Books You'll Love
"Richard Seltzer published weekly book
reviews that are informative, thought provoking, thorough, and
best of all, intelligent. He doesn't read fluff and candy, he
reads books that you can sink your teeth into-- a reading
feast. I look forward his new reviews each week, and adding
titles to my already lengthy "To Be Read" list. Any of the
books you pick from his list would surely prove to be
satisfying. Several months of book reviews are available for
your perusal. You may also want to invest in some extra
batteries for your booklight...you'll need them when you stay
up late reading to finish another great novel!" (BRIEFME on
Books & Literature, September 29, 2000)
The Other AARP (American Association of Remarkable Persons)
review of The Better Angels by Bette Bono
Great premise. For a handful of older people, incidents that lead them to fear they are suffering from dementia are actually indications that they have a limited but intriguing ability to travel through time. With training and mutual support they can control this ability and target when and where they go. The main character, Aggie, discovers that she can even, under special circumstances and at personal risk, "intervene," making minor changes in the recent past.
ventures to Manhattan during
the Civil War and its aftermath, giving the reader a taste of
everyday life and
concerns back then and connections between then and now. The
plot, involving a
quest for photographs from the Civil War, makes it easy to
and enjoy the ride. But the main takeaway is the overlay of
past on present, that
makes previously obscure historical details important,
tangible and memorable,
and imparts magic and mystery to familiar landmarks like Grand
and Central Park.
Almost great. The overarching idea is compelling, but the characters are not as fully dran and alive as they need to be.
Our planet is on the brink of disaster. The environment is collapsing from human greed and ignorance, deriving from our short-term frame of reference.
In contrast to that is the perspective of trees that can live for hundreds, even thousands of years, and that in their own way and in their own time-scale communicate and coopearte with one another.
The problem/the challenge is presented vividly. But the solution/the ending falls flat - like the whimper of our discontent...
The story begins in the 19th century on an Iowan farm - echoes of Willa Cather and Jane Smiley. Then it morphs into an appreciatino of nature , with revelatory insights into the variety and complexity of trees, sometimes in the mode of Thoreau and Muir, and sometimes like an engaging and prophetic tutorial, like an extended Ted Talk. And at times it briefly, but convincingly shows mankind and the ensemble of characters from the unusual and enlightening perspective of the trees.
But the separate, sometimes overlapping tales of the half dozen main characters don't come together in a satisfying way. Like in Game of Thrones, the narrative switches frequently from one story line to another, breaking away before the reader can emotionally bond and identify.
This is a story I'll
never forget, and I'll always wish it went further, maybe
twice as long, whatever it would take to bring the threads
together, even venturing into magic, bringing characters back
to life and making the impossible seem possible, just as I
hope for the miracle that will save the world...
Short and sweet. "The Order of Time" by Carlo
Rovelli. Merging science, philosophy, common sense, and
literary sensitivity - an admirable attempt to redefine
time. An expert on quantum gravity theory prefaces each
chapter with a quote from Horace's Odes.
For readers and fans of quality novels, this
book details a variety of perspecties, to enhance your enjoyment.
It also provides insightful descriptions of 100 great novels.
But what makes this book valuable for me is that it humanizes the experience of writing a novel, as an activity with its own unique challenges and pleasures.
Many are born with the compulsion to write novels and with enough ability actually do so. But for a multitude of reasons, very few of the novels that are written ever get published and/or ever reach an audience.
In the past, self-publishing or vanity publishing was stigmatized. Only losers did that. It was seen as a sign of vanity and selfishness to waste your time writing novels that would never be commercially published. People who did not write novels saw the whole point of writing novels as the subsequent commercial and financial success, plus the acclaim and respect that come to those that achieve critical success.
But Smiley repeatedly refers to the psychological and even physical experience of writing a novel, alluding to the pleasure that can come from the process itself - as characters come alive and do what they must do (regardless of the author's original intent) and as a rough first draft gets adjusted and polished and gradually becomes what by its nature it can become. At the same time, she provides valuable advice on how to write and rewrite the best novel you can.
That's an important message for hundreds of thousands of people in America today who feel compelled to write novels, and who feel a bit ashamed of that innate weakness of theirs. Many of them now self-publish as ebooks at Amazon, Smashwords and elsewhere. Many more hide their works on computers and/or in drawers, afraid to come out of the closet.
But, as the subtext of this book implies, the process itself has unique pleasures, regardless of whether the result reaches a wide audience. And it offers the psychological benefits of self-fulfillment and accomplishment.
If I were a book marketer, I would want to put a copy of 13 Ways into the hands of every potential attendee at writing courses and retreats and of everyone tempted to self-publish by print-on-demand and/or ebook. The writers' conferences and Amazon/Kindle, and the so-called "hybrid" publishers should all give away copies of this book to their prospects. And they should be promoting their services not as the vanity presses did by trying to fool people into thinking that they will become famous and rich, but rather as the culmination of the writing process, which in itself is fulfilling and worthwhile and laudable.
Not everyone who runs a marathon wins it. But thousands train hard, and try their hardes in races, and get a sense of accomplishment and a feeling that they are doing what they were born to do and are respected for that.
The vast majority of novel writers, who will never "win", deserve that same kind of respect.
PS - Googling, I find "More than 30 thousand running events take place in the U.S. every year, including 5k, 10k and 8K/5 mile races as well as half-marathons and marathons. All in all, these races were finished by more than 17.1 million people. In terms of distance, 5K runs had the highest number of finishers – about 7.6 million." https://www.statista.com/topics/1743/running-and-jogging/ I suspect that the number of people writing fiction in the US - stories and novellas, as well as novels - is comparable.
I just read a very unusual novel, The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector, by a Brazilian, first published during World War II. It's difficult to explain how a book so convoluted, so devoid of incident could be readable, much less pleasurable and uniquely memorable.
The bulk of the book is written from the perspective of a young woman, Virginia, whose perceptions and turns of phrase are often surprising and sometimes delightful. Her stream of consciousness shatters and rambles. Then, often with no break in the text, the perspective shifts to her brother David, her sister Esmeralda, and her lover Vicinte. And at the very end we get the perspective of random bystanders.
In Faulkner's Sound and Fury, the tale is told by an idiiot, and its a jumbled story, a puzzle to be solved, there is a plot to be deciphered. In this book, there is no puzzle. There are a few minor events - Virginia moving from the country to the city and then back to the country and then back to the city - but there is no story.
Sometimes the lyrical stream of consciousness makes me think of Virginia Woolf. , but distorted and deliberately confused.
There are no chapter divisions. Many sentences and paragraphs ramble long. There is very little dialogue.
But many surprising turns of phrase (in this sparkling translation), make this distorted picture of reality memorable like a painting by Van Gogh.
Here are a few of the many passages that I marked as I read.
In Upper Marsh there was no sea, yet a person could look quickly at the broad meadow, then close her eyes, clutch her own heart and like a child, like a child being born, smell the sweetly rotten odor of the sea.
that was free and light as if someone were walking along the beach
The unexpected didn't exist and the miracle was the revealed movement of things; had a rose blossomed in her body, Virginia would have plucked it with care and with it adorned her hair without smiling.
looking at the sun until she cried without pain
he didn't have the courage to make things up and she was always the one who with a surprising facility would lie for both of them
above all else, she'd always been serious and false
A frog was jumping from the shadows, finding itself for an instant in the brightness and plunging into the darkness of the shrubbery.
the hard and inflexible greenness of life in his heart
so hard to take the things born deep inside someone else and think them
recopying existence itself
in order to be born things must have life, for birth is a movement
attaining misunderstanding like a discovery
unable to explain to him that she'd lived a day of excessive inspiration, impossible to be directed by a single thought, just as the excess of light could impede vision - her soul exhausted, she was breathing in pure pleasure without a solution and feeling so alive that she could have died without realizing it.
she could feel the deadened rays of light like somber translucent music tumbling down the mountain in a supple torrent abandoned to the power of its own destiny.
she not-thought for an instant, her head bent.
His face like a shoelace coming undone
I can't stand people whose convulsions of intelligence I have to watch
Virginia held onto herself like a black stain.
I felt your mood when you spoke, I felt how the words were... I know what you meant... it doesn't matter what you said
He had the gift of jolting other people's words by merely repeating them
she was feeling an unchangeable and calm pain in her chest as if she'd swallowed he own heart and could hardly stand it
He would without words let her know about things that she had never seen.
Somehow whatever she was living was being added to her childhood and not to the present, never maturing her.
One has the impression that one has known someone for quite some time upon seeing them for the first time, when one manages at a glance to perceive the harmony of their features with their soul
The bigger waves would burst salty smells of foam into the air. After the war would strike the rocks and return in a rapid reflux, a desert resonance would linger in her ears, a silence made of small words scratched and short, made of sands.
She saw around her the bedroom being born from the darkness in silence.
until Daniel asked, suddenly pushing an icy tack into her heart
You know, always the same, I couldn't be happier than I am, I couldn't be unhappier than I am.
dry like an unknown truth. How horrible, pure, and irrevocable it was to live.
Her own face had lost its importance
her deepest sensation of existence as if things were made of the impossibility of not being what they were
she wasn't up to understanding her on thoughts
the white butterfly fluttering int he shadowy corridors, getting lost at the end of the darkness
Mists fraying and uncovering firm shapes, a mute sound bursting from the divined intimacy of things, silence pressing down on particles of earth in darkness and black ants slow and tall walking atop thick grains of earth
Death had unfinished forever anything that could be known about her.
A meta-novel like this enriches a long-neglected classic by placing it in a tangible and lively real-world context, with many possible outcomes and interpretations.
I just finished reading “The Russia Hand” by Strobe Talbott. That’s a memoir about Talbott’s experiences in Russian diplomacy, mainly under Clinton. Talbott was a classmate of mine at Yale (a “big guy on campus” who I would have recognized from a distance, but never spoke to). He was a Russian major and scholar of the house. He got a Rhodes Scholarship the same year Clinton did and was Clinton’s roommate at Oxford. After 3 years at Oxford, he got a job with Time Magazine, and almost immediately was assigned the task of translating Khrushchev’s memoirs. Under Clinton, he was a deputy secretary of state, and focused on the countries of the former Soviet Union.
The book’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It reads like “The Red Badge of Courage” of diplomacy — a first-person, front-line account of day-to-day diplomatic action. It’s vivid and engaging. It gives you sense of what it might be like to be a diplomat dealing with US relations with Russia, at a crucial period of Russia’s history. But at the same time it does not provide a context, doesn’t give a sense of the overall meaning of what is happening.
Since the subject is Russia, I can’t help but
think of Tolstoy’s criticism, in “War and Peace”, of
personality-focused history books. He found it absurd that
historians write as if what Napoleon had for breakfast one day
or the fact that he had a cold on another made a major
difference in the outcome of battles and the destiny of nations.
He took the extreme position that individuals have no
significant effect on history, and that we should focus our
attention instead on the broader picture — for instance that
millions of men marched from one end of Europe to another and
I’m also reminded of the Emperor in the Star Wars movies. He doesn’t fret over day-to-day events. He doesn’t even seem concerned about which side wins which battle. Destabilization of any kind will help create the conditions necessary to make the Republic obsolete and to put him in control.
And, of course, I’m reminded of Asimov’s early Foundation novels, where Hari Seldon and his psychohistory focus on broad changes, not just on a single planet, but throughout the galaxy, and over the course of thousands of years.
Take the case of the US invasion of Iraq (which happened after what is described in “Russia Hand”). To try to determine the “cause” and the possible “meaning” of events, you could focus on the personalities and ambitions of Saddam Hussein and Bush and Putin and Tony Blair. Or you could focus on the effect of actions in the Middle East on the price of oil, and the profits of the companies involved in the “rebuilding”. Or you could step back still further and see that the main results were 1) destabilization of the Middle East, creating a situation in which divisions between countries and within countries were intensified and in which coordinated action became unimaginable for a generation or even longer; and 2) Europe, which had been on the brink of full union, became divided, with a new emphasis on differing national interests, postponing full union for at least a decade, and perhaps much longer. If there were an “Emperor” or a Hari Seldon in the background, those are the kinds of developments that would matter. And regardless of the immediate “causes”, you’d want to sort out who benefits from such developments and how.
As it stands today, “Russia Hand” is a very
good book that illuminates events you read and heard about as
they unfolded. But Talbott could elevate this work to a classic
by adding a final chapter that puts the events he describes so
well into a much broader context and considers the long-term
trends and consequences, and weighs if and how the actions of
individuals, like himself, can matter.
This book shocked and delighted me. I
stayed up all night and read it in a single gulp -- I couldn't
go do anything else.
This is the story of a woman's first love at the age of 54. You could also say that this is a series of epiphanies, in the James Joyce sense (as Wikipedia puts it "his protagonists came to sudden recognitions that changed their view of themselves or their social condition and often sparking a reversal or change of heart.") Or you could say that it is a series of essays on the essence of art and beauty and the meaning of life.
The perspective alternates between an intelligent self-educated 54-year-old concierge and a brilliant 12-year-old girl from a wealthy family who lives in the same building. The concierge, Madame Michel or Renee, pretends to be ignorant, and ordinary, and has so pretended her entire life. The young girl, Paloma, also disguises her brilliance, feels out of harmony with the world she lives in, and is toying with the idea of killing herself and burning the building down.
The third main character, Kakuro Ozu, is a wealthy retired Japanese gentleman. He moves into the building when Monsieur Arthens (the food critic on the sixth floor who is the central character in Barbery's other novel "Gourmet Rhapsody") dies. Kakuro buys the critic's apartment and transforms it, and then transforms the lives of both Renee and Paloma. Despite their very different backgrounds, the three main characters act and think and speak in ways that resonate with one another.
Somewhat like a Virginia Woolf book, the story isn't so much what happens as what is perceived. The three main characters all change/develop radically from their interaction with one another, but the other residents of the building see nothing.
We never look beyond our assumptions and, what's worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don't recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. if we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy... As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly met someone.
p. 303The title is a description/analysis of Renee.
"The didn't recognize me," I say.
I came to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk, complete flabbergasted.
"They didn't recognize me," I repeat.
He stops in turn, my hand still on his arm.
"It is because they have never seen you," he says. "I would recognize you anywhere."
p. 143That's the perspective of Paloma, who deeply empathizes with the concierge and, in her own way is also a hedgehog.
Madame Michel [Renee] has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary -- and terribly elegant.
Renee has a talent for discovering elegance
and beauty in the everyday and ordinary. For instance, when she
first visits Kakuro's apartment, even the toilet paper dazzles
"The toilet paper, too, is a candidate for sainthood. I find this sign of wealth far more convincing than any Mazerati or Jaguar. What toilet paper does for people's derrieres contributes more to the abyss between the classes than a good many external signs. The paper at Monsieur Ozu's abode -- thick, soft, gentle and delicately perfumed -- is there to lavish respect upon a part of the body that, more than any other, is partial to respect."
When she flushes the toilet, Mozart's "Requiem" booms forth -- literally.
I found myself underlining and returning to savor one passage after another:
pp. 164-165and describing a Japanese movie
If you think about it at all seriously, esthetics are really nothing more than an initiation to the Way of Consonance, a sort of Way of the Samurai applied to the intuition of authentic forms. We all have a knowledge of harmony, anchored deep within. it is this knowledge that enables us, at every instant, to apprehend quality in our lives and, on the rare occasions when everything is in perfect harmony, to appreciate it with the apposite intensity. And I am not referring to the sort of beauty that is the exclusive preserve of Art. Those who feel inspired, as I do, by the greatness of small things will pursue them too the very heart of the inessential where, cloaked in everyday attire this greatness will emerge from within a certain ordering of ordinary things and from the certainty that all is as it should be, the conviction that it is fine this way.
... beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it. it's the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death.
... every painting by a Dutch master is an incarnation of Beauty, a dazzling apparition that we can only contemplate through the singular, but that opens a window onto eternity and the timelessness of a sublime form.
... this still life incarnates the quintessence of art, the certainty of timelessness. In the scene before our eyes -- silent, without life or motion -- a time exempt of projects is incarnated, perfection purloined from duration and its weary greed -- pleasure without desire, beauty without will.
For art is emotion without desire.
Perhaps the Japanese have learned that you can only savor a pleasure when you know it is ephemeral and unique: armed with this knowledge, they are yet able to weave their lives.
pp. 100-101The translator, Alison Anderson, did an amazing job. Not just the ideas, but the rhythm and the phrasing (even the punctuation -- check the use of colons in these passages I'm quoting) are brilliant and memorable. And she did this with the work of an author who is obsessively in love with language in all its details.
True novelty is that which does not grow old, despite the passage of time.
The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup -- this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to? And something that, in our Western civilization, we do not know how to attain?
The contemplation of eternity within the very moment of life.
p. 156This book is a call to action. You don't read it. The characters become your friends and neighbors. What happens to them happens to you. You too are changed. When I finished I had an urge to go on an extended excursion and visit dozens of old friends who I haven't seen in many years. Maybe I will. I certainly should. I have lots I need to do, starting now.
... grammar is an end in itself and not simply a means: it provides access to the structure and beauty of language...
... pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.
We have to live with the certainly that we'll get old and that it won't look nice or be good or feel happy. And tell ourselves that it's now that matters: to build something, now, at any price, using all our strength. Always remember that there's a retirement home waiting somewhere and so we have to surpass ourselves every day, make every day undying. Climb our own personal Everest and do it in such a way that every step is a little bit of eternity.
That's what the future is for: to build the present, with real plans, made by living people.
Simply excellent.Half a dozen story lines, from 1947 to the present, interweave and inter-echo.
At first, browsing at Barnes and Noble, I was caught by the tone of the opening paragraphs. I enjoyed the humor, the unfamiliar setting. Then I enjoyed getting to know Daria, her unique style and wit, and how she coped in difficult and bizarre circumstances. Then, as the tone grew more serious, I got caught up in the details and problems of life in Odessa today and also as an unmarried young woman. Then I was intrigued by how well the book portrayed the mail-order marriage business — providing the perspective of the hopeful brides-to-be and then showing the problems and disappointments that came later. Your portrayal of her various “loves” (all very different from romantic love) created a unique emotional landscape — a blend of self-deception and hope, of practicality and lust and friendship, mixed with respect for self and for family, for past and future, and desire for children — the likes of which I’ve never encountered before in a novel. Reading this book was a sheer delight. I hope she’ll be publishing more novels soon.
Max admires "My Dinner with Andre," a powerful and memorable movie which consists entirely of conversation in a restaurant. This novel has that tone and that strength. The circumstances and the mix of characters lead to insights into the purpose, direction, and meaning of contemporary life and politics; into what makes a movie work and what makes a life "work". Max also admires "The Seventh Seal" and is tempted to do a movie based on Gogol's "Taras Bulba", and the talk ranges wide and far, touching on contemporary moral dilemmas, the business of movie-making, and the meaning of violence and death.
Some of my pleasure in reading this book
derived from the fact that I, like Max and his girl-friend
Elena, am of the Baby Boomer generation. I lived through the 60s
and Viet Nam and all that has happened since then, and found it
easy to relate to what mattered to them. It was also refreshing
to read of sexual passion and love between intelligent and
The author is not a reporter or science popularizer, but rather one of the leading theorists. If what she presents is an accurate account of recent developments (and I have no reason to doubt that it is), she deserves a Nobel Prize.
Unfortunately, while she seems to try hard to make her book readable and to make the concepts accessible to the non-professional, the narrative becomes increasingly difficult to follow. A typical passage from the second half of the book: "This meant, paradoxically, that you could use perturbation theory to study the original strongly interacting, ten-dimensional superstring theory. You would not use perturbation theory in the strongly interacting string theory itself, but in a superficailly entirely different theory: weakly itneracting, eleven-dimensional supergravity. This remarkable result, which Paul Townsend of Cambridge University had perviously also observed, meant that despite their different packaging, at low engergies, ten-dimensional superstring theory and eleven-dimensional supergravity were in fact the same theory. Or, as physicists would say, they were dual." What?????
It's like trying to read a book in a language
you don't know. Somehow I managed to look at all the words, but
I don't feel that I really "read" the book. And I could
probably look at all those words several more times without
understanding any more of it. So I come away impressed at
the author's knowledge and accomplishments and creative
enthusiasm, but totally frustrated. I simply have no idea what
she is talking about. If only I could find a book that unravels
the mysteries of this book...
