In a world of images, going beyond the surface has its own dangers.
By Beth Kephart
LOOK AT ME
By Jennifer Egan C’85.
New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2001. 416 pp., $24.95. Order this book
Among those writers taking an excoriating view of contemporary culture, Jennifer Egan enjoys a reputation for near-percipience. With laser-like vision, she seems to see not just the world around her, but the world as it might soon be. She locates damning fissures and systematically exploits them.
In Look at Me, Egan’s ambitious second novel (nominated for the National Book Award), nothing escapes her unblinking eye. In subplot after subplot, Egan attacks the vulnerable surfaces of our modern era, smashing inside the readily-shatterable realms of beauty, Web technology, journalism, Manhattan nightclubs, academe—even, eerily, terrorism. Her primary concern is with the hollowness of images and inevitable “shadow selves,” with the lies upon which social lives are predicated.
Look at Me is a long book, and one feels its length as characters multiply and plots fork in so many diverting directions. It is almost as if the reader is being asked to endure an ensemble of noisy simulcasts—a strategy, one surmises, that enables Egan to recreate the sound and fury of our chaotic, sped-up times. At the heart of the book stands (and often drunkenly sways) one Charlotte Swenson, an aging fashion model whose looks are destroyed in a car accident—which she at first has difficulty recalling—that occurs in Rockford, Illinois, the town where she grew up. Returning from the Midwest to Manhattan with 80 titanium screws inside her face, Charlotte soon discovers that her old life of glamour and men and even basic recognition is a closed door that no key will unlock.
And so, before our eyes, Charlotte Swenson deteriorates, moving from one debasing situation to another and bringing little personal honor to the part. It’s her own caustic first-person voice that relates just what is happening, her own characterizations that give us a hint as to who she was before: “As a model, of course, I’d carried my face like a sign, holding it out a foot or so in front of me—not out of pride or vanity, God knew; those had been stamped out long ago, or at any rate, disjoined from my physical appearance. No, out of sheer practicality: here’s what I am. Calling card, handshake, precis, call it what you like; it was what I had to offer to the world where I had spent my life.” No longer a model in the traditional sense, Charlotte Swenson plunges deep inside a nefarious world.
But that is only one of Egan’s Charlottes, only one of the book’s many voices. For Look at Me features another Charlotte, too—the young daughter of Charlotte Swenson’s now-estranged best friend from high school. This Charlotte, an alienated teenaged girl fast-forwarding her growing up in alienating Rockford, Egan develops in a close-over-the-shoulder third-person voice. If the two Charlottes intersect only briefly in the novel, the trajectory of their two lives—their quest for the gritty and real in an image-preoccupied world, their romantic relationships with the same mysterious foreigner—make the coupling of their stories inevitable.
Surrounding the Charlottes are entire entourages of secondary characters; Egan plays each of them out thoroughly. Young Charlotte has, for example, a family to contend with—her mother (who is distractedly mourning the end of an illicit affair), her father (who seeks to control what he can’t understand), her brother (a pretty boy on the rebound from cancer who hopes to disappear inside the company of older teens), her girlfriends, and her uncle, nicknamed Moose, who was once Rockford’s prototypical good-looking jock until he suddenly changed into an angry, sometimes-violent, not-altogether-sane academician obsessed with Rockford’s industrial past. Mostly, however, young Charlotte is obsessed with the stranger who calls himself Michael West, a teacher she straightforwardly seduces but also fears. Michael West offers Charlotte sex but little else. He evokes a powerful desire she is not wise enough to name.
As for the other Charlotte—the first-person, titanium-faced former model who suddenly finds herself without employment or purpose, without friendships, without love—anti-heroes abound. There’s the plenitude of sexual partners, both male and female, who have populated her life; the mysterious Z, with whom she found herself entangled just before the crash; the private detective in pursuit of both Charlotte and Z; the bookers and handlers who fail Charlotte in her bid to rejoin her old life with some semblance of dignity; the Rockford sister, nieces, and brothers-in-law, who are perhaps the most normal people in the book. “Frank Jones was the avatar of authenticity—he was an ordinary person!” Charlotte reflects, on her brother-in-law. “I felt something perilously close to admiration.”
