In 1996, Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies in science at MIT, met with colleagues who carried computers and radio transmitters in their backpacks and keyboards in their pockets and had digital displays clipped onto [their] eyeglasses. Because of their getup, the researchers called themselves cyborgs. Were all cyborgs now, Turkle writes in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, $28.95, 384 pp.).
Turkle says ours is the robotic moment. For decades computers have asked us to think with them. Now [they] ask us to feel with and for them. And the patients she studies as a psychologist do. They teach their Furbies to speak; they bury their Tamagotchis online; they choose Facebook feeds over the sight of their children at play; they send My Real Babies to comfort their elderly parents; and they gamely become the instruments of their own surveillance.
Turkles questions about all this innovation are old. When do we make a fetish of a thing, and a thing of a person? In what ways have we failed each other, and how has this failure prepared us for a life spent between screens? She works backward from the techno-triumphalist conclusions were sold every day to study the results of just whats happening to us, the digital experiments subjects.
Theres nothing so weighty in Jean Thompsons The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster, $25, 336 pp.), save time and place and who we are in them. Pastel mints animate the novels first sentence. The taste of the mints mingles with the smell of the metallic furnace heat in a low ceilinged church basement in Iowa, in January, where a bride and groom are holding the first of two wedding receptions. The year is 1973. The two who just married have done so disastrously, but they are moored by a world. Over the course of the books thirty years most of the people who keep that worlds rule of privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity will be buried, and their farms sold.
Thompsons characters cannot have what pleases them. Their stores are shuttered; their marriages sour and their affairs disappoint; good farmers press guns to their heads. But then there is this: at the end of the first chapter Uncle Norm and Aunt Marthahaving scrubbed every dishsurprise the wedding guests by producing a can of Dance Wax, which they sprinkle on the scuffed floor. They move lightly to a song the others find too fast and swingy. It is the kind of moment Virginia Woolf caught, providing those who witness it with enough awe to sustain them through many aching years.
The poet Donald Revell catches the half-thoughts most of us shrug off as intrusions, and he attends to them. The condition for catching is emptiness, and the attention leads to awe. What better now to be than empty / Than a star breathing size into mist, Revell asks in The Bitter Withy (Alice James Books, $15.95, 80 pp.). Without ever becoming pat or sentimental, Revell writes about heaven and forgiveness and God and that hardest of subjects for poets: happiness. Forgiveness is a watercourse and conflagration, he says. God is the smoking perimeter / of His eternal November. And What makes actual human happiness / Nearly unbearable is its reality, / Its mass.
Revells most recent collection is full of dead people, like the world. The poets mother is dead, as is his father. This does and does not matter, For what are space and time but the inventions / Of sorrowing men? Extinction is sure. Still: Ophelia lives, and so do we; the body is changed by the faces of evening; and heaven Rhymes with given. Here is a book that is like an emptied, swept house, with quiet pouring from its corners. The windows become the walls, and then the walls go too: Snow so very / Small so welcome, / A whited tree / Comes to me.
The mother in Emma Donoghues novel Room (Little, Brown and Company, $24.99, 329 pp.) does what W. H. Auden says some poets can do: she makes a vineyard of the curse. Her curse is her captors chamber. The vineyard is her five-year-old sons world, a world in which cast-off eggshells are strung into snakes and a melted spoon is good company. Room is narrated from his point of view. Donoghue understands the gravity of a childs levity, collapsing the cadences of Mother Goose and Goodnight Moon into taut scenes of terror and bravery.
Perhaps all stories of love are stories of salvation. The mother in Room saves her son by naming a brutal world good; the son saves the mother by who he is and what he sees. As is natural to a child, Jack sees lifelots of it.
Its wonderful that Room is a bestseller. Donoghues novel reads as much like the news as it does like a myth. It gets at all the sadness of the world. It gets at its vast store of mercy, too.
(first published in Commonweal)