Here at Indiana Review, our little blue light has undergone a makeover. We thought she (he?) was looking a bit naked, so the most apparent solution was to break out the scissors and construction paper. The raw emotional power and slight sexiness of the lamp made it obvious that it should be dressed as Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, cloaked in Puritan layers and with only the bright and scandalous letters “IR” to show her secret shame. In time, perhaps these letters will become as infamous and compelling as the original scarlet letter. After all, wouldn’t it be exciting to find oneself in “a moral wilderness” that’s “as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest” (Hawthorne chapter 18)? Standing on her scaffold of a chair outside the office, Hester the lamp is a reminder that words are untamed, and that the wilderness of literature is not necessarily a bad place in which to find oneself.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy took me a while to get into as a kid, but by the time I’d finished reading it, it had, rather ironically, become a sort of bible for me. I recognized that these books were full of wisdom, and their wisdom touched me deeply in ways that I continue to explore. At twenty, I’ve seen a little more of life than I had at twelve, and I find new levels of meaning every time I reread each book.
The thing about His Dark Materials is that it isn’t a children’s series. But then, it’s not really adult literature either. For me, this is a series that defies age boundaries because it has so much to say about humanity as a whole. Pullman uses children as the vehicle for a message that is much richer and more complex than childhood itself. The end of childhood is not the end of the journey as it is depicted in so many children’s books. Instead, it is the beginning of a new and beautiful and deep appreciation of having a presence in the world. Pullman writes of his protagonist at the end of The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the series,
“[Lyra] felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt other doors opening deep in the darkness, and the lights coming on” (444).
Lyra’s entrance into maturity, both sexual and emotional, is also the beginning of an illuminated presence. With her newfound knowledge of love and desire comes light, not darkness, nothing evil or impure. To me, this series is most profound when it speaks to our fear that when we are no longer children, we lose the best part of ourselves. Instead of trying to regain an innocence that we can never again achieve, why not strive to appreciate the natural order of things? Why not revel in the hefty presence of a physical body and its needs and rhythms? Why not love ourselves for being human, for growing and changing and learning?
Along with their emphasis on the sexual awakening that comes with adulthood, the books tell us that all people have the potential to love, that life is precious to everyone who can think and feel and be:
“She wasn’t Lyra just then, and he wasn’t Will; she wasn’t a girl, and he wasn’t a boy. They were the only two human beings in that vast gulf of death” (Spyglass 360).
To be human, Pullman seems to say, is to cling to others in the face of death. Life begins to have true meaning when we (through Lyra and her friend Will) realize that death is a void, and that the beating heart of humanity is the only thing that anchors us in the world of the living. The physical body, not the purity of the soul that accompanies an ignorance of the body, is ultimately the most important part of being human. And being human in the best way we can is the best thing we can aspire to. As Will says,
“Angels wish they had bodies. They told me that angels can’t understand why we don’t enjoy the world more. It would be a sort of ecstasy for them to have our flesh and our senses” (Spyglass 439).
Pleasure is good, Pullman says, and for this he has been judged by those who believe that his books work against a traditional Christian morality. Be this as it may, his message about pleasure has its own morality. Lyra and Will are Adam and Eve in reverse, and the world of humanity is the new Garden of Eden. They gain knowledge by trying to help their friends and by developing a mutual trust in one another. The forbidden fruit, then, becomes the most beautiful and desirable type of love. And the passion that stems from this love is not sinful, but rather the natural extension of love.
Pullman’s trilogy transcends boundaries of age and gender and addresses what is human in all of us: our consciousness and our questions. While his books leave room for interpretation, they provide reassuring answers as well. It’s okay to enjoy life, Pullman seems to say, as long as we are good and kind people. This might seem to be the simplest of messages, but in a world that’s as convoluted and complex as our own, it takes a long time to get there.
Miranda Hoegberg is a summer intern for Indiana Review.