And then there’s the quasi-journalist and Internet team who seek to convert Charlotte’s tragedy into a haunting multimedia version of Reality TV. “It’s not a magazine—it’s a database,” the creator of the Internet service tells Charlotte at one point. “What I’m doing is, I’m optioning the rights to people’s stories, just ordinary Americans: an auto worker, a farmer, a deep sea diver, a mother of six, a corrections officer, a pool shark … Each one of these folks will have their own home page—we call it a PersonalSpaceTM—devoted exclusively to their lives, internal and external,” with the goal of giving subscribers “access to every aspect of this person.”
At its best, Look at Me provides chilling commentary not only on the lives of those for whom style has become substance, but on those who dare to delve and then dwell beneath the glassy surface. Superficiality is one obvious evil, Egan seems to be saying, but going beyond the surface is full of its own dangers, too. “Without makeup, there was something too exposed about my face, broken-looking even though the cracks were hidden inside my mouth, under my hairline,” the model-Charlotte says toward the end. “This new face gave too much away; it was that, and not the absence of beauty (though perhaps they were related), that I would never get used to.”
Beth Kephart C’82 is a frequent contributor to the Gazette. Her third book, Still Love in Strange Places, about love and loss on a coffee farm in El Salvador, will be published by W.W. Norton this spring.
Filing reports, organizing schedules, completing the details of mass murder.
By Ann Weiss
NAZI TERROR: The Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans
By Eric A. Johnson Gr’76.
New York: Basic Books, 2000.
658 pp., $18.00 (paper). Order this book
It’s not the kind of book one picks up lightly, nearly 500 pages of Nazi atrocities and more than another hundred pages of notes, references, and bibliographic citations. Yet the atrocities are not the kind we normally associate with Nazis in World War II—the beatings, the brutalization, the murders—although these are certainly not ignored in Eric Johnson’s Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans.
The atrocities Johnson depicts are, to my mind, far more frightening because they are the atrocities of “ordinary” people doing “ordinary” things—filing reports, organizing schedules, completing the details of mass murder. The end result of these “ordinary actions” was, of course, the mass deportation of innocent people, pushed out of their homes, and sent to concentration camps, where most of them died. Yet the Gestapo members Johnson examines believe themselves to be innocent, and by and large, were judged so in their post-war trials.
As Richard Schulenburg, former head of the Gestapo’s Jewish desk in the German town of Krefeld, maintained at his trial, “I hereby declare under oath that, in my long years of service, I never committed any crime or misdemeanor. I always treated each person, independent of their political views or racial background, correctly and humanely.” It seems to be just a technicality that his “humane actions” resulted in the mass deportation and murder of the Jews from Krefeld. Even the head of the Catholic Church in Krefeld and dean of the main parish church of Holy Dionysius, Dr. Schwambom, spoke quite highly of Richard Schulenburg at the trial. He explained that, although with the Gestapo, Richard Schulenburg “was exceedingly humane and just in carrying out his duties.” In other words, he didn’t take advantage of every opportunity to make Jews suffer.
These ordinary actions, taken in isolation —a report here, a meeting there—sound unimportant, almost innocent, as the defendants maintain. Yet taken in context, these “ordinary” acts succeeded in making possible the extraordinary cycle of scapegoating, cruelty, and murder that became known as the Holocaust.
In an introduction to the book, Eric Johnson, now a professor of history at Central Michigan University, explains that, though he is neither Jewish nor German, “I have been plagued by this subject my entire life,” and in fact, his earliest childhood dreams “involve my trying to escape from a Nazi concentration camp.” His father, an American pilot shot down in 1944, never spoke much about the war or about his incarceration in a jail near Salzburg, Austria. As Johnson observes, a reality to which most of us can attest, “Sometimes what is left unsaid haunts someone more than what has been said.”