An obsessive fan of Poe, who sounds like a Poe character himself, sets out to determine what happened during the unexplained last few days of the author’s death, to find out why and how he died. He guesses that the Sherlock-Holmes-like character Dupin, who appears in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and other Poe stories was based on a “real” man, and seeks to identify the model and enlist him in his cause.
We are led through meticulously researched and fascinating versions of Baltimore and Paris in 1849-1852; and are introduced to a bizarre and fascinating set of characters, including two who might have been the model for Dupin.
At times this reads like a suspense/mystery novel with a literary theme (which was what I had expected after having read and enjoyed Pearl’s first novel The Dante Club. But at other times (and just as enjoyable), the fiction (with the fictitious narrator main character) seems just a device for presenting and analyzing new evidence that the author actually uncovered about Poe’s last days (as he proudly points out in the “Historical Note” at the end), and new insights into Poe’s personality and genius.
Now I’m hooked. I’m going to have to read all of Poe’s stories…
He begins with an historical novella set in New York City in the 19th century, in the time of Walt Whitman, with a well-meaning but deranged young boy who randomly and uncontrollably quotes Whitman at odd moments.
Then comes a chilling tale of contemporary suicidal child terrorists in New York City, inspired by an old woman they call "Walt Whitman." Abandoned by their families, the old woman collected them and raised them sequestered in an apartment with Whitman's poems pasted to all the walls. The children all randomly quote Whitman.
Last comes a sci-fi story set in a post-apocalyptic America, dealing with the love-like relationship between a lizard-like being from another plantet and a human-like robot who has been programmed to randomly quote Whitman.Now I have to finally read Whitman's Leaves of Grass cover-to-cover...
Arthur is, or rather becomes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and "Lost World" and tales of medieval chivalry like "The White Company" and "Sir Nigel". The name "Arthur" also implies King Arthur, with an arthurian sense of what is right and proper and noble, and an urge to go on quests for what he believes is right and just.
George, the son of a traditional English clergyman, is as British and proud to be British as the butler in "Remains of the Day". And only graduallly do we learn that his father was born a Parsee, in India, and that some of their neighbors (in the countryside near Birmingham) look askance at George and consider him a foreigner because of the color of his skin. Still later we learn that his self-contained standoffishness is not just cultuiral -- an aspect of his Britishness -- that he has extremely poor (nearly legally blind) eyesight (astigmatic myopia).
Described separately, neither of these men is anyone I would ever want to meet or converse with, much less have as a friend. But presented as Julian Barnes presents them, they are fascinating, wonderful people who I feel I have known for their entire lieves, and who I would wish to continue to know even after they had died (should Doyle's belief in the afterlife prove true).
I found myself weeping on the final pages -- which no other book has moved me to since "War and Peace", "Anna Karenina", "Exodus", "Dr. Zhivago", and "Gone with the Wind", all of which I read when I was a teenager (far too long ago). And I was moved not because of maudlin melodrama, but because of the common lot of all of us mortals, and the hope that there could be something more.
The strangest part of the story is that it is true -- that two such men did live and that the events portrayed did take place very much as described, even though the way Barnes tells the tale it feels so much more real than real life.By the way, it's also a mystery story...
From the first page, you feel that something is just a little bit off. Even the typeface is disconcerting, with a lowercase "a" that looks more like a handwritten "a" (an "o" with a tail coming off to the right), instead of the usual printed "a", as here).
You also quickly notice that the narrator is a bit obsessive and oversensitive, over-interpreting every look and gesture and event. And by keeping this up, over the course of the book, the author manages to completely redefine the basis of communication and the texture of life, including how to read body language and context. Ishiguru gives an otherworldly aura to ordinary situations. You sense that there is always a mystery-to-be-solved behind what is happening, what is described, what is interpreted. Ordinary terms are used in extraordinary ways (cf. 1984, but far more subtle) -- carer, donor, possible, guardian, deferral become laden with new and sinister meanings, hinting at the difference between these people and ordinary people, between their world and ours.
What we wind up with is a bizarre coming-of-age love story, combining innocence and horror, in a situation where the simplest everyday events and decisions take on heroic implications.
This is one of the best novels published in
the last 100 years. Don't miss it.
The Diviners is such a book — too unpredictable to let sit, so memorable it clutters your mind with weird characters and unlikely events, all vividly portrayed. It’s a curse of a book. That’s why I’m up at 2 AM writing this and knowing that I’ll have to read the final 40 pages of The Diviners before I can go back to bed.
The Diviners isn’t just a story — it’s half a
dozen stories that happen simultaneously, and stories inside
those stories. Moody is a huckster, like a movie agent.
While telling these stories, he is at the same time delivering a
pitch for a collosal TV miniseries full of tales stretching from
the days of Atilla the Hun to the foundation of Las Vegas. The
outer stories deal with the people involved in creating this
bizarre miniseries, and the stories inside, relating to a
“currently running” TV drama about werewolves and to the
projected miniseries are outrageous, ridiculous, and
captivating. Imagine an old lady who hears other people’s cell
phone conversatiosn in her head. Imagine a cabdriver in New York
who, with no related experience, in a matter of weeks becomes
the director of the key episodes of the miniseries. These
characters grow on you, become real to you. So real that
you get up at 2 AM and have to read to the end…
McEwan has the ability to create an entire world in a single paragraph, and without the need for extraordinary events (like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway walking down the street, only far more engrossing and compelling).
His style reminds me of the old piece of wisdom that every part of the world, no matter how small, implies the existence of the entire universe. For God to create a single rose, He must create everything -- all in its proper place and with all of its past and all of its likely future. When McEwan creates a character or sets a scence, he does so with such rich texture and such palpable reality that it feels like he has created a universe. Reading such a book is pure pleasure.
At one point, McEwan uses the phrase "poised on a hinge of perception" to describe the surgeon's perspective. Time and again the moments described and shown are carefully chosen. Yes this is a "day in the life", but it's a well-chosen day, and the pieces of it shown feel important, even climactic, even though they deal with "ordinary" events (events and emotions that are very easy to identify wth).
The surgeon's world is very different from another "day in the life" of world -- that of Ivan Denisovich (in the book by Solzhenitsyn). Denisovich too introduced the reader to an entire world, in very few pages, but it dealt with circumstances that were hard to imagine, stretching our notion of what can consititute a human life, of the range of possibilities, of the depths to which one can sink and still retain some semblance of humanity, of value systems that should apply everywhere. By contrast, Saturday engages us with the familiarity of the scenes and sensations. Yet it too stretches our perceptions of humanity and values and the meaning of life.
At the same time, like in a Robert Parker mystery, the physical setting of the Boston area becomes tangible and memorable -- only this time its the Boston of 150 years ago. You could use this book, complete with precise addresses, as a guide for a tour of that place and time, chcking where they lived, where they worked, what they saw every day, and savoring how much is still the same, as well as what has changed and how.
So The Dante Club is more than a well-plotted literary mystery. It is also an introduction to that time and place and to the works of the authors who play leading roles, as well, of course, as to the work of the author they revere, Dante, and to his 14th century Florence.
When you reacha the end of the typical mystery story, the puzzle is solved, and you have no reason to ever pick it up again. The Dante Club leaves you in a totally different frame of mind -- in a dark wood, in the middle of your life, with immmense realms in all directions, waiting to be explored.
Thank you, Matthew Pearl.
PS -- Matthew Pearl's Web site is www.thedanteclub.com
The Bombast Transcripts is a collection of newsletter reports that Chris Locke wrote from 1996 until 2001, and which sometimes recount and reflect on events earlier in his life. At times it gets autobiographical, but it also reads in part like an account of the changing business environment as the Web went public and commercial, and soared up and fell down. There are many messages there, as the author's view of what was going on changed, and as the world he was observing changed.
If it is autobiography, the emphasis is on auto as in automatic; not life reflected on from a distance in time and neatly packaged. This book reads like an extended parenthesis which never ends. Locke seems to distrust endings, to distrust writing that is too well polished and packaged, and to distrust as well business plans that are too well polished, too finished, too remote from the ever-changing world of customers. He believes that successful businesses need to engage in continuous dialogue with their customers and continuously adjust what they do based on what they learn, and that the Internet provides the best means that man has yet come up with for carrying on open-ended dialogues of that kind.
At his best, Locke reminds me of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, sometimes even Whitman.
He defines art as "Exploring without knowing. Looking at what's actually there, not what you expect will be. Allowing for the possibility of magic." p. 76
He asks "is it possible to live in a world that is not pre-defined in the kind of philosophic depth you might expect to find articulated, say, on the back panel of a box of Wheaties? A world that is hugely uncertain and whose principles of operation, if any, are largely unknowable? Well, like the man said, when you got nothin, you got nothin to lose. Why not?" (p. 77)
The closest we come to magic or to some higher form of truth is not through some freudian subconscious, but rather through words, through language. "Language, as it transpires, is our only clue to many otherwise occulted truths." p. 32
He defines a dictionary as "fundamental documentation for the mother of all operating systems". p. 58 "It seemed to me that no one really understood what anyone else was saying. It still does. We are locked up in our heads with our ideas: memories, longings, aspirations, disappointments, dreams. We try to explain. We fail. This disconnect is so dependable it has become our closest bond." p. 58
He puts the Internet into perspective as a way to move words, for people to connect with and communicate with other people. "The Internet is not a new thing, though the pipes are certainly faster now." p. 59 "Imagine this expanded literacy as an ability to use technology to tell a different class of stories than the story we've all been handed. Stories that draw people together around a new cultural campfire and hold their rapt attention there amid the gale-force storm of noise that's blowing down the world outside.
"The spookiness derives from the open-endedness of popular narrative. This is atavistic stuff, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, connected to a collective unconscious predating any scrap of recorded history -- notes form the ultimate underground. And this ancient elemental force has just broken loose in the pipes and wires of the late 20th century. Not only is it loose, it's breeding and seething at the very heart of a civilization based on discontent." p. 140
He also has some beautiful moments of mock BS pomposity, when he deliberately lets words get in the way of meaning (making fun of himself as well as of corporate mediaspeak), such as "'Mediaspace is that concatenation of Weltanschauung, Zeitgeist and communication bandwidth that provides new opportunities for wealth creation at any given historical juncture,' I orate. 'It is the constellation of unbridled desire conjunct with the potential for ultimate fulfillment.'" (p. 189)
For me the funniest sections are the ones dealing with IBM and Lou Gerstner back at the time when he was leaving their employ (around 1996): a mock interview with someone from corporate legal at IBM and an imagined interview with "Lew Firstner".
Don't expect consistency. Don't expect either a beginning or an end -- this book is all middle, as if it started with the beginning of a parenthesis, and the end of the parenthesis never appeared. It's a digression without a main story line -- a delightful digression, in ways reminiscent of Tristram Shandy, where the only overall structure is given by life itself, the author growing older in the process of the writing, in the process of sometimes getting "a glimpse of something."
Since his life in recent years has been closely connected with the Internet (he was a "pioneer" and a "visionary" in the 1993 to 1996 era when business use of the Web was new), and since the human dynamics of the Internet are what matter most for online business, his very personal account gives a pretty good picture of the impact of the Internet on business. Much of what he says -- particularly his humorous criticism of typical companies that simply didn't "get" it -- rings very true. When the Web took off ordinary people were rapidly adopting new habits new ways of working and interacting; and the old behemoths were paranoid of change.
One of the major benefits Locke provides in this book and in his others (Gonzo Marketing and The Cluetrain Manifesto) is waking people up, disrupting their expectations, not letting them get complacent. His writing is like a cup of strong coffee...
This waking up has to do with seeing the world from a different perspective, like Tolstoy telling a story from the perspective of a horse -- helping you to see the world unhampered by your usual assumptions, taking a good look at behavior that you have taken for granted; preparatory to moving ahead in a new direction.Chris Locke in the world of business is a stranger in a strange land, a Gulliver in the land of Lilliput, someone who looks at standard business practice with wide-eyed amazement, questioning what often goes unquestioned, both mocking and milking every sacred cow in sight.
Even before the Web, Rheingold sensed the importance of social interaction in his experiences with the online community at the Well. He explored the implications of new kinds of behavior and relationships on the Internet in his seminal book The Virtual Community.
Now that much of what he foresaw has become reality, he looks ahead at the changes likely to transform our world -- socially, business-wise, and politically -- in the next wave, based on wireless communication. Technology makes it possible that wireless person-to-person interaction, without central control, and with very inexpensive access available to all could change our world even more profoundly than the Internet has.
After bombarding the reader with one inspiring anecdote after another, hammering home that the Internet is essentially a social rather than a technological phenomenon, the author tempts us with hints and foreshadowings of the many different ways in which wireless technology might take us to a higher stage, where once again, almost magically, the value of a network increases with the number of people involved, where the sharing of a common resource adds value to that resource while benefitting all.
But, he warns, a battle looms with the disinfotainment mega-companies that seek to control telecommunications.
While Rheingold doesn't make this connection, I couldn't help but think of the old battle between "interactive TV" and Internet. A handful of megacompanies invested millions in pilot projects to hardwire communities to which they could pump in entertainment, shopping, etc. They were willing to spend so much because once in place they thought that they would have unique access to those customers for years to come. Then the Internet upended those plans, providing people with thousands of choices, and freeing them from any central control.
Now those same companies and their look-alikes have invested billions of dollars to license large chunks of the electro-magnetic spectrum for their exclusive use; and they once again intend to control the marketplace.
But in little cracks in the regulatory framework interesting innovations have made it possible for swarms of cooperating individuals to forward wireless traffic from one to another, like the early days of the Internet, by-passing any central control and connecting just about anyone to a new world of information and social interaction.
Naturally, these companies are lobbying hard for changes in laws and regulations that would block such grass-roots activity, just as movie companies are lobbying now for legislation that would block the copying of movies, and as a side effect would stymie the natural development of computer technology.
Let's hope, that as in the case of the Internet, anarchy prevails over central control, that a new realm of massive cooperation opens up, bringing with it increased freedom, greater wealth, and better chances for personal fulfillment for all.This book is a must-read. Read it now while you and your friends can still make a difference in the outcome.
If there were a church of the Internet, this would be one of its sacred books, celebrating the Web as a social place, rather than technology. As David Weinberger puts it, "The Web is a social place that we humans constructed voluntarily out of a passion to show how the world looks to us." p. 166
Weinberger emphasizes the human and paradoxical aspects of the Web -- how we behave and interact there and what that says about what it means to be human.
He ruminates about the implications of what we've been doing on the Web for the last nine years. The Web isn't just technology. It connects people to people in new ways, leads to new behavior, leads to new ways of thinking about what is possible in terms of human relationships. It opens the possibility for you to be a creative individual while at the same time being part of a mass crowd. He clearly articulates thoughts that many of us have probably glimpsed before in a fog, and then he digs a little deeper into what that means, and tickles our brains with intriguing conclusions.
He starts with the firmly held belief that the Internet changes everything; and then asks, over and over again, in what ways is that true?
He starts with the assumption that, in the long term, the dot-com boom and crash doesn't matter much. The Internet has affected us in far more profound ways than stock prices and get-rich-quick schemes that failed. As he puts it, "If the Internet sometimes feels like a Gold Rush, that's due more to the rush than to the gold." (p. 59)
Weinberger dares to wonder about matters that many of us have left unexamined since college -- the nature of knowledge, the destiny of man, the importance of passion. He creates a context in which he can actually say something so bizarre and outrageous as "... the Web's architecture itself is fundamentally moral," p. 183, and not only do you know what he means -- you believe him.
The subtitle -- "a Unified Theory of the Web" -- is totally irrelevant. There is no theory here, and certainly (thankfully) nothing is unified. Rather, this is an insightful meditation on the nature of the Internet, delivered with style and humor, together with religious awe at this phenomenon that brings out unexpected potential of mankind.
Now don't get the idea that this is a zealot's view through rose-colored glasses. Weinberger doesn't overlook the faults and problems. But rather he celebrates the very imperfection. For instance:
"The Web celebrates our imperfection, ludicrous creatures that we are. Its juice comes from being as many points of view as people and as many ways of talking as there are Web pages. The Web is where we can air our viewpoints, experiment, play, and fail, and then get right back on our feet and try again. It is not headed towards agreement. Ever. There isn't' one way of thinking or talking or behaving on the Web, and if there were, who'd want to go? The Web would be just a large 'information resource', a place where we find answers. But the Web is far more interesting. It will never be perfect -- complete, final, total, true without exception, good without hesitation. It is, therefore, a genuine reflection of our imperfect human nature, and a welcome relief from the anal-perfectionism imposed on so much of our real-world lives." p. 94Weinberger keeps asking, from a variety of perspectives -- what is the Web? And spiced up with some clever and very quotable turns of phrase, he arrives at some outlandish and very perceptive conclusions, which he expresses in pithy sound-bytes:
You can reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at Micah Publications, 255 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA 01945, www.micahbooks.com
This review first appeared in Aspect #64, March 1976. A few minor edits were made in 2002, including the reference to Cormac McCarthy.
Their paths cross and recross through the years as Julio descends the ladder of humanity form landowner to beggar to cripple to a form of living death; and Ricardo, guided by an ironic, Sophisticated, somewhat godless priest, struggles toward a thankless sainthood in service to the sick and dying. The characters emerge vivid, desperate, impulsive, passionate, against the background of a pitiless, intricately patterned universe, where holiness seems "no more than constancy of design."
The priest, Father Ferenza, adds an extra dimension to this well-told tale of simple people living out a complex fate. He makes explicit the issues of good and evil and destiny posed by the life of Ricardo, and reflects on the human condition with sharp cold thrusts, worthy of a character from Cormac McCarthy or Dostoyevsky.
"What is the use of life?" [asks Ricardo] "if there is no better life after this one?"The temptation is great to reread and to quote page after page:
"If you do not know the use of this life, what is the use of another one?" [replies Ferenza]
"Si, but," Ricardo said, feeling driven back on vague memorizations of answers, "is it not true that in the next world all things will be made clear?"
Father Ferenza regarded him for a moment with irritable interest. Then he said in a firm voice as if he were giving a direction in the road, "All things have already been made clear, Senor."
There was a note of authoritative bombast in his voice, half playful, half serious, and Ricardo could not decide whether he was a man of mystery or of light.
This article is based on a paper written in while a student at Brentwood School in Brentwood, Essex, England, May, 1965
It's quite easy to skip lightly over this passage, noting the irony of "j'ignore... qui je suis, et ce que je fais," the exaggerated images carried to ridiculous lengths, the sentence by sentence development and logic, his all-inclusive suspicion, etc. Then a few comments about Harpagon's distorted sense of values (poor chap), about his love of money being like love of a woman, about his slapstick acting and talking directly to the audience, making it obviously comedy, about his separation from the world of the other characters being emphasized by his even noticing the audience...
But this play has a deeper level on which it can be read more meaningfully.
I asked myself:
Why should a man of his age
Be alone, alone
On a wide, wide stage
In a world of his own?
A man can't be born an exile, un etranger. One also can't change over night.
In this scene (IV 7) for the first and only time the depth Harpagon's feelings is immediately apparent. The object of his passionate, self-less, never-ending love is money; but money is an unnatural object for emotion: he could not have loved it thus from his birth. Here then is a highly sensitive man, who builds his whole world on the object of his love, who is totally lost, helpless, as good as dead without what is dearest to him. Consider this man as young; consider him as speaking about a woman, his dearly beloved, his wife for instance.
The clue lies in this character who is never present, never mentioned, never alluded to: Harpagon's dead wife. The children obviously don't have very fresh memories of her, for Cleante in his anger would hardly refrain from including her memory in his reproaches of his father's actions. It is therefore natural to assume that she died shortly after the birth of the children and that Harpagon, who is so capable of surrendering himself completely in love, loved her deeply.
Add to this wife the many other possible lost loves he could have had, loves upon whom he could likewise have centered, founded his world: mother, friend, pet... Think of Felicite in Flaubert's "Un Coeur Simple": one lost love after another, one resulting misery after another, coupled with a need to love someone, something. She finally transfers her love to the stuffed corpse of the parrot she had loved; she ends up, in sheer emotional self-defense or exhaustion, loving an object which is already dead and therefore cannot die, which she can safely trust she won't be deprived of.
Jump back to Harpagon, similarly oppressed by "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" but not just un coeur simple, on the contrary highly intelligent and sensitive, with depths of feeling Felicite is incapable of: a tragic rather than a pathetic character (at this stage at least). Instead of a stuffed parrot, his defense, his shield, his wall (hence his "raideur") is in making money the object of his love. The soul may endure forever in another world; but in this one, money is more obviously permanent: it can be buried and continually watched, guarded to ensure it's continued presence.
