Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Logic by Olympia Vernon

In 2006 or 7 I did an article on the amazing novel Logic by Olympia Vernon, and an interview with her, for The Bohemian Aesthetic.  She retains the interview on her blog.  Here's the link, with my essay on the novel to follow.

Olympia Vernon's Logic (2004)

                                    Generally speaking, stories of abused or neglected children tend to work on our hearts and minds in a different way than most other types of stories - they affect us, make us feel more.  This is because we were all children at one time and, secondly, because most of us have children of our own and such a story makes us shudder.  Innocence and innocents cast out among callous, cruel, uncaring and unfeeling adults (themselves struggling in a world they never made) - build a tremendous bridge to our sympathies.  As Rick Pitino once said, when you build bridges you can keep crossing them, and that is what this type of story does with the bridges it has built to our deepest feelings.  Whether the cruelty is of a physical, sexual, or psychological nature doesn't seem to matter so much - these stories simply seem to be of fantastic interest to us all.  If the amount of information available on the subject of abused children is any indication, this is one of the most researched of all subjects in fields like psychology, sociology, and health care.  In literature, too - simply look at Wikipedia's page on Child Sexual Abuse in Fiction to get a small idea.

                                    Therefore, being that this is immediately familiar subject matter, to undertake to examine it in a fresh way in a new creative work of art it's probably advisable to try and marry the topic with something else in order to give it some zing.  In the case of Olympia Vernon's novel Logic we're offered vistas of exploration that can send our psyches reeling.  Vernon's prose and style attack from two different directions - on the one hand it demands that the reader share its consistent hunger to participate in sensory experience; on the other hand it is aware of, and appreciates, the underlying scientific order of what appears to the casual observer to be the chaos of experience.
                                    Initially, readers are very likely to be simply blown away by the unwearied, prototypal, dander of  Vernon's writing.  There is a hardly a page in the entire work that doesn't contain a surprising, original association or a uniting of concepts that we usually consider to be from quite different and distinct spheres.  For example:

                                    They all looked up on the branch above them where a sparrow, alive, had begun to sing, as if it had seen many disasters on the back roads of Mississippi.

                                    She was arranging cups and saucers to match the blue-rimmed porecelain tiles of the floor.She was careful with her work.  Dropping glass was as dangerous as catching babies.

                                    Everything that went into her mouth was broken into tiny pieces - the bones in her face fragile,the empty breasts, as if there was no fat beneath the nipples to push her self-esteem forward.

                                    In this account I'm not going to dwell too too much upon the episodes and individual scenes of the story itself, which is brutal, violent, sexually shocking, awash in powerful lives and deaths, strong emotions, and hardships; nor am I going to spend a lot of time on the relationships between the characters, which are rich and complex.  Innocence defrocked is always going to contain large measures of pain.  And, though this is not a plot driven novel - it's plotless in a Chekhovian way - it's nevertheless a true page turner because of Vernon's verbal thunderflashes.  You wonder what kind of evocative phrasings she's going to come up with next!    Instead, I'm going to concentrate on some elements of the structural underpinnings of the book.             
                                    David Harris and his wife Too live with their thirteen year old daughter, Logic, in rural Valsin County, Mississippi.  The novel recounts their everyday experiences as well as those of some of their neighbors, principally a prostitute named George and her children, whom we come to know by designations instead of proper names: the girl, the tallest, curtis (lower case 'c') (names and naming comprise a vital part of he way Vernon invites the reader to see the world, as we will see).  Early on in the action the scenes are grim: David loads a gun; Logic has a terrible fall out of an oak tree; David and Logic have incestuous relations; the tallest sodomizes the girl; George gives birth and nearly dies; the tallest kills a hatchling fetus from a bird's nest.  Perhaps the most important thing a reader may notice in these early pages is how Vernon uses words and images to connect characters together as a means of demonstrating human contact.  Let me try to explain.