This impressive book not only lets readers know the facts but also defines and distinguishes the people behind the facts. Johnson deals in, to use his own term, “flesh-and-blood narratives,” focusing “both on the role of individuals, such as Gestapo officers and ordinary citizens, as well as the role of the society in making terror work.” He asks important questions: How did the central instrument of terror, the Gestapo, function? Who carried out the terror, and how culpable were they individually? What kinds of backgrounds did the Gestapo officers come from? How did individual German citizens respond to the Nazi terror? What differentiates the people who protested against it from those who acted to support it? How prevalent were the denunciations from common German citizens? How did the degradation, expropriation, and mass murder of the Jews play out in individual German communities? How did the perpetrators avoid persecution after the war, resume careers, and reclaim their pensions—and who helped them achieve their goals?
His questions are significant and certainly merit investigation. Johnson’s answers are even more impressive, as he examines, on a case-by-case basis, what happened, and how.
To anyone with an interest in the subject, two previous books come to mind that investigate the same general topic as Johnson, that of the “ordinary German.” Christopher Browning’s esteemed 1992 book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, looks at the actions of one reserve battalion composed of shopkeepers, teachers, civil employees, and the like, showing how these ordinary men could become trained killers. He describes the mass shootings they carried out, the numbers killed, the men involved, and he also makes it quite clear that the killing was voluntary. In the only reported case of a reservist who chose not to shoot the Jews, there were, in fact, no negative consequences. He was merely re-assigned to another job.
The second, and more controversial book, is Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Goldhagen, published in 1996. Goldhagen, who uses much of Professor Browning’s original research to ground his points, indicts not just the police battalion but also the entire German nation. He points to a propensity for scapegoating Jews in German society and claims this core value of hating Jews is what made the Holocaust possible.
Johnson refrains from making such sweeping statements, yet he does not refrain from expressing his opinions, nor his disdain, for the ordinary men (and women) who killed in ruthless and extraordinary ways. And unlike Browning’s emphasis on numbers and group battalion behavior, Johnson explores the words of the individuals involved, and examines their motivations and degrees of their culpability.
Johnson has studied trial transcripts carefully and, in remarkably readable prose, distills hundreds of pages of testimony per trial to the essential core. Then he gives readers what they need most, both to understand how the impossible was somehow possible, and to equip them with the tools to arrive at their own conclusions.
“The calm, elderly officers let things come to them and did not undertake any of their own initiative,” testified Dr. Emanuel Schafer, one of the defendants on trial for assisting in the deportation of the Cologne Jews, on Tuesday, July 6, 1954. Hundreds of members of the Cologne Gestapo were investigated by the state, Johnson writes, “but in the end, only … three men were put on trial and their sentences would be light. The scenario would prove similar in the rest of Germany.”
Story by story, Johnson shows the transformation of ordinary citizens to murderers. Those who did not murder actively became complicit by becoming bystanders. He does not ignore those who resisted, but he makes it quite clear that they were a very small minority of the population.
While he does not condemn with the broad strokes that Goldhagen uses, Johnson does not shy away from giving us his considered, well-documented opinion. “Millions of ordinary German people did indeed share in the guilt for Nazi crimes … Millions of Germans voted for [Adolf Hitler] and millions more followed him avidly … Many ordinary Germans took direct part in persecuting and murdering the Jews, as well as other victims of Nazi terror. Millions of ordinary Germans looked away as … one law after another made life impossible for Jews in Nazi society. Millions of ordinary Germans knew about the Holocaust as it was taking place and did nothing to try to stop it … Nazi Germany was … a police state, but one that allowed most of its citizens considerable room for their regular activities … For Jews, Communists, Sinti and Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally retarded and handicapped, homosexuals and … others, Nazi Germany was hell.”