Thus the exile. Money has taken the place of man. THink of the passage by Donne about "no man is an island." Replace man with coin or a denomination of money, and the similar emotion of Harpagon is expressed: another's waste of money touches him personally.
Think of the whole play with this in mind. The Mariane incident is a faltering step back toward normality. Harpagon lowers the stiff shield a moment and partially bares himself to possible pain. He considers marrying Mariane even if she doesn't have any money. No wonder he attacks his son so mercilessly with no holds barred (IV 3). No wonder he clings all the more tightly to his "chere cassette" in the last scene after he has lost this last human contact, last renaissant human love. Harpagon is in fact the only dynamic character in the play.
Ah! Then shows forth the profound irony of the play. These "hommes raisonables", "hommes naturels" with their normal human relationships and love: they are revealed throughout and especially in I 1 and IV 1 as of many words, precious words, highly scrupulous about conventional forms, not too likely to get carried away by passion. Among them "...chacun tient les memes discours. Tous les homes sont sembables par les paroles; et ce n'est que les actions qui les decouvrent differents." These foolish wretches capable of only superficial feeling, these puppets, these pointless machines going through the actions of the fertility cults, doing just as expected, prescribed just at the right moment: they, irony of ironies, consider Harpagon as a feelingless automaton, a comic character incapable of human emotion. If they be basking in the light of reason and nature, then surely Harpagon is buried, buried in a deep dark pit of emotion, close to the heart of experience. The contrast is not between sane and insane, right and wrong, but between shallow and deep.
Then what meaning this scene pours forth! "Je ne jette mes regards sur personne qui ne me donne des soupcons, et tout me semble mon voleur." Sure, on the surface, quite comic, quite ridiculously suspicious. But further on, Moliere makes clear his meaning. "Ils me regardent tous, et se mettent a rire. Vous verrez qu'ils ont part sans doute au vol que l'on m'a fait." And indeed they do take part in the theft: they -- all who associate with him -- laught at him, help rob him of his precious reason, push him further in his folly. No one cares for him or bothers to try to understand him. If they would, he would certainly be ressucite, could begin life anew. But they just humor him, use him, and laugh at him. He himself is also guilty; but his is a guilt of cowardice, a cowardice related to that of suicide rather than the callousness of the others.
Reread the play and you'll see that practically every word takes on a new significance.
So now you say, "Fine, you've rambled for pages. It's a curiosity, interesting enough for a moment's thought. But you are reading too much into the play, rather than studying the text itself. Moliere never thought of such things when he wrote it. He didn't intend such an interpretation." But this very question of intention takes the reader to the heart of the play, to the machinery that produced it, and with just one more step the controls are nearly within reach.
If for a moment at least in IV 7, Moliere himself is speaking, when he speaks of guilt: personal guilt and the guilt of all who could laught at him, what could he mean? Isn't it the guilt, despair, frustration of a genius who realizes the extent of his power of self-expression but feels he has failed, prostituted it, sold it to the mob and thus failed to produce a work which he could consider worthy, of which he would dare to say: "This is my life, my masterpiece: whatever time or chance does to me or it: I created it; I completed it; c'est moi." Every time the audience laughed, didn't they push him further in his folly of writing only comedies fashioned to make the audience laugh more, of changing and suppressing passages and ideas to keep them laughing? And those laughs that kept pushing him and that he kept seeking in a vicious circle meant money.
Does his life bear this out? His mother died when he was ten, and his first high-flying theatrical hopes crashed in debtor's prison; but such searching for miseries and evidence of love of money in the hope of making a point by point comparison between Moliere and Harpagon is futile and probably worthless. Two short quotes from the introduction should suffice as proof of the high probability of the essential: "Certain critics have regretted the fact that Moliere was obliged to expend so much of his time and genius on the writing of Court plays and ballets." "There is no doubt that he amassed a considerable fortune and was able to enjoy many comforts; he had much to make him happy but he was inclined to be morose: 'il fit rire, mais il ne riait pas.'"Is it comedy or tragedy? Useless academic question. wAs life ever either purely comic or tragic? On rit et pleure tout a la fois. C'est un chef-d'oeuvre! C'est la vie! Final crowning irony: his despair at never having written his masterpiece produced his masterpiece: he did create himself in worlds; he actually placed himself naked on the stage and the crowd laughed at the emperor's new clothes.
I love fresh views of historical events written by people who lived at that time, as opposed to works written long after, in which the selection of events and their presentation are flavored by what happened later -- history written backwards, focusing on what "caused" the events and the consequences that followed -- teleological history where the importance of an event depends on its relationship to a world view held much later.
I had read about Mercy Warren and had read her plays years ago when I wrote a play about her and General Burgoyne. But I had never read her history of the American Revolution. The length was daunting, and the only available edition of it -- a photographic facsimile of the 1805 edition that I found in the Boston Public Library -- was unreadable. The old style typography ("s's" looked like "f's") combined with the out-dated spelling and punctuation (sentences that ran on line after line after line) were very hard on the eyes. I could force myself to decipher a paragraph or so, but then my mind would wander. Typing it would force me to concentrate and pay attention to every word.
Why should I want to pay such close attention? Here was a little-known first-hand account of the American Revolution, the events leading up to it, and the circumstances that followed it. This was an important work that could have reshaped and could still today impact our image of our nation's origins and destiny. I wanted to make it available to all, in readable understandable form. And thanks to the Internet, it wouldn't take years or money or the enthusiastic support of a well-established publishing company for me to do so. All I needed to do was type it -- modernizing the typography and punctuation, and editing for readability -- and I could make it freely available to everyone through my Web site, and also, just using my PC, I could make it (and related materials) available on CD ROM.
The author of this monumental work was a woman, writing at a time when it was unheard of for women to write history books. Yes, her style was a bit pompous, apparently mimicking the rhythms of Burke's speeches and Gibbon's history of Rome, as if that were the standard for serious history; and, like Alexander Pope, emphasizing her judicious conclusions about the nature of man and war and politics, rather than providing all the raw data and first-hand observations on which those conclusions were based. But her personal voice comes through, becoming louder and clearer toward the end of the war, and virtually screaming in the volume after that where she expresses her concern for the future fate of the young republic, daring to criticize Washington's dependence on his military cronies in his two administrations, and harshly (and probably rightly) accusing her life-long friend, John Adams, of having lost faith in democracy and favoring monarchism. She wrote those words in 1801, just after the end of his term as president. She wrote those words with the passion of fear -- the fear of possible civil war because the divide was becoming so great between those who believed in equality, in the principles so clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence, and those who had a nostalgic reverence and desire for the aristocratic style, titles, and pomp of European courts. She foresees, with dread, the Guilded-Age pseudo-royalty conspicuous consumption of the super-rich "400" in New York and in their summer resort at Newport nearly a hundred years later.
In her day, the primary political divide was between those who, like herself, believed in the Republic as a moral, even a religious necessity, and those who saw it as a temporary expedient. To Mercy, the American experiment in democracy of the people, for the people, and by the people was a beacon to the world, the shining example that could eventually lead all nations, all peoples to free themselves from the tyranny that kept the many in misery, poverty, and slavery. Men like Adams responded to the French Revolution with fear and loathing, and from that blood-fest concluded that democracy was flawed, that it was at best a temporary solution. Mercy cites with disdain and disappointment a book of his ("Defense of Their Constitutions") that "drew a doleful picture of the confusion and dissolution of all republics". She makes no mention of the undeclared war which Adams had waged on the seas against republican France. She makes no mention of his Alien and Sedition Acts which revoked much of the Bill of Rights purportedly for public security (in a political atmosphere resembling that of the McCarthy era 150 years later). Rather, she focuses on what was to her more important and more insidious -- his love affair with monarchy. It was as if he had taken a mistress (monarchy/aristocracy) while still ostensibly sleeping with his wife (republicanism/democracy).
She admits that he was not alone in this betrayal:
"It is true the revolution in France had not ultimately tended to strengthen the principles of republicanism in America. The confusions introduced into that unhappy nation by their resistance to despotism and the consequent horrors that spread dismay over every portion of their territory have startled some in the United States, who do not distinguish between principles and events, and shaken the firmness of others, who have fallen off from their primary object and by degrees returned back to their former adherence to monarchy. Thus, through real or pretended fears of similar results, from the freedom of opinion disseminated through the United States, dissensions have originated relative to subjects not known in the Constitution of the American Republic. This admits no titles of honor or nobility, those powerful springs of human action; and from the rage of acquisition which has spread far and wide, it may be apprehended that the possession of wealth will in a short time be the only distinction in this young country. By this it may be feared that the spirit of avarice will be rendered justifiable in the opinion of some as the single road to superiority."She is very reluctant to attack her old friend, but she feels that it is her moral duty to do so -- not just to set the record straight, but to alert the young Republic of the danger and to help nudge it in the right direction, so it will have a chance to survive, to grow, and to thrive in a world dominated by monarchs and dictators.
"The veracity of an historian requires that all those who have been distinguished, either by their abilities or their elevated rank, should be exhibited through every period of public life with impartiality and truth. But the heart of the annalist may sometimes be hurt by political deviations which the pen of the historian is obliged to record.She blames his 4-5 year sojourn in England, as a diplomat, after the Revolution, for having led to this anti-democratic change in his convictions:
"Mr. Adams was undoubtedly a statesman of penetration and ability; but his prejudices and his passions were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgment."
"...unfortunately for himself and his country, he became so enamored of the British Constitution and the government, manners, and laws of the nation, that a partiality for monarchy appeared, which was inconsistent with his former professions of republicanism....Ironically, despite her faith in republicanism, when Mercy waxes religious and invokes the name of God, she uses paternalistic and monarchic images like "the kingdom of Christ." Perhaps that's merely because of the familiarity of such King James' diction. But perhaps, too, she has not yet worked out if and how the realm of God could in any way be republican.
"After Mr. Adams's return from England, he was implicated by a large portion of his countrymen as having relinquished the republican system and forgotten the principles of the American Revolution, which he had advocated for near 20 years."
Mercy wrote early drafts of this monumental work near the time of the events described, and completed it about four years before its appeared in 1805. She explains the delay as due to health problems, temporary bouts of blindness, and grief at the death of one of her sons.
She writes in the third person, trying to avoid personal bias, while advocating the republicanism she so ardently believes in. She doesn't spare friends like John Adams, or acquaintances like John Hancock, or public idols like George Washington. She calls it as she sees it, shot by shot -- good and bad, not expecting people to be consistent and predictable. She treats her immediate family with that same impartiality: her brother James Otis (early advocate of the rights of the colonies), her husband James Warren (speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives during the Revolution), and her son Winslow Warren (the would-be diplomat).
The early chapters provide interesting details on the steps leading up to the Revolution, particularly the events happening in Boston, near her home in Plymouth.
She also, in Chapter 6, tells the little known tale of the British emancipation of slaves in the south. In 1775, Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, freed the slaves in his colony and armed them, as a way to intimidate the colonial rebels.
"He [Dunmore] had the inhumanity early to intimate his designs if opposition ran high to declare freedom to the blacks, and, on any appearance of hostile resistance to the King's authority to arm them against their masters. Neither the House of Burgesses nor the people at large were disposed to recede from their determinations in consequence of his threats nor to submit to any authority that demanded implicit obedience on pain of devastation and ruin. Irritated by opposition, too rash for consideration, too haughty for condescension, and fond of distinguishing himself in support of the parliamentary system, Lord Dunmore dismantled the fort in Williamsburg, plundered the magazines, threatened to lay the city in ashes and depopulate the country: As far as he was able, he executed his nefarious purposes.Much of the military action, including the occupation and then the evacuation of Boston by British troops, took place before the Declaration of Independence.
"When his lordship found the resolution of the House of Burgesses, the committees and conventions was nowhere to be shaken, he immediately proclaimed the emancipation of the blacks and put arms into their hands. He excited disturbances in the back settlements and encouraged the natives bordering on the southern colonies to rush from the wilderness and make inroads on the frontiers."
In Chapter 7, she paints an interesting picture of Washington's genius during these early days. He arrives in Boston in the summer of 1775, after the Battle of Bunker Hill, to take charge of the rag-tag army of rebels that had assembled. The Continental Congress had not yet decided what it wanted to do, whether they might still be reconciled with England should the right terms be offered. But they needed to organize some kind of defense. So before deciding on independence, they decided on a commander in chief of their army. Yes, the rebel force was small and untrained, facing British veterans and Hessian mercenaries. But worst of all, Washington, much to his surprise, discovers that he has almost no gunpowder, with just three rounds per soldier. He kept that deficiency a secret and with amazing cool deployed his troops building fortifications on the hills around British-occupied Boston and generally acting as if he had all the ammunition he might ever want. If the British had realized they were so ill-supplied, they could have wiped out the colonists with the greatest of ease.
How did he build up his supplies? The local farmers had little gunpowder to spare, the southern colonies eventually sent along a little. The locals did their best to tool up to produce gunpowder locally, but that took time. But what made a real difference was the Continental Congress empowering pirates ("privateers") to prey on British shipping and thereby capture whatever military supplies they could -- and that was a year before the Declaration of Independence.
Better known, but still often forgotten, the New York militia under General Montgomery unsuccessfully invaded Canada in the fall and winter of 1775 -- once again long before the Declaration of Independence. And, in conjunction with that invasion, Benedict Arnold led a thousand troops from the Continental Army near Boston overland, in a heroic and almost impossible march through previously unexplored, mountainous forest to meet up with Montgomery outside Quebec.
Mercy also paints an interesting portrait of General Burgoyne. He marched south from Canada into northern New York in 1777, with arrogance and confidence, having boasted that he could crush this little rebellion with just a handful of troops. Now with a large army of seasoned veterans in his command, he expected the rebels to cower and run at the mere rumor of his approach. As part of his plan of terror, he brought with him and set loose on the American settlements in his wake, large numbers of Indians, recruited with promises of plunder. Then out-maneuvered and soundly defeated at Saratoga, Burgoyne surrendered his entire army to General Gates. Imagine this general and his troops, totally humiliated, marching as prisoners over primitive roads past amazed and staring crowds in all the little towns from Saratoga to Boston. And remembers the historical context -- soldiers were expected to and often did act with honor. The British officers were permitted to retain their hand arms, as a mark of respect. And the rebels only guarded this procession of thousands of prisoners with a small handful of troops. It would have been trivially easy for the prisoners to escape and wreak havoc. But they made no attempt to do so -- they had given their word. Burgoyne waited months in Boston with his troops, expecting that under the terms of the treaty they would all be shipped back to England, having given their word ("parole") that they would never again take up arms against America. But Congress was hesitant, trusting the honor of these soldiers, but not believing that the British government would follow through with its obligations under the treaty. Burgoyne himself was allowed to return to England, having given his parole; and while already in England, being considered still a "prisoner" subject to negotiations for prisoner exchange. His troops meanwhile were forced to march once again, this time from Boston to Virginia. And Burgoyne himself, still a "prisoner", was elected a Member of the House of Commons, and, now a convert to republicanism, repeatedly, eloquently pleaded the cause of American independence and peace.
While today's school textbook version of the American Revolution focuses on the activities of Washington in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Mercy, in addition to covering that, devoted considerable space to events in the south, where General Gates, the hero of Saratoga, assumed command of the rebel forces, until his humiliating defeat at Camden. Other major players included General Nathaniel Greene, who took over from Gates, and General Lincoln. With the devastation in Georgia and the Carolinas, with the Loyalists playing a major role, and with the British increasingly using a strategy of terror -- burning homes, destroying crops, and sometimes taking no prisioners (killing everyone) -- this often reads like the Civil War that raged there four-score years later.
As for the Battle of Yorktown, as described here, that wasn't really a battle at all. Cornwallis was maneuvered and pushed back with a series of skirmishes, and forced into an impossible geographic position by orders from General Clinton in New York. Then it became a contest of shovels. The British had just 400 shovels; the colonists far more. The colonists dug trenches parallel to the British earthwork defenses, moved up their cannon and bombarded. Then they dug channels leading closer and dug parallel again so they could move their guns up again. And so on, while the British, stuck on a narrow peninsula, blocked on the land by the combined American and French armies, and on the sea by the French fleet, were running out of food and ammunition. Despairing that his army would be totally destroyed before promised reinforcement arrived from Clinton in New York, Cornwallis surrendered. A few days later Clinton arrived by sea to find the Chesapeake firmly in the control of the French fleet and no British troops left on the ground. He had no choice but to turn back.
Why the delay? Once again, Washington finessed the British. He made Clinton believe that an attack on New York was imminent. Such an attack had been planned, troops had been massed; and Clinton's spies had intercepted messages from Washington to that effect. So Washington let him continue to believe that; leaving skeleton forces in nearby forts, with orders to playact as if they were preparing an attack, while, in fact, totally unknown to the British, Washington marched south all the way to Virginia. All the way up until a few days before Washington reached Yorktown, Clinton was frantically preparing his defenses and even sending messages by sea to Cornwallis ordering him to send some of his troops back to New York, when that was not only foolish, but impossible.
Another reason for the delay was the slow arrival of a fleet under Lord Digby with major reinforcements from England. Mercy explains:
"Lord Digby, however, arrived at New York on September 29. One of the princes of the blood (Prince Henry, the Duke of Clarence) had taken this opportunity to visit America, probably with a view of sovereignty over a part or the whole of the conquered colonies. This was still anticipated at the Court of St. James; and perhaps, in the opinion of the royal parents, an American establishment might be very convenient for one of their numerous progeny."School textbooks usually end the war at Yorktown. But nearly a third of Mercy's narrative covers the war after Yorktown, together with the negotiations that led to France, Spain, and Holland helping the American cause; the battles fought in the Caribbean and elsewhere by our allies against the British. (Have you ever read of the Spanish siege of Gibraltar as part of the American Revolution?); related political wrangling in England; the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris; and the challenges and risks facing the fragile, fledgling republic.
Here we read the story of Henry Laurens, who was president of the Continental Congress at the time of passage of the Articles of Confederation. He was sent as plentipoteniary to negotiate a treaty of alliance with Holland (which had been, for many years, an ally of Britain). His ship was intercepted and overrun by the British. At the last moment he threw overboard a trunk containing the secret correspondence with sympathizers in Holland, his instructions and letters of introduction and authority. But a British sailor having seen him do so dove into the sea and caught hold of the trunk before it sank. Once the British realized who he was and what his mission was, they sent him to England, where he was imprisoned for several years in the Tower of London.
By coincidence, Lord Cornwallis was the hereditary constable/commander of the Tower of London. When Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Washington arranged that the terms of the surrender be dictated by Colonel Laurens, the son of Henry Laurens. So the commander of the Tower of London was forced to accept terms dictated by the son of a man held prisoner there.Meanwhile, general devastation, destruction, and murder took place outside the realm of the well-known battles. New Bedford, Massachusetts, Fairfield, Connecticut, and countless other defenseless towns up and down the coast were attacked and destroyed by the British, in actions that generally go unmentioned in history books, remembered only on plaques in those little towns and sometimes by local tourist guides. Mercy makes it clear that this war impoverished and greatly disrupted the lives of nearly everyone, not just the soldiers. The drama didn't end when the last shot was fired. She emphasizes the economic side of the devastation, the hyperinflation with soldiers and suppliers paid in paper money that then became worthless; and the ruthless activities of speculators, buying up promissory notes for practically nothing from patriots and then demanding and getting payment from Congress. It isn't an entirely pretty picture. The brave, cold, hungry, sick soldiers mutiny more than once. Some are executed. Everyone doesn't live happily ever after. But the Republic survives, stumbles forward, and tries to find the true path to a destiny that could change the world forever.
The epigraph from Plato sets the tone -- "we acquired our knowledge before out birth, and lost it at the moment of birth, but afterward, by the exercise of our senses upon sensible objects, recover the knowledge which we had once before..." Hence the title "blinded at birth" refers not to physical blindness, but to a sense of loss -- that there was a kind of sensitivity and knowledge that we had access to before we were born, or before we developed rational thinking, and which, at rare moments, we recall.
These poems hover around the place where the tactile and the abstract meet. Ordinary events and sensations ignite images and phrases that sparkle where before there was only darkness.
Looking at the horizon at the end of twilight, when night begins "waiting for the last whisper of light to hide behind the line that separates sea and sky", she focuses on the stillness inside herself. "...only then can I make my way inside the stillness that tells me everything I need to know without asking."