                                    The book begins with a brief prologue about a lamb that is "struck a heavy blow" and begins to bleed profusely from the head.  (This sequence is Biblically resonant, containing scripture-like passages such as "For He was that He is.")  Just a page later, in reading about Logic's fall from the tree, we learn that "her head filled with blood."  Shortly thereafter we meet a lady called the Missis, whose house is a converted church, and on one of the windows "There was a picture of a lamb grazing."  The Missis remarks, "A lamb is a trapped child."  Logic smells the Missis' hair and finds that there is blood in it -"You got blood in your me."  And so a conspiracy of similarities is formed: the lamb, Logic, and the Missis all bleed from the head; the lamb is actually physically manifested, its image on the window; Logic, thirteen years old and forced to have sex with her own father, is certainly a trapped child, therefore she is certainly a lamb (my italics); etc.  But what does it all mean?  How can we connect the dots?  Vernon makes no suggestion; the reader is invited to participate of their own accord.
                                    In a second example, the image of an index finger is repeated several different times in different contexts.
Trying to quiet his younger siblings, the tallest: "There he was raising his index finger in the air like a dipolomat, shouting."  Then:"  The tallest had dared her to speak, his index finger over her mouth."  Again: "But the tallest turned away from him and raised his index finger again."  Soon, "Too brought her hand to her face: the index finger rested on the tip of her nose."  Later, "Logic had spent the hours looking at her index finger."  Again, "David was not thinking of the man, not really, but the sound of his index finger in a glass of ice cubes."  Now, you might say So What? - but the image of the finger is not a common one that would ordinarily pop up so many times; yet, like the images of the blood and the lamb, the meaning is left open - we intuit the symbolism, the imagery, but we can't really grasp it fully.  The reader is both invited and shut out at the same time - challenging!  The characters are enveloped in a swirl of cosmic language-dust.
                                    The lamb/blood and the index finger aren't the only examples of this catching neology , which for convenience's sake we may just call "recurrence."  We'll look at some more examples in a moment, but I would like to remark here that recurrence is one of five principal motifs a reader should be watching for in Logic; four others are that of names and naming; allusions to science, nature, and mathematics; attunement to the workings of the human body; and the land of Mississppi as a sort of eternal land, an archetype.  We'll go over each briefly , continuing  now with recurrence.
                                    A third recurrence has to do with the returning image/symbol of a wire hanger.  Early on, the young girl Logic is carrying two wire hangers, one in each hand.  Asked what she plans to do with them, she gives the surprising response that she wants to make wings.  Much later in the story, in a more serious moment, we see a wire hanger being used to perform an abortion.  Here the recurrence is relatively straightforward.  A fourth involves the rather odd comparison of people's bodies to geometrical shapes, in one case a pyramid and in the other, a trapezoid.  The imagery of insects and bugs, particularly in regard to David Harris, is a fifth case (in one scene he opens his mouth to talk and inadvertantly swallows a lightning bug; in another, after he gets stung by an insect the antennae get caught underneath his skin).  A sixth case involves human nipples and breasts, recurring at least four or five times by my count.  And there are several more that alert readers can look for.  In my reading experience, this sort of application of trademarks and josses containing sometimes synonymous, sometimes opposite, meanings is quite unique and I'm sure I've never seen anything like it before.  I'm not sure of the import it has, or the amount we should give it, but it's unique.

                                     Please consider the following names and designations:

                                    George ( a female)
                                    the tallest
                                    The Principle
                                    the Missis
                                    Celesta (a doll)
                                    the man-made-of-paper
                                    the girl
                                    the ex-con
                                    the old woman
                                    the woman