I just want to take a second to talk about how cool Mary Hamilton is. Her hair? Wicked. Her charm? Disarming. Her stories? For starters, they make undergrads swoon. We were thrilled to have her at our Blue Light Reading, and (what’s greater than thrilled?) to publish two of her short shorts in Issue 33.2.
And this is the part of the blog post where I ask you to insert your own corny joke about Mary being an optician and helping us to see how great her book selections are. I just can’t bring myself to do it. But, enjoy:
The Sounding of the Whale by D. Graham Burnett: In my next life, I want to be a blue whale. But a whale in the past, not when humans were all about killing every living thing they saw. I watch the YouTube video of David Attenborough speaking the glories of the blue whale every day. This book is huge. It has its own zip code. But I live in LA now and summer lasts all year so I think I’ll finish this book before 2013.
Pigeons by Andrew W. Blechman: I hate birds. But my friend told me a story from this book about a pigeon that was a war hero. A war hero pigeon?! Sign me up.
Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World by Irwin W. Sherman: Diseases. Don’t get ’em.
Here’s the thing about Roxane Gay: She is one of our favorite people. Pretty high up on the list, too. Not only does her essay “(How to Write) A Love Story” appear in our new issue, but she floored us at our second annual Blue Light Reading in March, and is generally – yes, I’m going to say it – a literary badass. Like, her story “North Country” is forthcoming in the Best American Short Stories 2012, and she edits essays for The Rumpus. I’d wonder when she has time to sleep, but I know from Twitter that she doesn’t.
…which is the long way to say that when she tells you what you should be reading, you should read it. I for one will be tracking these babies down:
With the Animals by Noelle Revaz: A raw, disturbing book about a brutal man who treats his wife and children like animals and his animals like family and how, ever so slowly, reaches for the more human parts of himself.
How to Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak: This has been one of the most unexpected reading pleasures of the year. This beautiful novel is a meditation on displacement and loneliness and a woman who tries to find someone to hold onto in Los Angeles, which may be one of the loneliest cities in the world.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: Flynn is not afraid of darkness and Gone Girl is a book where every character is irredeemable in some way yet entirely captivating. The book is a thriller written as a character study and with each new layer of complexity, Flynn shows us how unafraid she is to allow her characters to be the terrible, beautiful, fucked up people they really are.
Redshirts by John Scalzi: I don’t read a lot of science fiction but Redshirts is a delightful, quick read, a meta novel if you will. The story parodies bad science fiction television where the characters in the show realize they are actually in the show and return to earth to try and save themselves. There’s a lot to laugh about in this smart, engaging book.
But before you run to the bookstore, I suggest you start with Roxane’s thrilling review of the new movie Magic Mike.
I promise I’m not about to have a Julie Andrews moment, but one of my favorite things is reading a good book of poems on a porch during a thunderstorm. Luckily, thunderstorm season has begun here in Indiana, and Brittany Cavallaro has a few reading suggestions for us. Now I just need to buy a chair for my porch.
Little, Big by John Crowley: A contemporary fantasy epic in the same vein as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, only published twenty years earlier. I’ve always had a soft spot for literary novels that edge and poke at genre conventions, so I’ve been meaning to read this for awhile; I’m about a chapter in, and the prose is limpid and dream-like, with well-drawn characters.
Water Puppets by Quan Barry: I carried around Barry’s first collection, ‘Asylum’, for the last two years of undergrad, and I was incredibly lucky to have her as my advisor in my MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This new collection, just out from Pitt, might blow it away–these poems are somehow both subtle and ferocious as they undertake subjects as diverse as pornography and international conflict. “Thanksgiving” is an intense, beautiful look at how we as a species absorb and deflect cruelty.
Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby: Lately, I’ve been developing crushes on small presses, one at a time — I figure that if I love two books I’ve ordered from, say, Canarium Books, I’ll love the next two as well. (And I do love Canarium!) Crushing hard on Ahsahta right now, particularly on this gem of a collection by Karen Rigby — lovely, bone-hard diction on an array of ekphrastic subjects, from anime to Marguerite Duras.