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I have been an admirer of Rick Bass since The Watch, a collection of short stories published almost a decade ago. Last year in this paper, I praised his collection of novellas, The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness, to high heavens. But with Fiber, I’ve been brought back down to earth, and am afraid that for this slim volumewhich seeks, in part, to persuade people to preserve the great forests of the Yaak Valley, in MontanaI must resort to the hatchet.
Bass is a frustrated man, and rightly so. The casual destruction of nature ought to put fire in the belly. The trouble is that in Fiber, Bass has become so overheated as to dismiss his craftand furthermore to engage in some rather sophomoric philosophizing, not to mention some uncharacteristically poor writing. Let it be said that Bass is aware of this problem and toward the end of the book offers something of an apology: He was angry; he vented. But let it also be said that he did so inartistically and that he argues that his messy pronouncements are somehow more real and pressing than cultivated efforts. What a perfect opportunity to review why this old saw won’t cut wood.
The first hint of trouble comes early, when we discover that Bass is playing an ontological shell game and taking it seriously. He is so bitter that his earlier fine writing hasn’t yet prevented the destruction of the Yaak Valley that he turns against writing: “[Y]ou tell me which is more real: an idea…or a hundred-inch, 250-pound green juicy fir on one’s mortal shoulder.” Later, he raises the stakes: “What story, what painting, does one offer up to refute Bosnia, Somalia, the Holocaust, Chechnya, China, Afghanistan, or Washington, D.C.?”
Here is the answer to the first question: Both are real, in the sense of the word Bass intends, which is to say that both ideas and logs affect people’s lives with force. (Bass does not intrude upon the related debate between philosophical idealism, materialism, and dualism proper, and so it can be left for another day.) Such a non sequitur is especially debilitating where Fiber is concerned, because it undermines Bass’s project to save the Yaak Valleyan effort that involves, after all, a war of ideas.
It is easy to see how this is so. Are axes destroying the Yaak Valley of their own accord, assembling against the trees because of some as yet unknown molecular reaction, and having at them? But if we acknowledge that it is really people who are responsible for the damage, not axes, we might further ask why. I suspect that Bass would stand against the proposition that people are hacking away at the Yaak Valley merely for their survival. He would instead invoke an argument involving what he calls “hypercapitalism” and insist that greed and a consumer society that confuses needs with wants is to blame. And just what has manipulated our society to become so perverse? Whence the confusion between security and greed? My hunch would be that there is an idea or two in that woodpile.
The late Richard M. Weaver wrote a book titled Ideas Have Consequences. Anyone who has lived under the horrific tyranny of Communism or Nazism would agree. So much for Bass’ ideas about logs.
As to the second question, the answer is that there are indeed works of art to be offered in the face of suffering. I am not suggesting that art justifies suffering, but whereas Bass thinks art scant shelter from a storm of pain, many who have suffered terribly would vehemently disagree.
There have been numerous examples down through the ages, but I’ll mention only one: Aleksander Wat, the Polish poet, editor, and literary critic, spent years in Soviet prisons and was eventually deported to Soviet Asia. I take it his experience qualifies as having a bad time of it. Here are a few of Wat’s observations concerning literature and suffering, taken from an essay titled “Reading Proust in Lubyanka”:
[T]he books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences in my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me….
Literature is insights and synthesis, which means that poetry, ultimately, is heroic. Naked, weak, hungry, trembling, endangered by all the elements, all the beasts and demons, the caveman performed an act of heroism for consolation, in the deepest sense of the word. And at that time there in Lubyanka this seemed to me the essence of literature and the source of its legitimacy in the world.
Taken together, Bass’ notionsthat ideas are less important than physical objects and that art is an insultingly inadequate response to late-20th-century deprivationslead to a third problem with Fiber. The book is not only bereft of sense, it is bereft of sensibility. Why trouble to write well when writing doesn’t matter? That is why we get:
Plum Creek owns the plug, the cork, to the bottleneckthese lands were given away by Congress more than a hundred years agoand so now the situation is that one manone human, more heroic than any artist or group of artists ever dreamed of beingwill either do the right thing, and protect the land, or the wrong thing, and strangle the last wildness.
Bass should have strangled that sentence before it snaked out to strangle his readers. The man in question, by the way, is the developer. How he is to be heroic we are not told. A strict reading suggests he is “more heroic than any artist or group of artists ever dreamed of being” regardless of his actions toward the land. Maybe he’ll set all of Montana afire. Still, he’ll be heroic. I do not think this is what Bass intended to suggest, but I am left only with a petulant and confusing statement.
There’s more. Here is Bass asking us
to get President Clinton’s attention: “Somebody help. Please help the Yaak. Put this story in the President’s,
or Vice President’s, hands. Or read it aloud to one of them by firelight on a snowy evening with a cup of cider within reach,
resting on an old wooden table.”
A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but it only does damage where writing is concerned. I can appreciate the fear that President Clinton, though an extraordinarily bright man, may be an extraordinarily unliterary man. But even a reader of spy novels and sappy motivational books demands something more bracing than the treacle Bass has offered.
Bass is one of our better writerswhich makes Fiber all the more disappointing. It’s not so much that he’s written a negligible bookalmost all great writers do so in the course of their careers. It’s that, if the book is to be taken seriously, Bass has lost his way. Flailing about in this manner, he offers harsh criticism of contemporary art: “I read such shit, and see such shit paintings, that I want to gag; one could spray one’s vomit across the canvas and more deeply affect or touch the senseswhat remains of themthan the things that are spewing out into the culture now.”
Though I agree with this assessment (I do, however, regret that Bass has probably given some half-wit performance artist the basic outline for his or her upcoming show), what saddens me is that Bass has chosen to fight merde with merde. It stinks.
Toward the end of the Fiber, Bass asks that we write certain congressmen and senators on behalf of the Yaak Valley. He gives a list of addresses, including the president’s and vice president’s. I hope a lot of people write letters to save the Yaak Valley. But I am here and now starting another letter-writing drive. Because another national treasure is in danger: Mr. Bass himself.
Please write him and tell him that his wonderful stories are important. Please tell him to keep writing them. Tell him that we have activists left, right, and center, but fewer people who live meaningful lives and leave a record of it. Bass’ writing has reached people and filled them with a sense of awe for nature and regret for its destruction. Anything so beautiful as God’s country deserves a beautiful defense.CP