Wordsworth, too, gets quoted at the beginning "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting." And the tone here sometimes echoes Wordsworth: "I was part of nature's call before I slipped into this mindfulness," and sometimes with a playful ironic twist, "I cannot sleep; wide awake in my unconscious."
Elsewhere the conjunction of tactile and abstract recalls e.e. cummings and Paul Valery. For instance, her "I can touch the time before we spoke", and later "I want to sink into the silence that is your hands" and also " these lines [on my face] mark the time I spent in idle worship of things that matter less than your walk" call to mind cummings' "no one, not even the rain, has such small hands" and Valery's "Tes pas, enfants de mon silence, saintement, lentement place..." [Your steps, children of my silence, placed slowly and sacredly..."].
But the tone is not imitative. Here is a fresh new voice, discovering anew the wonders of the self -- that inner place that we all have in common, the oneness that we share and are only rarely reminded of.
Her words gently lead you from the familiar to
the unimaginable, for instance, "as I crawl through this space
barely wide enough to fit my whole being..." Likewise, the
moment that rain turns to snow prompts her to think of longing
"to be part of the cosmic cycle,
changing in one moment
from bitter to soft
accepting the pain of metamorphosis."
The rhythm is soft but compelling. The wording is simple and direct. Often it reads just as well written out in sentences, as it does broken into lines.
Sometimes a poem consists of a single
unexpected and striking image, such as:
"maybe there is a point
in the breaking of a heart
exploding in tiny pieces
shooting across the floor
like a necklace of pearls
torn from the bosom
scattered in all directions
each piece waiting to be found
one by one
restrung in a less elegant way
like something from a church bazaar
"when roses bloom
they do not ask permission
they open wide their mouths
to the sun,
exposing their inner core,
and then they die."
And another favorite of mine:
"when one life has been lived
it falls into another,
a brand new baby cries
with the first breath
an instinctive knowing
that tears are the beginning
and the end,
a transition between lives
These so carefully chosen poems belong
together. They are arranged in sections by seasons, and are
illustrated with photos of trees, some amazingly and
provocatively misshapen. Often an image from one poem is echoed
or carried further in the next. And sometimes a poem feels like
a commentary on a photo that appears nearby. For instance, near
a photo of the topmost branches of a group of leafless trees,
covered with newly-fallen snow appears:
"black veins sketched across a winter sky
as if scorched by fire, standing ready
knowing life will be renewed
to its lovely tendrils
branched out like God's hands
forcing its way into my consciousness
showing me what I thought
I could not see."
In a case like this, the photo helps to make the image all the more concrete, making the abstract and religious implications all the more palpable.
Some of the poems seem to be about nature,
others about love, and others about God. They are all
explorations of that same still, inner place, where glimmers of
what we may have known before birth remain, a realm of
experience we all share. The implication is that hints from
nature, strong emotions like love, even strong religious feeling
can awaken those hidden memories and feelings. And once
unleashed, the emotional repercussions can be powerful and
unexpected. But Diane doesn't dwell on this experience
pedantically. Reflecting on such extraordinary moments, she is
both reverent and playful:
so we must seek
sneaking in Moses' ark
sliding down Mother Therea's
staining the edges of the Bible
from a dog's eyes
Heavens, you were staring right
why be found,
the game would be over
Oh, there you are;
what shall we play now?"
We vacation at Harwich on the Cape for two weeks each summer, and the setting of this book is right next door -- in Brewster and Yarmouth, in 1713 and 1992. And I've long been tempted to write about another "witch" from that time -- Grace Sherwood of Virginia. (See www.seltzerbooks.com/sherwood)
Before diving in, calibrate your expectations -- this is light fun romance. There are scifi-style time shifts from 1713 to 1992 and back again, but without scifi-style explanation. In a thunderstorm, by simply walking across a field to help someone in evident distress, Dr. Angus McPhearson walks into the past. Just suspend your disbelief, as you do when watching a tape of Brigadoon, which the good doctor was watching right before this scene.
Also, don't expect detailed descriptions of what it was like to live in 1713 in Massachusetts, and don't expect satiric contrasts between the life styles of then and now, a la Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Yes, you will occasionally be reminded that the life styles, beliefs, and expectations are different -- but with a light touch. Here is the doctor wearing a jogging outfit and running shoes, with a Rolex watch on his wrist, and a well-stocked medical bag walking into Yarmouth 280 years ago and being immediately accepted, and more or less fitting in. Often, he barriers he faces are ones of personality and knowledge rather than of time. Those differences aren't the focus of the story; they are its context. The focus is on the characters and what they say and do.
Just expect and enjoy a love story, with a twist -- a doctor in 1992 falling in love with a 15-year-old purported witch in 1713.
When Angus arrives, summoned in the storm by Maria Hallett's father, who has an intriguing, but never explained understanding of how the time-shift works, Maria is an unwed mother giving birth to the son of a pirate Sam Bellamy. Angus saves her life and the life of her son, with his medical skill. Then he almost immediately saves her from condemnation as a witch, by offering to marry her. (Remember, this is romance -- love at first sight.)
Much of the fun -- and there's lots of fun here -- comes from the interplay of Angus and his new bride, as Angus adapts to his new timeframe, as Maria adapts to being married to this stranger, and as the two of them cope with the looming menace of her son's father -- Sam the pirate. The dialogue moves fast -- unencumbered with pedantic realism, which would have made communication between the two of them difficult (imagine bumping into Cotton Mather on the street and striking up a conversation with him -- the differences in vocabulary and grammar and accent). The plot moves along quickly too, focusing on their relationship first, Sam the pirate second, her family third, and, last of all, the minor challenges posed by the time difference.
Maria is presented as an enticing, quick-witted, playful, flirt. She has no magical powers other than her beauty and youth and vivacity. Thanks to the intervention of Angus, the townsfolk shift from considering her as a malevolent witch -- a dangerous label at a time not that long after the events in Salem -- to using the term "witch" in her presence playfully, almost as a compliment, as we might do today, with someone who is "enchanting" and "casts spells" on men.
If anyone has "magical" power it is her father, who was able to summon Angus through time, and who, without ever discussing such matters with him, understands that Angus can and must return to his own time.
As explained in the "Author's Letter" at the
end, Janet Smith is a descendant of the historical Maria
Hallett. And Maria's story has been told on the Discovery
Channel, in National Geographic articles, and in Readers'
Digest. In those other versions, Maria is considered as a witch.
Janet explains, "since she was an ancestor of mine, I figured it
was my forte to redeem her." But this Maria needs no redemption.
She's simply delightful -- witch or no witch. I look forward to
the promised sequel "Port Call to the Future".
Sadie's husband, Troy, is a deacon in the church; and much of their time and many of their activities center around the church. It is as an act of church charity, taking food to Allie's family in the time of their affliction, that leads Sadie to meet Allie's mother Judith and become friends with her. And through the tidbits of information she gathers from Judith and from a policeman friend, she comes to suspect that Troy might be the monstrous perpetrator. The very fact of her suspicion indicates how far her relationship with her husband has deteriorated.
On the one hand, this book has the scariness of everyday reality. Terrible things can happen to ordinary people doing ordinary things -- as in Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World.
On the other hand, this story realistically presents what to me feels like a foreign culture. You get involved in and come to understand the motivations and self-imposed limitations and expectations of a fundamentalist church community. This is not a book by an outsider, pointing out the limitations of such a society; or an indictment by a former member looking back critically. Rather, it is a sympathetic view, from the inside. You can feel for Sadie, understand her fears and concerns and aspirations. You keep routing for her to break free, as best she can.
But for her, the solution to the problem lies within the nine dots, not outside them.
Linda Hall adeptly makes a strong case for a humane and sympathetic interpretation of scripture of the role of the church in our everyday lives. Rather than reject the church, she has her characters strive to transform it from within.
On one level Sadie's Song is a realistic and engaging protrayal of spousal abuse. On another level it's a mystery story in which you strongly identify with the lead character and fear the imminent consummation of what you come to believe is the obvious outcome. At the same time, this book is a dramatic wakeup call to fundamentalist Christian believers -- to reexamine basic assumptions of their church-oriented life, and to face directly rather than ignore and hide problems and inadvertently encourage such problems as spousal abuse.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, this
book deserves your attention. The characters soon feel like
neighbors and friends of yours. Much of the drama comes from the
environment which Linda Hall creates, in which what could happen
and what could have happened loom large in the background.
You'll find it very hard to put Sadie's Song down until you've
For example, in Pope's translation, in Book 16, p. 309 in the Heritage edition:
On the plumed crest of his Boeotian foeThe rhythm and rhyme give a nobility and an sense of inevitability to the gore. The metric scheme ordains the fate of these victims just as surely as the gods do. In fact, it is very difficult to visualize the scene portrayed -- the sounds overwhelm the sense. And what better word than "steel" to rhyme with "feel"? -- regardless of the fact that the weapons were actually made of bronze, and steel was unknown at that time.
The daring Lycon aim'd a noble blow;
The sword broke short; but his, Peneleus sped
Full on the juncture of the neck and head:
The head, divided by a stroke so just,
Hung by the skin; the body sunk in dust.
Next Erymas was doom'd his fate to feel,
His open'd mouth received the Cretan steel:
Beneath the brain the point a passage tore,
Crash'd the thin bones, and down'd the teeth in gore:
His mouth, his eyes, his nostrils, pour a flood;
He sobs his soul out in the gush of blood.
Later, in high school, when I heard about Homer's formulaic repetition of fixed phrases like "rosy-fingered dawn", I didn't know what the teachers were talking about. Pope liked variety, and opted for synonyms, even ones like "steel" that weren't quite accurate, instead of repetition.
I remembered well who was the father of whom and who killed whom. But the couplet provided a sense of an ending, over and over again -- start-stop, start-stop, interrupting the flow of the narrative over and over again. I had no sense of the personalities or emotions or values of the characters. Even the lengthy similes got lost, twisted beyond recognition by the rigors of the rhyme.
Fagles and Bernard Knox (who wrote the introduction) give Pope high praise. Knox, in fact, says that Pope's "translation of the Iliad is the finest ever made" (p. 7). No doubt a scholar who knows the original Greek intimately can appreciate Pope's creative verse interpretation. But for someone who has never encountered Homer before, Pope's translation keeps the reader at a considerable distance from the beauty and the power of the original.
Let's look at that same passage from Book 16 in Fagle's translation (pp. 423-424):
...Lycon, flailing,The violence is graphic. Each death is anatomically detailed and vividly shown. Nothing gets in the way of the horror of war. Nothing glorifies the random, brutal maiming and slaughter.
chopped the horn of Peneleos' horsehair-crested helmet
but round the socket the sword-blade smashed to bits --
just as Peneleos hacked his neck below the ear
and the blade sank clean through, nothing held
but a flap of skin, the head swung loose to the side
as Lycon slumped down to the ground...
Idomeneus skewered Erymas straight through the mouth,
the merciless brazen spearpoint raking through,
up under the brain to split his glistening skull --
teeth shattered out, both eyes brimmed to the lids
with a gush of blood and both nostrils spurting,
mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood
and death's dark clouds closed down around his corpse.
For me, reading Fagles translation was like reading a totally different book -- a far better one. I got involved in the characters and the situations, in the tragedy of Hector and the tragedy of Achilles. And the thematic unity as well as the story line were compelling.
Consider the opening. Pope reads:
Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful springHere the couplets and the contorted diction slow you down. Once you sort out the complex circumlocution, you are let with a static image -- like a battle scene on a vase -- that gives you little sense of the story and its major themes.
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy reign
The souls of might chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore:
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!
Rage -- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,Here the rhythm and the images carry you forward. And the central theme -- the contrast between the fighters' souls and their carrion flesh -- stands out. What is a man? What does it matter what he does during his short time above ground? How does the foreknowledge of imminent death affect a man's actions? Does the mortality of humans -- the fact that they must die and hence that their actions have irrevocable consequences -- give meaning or nobility to their acts? In some sense, mortality makes men greater than the gods. For the gods, all action is basically trivial, like a cartoon, where you know that the characters cannot be killed, cannot be permanently maimed, that whatever happens to them they'll pop right up again and get on with further shenanigans. The gods provide comic contrast, heightening the tragedy of the mortals who strive and die on the stage in front of them. The gods' intervention in the affairs of men is just another aspect of the random coincidences, emotional surges, and irrational impulses that humans must deal with continuously, just as they must deal with the frailty of their flesh -- the future carrion -- which is somehow, briefly, animated.
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
Reading Fagles' Iliad, I come away, too, with
a notion of the main elements necessary in building a novel:
1) the mythic/historic context
2) the characters, who interact and are motivated within that context
3) the plot, which is based on conflict among the characters, arising from their nature, rather than from artificial circumstances.
Once you have established the complete story,
you then decide
4) the perspective/point of view
5) the starting point
6) what gets shown, what gets told, what gets hinted at, and what is left unshown/untold
In this case,
1) At Troy, historically in the Bronze Age circa 1200 BC, but also within the context of Greek mythology and legend, which provides rich details of heritage and incident and cause-effect, stretching back 3-6 generations and including gods as ancestors,
2) Achilles interacts with Agamemnon, Hector, and Priam, movtivated by anger and pride and revenge, and finally compassion, based on a sense of common humanity/mortality
3) through a series of actions that are the high points in the war of the Greeks against the Trojans.
4) The story is told from an omniscient perspective -- separate from and higher than the perspective of the gods, who are players, too, in this drama. But this omniscent narrator has human sympathies and occasionally addresses select individuals directly, in the second person, as if he knew them personally, and feels their pain. As in Book 16, (p. 440) "Struggling for breath, you answered, Patroclus O my rider..." followed by Patroclus' dying words, spoken to Hector.
5) The telling of the story begins in the ninth year of the war. (Surprisingly, this is 20 years after the abduction of Helen by Paris -- Book 24, line 899, p. 613).
6) The action is presented as happening sequentially over the course of about six days. One event follows another -- next, now -- generating ever greater forward momentum, rather than events happening in parallel (meanwhile), with stops and starts (as with heroic couplets). The omniscent eye moves freely here and there in space, but not in time -- like a spotlight bringing this set of events and then that to our attention, with a sequence of sunrises and sunsets sharply delineating the time. Later we learn that more time has in fact passed. For instance, we have only been told of two days from the death of Hector to the arrival of Priam at Achilles' tent, but we are then told that Hector has been dead for 12 days. While such inconsistencies might be due to the vagaries the text has undergone over the centuries and questions about authorship (single genius vs. oral tradition), the effect is right: we are presented with the story told in psychological time, with the heightened sensitivity and memory of critical moments -- that's the "real" time of this narrative. The time of calendars and clocks is secondary. And through speeches and similes we get a view of the world beyond -- vignettes from other events that are part of the same mythic structure, and scenes from the everyday life of ordinary mortals -- but always subordinated to the scene at hand, the immediacy of the on-rushing narrative moment.
Reading this Iliad is a pleasure, rather than a chore. You get caught up in the characters and the story. You get intrigued by the rich detail about life 3000 years ago, and at the same time can feel the aspirations, fears, and emotions as natural and familiar.
Here is an ancient masterpiece freshly presented in such a way that it commands your attention and stimulates your imagination.
PS -- Here's a sample of some doggerel I wrote back in the sixth grade, inspired by Pope's translation of the Iliad. Keep in mind, I was very serious in this endeavor -- the humor is unintentional:
O'er the seas a ship does ride,The rest is online here.
Carrying a most beautiful bride.
Oh what a fair and beautiful dame,
Helen of Sparta was her name.
Her husband is Pais by name,
Prince of Troy, with farflung fame.
Menelaus, her lawful spouse,
Is searching all over his house,
For the bride Paris stole away,
On that dreadfully awful day.
To Agamemnon he rushes,
After his hair he brushes.
PPS -- Reading The Fall of Troy by Quintus Smyrnaeus (c. 400 AD) can help you appreciate the accomplishment of Homer. Quintus tells the parts of the story of the Trojan War that Homer didn't tell directly. But his version is just a litany of who killed whom, punctuated with lame similes and speeches. Many of the characters are the same as in Homer, and many of the events were foreshadowed even described in Homer, but here they have no punch.
PPS -- The Trojan War by Olivia Coolidge is
probably the best introduction to the story. It can be read and
enjoyed by anyone from about age 10 up.
Now, thanks to The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, I've done a flip-flop.
As Maddox says in his concluding chapter, "Unwilling or unable to accept the seemingly paradoxical behavior of single particles, such as electrons moving through both of two slits at the same time, for example, he [Albert Einstein] sought instead a set of equations whose elegance and symmetry would command respect, and by which even paradoxical phenomena would be explicable. Einstein's quest was no doubt impelled by his great success with the general theory of relativity (otherwise the theory of gravitation), which first won attention through its elegance. As the world now knows, it was a fruitless search. Quantum phenomena are often wrongly described as paradoxes for no better reason than that they conflict with the expectations of common sense, which themselves spring from human senses that have been honed by natural selection for telling what the macroscopic world is like. It is disconcerting that phenomena on the small scale are at odds with expectation, but there is a wealth of experimental data for which no other explanation is possible. How else than by experiment can reality be described?" (p. 373)
In my review, I noted, "...a non-scientist, like myself, might well dream the impossible dream of a science that goes beyond science, a means of learning about 'reality' and describing it without depending on experiments."
Remarkably, Greene answers that key question "How else than by experiment can reality be described?" While experiment has its limitations, based on what can be measured and how, indirect techniques can give us glimpses of what lies beyond, leading to new hypotheses which can also be verified, with a high degree of confidence, by indirect techniques. The vastness of the cosmos provides clues to the physical structure of matter smaller than quarks (the components of electrons, protons, and other subatomic particles) and provides ways of verifying hypotheses that are beyond the limits of our most advanced laboratories.
In Green's book, the universe is "elegant" and knowable, in ways man believed before the discoveries of quantum physics. When confronted with new previously unexplained phenomena, he turns to such principles as symmetry, beauty and logic to gain new insight. At the end of the dark tunnel of unknowability, he sees a "multi-verse" consisting of many universes; he sees black holes not just as the ugly ends of dying stars, but rather as seeds for other universes; he see a multi-verse in which those universes that have the most black holes are the most likely to survive and spawn new universes in a cosmic evolution scheme, based on survival of the fittest of universes.
Just when I was getting used to the idea that the world is unfundamentally unknowable -- that our brains evolved to help us cope with the world of ordinary experience and simply aren't equipped to grasp the bizarre realms of the very small and the very large -- along comes a book that inspires me with renewed faith that we can know -- based on a classical belief in beauty and symmetry -- like a revelation from the 17th or 18th century.
This book is convincing, lucid, powerful, mind-expanding.
I had been aesthetically wallowing in the concept of unknowability -- convinced that the greatest advances in the 20th century came from acknowledging the limitations of the human mind, proving what cannot be known. That attitude led me to a high appreciation of the works of Stanislaw Lem (see my review at www.seltzerbooks.com/lem.html) and to a whole range of authors, starting with Plato, who emphasized that the value of the pursuit of wisdom was all in the process, that nothing can be known with any certainty. It is good to seek truth; but to believe that you have found truth is bad. The value comes from the seeking itself.
In the days of Emerson and Swedenborg, the world and our senses and our ability to understand seemed perfectly suited to one another. Then modern science led us to see a disjunction between the world perceived in ordinary experience and the realm of the extremely small and the realm of the extremely large, both of which were revealed by advanced instruments; and led us to conclude that the limits of our instruments were the limits of our ability to understand. Now it appears that we can leap beyond those limits, arriving at new levels of understanding about the workings of the physical world, both at the sub-particle level and at the cosmic level.
I won't attempt to explain Greene's explanations. I don't presume to have grasped it in great enough detail to do it justice. Read the book itself. He writes with the authority of one of the leaders in the field of string theory, but with a clarity and patience and ability to explain complex matters simply that rivals the efforts of the very best popularizers of science.
Basically, quarks consist of "strings", and the "vibrations" of these strings determine their energy, mass, and other characteristics. These vibrations have "frequency" or rhythm, which leads me to think of this change of perspective in terms of Yeats: the focus is now on the dance rather than the dancer. The dancers come and go and combine and recombine; come into existance and annihiate and come into existence again in new forms. Yes, there are physical limits to what we can know about the dancer; but our knowledge of the dance can extend far beyond and lead us to important new conclusions.
