Oblivion: Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma

Reflection on the novel Oblivion by Peter Abrahams, published in 2005.  I read it on a Kindle.

Remember Churchill's description of Russia as a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma?" Peter Abraham's Oblivion starts simply enough, but by the end -- Churchill didn't have enough synonyms to describe it!  But there is a key to unlock all the boxes, and the prize is worth having.

The novel opens with detective Nick Petrov giving dramatic testimony that convicts a murderer.  We learn that "drama" made him famous, first when he found the clue to end a serial killer's reign of terror twelve years before, and then when a movie was made about that investigation.   Before he's out of the courthouse parking lot, he's been hired to find a missing teenage girl.  He learns quickly that the girl follows a band called "Empty Box" that sings how you don't always know what's buried in your own backyard.  His investigation takes him places:  an airport hotel, a dive, a small desert town's high school, a nasty trailer, and his own secluded cabin in the mountains. 

Then the context for this whole investigation changes.  It's not a spoiler to tell that the headache nagging Petrov through the first chapters turns out to be an inoperable brain tumor that affects his body, his memory, and some aspects of his personality. A new intuitive sense of people replaces dispassionate reasoning.  The stern voice of his late father hectors him.  Self-doubt also changes him, and he begins to wonder how much of his "dramatic" career really has been play-acting and covering up. 

The missing girl case is one box inside a larger box inside yet a larger box, and one begins to suspect that there really are things buried in Petrov's own "backyard."  By the action-packed conclusion, Petrov is fighting not just for his life, but for his own sense of it: Is he really the good guy?

Author Peter Abrahams writes in third person, but keeps the focus tight on Petrov's perceptions.  The book is rich with distinguishing details about minor characters, but nothing extraneous to the puzzle.  When I used the "search" function on my Kindle to remind myself of one character who reappears late in the book, I recognized that Abrahams had planted clues to the true nature of this character from his very first appearance.

Petrov briefly partners with a dog, giving an intertextual thrill to readers who know The Chet and Bernie series written by Abrahams under the  pseudonym Spencer Quinn.  (See a compilation of my reflections on Chet and Bernie.)