Eric Johnson has written a powerful book, whose enormous scope and detail is infused with heart. Nazi Terror is a terrifying work, but not because Johnson exploits the horror—he does not—but because he makes it painfully clear that the terror, and the requisite capacity for evil, is resident in so many in whom we would not expect it.
Ann Weiss ASC’94 wrote for the Gazette in November/December about her book, The Last Album: Eyes From the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
OUR HEARTS SANG AMERICA
Ilana Long C’87/Joe Marshalla. Sentient Music, 2001. $25.00.
Ilana Long, a Seattle high school English teacher and actress, was moved by the efforts of rescue workers on September 11 and relieved to find her sister, Tamarah Long C’90, living blocks away from the Trade Center, shaken but safe. As a cathartic release she grabbed her guitar and some scratch paper and wrote a song expressing “the swelling of patriotism and empathy I felt.” She contacted recording artist Joe Marshalla and worked with him to record and arrange the song. All proceeds will go to the NY Firefighters 911 Disaster Relief Fund. The song is available on Firedonations.com and Amazon.com, or can be purchased directly by contacting her at <email@example.com>.
A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.
THE WEBSTER CHRONICLE
By Daniel Akst C’78.
New York: Blue Hen Books/Penguin Putnam, 2001. 320 pp., $24.95.
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Terry Mathers feels like a failure. His small-town weekly, The Webster Chronicle, is facing bankruptcy; he has separated from his wife; and his journalist father, Maury, is both the king of prime time and a magnet for younger women. Now in midlife, Terry is fed up with being disappointed—and disappointing. But then Webster is shocked by an accusation of child abuse at the local, and highly esteemed, preschool. As the community grapples with rapidly escalating allegations, Terry seizes his chance to scoop the national media. His articles fan the flames of the growing crisis, and as the major news organizations descend, he struggles to maintain his professional judgment and ethics. Akst is the author of the novel St. Burl’s Obituary [“Off the Shelf,” December 1996].
ONCE AROUND THE FOUNTAIN
By Alan Behr C’76.
New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2001. 224 pp., $25.00. Order this book
Alan Behr was a New York lawyer with a weakness for foreign travel and inappropriate women. Already divorced, and with his latest romance faltering, he headed off to Europe to find comfort among anxious security guards, petulant tourists, strangers eager to pour out their souls in restaurants and on midnight trains, and the most nervous woman ever to work inside a nuclear-waste disposal plant. One night, he met a woman named Julie, and neither travel nor bachelorhood would ever be quite the same. Together with Julie, Behr revisits the places he has known, from the canals of Amsterdam to the ruins of Rome. And together they discover that travel, even in the age of tourism, can still ignite romance and passion. A frequent contributor of travel writing, fiction, and humor to newspapers and magazines, Behr also publishes and exhibits photographs, and practices intellectual-property law in New York.
WINGS OF LIGHT
Miriam Maron Emhoff Nu’83.
Beamer Productions, 2001. $16.95. Order this cd
Music has been used for generations to help people heal from physical, emotional, and spiritual loss, writes Miriam Maron Emhoff, a registered nurse who is the singer, songwriter, and coproducer of this collection of English, Hebrew, and Yiddish healing songs. “When we were putting together the songs for the CD, we were looking for music that would move people, music that would warm people’s hearts and allow them to feel God’s love embracing them like ‘wings of light.’ We had no idea that the release of the CD would come at a time when there was so much suffering, grieving, and uncertainty in our world. We are hopeful that [this album] will help people of all faiths strengthen their connection with God, and fill the parts of their soul that so desperately need love, comfort, and understanding.” Emhoff leads services in various communities and teaches healing using sacred songs, movement, spiritual texts, guided imagery, meditation, and chant. She also has a private healing practice in Los Angeles. For information on her CD, see (www.MiriamsCyberWell.com).
GIVING A VOICE TO SORROW:
Personal Responses to Death and Mourning
By Steve Zeitlin W’69, Gr’78 and Ilana Harlow C’85.