Strangely, such a change in the underlying concepts of physics leads to a new appreciation for old authors. I can't help but think of Frazier, Jung, and Joyce, and their attempts to grasp the flow and rhythm of all of human culture. I think of the multiple natural and mental rhythms of Virginia Woolf's Waves. I think of resonance and harmonics and extraordinary effects that can come from small changes, like a bridge breaking up because of the rhythm of the wind that strikes it; and I think of transistors and how they capitalize on how, in electronics, small changes can result in large effects. I also think of the theme of music and rhythm as an important element in how the mind works and how the world works in Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach. I think of Steven Pinker's books where he gains insight into the workings of the human mind by analyzing how we use language and the rules of grammar, and I wonder if there might be a "grammar" or "rules of choreography" for the cosmic dance. I may even develop a new appreciation for the art of dance. Greene himself alludes to the ancient notion of the "music of the spheres."
And wonder of wonders, I feel myself motivated to tackle Heidegger's Being and Time. Contrary to the ruminations of Hamlet, being and not being may not be opposites, or may not be the only alternatives. To become or not to become? To become what from what? There may be a range or field of becoming, a pattern of becoming and interacting in the rhythm of individual human life and of life in aggregate.
But don't be sidetracked by my vague
speculations. Read the book. It could change your image of
yourself and the world you live in.
I'm reminded of Barth's Arabian Nights tales -- The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and The Chimera. This book also hearkens back to the days of Boccaccio and Ariosto, and even retelling the love stories of Paolo and Francesca and of Lancelot and Guinevere, simply and beautifully.
The clever and convincing philosophic-poetic rumination about the meaning of life and love and death reminded me of The Incredible Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. And the author plays with that resemblance, "I was happy with the lightness of being in a foreign city and the relief from identity that it brings." (p. 52) "There was such lightness in me that I had to be tied to the pommel of the saddle ..." (p. 149)
Through the power of imagination we live in all time and all space.It matters little whether this is narrative whim or an aspect of quantum theory -- with all possible worlds existing simultaneously.
Also, like O'Leary's The Gift, The Powerbook is a story about the magical power of storytelling.
As I read, I typically mark memorable passages. In a good book, I might make half a dozen or even a dozen such notations. In this book, I made marks on nearly every other page -- sometimes highlighting every word on a page.
"Nothing is solid. Nothing is fixed. These are images that time changes and that change time, just as the sun and the rain play on the surface of things." (p. 52)
"What a strange world it is where you can have as much sex as you like but love is taboo.... The truth is that love smashes into your life like an ice floe, and even if your heart is built like the Titanic you go down." (p. 60)
"In quantum reality there are millions of possible worlds, unactualised, potential, perhaps bearing in on us, but only reachable by wormholes we can never find. If we do find one, we don't come back. In those other worlds events may track our own, but the ending will be different. Sometimes we need a different ending. I can't take my body through space and time, but I can send my mind, and use the stories, written and unwritten, to tumble me out in a place not yet existing -- my future." (p. 63)
Lancelot thinking: "But I wondered how it could destroy us when it was us? We had become this love. We were not lovers. We were love." (p. 80)
"The more I write, the more I discover that the partition between real and invented is as thin as a wall in a cheap hotel room... It used to be that the real and the invented were parallel lines that never met. Then we discovered that space is curved, and in curved space parallel lines always meet." (p. 108)
"'How about tomorrow then -- lunch?'
She shook her head.
'You choose a time then.'
'How about the Middle Ages?'
'The food isn't that good.'" (p. 110)
"These lives of ours that press in on us must be heard. We are our own oral history. A living memoir of time. Time is downloaded into our bodies. We contain it. Not only time past and time future, but time without end. We think of ourselves as close and finite, when we are multiple and infinite." (pp. 120-121)
What exists and what might exist are windowed together at the core of reality." (p. 129)
Francesa da Rimini thinking: "The castle is a pause between dark and dark. It fills the space between a man's thoughts and his deeds. May father made the design for the castle himself. It is as though we are living inside him." (p. 145)
"Her desire told itself as memory. Her past was a place that none of us could visit without her. It was the only kingdom she could control." (p. 166)
"The past is magnetic. It draws us in. We cannot help ourselves and, as with other things that we cannot help in ourselves, we make up elaborate explanations, reasonable rational explanations, to chant away the powerful things that don't belong to us." (p. 197)
"... life is not a formula and love is not a recipe. The same ingredients cook up differently every time." (p. 217)
"We walked through the city with its Sunday feel of a sudden spaceship that has taken everyone to Mars." (p. 218)
"I wanted to make a slot in time. To use time fully I use it vertically. One life is not enough. I use the past as a stalking horse to come nearer to my quarry." (p. 247)
"What is my life? Just a rope slung across space." (p. 248)
"... St. Augustine had said that the universe was not created in time but with time... Stories are simultaneous with time." (p. 254)The power is not in the plot, not in the many interweaving stories, but rather in the telling.I could listen to this Scheherazade for hundreds of thousands of nights ...
This is one of those rare and wonderful instances where the movie is far better the book it is based on. (Others include The English Patient and Field of Dreams).
It feels like the creative team for the movie understood the heart of the story and then set out to tell it afresh, learning from and building from the book, but telling it in a way that got to its essence, which the book had failed to do. Like Phidias, they saw what was possible in the raw material in front of them, and they succeeded in making it visible to their audience.
Some movies based on novels capitalize on the title and tell a different story, often tailored to showcase a mega-star. Others fail because they attempt to stay faithful to the full range of the original, and the story gets lost in all the detail (like Snow Falling on Cedars or the recent made-for-TV remake of Dune). Still others fail by presenting just one storyline of a book that was rich and varied (like Cider House Rules, where the script was written by the novel's author, John Irving).
In this case, the movie feels more rich and varied than the original -- introducing us to about a dozen interesting characters, and believably showing them all grow and change, without losing focus.
The changes to the basic story were bold and extremely effective. In the novel, the priest was the diabolical antagonist at the center of the story. In the movie, the priest is a rookie, well-meaning, vulnerable, and at the mercy of the mayor, who plays the role of antagonist, without being diabolical.
In the book, the church and religion are the enemy. In the movie, the enemy is a cold misinterpretation of religion, which can be "cured" by the realization that God is love.
In the book, the priest is unredeemably evil. In the movie, the mayor has a kind heart under his cold, controlling exterior.
The movie has a lighter, more subtle touch. For instance, in the book, at the climax, the priest is totally humiliated, discovered in the window of the chocolaterie by the entire town. But in the movie, it is the mayor who falls victim to temptation and is found in the window by Vianne and seen only by her and the priest, who keep his secret for him.
While shifting the center of the story, the movie also makes the characters richer, more understandable, and more interesting, for instance, providing Vianne with an exotic ancestry and past (tied to the semi-magical properties of her chocolate), and providing the mayor with a wife who has abandoned him. In the book, Armande is wealthy, and her daughter and son-in-law want to move her to an old folks home, in part, to get control of her money. In the movie, her daughter is a widow (with a suppressed romantic interest in the mayor), and concern for her mother's health is her clear motivation (with no hint of money). In the book, Vianne helps Josephine get away from her husband, but in the movie Josephine also becomes an apprentice, learning everything about the making of chocolate, and then teaching others in the town. Repeatedly, with very few words and very eloquent images, the movie introduces us to interesting and quirky characters and couples (composites of characters in the book, or new characters in the same vein as those in the book) -- telling volumes about their motivation, their frustration, their attempts at self-control, and their delight at surrendering to innocent temptation and finally enjoying the small pleasures of life, with exchanged looks and smiles.When a story is retold so well, we get a glimpse of how stories were sometimes improved in the retelling in the days of oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation by professional bards. We get a sense of how a good story can become even better when seen through the eyes and felt in the guts of a new and powerful bard, who does not feel constrained to merely repeat what has come before. We remember that Shakespeare was mainly a reteller of tales that others had told before (and in that sense was a true "bard"). And we are delighted that that tradition of true creative retelling can continue in the cinema.
The historical setting of Mason and Dixon is in the mid 1700s, about 50 years after that of Sot-Weed. And geographically, too, they are close: Sot-Weed in England and Maryland, and Mason and Dixon primarily in England, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. There is also at least one deliberate allusion to Sot-Weed in Mason and Dixon -- excerpts from a fictitious poem entitled "The Pennsylvaniad" in mock imitation of "The Marlandiad" from Sot-Weed.
But there the similarity ends. Sot-Weed is light and humorous, with a wild, complex plot to carry you along -- an easy, if lengthy read. Mason and Dixon has its humorous moments and passages of pure brilliance, but the story line is weak and hard to follow, with no clear conflict or antagonist. Individual scenes are fascinating. Individual characters are extraordinarily memorable. But the pieces don't seem to hold together. Missing is the marvelous paranoia that held together the wild fantastic episodes and characters of Pynchon's early books -- especially V and Crying of Lot 49, but also Gravity's Rainbow. In those books, the paranoid narrator found creative and convincing ways to link together events that otherwise would seem totally unrelated (rather like Nabokov's Kinbote in Pale Fire). Here there is a narrative frame, with an old friend of Mason and Dixon telling their story to his own extended family, after the American Revolution. But the narrator does not have a unifying vision. He seems to be telling one tale after another, almost Arabian Nights' style, rather than unraveling a mystery, making clear an elaborate plot, or speaking under a guilt-ridden compulsion to confess (like the Coleridge's Ancient Mariner). Although he is a character in the story he narrates, he doesn't seem to have any real stake in what happens; and the family chatter in the frame, while sometimes amusing, doesn't seem to add to the story.
Undoubtedly, graduate students will have fun trying to make sense of it all, and justify the author's strange choices. And undoubtedly, brilliant passages from this book will find their way into the very best anthologies used by colleges throughout the English-speaking world. But, as a whole, this novel simply doesn't work -- or rather it simply makes the reader work too hard for too little.
As in the Harry Potter books, magic and the supernatural suddenly appear in the everyday world, but instead of becoming a source of mystery to be pondered and solved, they are presented matter-of-factly, elicit no where near the surprise you'd expect in the characters who encounter them, and they disappear as quickly as they appeared. Such are Fang the talking dog in London, a flying coach, Emerson the magician who takes his class on flying excursions along the lines of ancient Roman roads, the ghost of Mason's wife Rebekah, a mechanical duck that comes to life, werewolves, and a coach and a building that are bigger on the inside than on the outside.
From the historical situation, Pynchon mines every conceivable source of the supernatural belief and superstition and presents them as comically real -- including the 11 days that were removed from the old style calendar to bring in back into line with the true solar year, and the unexplained mounds left behind by native Americans who pre-dated the "Indians" European settlers found. He makes much of historical details relating to astronomy and surveying at that time, such as how difficult and important it was to determine longitude (cf. that problem in Clavell's Shogun). And he makes a fascinating leap that associates the surveying of a line of latitude -- the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, which became the famous Mason-Dixon line separating the free North from the slave South -- with lines of magical force, ways of tapping into enormous and dangerous natural power. At times the book feels like an orgy of the esoteric, along the lines of Foucault's Pendulum by Ecco, but, once again, without pulling these pieces together, without the forward momentum of a plot that you can get caught up in and care about.
On the plus side, there's humor galore -- not only in the diction and the outlandish characters and scenes, but also in the cameo appearances of well-known historical figures, like Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington.
On the negative side, Pynchon simply abandons many of the intriguing elements that he introduces with such flare -- including the notion that the Earth might be hollow and inhabited on the inside, and the paranoic notion that the Jesuits are in cahoots with the Chinese in some world power conspiracy (a notion that seems pregnant with the paranoia that made The Crying of Lot 49 work so well).
Students who have to write about this book will find many fertile themes -- such as the nature of slavery and its equivalents in England, South Africa, Maryland, and Pennsylvania; and Protestant images of Catholicism and Jesuits in particular in the 18th century. (NB -- you have to get used to the style before you can understand, much less appreciate the wit of circumlocutions like "into the embrace of the Painted Whore herself," p. 164, which is a Protestant's way of referring to the Catholic church).
But despite the weaknesses -- which I've probably over-emphasized -- this book is well worth the time and effort of reading simply for the pleasure of individual scenes and inimitable passages such as this:
"Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is
America her dream? -- in which all that cannot pass in the
metropolitan Wakefulness is allow'd Expression away in the
restless Slumber of these Provinces and on West-ward, wherever
'tis not yet mapp'd, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority
of Mankind, seen, -- serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for
subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true, --
Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John,
Christ's Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next
Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur'd and tied
in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly
triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from
subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to
Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments, -- winning away
from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and
assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and
our Despair." (p. 34)
PS -- There's a minor geographic inaccuracy, on p. 341. Pynchon has his characters, travelling west from Philadelphia, cross the Susquehanna River at Wright's Ferry to get to Lancaster. But Lancaster is east of the Susquehanna. (My parents used to live in Columbia [formerly Wright's Ferry] and also in Lancaster. And I wrote a play about Wright's Ferry during the American Revolution, entitled Rights Crossing).
"In the last years of the seventeenth century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educated at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point." (p. 13)
But, miraculously and brilliantly, the author succeeds. We believe. We get involved. And we relish every wild twist of story. The impossible becomes possible. Deliberately outlandish figures become vulnerable, mortal, and lovable. The wild coincidences of the fast-moving and delightfully complex plot cease to be the arbitrary fancies of the author, and become instead part and parcel of this crazy ever-changeable, ever-unpredictable world that we all live in.
"What a shameless, marvelous dramatist is Life, that daily plots coincidences e'ev Chaucer would not dare and ventures complications too knotty for Boccacce!" (p. 680)
Barth has placed this story at a very interesting moment in the history of man's image of himself. Before this time, literature was dominated by cautionary tales of mutability and unpredicatability, arabian-nights-style romances wtih transformative magic and rapid changes of fortune. If there was an order to the universe, it was knowable only by God. We, poor mortals, had to be ever vigilant, prepared to cope with whatever new wild changes the world might bring, sufficiently humble not to presume to know what to expect, sufficiently brave to struggle against all odds, and with faith that this all mattered in some larger scheme of things that was beyond our ken. The hero coped with this rapidly changing, unknowable reality by remaining true to a personal code of conduct and honor -- a kind of moral armor.
Beginning in the Renaissance, and gaining momentum in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, science provided explanations of natural phenomena, creating an ever-increasing general confidence in the stability and predictability of the natural world. Newton (who figures briefly as a character in this novel) played a major role in that process, which eventually led to the myth of the clock-work universe -- nature as completely knowable and predictable, if we could just gather sufficient data, and fine-tune our equations.
"The whole history of his twenty-eight years it was that had brought him to the present place at the present time; and had not this history taken its particular pattern, in large measure from the influence of all the people with whom he'd ever dealt, and whose lives in turn had been shaped by the influence of countless others? Was he not, in short, bound to his post not merely by the sum of human history, but even by the history of the entire universe, as by a chain of numberless links no one of which was more culpable than any other?" (p. 579)
As we began to see Nature as predictable, our image of man changed. The mechanical world was populated by unpredictable man -- with an emphasis on man's physical nature and bodily functions, as in the earthy candor of authors like Rabelais and Fielding, as a source of humor, as well as pathos, since physicality implies mortality, as in Sterne's Tristram Shandy.
"That lives are stories, he assumed; that stories end, he allowed -- how else could one begin another? But that the storyteller himself must live a particular tale and die -- Unthinkable! Unthinkable!" (p. 288)
Later, the study of man led to new notions of predictability and mechanicalness, even extending to the unconscious; and hence philosophers and novelists fashioned different images of man, different concepts of where and how man might exert independence and will, and achieve some degree of dignity.
Today, science has come full circle, with major discoveries from Einstein to quantum physics to higher math based on the recognition of what we cannot know or predict, with the growing realization that the world as we perceive it is a construct of our minds, which evolved pragmatically to cope with everyday circumstances, and that the categories of perception which we take for granted differ from the "real" nature of nature, which is unknowable. With this changing image of man, it's only natural that we turn once again to the themes of medieval romance for inspiration and guidance, as well as amusement.
So by placing the story at a time when man's image of himself was undergoing radical change -- from the unpredictable world of romance to the rational realm of the enlightenment -- Barth sets us up to feel the resonances of today's similar, though reverse trend, from clock-work world to unknowable universe. We come to sympathize and identify with not just the characters, but also the spirit of the times.
"Yet the very un-Naturalness, the vanity, the hubris, as it were, of heroism in general and martyrdom in particular were their most appealing qualities; granted that the Earth, as Burlingame was fond of pointing out, is 'a dust-mote whirling through the night,' there was something brave, defiantly human, about the passengers on this dust-mote who perished for some dream of Value. (p. 732)
And like the characters, we can't help but try to make sense of the historical-fictitious world they are presented with, in all its humor and pathos:
"'... is man a salvage at heart, skinned o'er wih fragile Manners? Or is salvagery but a faint taint in the natural man's gentility which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel's arse.'" (p. 649)
We can't help but try to find new sources of meaning and dignity:
"'What matter if a man lives seven years or seventy? His years are not an eyeblink to eternity, and de'il the way he spends 'em -- whether steering ships or scribbling verse, or building towns or burning 'em -- he dies like a Ma fly when his day is done, and the stars go round their courses just the same. Where's the profit and loss o' his labors? He'd as well have stayed abed, or sat his bum on a bench and watch the blind wights curse and labor over naught.'
"Although Ebenezer stirred uneasily at these words, remembering his state of mind at Magdalene College and in his room in Pudding Lane, he nevertheless reaffirmed his belief in the value of human time, arguing from the analogy of precious stones and metals that the value of the commodities increases inversely with their supply where demand is constant, and with demand where supply is constant, so that mortal time, being infintesimally in support and virtually infinite in demand, was therefore infinitely precious to mortal men." (p. 568)
Don't get me wrong -- The Sot-weed Factor is a fun, wild merry-go-round of a story. It tells the tale of Ebenezer Cooke, "virgin and poet", and also of his former tutor Henry Burlingame III, who genie-like keeps reappearing in new disguises. At the same time it recounts (and reshapes) the early history of the colony of Maryland, with a delightful earthy lack of respect that gives otherwise incredible scenes and circumstances a sense of immediacy. (The world may change, but bodily functions and lusts remain the same.)
In his later novels -- Chimera and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor -- Barth once again demonstrates his remarkable ability to spin wild and amusing tales of an unpredictable world in the tradition of the Arabian Nights. But in The Sot-Weed Factor, history serves as an anchor for the author's fast-moving imagination, and provides a richness of detail and quirky sense of reality that is refreshing, fun, and truly unique.FYI -- Years after having written this review, much to my surprise, I discovered that there really was an 18th century poem entitled "The Sot-Weed Factor" attributed to an "Ebenezer Cook".
Patrick O'Leary defines his theme and his audience in the opening lines: "This is a story about monsters. The real ones. Not the ones we tell children about."
This is a fantasy -- in the tradition of Tolkien and of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy, and of Greek mythology -- but written in a style that is not meant for children. There's lots of story here, but the ways the story is told are often more important than the story itself. With stories inside stories inside stories, The Gift is too complex for children to follow. (I wouldn't read this aloud to my son, Tim, even though the main character here is named Tim). Rather this is a tale that you savor yourself, alone, and then retell pieces and read isolated passages to your children.
As in Tolkien, the fantasy world has undergone an evolution. There was a previous age, when dragons and powerful magic were common. The "great race who fell from the sky" were powerful wizards. They were deathless, but also without physical embodiment. They traded their immortality for human form, that they might feel fully, as humans do. Hence they died out. But one of the gifts which they left for man was the ability to tell stories.
"Everything must have a gift and a price. We wizards once were spirit. But we long to be human. What was the price we paid?"
"Death, the Watermen replied.
"And the gift we gave?"
"Magic." (p. 15)
That prehistory gives the tale a remarkable depth of reality -- shadows and mysteries and secrets to be revealed that interweave from page to page. This is not just the tale of a handful of individuals. This is sacred book credibly explaining the fantastical true nature of an entire new world. And the psychology and revelations keep resonating in unexpected ways with human psychology and the meaning of life in general.
O'Leary shows great respect for words, and great mastery in their use. He luxuriates in them, as he luxuriates in story for the sake of story, with all the paraphenalia of myth and fairy tale. He creates his characters and their fantastical natures with loving care, and respects their unique psychology, building story from their nature, rather than moving them about willy-nilly as mere markers in a story more important than themselves.
For O'Leary telling is a way of knowing, and naming (as for Adam and Eve in Eden) is a way of controlling nature. He seems to delight in the complex and unexpected interrelationship of words and things, frequently concocting wild and beautifully poetic images that enrich the story.