                                    The only one of these that is in any way "normal" is David; every other one carries critical information about the given character, and what's interesting about the methods of expression is that sometimes the description is as simple as can be, a mere generic noun (the girl, the woman) sometimes a sort of proper name (notice that The Principle has the "t" in "The" capitalized, while the "t" in "the Missis" does not - why?).  Sometimes the names are outwardly, boldly symbols, as the Missis - half of the phonemes contained in the whole word Mississippi -, it dawned on me after a while, is clearly a symbol of Mississippi itself ("Logic was in the Missis' bedroom, bending hangers for her wings.The Missis herself was naked.  Her breasts were deformed, her waist meek."  - In other words, the old order is collapsing, decaying, not strong.  New days are dawning.)  Sometimes a person's designation has to do with what they do - for instance, the man-made-of-paper is a rich john who comes to visit George frequently, and the ex-con is self explanatory.  However, the most interesting name is that of the tallest.  Writing it that way, instead of The Tallest, is more visual, almost like inserting a little picture of him in the text where his name should be, and even though we are explicitly told that  the tallest is the way Logic thinks of him, no one else in the book thinks of him any differently or refers to him by any proper name.  Lastly, in regard to the name of Celesta - an interesting choice of name for the doll of a black child in rural Mississippi!  At a couple of points, however, a book by an unnamed Italian philosopher is mentioned as being in the tallest's possession, and the tallest has frequent social interaction with Logic, whose doll Celesta is - maybe there's a correlation.
                                    In any case, the subject of the names and designations of the characters is intensely interesting if for no other reason than that's it's so refreshingly unusual.  I wish I had more time to go into it further.
                                    Concerning the third and fourth motifs, that of awareness of the body and its functions and allusions to science, mathematics  and nature, our Q and A with Vernon below touches on these, and they're sufficiently important to let the author speak for herself there.  I just want to point out here that over the course of the whole of Logic there begins to unfold a view of a human life not only as a series of mental and emotional experiences but also as a biosystem, literally as a functioning biological organism whose rhythms and processes work in unison with the mind.  Of course, at some level we're all aware of this, but it is rare that you see this most basic, this most visceral, awareness brought out in full blush in a work of imaginative literature.  Virtually every page resounds with it, and it is a very striking concept.  And on the idea of science, nature, mathematics - I'll just touch briefly on one conceptualization.  You could  read as many as a hundred novels in a row and not see something described in terms of the spatial relationships of geometry; within the first twenty pages here it happens twice.  In fact, the very name "Logic" itself contains endless mathematical associations if we read  it in the sense of, say, Frege (  David Harris thinks of himself as a mathematician.  And " The rock was no star.  It was solid, like problems and mathematicians who could tell the difference between a trapezoid and the insanity of numbers." 
                                    Lastly I think we should give consideration to Vernon's identification of Mississppi; here she belongs in the great tradition of Southern writers like Faulkner and Welty, among others.  Mississippi is not to be confused with heaven, for sure, but it is just as much a land of myth as ancient Greece or ancient Rome.  Eternal human stories are played out here, ringing down through the ages:

                                    Too was a maid and midwife for the folks in Valsin County, Mississippi.

                                    It did not matter in Valsin County, Mississippi, who a girl belonged too.  Neither did it matter that the blood in your body was as hers, light like hers and running away from something, something tainted.

                                    It was July in Valsin County, Mississippi.

                                    Secrets lie dormant in Mississippi.  You never know the full truth about anything.  There is what your folks choose to tell you and why you yourself discover.  One or the other is poisonous, vain.

                                    "Find you some'n God made and love on it.  But don't you look back on Valsin County."

                                    No one ever knew what time it was in Valsin County, Mississippi.Perhaps they should have.

These sentences point to a quixotic land of fable; the emphasis on the specifity of locale (why not simply "It was July" - we know where it is) working to point up the status of the place.  As universal as the themes and morals strive to be, the story still exists within an identity of place that can only be this place, at this time, if that makes any sense - by making the story particular, it paradoxically grows to be more universal.  This tale could exist nowhere else.
                                    Eventually, Olympia Vernon will be spoken about on equal terms with writers like DeLillo or Morrison as far as outstanding  the prose stylists of our time go; her sentences dig the deepest wells within us, create a poetry of quotidian involvement that's a very, very scarce thing in writing of any era.  I think what makes Logic so interesting is that both pulls the reader in and pushes her away at the same time, soliciting interpretations or meanings but then refusing to confirm or deny them.  This, of course, is a result of following the characters instead of manipulating them, which itself is a very hard level of discipline for a writer of fiction to reach.  I think it shows a great respect for the reader, and I think it also probably hints at greater things to come.


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