New York: Perigree, 2001. 224 pp., $13.95. Order this book
There are no rules for mourning. There is no time frame for grieving. At those intensely personal, deeply emotional times, each of us must find our own path to enduring loss. An intimate grief support group in book form, Giving a Voice to Sorrow is an exploration of the unique ways many individuals have shaped and enacted their grief through storytelling, personal ritual, and memorials, finding a balance between remembrance and letting go. Dr. Steve Zeitlin is the director and cofounder of City Lore, a cultural center in New York as well as the author of Because God Loves Stories: An Anthology of Jewish Storytelling. Dr. Ilana Harlow served as folk-arts program director at Queens Council on the Arts and is co-editing a book on death and humor in folklore and popular culture.
My Life In and Out of Markets
By Michael Steinhardt W’60.
New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001. 289 pp., $29.95. Order this book
From poor Brooklyn Jewish boy to multi-billion dollar hedge-fund manager, Michael Steinhardt’s life in and out of markets has been all about risk—risk of success that resulted in a nearly flawless investment record, risk of danger when his name ended up on a Black Panthers assassination hit list, and risk of a less quantifiable reward when he walked away from Wall Street to devote his time to Jewish philanthropy and create a renaissance within the Jewish community. In this book Michael Steinhardt shares his thoughts on Wall Street, Brooklyn, and the Jewish community. He identifies the people and events that affected him most and shows how those influences led him to great success in the markets and to his passion to help rebuild the strength of Jewish roots in America.
FACING EAST FROM INDIAN COUNTRY: A Native History of Early America
By Daniel K. Richter, Faculty.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. 317 pp., $26.00.
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Most of us are used to being taught the story of the “discovery” and colonization of the “New World” from a European point of view. A new book on this subject aims to change all of that, placing Native Americans at the heart of this historical drama. Dr. Daniel K. Richter gets the reader as close as possible to the experiences of the Northeastern Native Americans over three centuries from 1492 through the Revolutionary War. Richter is director of The McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University.
RIVERS OF THE SOUL
By Leslie Esdaile W’80.
Columbus, Mo: Genesis Press, 2001. 516 pp., $8.95. Order this book
This novel takes a look at the realities faced by divorced men and women with children. Set in University City, it examines what happens to a professional woman and blue-collar man, from both perspectives, including the dynamics of family life, friendships, finances, and career challenges that shift during the transition back to being single. In Rivers of the Soul the two main characters must learn to love and trust again amid this chaos. A sequel, Still Waters Run Deep—Leslie Esdaile’s eighth novel—is due out in June. Esdaile is director of the Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ Competitive Edge Loan Program.
GIVE US A BIG HUG
By Tim Bedison and Dave Lieber C’79.
Fort Worth, Texas: NETroplex Books, 2001. 80 pp., $10.00 (+ $2.50 postage).
Dave Lieber, a columnist for the Fort Worth-Star Telegram, writes of this collection of “NETroplex” cartoons from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “Because of the awful events of 2001, it is a reflection of our strange year in a most unusual way. I like to say that it’s a souvenir of the year because until Sept. 11, the cartoons reflected the wonderful world in which we lived. But after Sept. 11, the cartoons took on a more seriously profound and patriotic sensibility.
“The signature cartoon, from which the title is taken, involves our lead character, little Stonewall, giving his thanks to a Texas firefighter for all that they do. The firefighter then says to the little guy, ‘Give us a big hug.’
This is based on a true incident in which my father, Stan Lieber, walked around the corner to his New York City firehouse to thank the firefighters for their work on Sept. 11. The crew at Division 3, Ladder Company 25 lost nine men. And when my father thanked the firefighter, the man reached out for my dad and said, ‘Give me a hug!’
“Tim and I dedicate this book to all Texas firefighters and police officers.”
To order, send a check for $12.50 payable to “NETroplex Books” to: NETroplex Books, c/o Star-Telegram, 3201 Airport Freeway, Suite 108, Bedford, TX 76021.