"'What are thoughts but a type of music,' he had wondered. 'Music unplayed in the air. Perhaps his Majesty has become an instrument. Perhaps someday we will have such instruments that will retrieve such invisible music.'" (pp. 73-74)
Stories have magic, mythic power to characters within the stories.
"Do you see what happened to the King?" the Teller asked. "he got a bad story in him. ... I see you do not understand. Listen, then. There are stories that hide themselves inside of us like bats inside a cave." ( p. 156)
The world is alive and what today passes as inanimate nature truly has personality and purpose (as in the days of nymphs and dyads).
"The winds left abruptly without a good-bye, for winds, though they are never purposely rude, have no sense of manners." (p. 153)
"Eventually, through the days of this fever-dream, as Marty and Simon watched over him, he learned in silence and despair that a person was capable of containing anything -- any horror, any grief, any hideous notion that battered his skull. He discovered that the body has extra places reserved for these new and awful things, as if there were rooms within, like the unused forms of a great castle, rooms that could hold and honor and sustain infinite levels of wonder and pain. (p. 206)
His assemblage of "remarkable facts, survival tactics, reliable opinions, and gossip" (p. 126) is truly beautiful, with brief phrases conjuring entire new ways of looking at the world, and one such miracle following another and another.
"He learned the names of the southern winds who were more dangerous because they were more awake, the names of every tree along the timberline, the way to know a storm is coming when you cannot see it, to pass through an evil cloud with your eyes closed, the most intelligent birds and how to address them. Avoid flying after dark for the wind has nightmares, beware of bats: they are mindless; drink no water on the plain: it has gone bad; never trust a talking blue jay; always trust a magpie: they have the gift of human speech because they are the best listeners; sparrows are the most loyal but also the stupidest birds; gold finches are splendid messengers, so long as they fly toward the sun; all hawks are mercenary and unreliable; butterlflies are sacred children: do not disturb them; never fly in one day longer than you can walk in twenty, for it is possible to forget how to walk; beware of the the tallest trees to the south: they have a magic too old to fool with; gosis love a shadow; eat only the fruit from green trees." (p. 126)
He makes the abstract concrete and memorable ("the wind has nightmares"), and a phrase that in someone else's book would be a mere metaphor, here is a revelation of unexpected, inner truth ("never trust a talking blue jay").
Superficially, O'Leary's first two published novels are very different. Door Number Three is science fiction, and The Gift is fantasy. But both are explorations of alternative modes of understanding and of being. In both bases, the starting point is the fact that human understanding is limited, though in Door the world in which the story unfolds resembles today's world, and in Gift the world resembles the world of folk tale and myth.
O'Leary appears to be a ruminator -- one who ponders his work for years, and lets his characters come to life in his mind, and lets his stories tell themselves over and over again in his mind before they take finished form on the page. And these two stories both grew in his mind simultaneously, until they were ready to be born.
Both are excellent, but The Gift has the greater richness of language and story, gives you more reason to return and read it again, makes you wish that the story were indeed simple enough to tell to children, so you'd have a good excuse to read it aloud time and again.
Being There by Jerzy Kosinski tells of a mentally deficient man who by chance spent his entire life locked up in a house, until his benefactor died. Then he stumbles out upon a world he has never seen before, and comedy and irony result from his naive and candid reactions to the world and also from the reactions of others to him. They keep presuming that there is thought and insight behind the random and television-inspired phrases he tosses around. He is like a figment of their imaginations, by chance magnified to extraordinary proportions -- the ultimate politician, despite himself. Peter Sellers starred in a very effective movie based on that plot.
In The Beggar's Shore by Zak Mucha, Joseph, the main character, also has lived a very sheltered life, rarely allowed out of the confines of a church/cult in the slums of Chicago, until he is 18. When he does break free, the world he sees, takes for granted, and learns to deal with is the world of the homeless and poverty-stricken. Naively and Candide-like, he encounters sexual deviance, drugs, violence, and theft. While he himself steals, sniffs toluene, and sometimes attacks others, he remains largely a simple, good-hearted victim. His main weakness is the gullibility that comes from his unfailing faith in other people, who repeatedly take advantage of him. Even though he grew up in this part of the city, he never before experienced it first hand -- he is very much a stranger in a strange land, a Gulliver who finds himself in one extraordinary unexpected circumstance after another.
On the one hand, the reader gets what appears to be a very realistic view of life on the streets, and what it takes to survive. On the other hand, this tale has strong religious overtones, with its origins in the church where Joseph's life begins. In this sense, Joseph is a "holy fool" in the medieval tradition -- someone whose simple-minded. largely unselfish naivete seems to put him close to God (as in Erasmus' Ship of Fools, Rabelais' Tier Livre, Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris [Hunchback of Notre Dame], Dostoeyvsky's Idiot, and late stories by Leo Tolstoy). In that tradition, reason is the basis of self-interested calculation and premeditation, and an individual who is a bit mentally deficient and thereby incapable of selfishness might in some sense be incorruptible and inherently holy.
As he moves through this hellish slum world, with allegorical dimensions, Joseph understands that he has done wrong, despite good intentions, and keeps expecting and even hoping for the divine retribution he believes he deserves. Sometimes this book reads like a modern Prilgrim's Progress without the hope of salvation.
The use of names adds to the allegorical, medieval feel, "Joseph didn't know any full proper names, just nicknames and titles left over from lives concluded long ago. As if their names didn't matter at all anymore." (p. 211). He deals with the Printer, the Mayor, the Preacher, and with characters only known by their first names. Hence, despite their bizarre behavior, characters are presented as examples or types rather than as unique individuals, with the implication that there are many more like them out there on the streets, not just of Chicago, but of cities around the world.
The matter-of-fact unadorned Hemingway-like style adds to this effect. Most sentences are simple, direct, declarative, short, and to the point. There is very little description. Everything is seen/filtered through Joseph's matter-of-fact mind, which never challenges why things should be the way they are, just tries to cope with what it encounters. Through his eyes, this hellish world is presented as unchangeable and unchanging. And his whitmanesque upbeat assumption that the lives he encounters have meaning, that the work-a-day tasks they perform are satisfying and signficant, adds to the overall unrelenting horror of it all:
"From the Wilson Avenue El Joseph rode high above the street and watched the third story windows of the brick three-flats roll past. Every window, it seemed, was darkened and every apartment was vacated for the afternoon. Joseph imagined that all of these people were out at work, or at the beach, or at the ballpark, or doing someting valuable and productive. Working in offices with magnificent and sweeping views of the entire city, driving taxis that circle the Loop, and then hustle out to the airport and back, serving coffee, dry-cleaning clothes, tending to hospital patients, sailing boats. Getting married, getting divored. Driving trucks, directing traffic, sitting in libraries, sitting in schools. Washing windows, waiting tables, waiting buses. Waiting for the day to end.
"So that at night they could all be back at their homes, with their families and neighbors, and every window would be warmly and safely lit until it was time for bed. They would sleep until the next day when it would all start again. And would start again the next day and go on just like that until years passed and the people died and new ones replaced the ones before them and nothing really would change." (p. 280)
Here we encounter a powerful, unique, new
voice. Let's hope we hear far more from Zak Mucha.
The New New Thing is really an old old kind of book, with more in common with biographies of 19th century adventurers and soldiers of fortune than with books about Internet startups and the new economy.
It relates the wild and unlikely tale of Jim Clark, with lots of gossipy detail and no useful information. His ability to guess what the "new new thing" will be and to make billions from it, is presented as an unaccountable, almost magical power. Wow! he sets a record by starting three multi-billion-dollar companies -- Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon. And our sense of wonder is heightened by the lack of any connection to practical reality, any lessons of experience that someone could learn from this.
This is a good read, a quick read, a book that lovers of celebrity biographies will enjoy. But the same could be said for The Devil Drives: a Life of Sir Richard Burton (the 19th century explorer/adventurer) by Fawn Brodie. "In a world where there seemed to be very little left to be discovered, he sought out the few remaining mysteries. He penetrated the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina at great risk and wrote detailed descriptions. He was the first European to explore the forbidden Moslem city of Harar in Somaliland, which promised death to any infidel. Then he turned to the mystery that had fired the curiosity of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, 'the greatest geographical secret after the discovery of America,' the source of the white Nile. Enduring great hardship, he succeeded with John Hanning Speke in discovering Lake Tanganyika, but just missed Lake Victoria, a failure that embroiled him in controversy and tragedy."
Jim Clark, like Sir Richard Burton, had incredible luck or instinct or both, succeeding against all odds, time and again. But unlike Burton, Clark's life was never at stake and Clark doesn't seem to have shown any interest in the meaning of what he was doing. "Richard Burton published forty-three volumes on his explorations and travels... In addition, he translated sixteen volumes of the Arabian Nights, six volumes of Portuguese literature, two volumes of Latin poetry, four volumes of folklore -- Neapolitan, African, and Hindu -- all of which have extensive annotations that help to illuminate Burton's character." Clark, instead of ruminating on the reasons for his success and the nature of today's wild business world, used his spare time to supervise the building of high-tech sailboats. And his biographer does nothing to make up for the central character's apparent lack of self-awareness.
The biographer keeps his eye on the player instead of the ball and the game. Imagine you are watching a World Series game, and the camera remains focused on Mickey Mantle, and the announcer talks about nothing but Mickey Mantle throughout the game. Every once in a while, the ball happens to come to center field and Mickey catches it. Three times, Mickey comes to the plate, and three times he hits home runs. But much of the time, Mickey just sits on the bench while his teammates bat, and the camera captures his face in extreme closeup, and we're entertained with flashbacks and anecdotes about his personal life. Yes, that's entertainment, but that isn't baseball. And yes, this book is very entertaining, but it gives you no idea at all of the game that Jim Clark played in, or how others could do well at that game.
Particularly telling is the description of how Clark ended up founding Netscape. He is portrayed as having been the mastermind behind the "interactive TV" boondoggle, having convinced the rest of the high-roller business world that the public yearned for movies on demand and prepackaged info to be pumped into homes through high-tech boxes connected to TV sets. Lewis indicates that that was what Clark had in mind when he hired Marc Andreesen, creator of the first Web browser for PCs -- Mosaic. Lewis says it was almost by chance that they turned their attention to the Internet as an alternative.
But the fundamental premise of "interactive TV" was flawed and was diametrically opposed to the Internet style. It wasn't "interactive" at all. The idea was for a small number of mega-companies to deliver high-priced content to passive consumers. The idea was to let them consumers have a limited number of choices -- such as which product to buy and how to pay for it. The idea was to keep the consumer locked in to a single vendor, so that multi-billion-dollar investments could be recouped and yield enormous profits.
The Internet, on the other hand, was primarily about people connecting with other people, people creating their own content and self-publishing it, people creating their own businesses on a shoestring and reaching global audiences. The Internet was about diversity, about a multitude of choices, about the beautiful kaleidoscopic anarchy of millions of people connected directly to one another.
As it turned out, Clark's Netscape gave the Internet an enormous boost, with a new browser that speeded up access to Web pages by about four-fold, without the user having to spend a penny. That made the Web fun and useful even at the 14.4 modem speeds that were common in the fall of 1994 when that first Netscape browser appeared; and speeded up the acceptance of the Web by the general public and by business.
But, if Lewis is right, Clark was clueless about what he was doing and what its impact might be on the global economy. He was just as clueless and lucky as Columbus stumbling upon America.
The other instances of multi-billion-dollar dumb luck -- Silicon Graphics and Healtheon -- were matters of mere money, probably without much long-term significance. But it's Healtheon that most of the book deals with -- a questionable business model, sold to the investing public largely on the reputation of Clark's previous successes, at a time when the market was incredibly gullible. And that part of the story doesn't seem at all adventurous or worthy of our awe.
Here is a man with over a billion dollars in assets investing a few tens of millions of dollars in another idea, and succeeding in fooling the public into thinking that that idea could work, without any tangible evidence, and hence raising the value of the stock to billions. His risk was minimal, and his gain was enormous. That's more the story of a successful swindler than a Columbus.
And once again, the biographer gives us no
sense of how the man did what he did, how this Houdini made
Internet funny money appear and disappear; and no sense of the
game and league in which Clark was just one player; and, of
course, no sense of the consequences of his actions had on
anyone but himself and his close associates.
I had just enough science in high school and college to recognize what sounds like a "break through," but not enough to make sense of it. I'm a serial science-breakthrough-reader, buying and reading book after book designed to explain quantum physics and related topics to the layperson. And each and every time, I come out with only the vaguest understanding of the reality described. I always figured that the barrier was math -- modern physicists thought in terms of mathematics, and the word explanations were just secondary. Another dimension was just another variable in an equation, in a branch of math that was several years, at least, beyond my introductory calculus class in college. I didn't understand the symbols, couldn't plug in values, couldn't make sense of results, much less understand how the equations were derived. As for biology, I know what a double helix looks like, but have no understanding of chemistry, and the complexities of proteins and DNA and RNA, all depend on chemistry.
In field, after field of science, for one reason or another, I couldn't understand the basics -- I could never hope to conduct an experiment of the kind that modern scientists do, much less draw the appropriate conclusions. I was condemned to be an outsider -- watching from the topmost row of the upper deck, unable to figure out what was happening on the field without radio commentary. In my ignorance, I had to take science on faith, rather than on its own terms. Rather than questioning natural processes directly in a laboratory, I could only question those who worked in laboratories, and I didn't even know enough to properly speak their language. In the history of science, I began to lose touch somewhere in the 17th century, with Newton.
My high school and college science classes didn't really teach me science. Rather they taught me the names and acts of the saints of science and the canon of faith that they profess has been revealed to them. Yes, I should revere Einstein, just as I should revere the doctrines of relativity and quantum physics. But the longer I was out of college and the faster the pace of scientific development, the more difficult it became for me to judge what was happening and assign the appropriate degree of holiness and divine truth to the major figures and the theories they espoused. How could I possibly determine how many quarks could dance on the head of a needle? How could I be sure there even were such things as "quarks"? Increasingly, it seemed that not only were energy and matter interchangeable, but reality and unreality as well. Or rather it seemed that all language was irrelevant -- trying to catch water in a sieve. All that mattered were the mathematical equations that resembled Sanskrit and that predicted and described the results of experiments that could only be performed in one or two specially-equipped laboratories.
Now, thanks to What Remains to Be Discovered by John Maddox, finally I have a framework for understanding current scientific developments -- a context or mind-map to relate them to. This former editor of Nature provides a very readable and helpful summary of all current scientific development. He does so with the tongue-in-cheek authority of a scientist who has been asked by editors to do the impossible -- to describe "what remains to be discovered," what science hasn't done yet, but will soon. He sets that tone in the subtitle: "Mapping the secrets of the universe, the origins of life, and the future of the human race." In the table of contents he describes Part One: Matter, "...in which the origins of the universe and of matter are explored, as well as the prospects for a theory of everything." Similarly, for Part Two: Life, he says, "... in which the origin of life is considered, as well as biological machinery, the riddle of the selfish gene, and the next human genome projects." And he finishes with Part Three: Our World, "... in which the nature of our brain is explained, as well as our greatest invention, mathematics, and how we will avoid the catastrophes of the future."
We soon learn that the author is, in fact, quite humble in dealing with the immense range of scientific inquiry, and is very reluctant to make the kinds of wild predictions that the title and table of contents would suggest. Rather, he carefully, and very readably presents an overview of what has happened up to now, with an emphasis on the last half of the twentieth century. He explains complicated concepts in simple language, points out how one field of inquiry depends on and influences others, and shows the general direction of scientific endeavor.
His approach differs radically from the writings of 19th century apostles of science or 20th century Marxists who believed in Progress and believed it was inevitable. Through Maddox' story we get a sense of the human drama of science -- the competition to be the "first," the exhilaration of making "discoveries." We learn to respect these new heroes and saints and to recognize the far-reaching practical implications of their seemingly abstruse theoretical pursuits. But at the same time, we come to realize that the "reality" they seek to understand is in large part an illusion. It is as if they were coming up with better and better ways to describe the Veil of Maya, without coming any closer to understanding or even glimpsing what lies beyond.
The title implies a concept of "discovery" that resembles the maps of the mid-19th century. Much of the world had been visited by European man. There were still some tracts of land marked "unknown," but it was inevitable that explorers would reach there soon and fill in all the gaps in "what remained to be discovered."
But, in fact, as Maddox gently and eloquently teaches us, the more we know, the more we know we don't know, and the more we know about the limitations of what man can ever know.
Consider this passage from Emerson's essay/portrait of Swedenborg in Representative Men:
"He was apt for cosmology, because of that native perception of identity which made mere size of no account to him. In the atom of magnetic iron, he saw the quality which would generate the spiral motion of sun and planet.
"The thoughts in which he lived were, the universality of each law in nature; the Platonic doctrine of the scale or degrees; the version or conversion of each into the other, and so the correspondence of all the parts; the fine secret that little explains large, and large little; the centrality of man in nature, and the connection that subsists throughout all things: he saw that the human body was strictly universal, or an instrument through which the soul feeds and is fed by the whole of matter...
"This theory dates from the oldest philosophers, and derives perhaps its best illustration from the newest. It is this: that nature iterates her means perpetually on successive planes. In the old aphorism, nature is always self-similar."
To Emerson and the thinkers who came before him, the world and our senses, nature and our ability to understand it seemed perfectly suited to one another. And what we learned about the world in our own scale, applied as well to the very small and the very large. By extension, well into the twentieth century, school children were taught an atom was like a solar system in miniature, with electrons orbiting around the nucleus.
In the modern science described by Maddox, our minds -- our ability to understand -- evolved as a practical mechanism to deal with the "reality" we encountered at the human scale.
Repeatedly, science has dethroned "man," disproving long-standing assumptions that gave us a false sense of being the center of the universe or the culmination of all of natural history. Now we realize that even our brains are not at the center of things, that we are not equipped to understand what lies beyond a very limited horizon, and that we cannot with any confidence predict that the workings of nature at the very small or very large will bear any resemblance at all to the world we see around us, or follow patterns that we would consider "logical" or could describe adequately with even the most advanced mathematics, or even that the same "laws" of physics apply throughout the universe at great distances as well as at different scales.
As Maddox says in his concluding chapter, "Unwilling or unable to accept the seemingly paradoxical behavior of single particles, such as electrons moving through both of two slits at the same time, for example, he [Albert Einstein] sought instead a set of equations whose elegance and symmetry would command respect, and by which even paradoxical phenomena would be explicable. Einstein's quest was no doubt impelled by his great success with the general theory of relativity (otherwise the theory of gravitation), which first won attention through its elegance. As the world now knows, it was a fruitless search. Quantum phenomena are often wrongly described as paradoxes for no better reason than that they conflict with the expectations of common sense, which themselves spring from human senses that have been honed by natural selection for telling what the macroscopic world is like. It is disconcerting that phenomena on the small scale are at odds with expectation, but there is a wealth of experimental data for which no other explanation is possible. How else than by experiment can reality be described?" (p. 373)
In context, that rhetorical question is far from rhetorical. Science, based on experiment, is reaching into a realm that our brains are ill-equipped to understand. And the experiments required to give us insight into the next lower order of magnitude -- quarks and gluons and gravitons -- require ever more sophisticated and expensive accelerators backed by ever more powerful computers to help capture and sort the results. The possible implications of these experiments to come are extraordinary and fascinating, but must wait until the next generation of accelerator is completed at CERN in 2005. Then to go beyond that level will require far more expensive experimental apparatus, taking many more years to construct; and then the next and the next... Indeed, a non-scientist, like myself, might well dream the impossible dream of a science that goes beyond science, a means of learning about "reality" and describing it without depending on experiments.
Speculating in a realm where Maddox certainly doesn't go in this book, I can't help but wonder that if our brains are limited by having evolved in the macroscopic world of our daily activity, then might it not be possible through computer simulation to let computer programs evolve specifically intended to "understand" or at least cope with the flavors of reality encountered at different sub-atomic scales?
So on the one hand, What Remains to Be
Discovered provides a practical context for understanding
today's science news and enjoying all those great articles in Scientific
American. And on the other hand, it poses interesting
questions about the nature of man and the knowability of the
universe, taking us far beyond the realm of science.
Victor Pelevin's remarkable novel Buddha's Little Finger highlights the unreality of Russia today and its similarities to Russia in the days of the revolutionary by shuttling back and forth between the 1990s and 1918-19. In the 1990s, the main character of this first person narrative is Pyotr Voyd (the connotation "void" is intentional), a patient in a mental hospital. In 1918-19, this same person is Petka, sidekick of the Bolshevik commander Chapaev. In the present day, each of the patients, in a drug-induced hypnotic trance, tells about a critical moment in his inner life. Some of these tales would be intriguing short stories if published alone. (I previously read and enjoyed an extract from chapter 6 in Granta 64: Russia, the Wild East.) The disjunction from chapter to chapter and from one way of life to another highlights the dreamlike, almost insane unreality of contemporary events, and the difficulty of adjusting to it.
What for decades seemed real and immutable has been revealed as illusion. As Maria, one of the patients, puts it, " ... if you want to get out of here some time, you have to read the newspapers and experience real feelings while you're doing it. And not start doubting the reality of the world. Under Soviet power we were surrounded by illusions. But now the world has become real and knowable. Understand?" (p.108)
As the psychiatrist, Timur Timurovich, notes: "... nowadays almost everyone suffers from the same subconscious conflict. What I want you to do is recognize its nature. You know, the world around us is reflected in our consciousness and then it becomes the object of our mental activity. When established connections in the real world collapse, the same thing happens in the human psyche. And this is accompanied by the release of a colossal amount of psychic energy within the enclosed space of your ego. It's like a small atomic explosion. But what really matters is how the energy is channeled after the explosion." (pp. 32-33)
In other words, Pyotr Voyd's mental illness is not just a literary symbol for dealing with the illogical disjunctions of recent history. Within the context of the novel, the illness is in fact caused by the historical changes. This is an ironic twist on the doctrine of dialectical materialism. The physical/historical world shapes the consciousness of the individual; so when that objective world undergoes massive change in a very short time, as a consequence, the mental world of the individual explodes with energy.
In one sense, the Chapaev story is Pyotr's tale, which he dreams in the mental hospital and tells to his fellow inmates. In another sense, that story is a separate reality, and Pyotr/Petya is totally confused by the disjunction (moving from the one reality to the other abruptly like the hero in the old TV series Quantum Leap, but without any understanding of why and how this is happening to him). "It was painful to look at those men [the other inmates] and imagine the dark maze woven by the pathways of their fates. They had been deceived since childhood, and in essence nothing had changed for them because now they were simply being deceived in a different fashion... If I, just like them, am unable to understand, or even worse, merely imagine I understand the nature of the forces which control my life when I do not, then how am I any better than a drunken proletarian sent off to die for the word 'Internationalism'? Because I have read Gogol, Hegel and even Herzen? The whole thing was merely a bad joke." (p. 75)
Chapaev is an effective military leader when need be, but he is far more interested in philosophy and religion and the ultimate nature of reality than in the vagaries of the civil war. And the world in which he lives also has undergone an abrupt transformation, from Czarist to Communist rule.
Petya is inclined toward fatalism, a abdication of personal responsibility because he is at the mercy of forces beyond his control. "'... man is rather like this train. In exactly the same way he is doomed for all eternity to drag after hi out of the past a string of dark and terrible carriages inherited from goodness knows whom. And he calls the meaningless rumbling of this accidental coupling of hopes and opinions and fears his life. And there is no way to avoid this fate." (p. 84)
Chapaev, on the contrary, is a radical idealist (despite his role as a Bolshevik officer), and he repeatedly and creatively emphasizes man's ultimate freedom, regardless of the material circumstances. "'I wish to propose a toast,' said Chapaev, resting his hypnotic gaze on me, 'for the terrible ties in which it has been our lot to be born, and for all those who even in such days as these do not cease to strive for freedom.'" (p. 80)
Near the end of the story, Chapaev introduces Petya to a dead Baron, who then leads Petya to another plane of being or to a land of the dead and explains, "The world in which we live is simply a collective visualization, which we are taught to make from our earl childhood. It is, in actual fact, the only thing that one generation hands on to the next. When a sufficient number of people see this steppe, this grass and feel this summer wind, then we are able to experience it all together with them. But no matter what forms might be prescribed for us by the past, in reality what each of us sees in life is still only a reflection of his own spirit." (p. 235)
At times this idealism that Petya/Pyotr learns sounds like an echo of Emerson, "I used to do a lot of travelling, and then at some moment I suddenly realized that no matter where I might go, in reality I can do no more than move within a single space, and that space is myself." (p.283) (cf. the essay on Self-Reliance)
At other times, it borrows heavily from Buddhism, and plays with mystifying symbols and contradiction. "As soon as I know... I am no longer free. But I am absolutely free when I do not know." (p. 301) "Absolute emptiness is the homeland, the mother is the unborn." (p. 311) At those times, the spirit and style of the story seem to hearken back to the pre-revolutionary novelist Andre Biely, the symbolist poet Alexander Blok, and the mystical visions of philosopher/poet Sergei Soloviev, who foresaw the apocalyptic fate and redemption of Russia symbolically connected with the East.
And, indeed, while each piece draws the reader
in, like interconnected short stories, the overall effect is
more poetic and philosophical than novelistic. You are left with
indelible images and puzzles rather than the quick fix of a plot
that neatly ties up all the narrative issues at the end.
I was deeply involved in Internet business during the era described, working as an Internet evangelist for Digital Equipment, then Compaq 1993-1998. I know some of the people mentioned along the way, and remember the industry events/developments described. But much of what I read here bears little resemblance to my memories. For me that was a plus for this book, helping me to take another look at those events from a different perspective. But, in general, readers should beware -- the author's viewpoint is very personal, emotional and idiosyncratic. That's the book's greatest strength as well as its weakness. Don't expect dispassionate history or unbiased business analysis. Do expect an entertaining inside look at board-room-level wheeling and dealing in the early days of business on the Internet.
Sometimes the author seems more interested in settling old scores than seeking truth. As part of the purchase agreement, Microsoft made Ferguson agree to say absolutely nothing to anybody about Microsoft for a couple years. He used that time to write this book, and published it after the gag order expired. While these pages deal with high tech business, there's personal emotion in every page, sometimes descending to mere gossip, rather then providing details about decisions and business techniques that you could adapt to your own business. But that approach helps make this book very readable, entertaining, dynamic.
On the other hand, He does an exceptionally good job of explaining to a non-technical audience the importance of architecture in software design, and the long-term consequences (illustrated by the case of Netscape) of failing to structure your company and your design efforts that way.
Along the way, Ferguson makes himself sound like a prophet for foreseeing trends that seemed obvious to many others in the industry at the time, but that, admittedly, seemed outrageously revolutionary and impossible to outsiders. But he is also brutally honest about his own failures. Apparently, he was extremely lucky to sell Vermeer to Microsoft when he did and for a very good price. At that time, Vermeer had generated trivial revenue, only selling about 200 copies of FrontPage. While they got lots of attention in the press and good visibility at trade shows, they apparently had mispriced the product and the end-user marketing effort was going nowhere.
Considering that outcome, you might think that one of the major lessons learned should have been the importance of marketing strategy to the business success of an Internet startup. But no -- he sees his mistakes more in terms of personalities, such as hiring the wrong person to run the company. His bias is still strongly in favor of making business decisions based on technology, and putting little emphasis on marketing and management.
He makes a few sneering references to the Internet Assistant -- Microsoft's first attempt at an easy-to-use Web authoring tool, which was later incorporated into Word for Office 98. Actually, that's an excellent, very efficient, very easy-to-use solution, which I've used for creating Web pages since 1995.
He also shows no awareness of the main
weakness of FrontPage -- that it focuses narrowly on page
design, with no appreciation for the marketing value of Web
content, no built-in understanding of the search-engine-related
consequences of page design decisions. Hence users often create
sites and pages that search engines can't index or index poorly,
and hence they wind up having to spend more in marketing and
advertising to attract traffic.
His analysis of the Internet software industry feels limited and flawed. It needs to be balanced by an appreciation for open software development efforts like Apache and Linux. (See the excellent book on that subject The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond, and my review of it at www.seltzerbooks.com/bazaar.html). In Web server software, not Netscape, not Microsoft, but Apache appears to be the clear winner -- with no advertising, no fanfare.
If you are looking for venture capital for an Internet startup, this book is a "must-read." Ferguson's experience and advice might prove very useful. He names names (both individuals and companies) and blasts away with brutal, very personal candor. But you need to keep in mind that venture capital procedures and players change very quickly. In Internet terms Ferguson's 1994-96 experience is ancient history, valuable mainly as background.
This is another "Internet entrepreneur as modern-day hero" book. It emphasizes every thought and gesture and negotiating ploy of the folks at the top -- like the old-style history books that focused on the intrigues of royal families and the speeches of generals. It gives no clue of what happened in the trenches, what mattered to the folks who were doing the day-to-day design and marketing work or to the folks who needed and used software products of this kind.
Conclusion -- you have to read it; you'll
enjoy reading it; but you'll wind up with an empty feeling in
your gut and a bitter aftertaste in your mouth.
Yes, reading aloud is slower than reading to yourself; and, aloud, at a pace of 30 pages an hour, it will take you about 24 hours to read it cover to cover. Yes, you will be tempted to race ahead, tempted to skim to get to the resolution of this problem and the next one. But reading aloud, you won't be able to skim, and hence will be forced to enjoy every last word of it, and you'll have someone who knows just as much as you do, and nothing more, with whom to share the pleasure of talking about the characters and what's likely to happen next and why.
Give the characters their own unique voices. The rhythms that the author has given to their speeches, and the care with which she has delineated their perspectives and personalities will make that relatively easy. Don't just read -- perform, while experiencing all the surprises of the narrative for the first time.
Maybe you'll become addicted to this way of enjoying stories, and nineteenth-century-style, wind up gathering as a family in front of the fireplace each evening to read the next chaper of Dickens or Mark Twain.
Have no fear -- you won't be bored. While the characters are children, the plot and the magical world in which it unfolds have all the richness of a Shogun. You'll find it quite easy to identify with not just Harry, but also his closest friends, Ron and Hermione, as they try to make sense of the bizarre world they find themselves in and as they struggle to sort out all the clues and evaluate who they can and should trust to survive and succeed as individuals, while saving their world from the forces of evil.
In this volume, as in the ones that came before, when the moment of crisis arrives, Harry and his friends have to depend on their own resources. They can't rely on any adult. They can't really know for sure who is on their side and who might be working for the evil Voldemort. And in this one, at times, Harry is very much alone, isolated even from those friends.
Part of that isolation comes from the fact that they are now older. Each book covers a year at the wizarding school of Hogwarts. So Harry and his friends, who in book one were age ten, are now fourteen, and boy-girl relationships and emotions and resulting self-consciousness and competition and jealousy begin to play an important role, and for them are at least as hard to understand and cope with as the spells they need to learn for homework and the devious traps set by arch-villain Voldemort and disguised allies.
And in the main plotline -- the struggle with
Voldemort -- no matter what Harry does, no matter how courageous
and brilliant and lucky he is, no matter how much help he gets
from friends and from adults, no matter how well or how many
times he saves his world, there is no guarantee that he will get
any credit for it, that anyone, outside his core circle of
friends, will believe his story. So what you might have expected
would resolve all conflict, becomes just the start of the next
episode and the last chapter is "The Beginning," which is
actually the happiest possible ending to such an amazing tale.
Let's just hope it doesn't take another full year for J.K.
Rowling to write and publish the next one -- that's simply too
long to wait.
In the Penguin edition, translated by Cecil Parrott, The Good Soldier Svejk is mildly funny because of the thick-headed stupidity of Svejk, and one episode seems to follow another, without you ever getting a feeling for his personality. As you get used to the non-sequitur style of his responses to bureaucratic figures, the humor becomes stale, and this becomes one of those books that you read just because you feel an obligation to do so, just because you've seen this work referred to reverently so many times.
But the new translation by Zdenek Sadlon and Emmit Joyce produces a very different effect. In this version, Svejk is a subtle and clever character who deliberately pretends to be stupid, and uses this stupidity to mock authority, through his refusal to play the game of life by their rules. Here you laugh with Svejk, rather than at him, and the more you get to know him, the more you like him. In fact, the difference in tone is set right at the beginning, where the translators explain that Svejk is pronounced "Shvake" and rhymes with "bake", and they say, "So, now you're ready to Svejk and bake!"
In many passages, you see some of the same words and phrases in both editions. But in the Parrott translation, the effect is stilted and unnatural. You move along at a halting pace, while in the new translation, the narrative flows smoothly, letting you focus on the character. Parrott includes numerous footnotes to explain the terminology in the text, while the new version generally makes the text self-explanatory, only rarely resorting to footnotes. Often Parrott uses an archaic term that sends you to a dictionary or distances the story from your personal experience. The new translation uses contemporary terms. Parrott judiciously avoids "dirty words"; while the new version uses common everyday obscenity. Even the punctuation in the Parrott edition distances the reader from the story, using single quotes (') where modern usage calls for double quotes ("), omitting the period after "Mr" and "Mrs", omitting commas where they would be natural, and letting sentences ramble on, perhaps to faithfully or literally render the original, but making it difficult for the reader to follow the train of thought.
Consider the opening of the book:
'And so they've killed our Ferdinand,' [footnote] said the charwoman to Mr Svejk, who had left military service years before, after having been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now lived by selling dogs -- ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged.
Apart from this occupation he suffered from rheumatism and was at this very moment rubbing his knees with Elliman's embrocation.
'Which Ferdinand, Mrs Muller?' he asked, going on with the massaging, 'I know two Ferdinands. One is a messenger at Prusa's, the chemist's, and once by mistake he drank a bottle of hair oil there. And other is Ferdinand Kokoska who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss.'
'Oh no, sir, it's His Imperial Highness, the Archduke Ferdinand, from Konopiste, the fat churchy one.'
"So they've done it to us," said the cleaning woman to Mr. Svejk. "They've killed our Ferdinand."
Svejk had been discharged from military service years ago when a military medical commission had pronounced him to be officially an imbecile. Now, he was making his living by selling dogs, ugly mongrel mutants that he sold as purebreds by forging their pedigrees. In addition to this demeaning vocation, Svejk also suffered from rheumatism and was just now rubbing his aching knees with camphor ice.
"Which Ferdinand, Mrs. Muller?" he asked. "I know two Ferdinands. One is the pharmacist Prusa's delivery boy, who drank up a whole bottle of hair potion once by mistake. And then, I know one Ferdinand Kokoska, who collects dog turds. Neither one would be much of a loss."
"But Mr. Svejk! They killed the Archduke Ferdinand, the one from Konopste, the fat one, the religious one."
The consequences become apparent almost immediately. In Parrott, Svejk's occupation -- selling "mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged" -- is just one of a number of odd facts jumbled together in rapid succession. You stumble forward in the text just remembering that this is a stupid man who sells ugly dogs.
In contrast, the diction in the new translation flows naturally and puts Svejk in charge of his own destiny "selling dogs, ugly mongrel mutants that he sold as purebreds by forging their pedigrees." This man makes a living by fooling people. That's hardly what you'd expect of an "imbecile". Rather, it's what you'd expect of someone smart enough to get discharged from the military as an imbecile -- a complex and interesting character, who can challenge and beat the establishment, not by confronting it head-to-head, but by doing and saying everything it asks of him, with an innocent and compliant smile. If you enjoyed Heller's Catch-22, you'll enjoy the Good Soldier Svejk. But Svejk is a far more subtle and complex and interesting character than Yossarian. Here we have a unique and comic form of rebellion. Here we have a character whose unassuming behavior repeatedly shows up the stupidity of the people and the system that have labeled him as stupid. Here we have an ordinary man-of-the-street repeatedly tripping up officers and government officials, making a mockery of them, while seeming to maintain a childlike, almost holy innocence. He's a confidence man posing as a holy fool. His is the wisdom of the streets, the wisdom of the downtrodden playing on the naivete of those in authority.
So the new translation is a "must read," but where can you find it? It was published by the translators themselves, rather than by a major publishing company. Hence you can't find it on the shelves of physical book stores and you probably won't find a copy in your local library. But you can buy it online in a print-on-demand edition, either from the print-on-demand site -- www.1stbooks.com -- or at Amazon.com. Look for "The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk." This edition only includes "book one," but that's a self-contained work that reads like a complete novel. And if enough people order this volume, hopefully the translators will soon make the rest available as well.
I placed my order at the 1st Books Web site and paid by credit card -- $10.95, plus standard shipping. Five days later the book arrived at my house -- an attractive, professional looking, easy to read, and well bound paperback book.
If the word spreads, this way of producing and
distributing books could and should become the norm. With no
waste in printing and distributing and warehousing large
quantities of books that people don't want, the costs and risks
of book publishing could diminish greatly. And that could lead
to an increase in the variety and quality of books readily
available to the public. In other words, today, thanks to the
Internet as a means of connecting buyers and sellers, we are
seeing the beginnings of a major revolution in book publishing,
still long before electronic books begin to replace paper.
He uses simple declarative sentences, laced with one- and two-syllable words. And the next thing you know he's giving you the essence of Socrates/Plato, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzche.
He doesn't talk down to anyone or parade his erudition. With turns of phrase that feel now and right and immediate, as if he were a high-paid writer of advertising copy for a major potato chip company, he gives us the straight scoop on life, the universe and everything. It's simply beautiful.
For instance: "There may be no good reason for things to be the way they are." (p. 23) With those words, he summarizes a main theme of Socrates/Plato. That sentence consists of just seven one-syllable words, and "reason." Direct, to the point, and utterly without pretense.
With a style like this, Alain de Botton could write about absolutely anything and I'd be fascinated. And in fact, he does write about anything -- from the contemporary culture of shopping malls to abstruse literature and philosophy -- all with the greatest of ease. His previous books included The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping, and the Novel (1994), How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), and two playful romantic-comedy novels On Love (1993) and Kiss and Tell (1995).
So how does a stylistic master of the frivolous, adept at uncovering the hidden humor and meaning in ordinary modern events and objects, like a Nicholson Baker or a Jerry Seinfeld, how does such a comic genius manage to produce a delightful a 244-page tour of Western philosophy? The bio blurbs on the covers of his other books just indicated that he was born in Switzerland in 1969 (the year I graduated from college), was educated at Cambridge, and lives in London. This book reveals that, in fact, "he is a director of the Graduate Philosopy Program at London University."
He punctuates his narrative with humorous pictures, many of them gleaned from contemporary life, and emphasizes the immediate applicability and modernity of the ideas and principles discussed. For instance, in the Socrates chapter we see a magazine cover in the midst of the text, "We lack a portrait of Meno, too, though on looking through a Greek men's magazine in the lobby of an Athenian hotel, I imagined that he might have borne a resemblance to a man drinking champagne in an illuminated swimming pool. The virtuous man, Meno confidently informed Socrates, was someone of great wealth who could afford good things."
Other times, he produces the same effect by inserting anecdotes from his own life.
He's like a modern Alexander Pope, using rhetorical tricks with professional skill. His juxtaposition of the ordinary contemporary reality and the most revealing and provocative thoughts of some of the greatest philosphers in history (restated so they feel natural and obvious) produces comic effect -- like Pope's "cabbages and kings." But de Botton uses this device not just for humor, but also to pound home the point that these "great thinkers" were men like us, with the same concerns and human frailty as us, and that their insights can help make our lives more fun, meaningful, and satisfying.
He's like a modern Socrates, taking us on a stroll through western history and philosophy, and poking at everything he comes across with questions that undermine every sign of self-satisfied pretense and with comments that go right to the heart of important issues. Never for a moment does he exalt his own brilliance, but rather reminds us again and again that we all have reason and can arrive at truth on our own -- without depending on the authority of "great men" -- if we simply have the self-confidence and discipline to think for ourselves.
Like Richard Powers, Alain de Boton is an "opus author" for me, meaning I'm totally hooked. From this point on, whatever he writes, I'll buy and read and probably delight in as soon as it comes out.
PS -- Consolations is now my favorite of his
works, but How Proust Can Change Your Life is a close second.
There Alain de Botton finds just the right word to subtly,
humorously, and gracefully introduce you to a delicate and
delicious way of looking at the world, of relating to people,
and of living and writing. He illuminates the work of Proust
while not seeming to. The style is conversational and light,
rather than scholarly. There are no footnotes, no bibliography,
no index. This is a personal appreciation, a delightful and
idiosyncratic reading of everything that Proust wrote. The
beauty of this book is in the details, how the mind works. He
opens our eyes and sensitizes us to the world around us, helping
us to see the world as fresh and new, just as he says that
Proust does, and just as Proust says true artists do.
In Plowing the Dark, one thread of narrative focuses on a development team in Seattle working on 3D virtual reality; and the other follows an individual kidnapped and held hostage by terrorists in Lebanon. The time-lines of the two stories overlap -- late 1980s to early 1990s. But the people in the different stories do not know one another, do not know anyone who knows one another, and never communicate with one another using real-world technology. But on some other plain of being, the imaginative experiences of Adie Karpol, an artist who becomes immersed in a 3D world she has helped to build -- a detailed computer model of the Hagia Sophia cathedral/mosque in Constantinople/Istanbul -- and Taimur Martin, who struggles to maintain his sanity and survive in conditions of prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation, intersect -- with Adie inspiring Taimur at a critical moment and Taimur's influence leading to a sudden change in Adie's life.
The intersection and its interpretation occur in the final pages of the book, in scenes that defy scientific explanation, but that are presented so delicately and yet powerfully and with such convincing psychology that you willingly suspend your disbelief and enjoy the emotional impact. In the final few pages, where you at last are shown the critical moment from the perspective of Taimur, give you a feeling of emotional closure and completeness, and leave you with a sense that there might, in fact, be another realm of reality.
"At the first interrogation, they go easy. But already they ask you: How is it you can still be here, after the years of where you've been?
"You do not tell them now, though in time you'll have to. They won't be able to make out what you have to say. How you gave in to the final abyss, how you dropped into the darkness beneath your permanent blindfold. How in the moment that you broke and fell, you never hit. How you saw, projected in a flash upon that dropping darkness, a scene lasting no longer than one held breath. A vision that endured a year and longer. One that made no sense. That kept you sane. A glimpse of the transfer-house of hostage. Of the peace that the world cannot give.
"You'll have to say, someday: how the walls of your cell dissolved. How you soft-landed in a measureless room, one so detailed that you must have visited it once. But just as clearly a hallucination, the dementia of four years of solitary. A mosque more mongrel than your own split life, where all your memorized Qur'an and Bible verses ran jumbled together. A temple on the mind's Green Line, its decoration seeping up from awful subterranean streams inside you, too detailed to be wholly yours."
The "Cavern", which was the research facility, becomes Plato's cave; and the other reality is not some high-tech fifth dimension but rather is "a truth only solitude reveals," a truth that in some sense is God.
"For God's sake, call it God. That's what we've called it forever, and it's so cheap, so self-promoting to invent new vocabulary for every goddamned thing, at this late date. The place where you've been unfolds inside you."
And Taimur, finally a free man, returns to his family like a dead man returning to the world of the living.
"For a little while, you are that angel.
Ephemeral saintliness hangs on you. It will not last. Already,
irritations seep into your fingertips. You feel yourself
slipping bakc to the conditions of living. But for a time,
briefer than your captivity, and only because of it, you are
burned pure, by everything you look upon."
This time the zaniness is more controlled, the main characters are all human (unlike in Skinny Legs in which inanimate objects like a bean can and a dessert spoon walked and talked and provided insight into the thousands of years of human history that they had witnessed), and the action all takes place in the present day (with none of the jumping back and forth from ancient times to now, as in Jitterbug Perfume). The result is probably his best novel to date.
Typically, the main characters of Robbins novels are totally off the wall, and only by a tour de force does he get us to believe them and sympathize with them and suspend our disbelief probably further than we have for any other author. Switters, the hero of Fierce Invalids, is far more human and believable. He feels quirky in an Allie McBeal sort of way, where his bizarre reactions and motivations seem to fit together and make him endearingly human, and his illogic is just logical enough to intrigue.
Yes, Switters, the hero, a CIA operative, goes on a personal detour in Peru to return his grandmother's elderly parrot to the wilds of the Amazon. Yes, he chances upon a shaman whose head has the same shape as the parrot's unique cage -- like an Egyptian pyramid -- and whose innovative philosophy of life happens to closely resemble the parrot's one line "People of zee wurl, relax." Yes, Switters takes to a wheel chair for fear that due to the shaman's curse he will die if his feet ever touch the ground again. But the author goes out of his way to explain such outlandish circumstances, and presents everything in such a light-hearted humorous way, and strings so many impossible pieces of plot together with even more impossible coincidences, that you just enjoy the tale -- as you would Tom Jones or Cat's Cradle -- and find yourself amazed at how he then makes a religion out of humor of this kind, and actually throws light on human nature and destiny and the nature of religion.
Along the way, we get the gospel according to Robbins: laughter is holy, and opposites (yin and yang, male and female, dark and light, good and evil, God and the Devil) are in some sense interdependent and both necessary like the ones and zeroes of binary math.
Coincidence normally is a sign of novelistic artifice. Realistic authors either avoid coincidences, or build a story around one major coincidence. Humorous and ironic authors -- like Fielding and Dickens -- multiply coincidences and call attention to them, reminding us as we are reading that this is in fact fiction.In Tom Robbins, as in some of the best of Vonnegut and Pynchon, in Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, and even in that magnificent scientific/mathematical meditation Godel, Escher, Bach by Hofstadter, coincidence is presented as evidence of artifice, but not human artifice -- rather the doing of some incomprehensible divine or natural plan or destiny. Yes, on the one hand, randomness reigns. The world is a meaningless and absurd place, and as in Lem's strange stories, man keeps coming up with the darndest ways of trying to manufacture meaning out of nothing. But on the other hand, it's not randomness and meaninglessness that's scary, but rather order -- an order that is immense and intricate and seems to come out of nowhere, and is beyond human control or understanding. Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern are shocked that in defiance of the laws of statistics every time they flip a coin it comes out the same. And here the minor coincidences (Switters, our would-be invalid CIA operative winds up in a nunnery in Syria, where the abbess is the same woman who years before posed for a nude painting by Matisse that now hangs in the home of Switter's grandmother in Seattle) and the major ones (linking the third prophecy of Fatima to a shaman in the Amazon) come together with such remarkable facility that we begin to see them not as the author's artifice, but rather as some bizarre kind of evidence that this wacky, random world we live in is governed by rules as yet unknown and perhaps unknowable, and that this seemingly arbitrary story grew in the author's inspired imagination with the necessity and precision of a crystal growing; that in some sense this novel reflects hidden or neglected aspects of reality. That such a contrived and impossible tale should feel so natural and fit together so well is indeed a minor miracle, as if with all his fun and foolishness Robbins has managed to tap into the energy and wisdom that somehow resides in language itself.
In this world, you can see and experience through the eyes of one person after another, after another.
In this world, the closer you look the more bizarre the story seems. (And the main victim who may, or may not, have been murdered is named "Laura.")
In this world, repetition makes the story ever more haunting and memorable.
The disorientation of the telling of the story is offset by the detailed and compelling visual description of surroundings, of people, of their actions.
The effect feels a bit like Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers. But maybe I'm just jumping to conclusions -- Paris setting plus experimental fiction = nouveau roman. The narrative is told in the first person, while the nouveau roman presented stories from the perspective of objects rather than people. But an otherworldly effect is produced by telling the story again and again, often in the first person, and that person whose eyes you use changes without warning and sometimes without clear identification, and the story changes too with the change of perspective. We are told that this happened and then this happened. We are given precise and memorable details. Then we see the same sequence from someone else's perspective, undermining what we had presumed was "fact." And no super-consciousness ever intervenes to sort it all out for us.
What we have is what might have been constructed from a dozen different "eye-witness" accounts of an event. Each starts from different knowledge of what came before and after, from different interests and proclivities. What happens matters to each of them for different reasons. But yet we are never fully introduced to any of these witnesses, never told much about their background or reliability. At times we are not sure which of them is presenting the story now.
Remember the old series of detective movies shown in first person perspective, with the eye of the camera being the eye of the detective (Philip Marlowe?). You never saw the detective. You always saw everything through his eyes. This book works that way, only with quick cinematic cuts that occur with no warning; the eye of the camera is now one person, and now another, and now still another.
So while this book deals with a murder or a series of murders, and individual paragraphs read with the slick clarity of a mystery novel, you trip and trip again as the author gleefully undermines your expectations, as if putting your eyes into another body (a la Being John Malkovich). At some level it is an elaborate game or puzzle. For that reason, you should print it out rather than read it online (although it is available for reading online). You'll want to mark up your copy with notes, trying to sort out the puzzle, even though you know very well that there is no solution.
At the same time this is a very literate and self-consciously literary creation, with clever and detailed descriptions of even the most banal of activities (e.g., undoing a necktie is "deconstructing the knot").
All in all, this book is so intriguing and well-executed that you not only suspend disbelief, you suspend it again and again, believing incompatible variations of the same tale. And you even forgive the author for not pulling all the pieces together neatly at the end and making you feel comfortable, but rather leaving you with a haunting dissonance and a palimpsest of superimposed images rather than a simple clear story that you could easily summarize or retell to a friend.
The effect is similar to that of a drawing described by Frank Conroy in his autobiographical novel Stop-Time (p. 276). The artist shows the picture to the narrator who at first can't figure out what it represents. Then, the artist explains that it is "the lock on the Metro door." (The echo in the title of this book is probably a coincidence). "I looked again and recognized it instantly. In a single moment I understood distortion in art. The drawing was highly complex, much more elaborate than the simple bar and catch I had watched interacting countless times on the Metro doors. What he had drawn was the process, the way the bar approaches the catch, slides up the angled metal, and drops into the locked position. He had captured movement in a static drawing. For a moment I was speechless."
As Stanislaw Lem noted in his autobiography, Highcastle (p. 112), "... in general we can ennoble a work or call it shallow, depending on the backdrop we give it on the stage of our mind as we read. ... Thus, coming upon an error, one could cry, 'Inconsistency!' or, conversely, 'Brilliant dissonance!' or, 'The abyss, depicted by the intentional cracking of the shell of logic!'" Adjust your expectations appropriately for Metro, because in this case the inconsistencies are undoubtedly intentional, and the effect is definitely brilliant.
Read it yourself online, for free, at
www.mindspring.com/~toones/ministry.html (the site of the
publisher, The Ministry of Whimsy Press).
His first assumption seems to be that man's mind cannot deal with random meaninglessness. Presented with any set of facts, no matter how unrelated, we see patterns. Give us dots, and we connect them. Coincidence becomes evidence. Even lack of evidence becomes evidence.
The results are sometimes comic, and often profound.
My favorites are The Investigation (looking into what might or might not be a crime in present-day England), The Invincible (in which humans in a space ship repeatedly try to make sense out of an unknowable alien world), and A Perfect Vacuum (a collection of little masterpieces about nothing).
Seinfeld makes humor out of the trivia of modern life by holding up a magnifying glass to details that we typically ignore, by making a big deal over little things.
Lem often uses trivia as a narrative device. But instead of the trivia of everyday life, he presents invented, imaginary trivia -- quoting imaginary experts and reference books to prove points about imaginary subjects. His characters write reviews of books that were never written. They debate the fine points of theories that no one has ever advanced. They focus on details on the periphery, never daring to look at the center.
His is a galaxy filled with brilliant stars that orbit around a vast, imponderable, unknowable black hole. His characters focus on those stars, but the energy and urgency of their erudite arguments are fueled by the immense gravitational pull of the nothingness in the middle.
Many others have dealt with the subject of "nothing" -- with the realization and the consequences of the realization that the universe probably has no creator, serves no purpose, is simply a collection of random events and matter. Shakespeare's Lear talks of "nothing, nothing, nothing," and "nothing comes of nothing." Milton's Adam must cope not with the words and acts of God, but rather the fact that God says and does nothing -- his punishment is the absence of God. Many volumes have been written about the literature of nothing, AKA the literature of the absurd.
But the brilliance and the unique style of Lem come not from his characters waking up to the absurdity and meaninglessness of the universe, but rather their bizarre, creative, and often convincing ways of avoiding that conclusion. They are able to find meaning everywhere in everything.
The author presents his characters with a perfect vacuum, and they, by some sort of mental quantum physics, spontaneously generate something out of nothing -- beautiful, amusing, and very believable creations of the human imagination, based on nothing, and masking the nothingness they are based on.
It seems like to Lem the world we live in is an alien world, and the alien presence we constantly face is the nothingness, the meaninglessness, the randomness of all that is around us. This is a close encounter of the zero kind -- the kind we confront every day. But rather than despair, he delights in the imaginative strategies and tricks the human mind can come up with, our compulsion to create meaning. What matters isn't the absurdity, but rather the power and complexity of the human mind and spirit which are unleashed in reaction to that absurdity.
He focuses on the reader rather than the book, the audience rather than the play, the critic rather than the original work, the observer rather than the observed.
The gem of the collection A Perfect Vacuum is the final story "A New Cosmogony" in which a brilliant physicist logically deduces the next great revelation about the nature of the universe from the fact that we have not been contacted by intelligent alien beings. Statistically, in the vastness of the universe over the course of billions of years, intelligent beings must have evolved elsewhere and must have had millions of years in which to advance far further than mankind. "They are nowhere to be found? It is only that we do not perceive them, because they are already everywhere... If one considers 'artificial' to be that which is shaped by an active Intelligence, then the entire Universe that surrounds us is already artificial... Where, then are the spacecraft, where the Moloch-machines, where -- in short -- the titanic technologies of these beings who are supposed to surround us and constitute the starry firmament? But this is a mistake caused by the inertia of the mind, since instrumental technologies are required only -- says Acheropoulos -- by a civilization still in the embryonic stage, like Earth's. A billion-year-old civilization employs none. Its tools are what we call the Laws of Nature. Physics itself is the "machine" of such civilization! It is no 'ready-made machine,' nothing of the sort. That 'machine' (obviously it has nothing in common with mechanical machines) is billions of years in the making, and its structure, though much advanced, has not yet been finished!" (pp. 208-209). This physicist imagines not just one but many such intelligent species, which have in the vastness of time deduced the existence of one another and which play a vast game with one another, the rules of which are predicated on the fact that they cannot communicate with one another. "... the thing that determined their subsequent strategies was the fact of the fundamental impossibility of communication, of establishing contact, because one cannot transmit, from the domain of one Physics , any message into the domain of another."
Others have pondered at the seeming miracle that mathematical concepts conceived in isolation, as the logical unfolding for abstract ideas, later are found to be useful in describing and understanding the physical world -- that the human mind seems fashioned in a way that makes the world knowable to it. Lem mocks that notion, while making use of it again and again. In his stories and novels, the world remains unknowable, meaningless, random, nothing. But the characters, indomitably, heroically, and creatively discover new patterns, new kinds of meaning, derive amazing and credible conclusions based on the random evidence presented them. And always, as we read, there's the glimmering suspicion that this nonsense, this obviously artificial fiction, created by Lem, is actually "true," that in his fun antics, he has stumbled upon the meaning behind the seeming nothing...
Read, enjoy, and wonder.
Punktown is a powerful collection of short stories that creatively pose age-old questions through bizarre and intriguing circumstances on another planet in the future.
As in Dali's paintings, this is a tangible, three-dimensional world, with shadows and depth. Regardless of the species or origin of the characters or even whether they are robotic, they exhibit credible emotions and motivations. You can understand why they do what they do, and may empathize with them, regardless of whether they have non-human characteristics and abilities. The longer you stay, the more real this bizarre landscape feels.
Meet Drew in "Reflections of Ghosts." He's an artist whose medium is his own DNA. He makes clones of himself and deliberately reduces their intelligence to near zero (so they can't be considered intelligent beings and, technically speaking, he won't be breaking the law), and sells them to the wealthy who enjoy sadistically playing with and destroying them. But when a client requests a female, and he makes a female version of himself, he finds he has feelings for her, and is repulsed by what the purchaser is likely to do to her, but yet he can't cancel the deal.
Meet Magnesium Jones in "Immolation." He is a slave worker clone who has broken free. But in the midst of "his newfound pride" looking back on his former life, he wonders, "Had he been better off in his first days, not yet discontented? Disgruntled?" "...he felt like a human boy who longed to be a wooden puppet again."
Meet MacDiaz in "The Library of Sorrows." He's a policeman whose successful career is based on a chip his parents had implanted into his brain as a child -- a very expensive operation that made it so he remembered everything. But the burden of horrible memories from all the bizarre cross-species crimes he has investigated is simply too much for him to endure. His mother is in a nursing home, which in this world means that she is kept in a coffin-like drawer, on life-support. "He smiled down at her, and she smiled weakly through her bubble up at him. Her headset, on which she spoke with him when he called and on which she and the other tenants of this nursing home spent their days watching movies, soaps, talk and game shows, lifted out of her way so she could see him with her naked eyes. She had to squint them to adjust. She was a skeleton which he doubted could have taken two steps, were it freed from its glass sarcophagus." When his mother dies, MacDiaz decides to have the chip surgically removed from his brain -- regardless of cost, and regardless of the fact that without it he will lose his livelihood. After the operation, "...days passed, weeks, months, and the faces of the dead -- burst by bullets, grinning mysteriously at their own fates, bloated like the faces of pudgy plastic dolls and shriveled to crusted skulls -- began to fade to smoke and shadow. Gray and difficult to see. As elusive and vague as ghosts -- and memories -- should often remain."
Meet Soko in "Wakizashi." A prison guard of Japanese descent, he has to deal with a L'lewed, a creature that by nature and by culture must periodically, slowly and cruelly kill humanoid creatures, being renewed by the vibrations of their death throes. This particular L'lewed is an ambassador, with diplomatic immunity, and while he is waiting to be removed to his home planet for having brutally killed humans when his regular supply of victims ran out, he needs a new victim, and the government of Paxton (AKA Punktown) is trying to arrange that for him. They have found a volunteer -- a Waiai, a kind of human-like creature that "sees" not with eyes but with a sort of sonar, like bats. This Waiai, Oowah Kee, is on death row for having killed several young men in defense of his wife's honor. He explains, "We do not turn away from those women who are degraded. We avenge their honor. It is the very least we can do for them. Dying for my woman... it will be an honor, in a way. Because I am dying for all our women, who bring us our lives." Now he is willing to not just to die, but to undergo the horrible painful death the L'lewed wants to inflict, in exchange for a large sum of money -- enough money so his wife will be able to return to their home planet, where she will be safe. But before the ritual death can be carried out, Oowah Kee is murdered by another inmate, which means his wife will get nothing. Soko visits her and presents her with an antique samurai sword, his most valued possession. He wants her to sell it and use the money to return to her world. When she objects that she couldn't accept such a valuable gift from him, he explains, "'If I used that money, I would dishonor my father, Mrs. Kee. I have no son to pass the sword along to. Beyond me, I don't know what fate that sword has. This is the only honorable fate I can think of for it. I want this sword in effect to have been the weapon that killed those men who disgraced you. I want this sword... to protect you." In response, "The Waiai lowered her head. She had no eyes from which she could weep, but a strange soft whistling came from her; whether from her mouth or the aperture in her forehead, he couldn't tell. 'You do me great honor, Mr. Soko,' she told him. 'I accept your gift.'" So a tale of alien brutality becomes a lesson in honor -- honor mediated and modified by culture and species, but fundamentally transcending such minor differences.
Time and again, the author presents us with totally bizarre, futuristic, and alien sets of circumstances and then uses that situation to illuminate emotions and values, showing them as timeless and not just limited to humanity. The book itself is far too short -- you end it wanting and expecting more.
Fortunately, more is available and in the works. For followup reading, check Punktown City Limits at msnhomepages.talkcity.com/TimesSquare/necropolitan/index.html There you'll find additional stories set in Punktown, as well as photos of characters.
For more about the author, Jeffrey Thomas, and his other books, visit the Web site for his Necropolitan Press at www.necropolitanpress.com
At the simplest level the satire revolves around what does it mean to be "English."
In the older generation, Archie Jones (a working class Englishman who marries a black immigrant from Jamaica) and Samad Iqbal (a Moslem from Bengladesh) serve in the same tank in the English army in Romania in World War II and become unlikely life-long friends.
The twin sons of Samad (Magid and Millat) and the daughter of Archie (Irie) are all born in England, but are presumed to be foreigners because of their skin color.
Magid, who is sent back to Bengladesh to grow up with the culture of his parents' native land, winds up more English than the English. His twin brother Millat, who stays in England, gets caught up in an ultra-Moslem activist group (with the acronym "KEVIN").
In contrast, the Chalfen family, wealthy, liberal and very English, are third generation immigrants by way of Germany and Poland. They have been assimilated.
But the author takes the tale to another level, drawing parallels between the cross-pollination of plants and the random mixing of human genes and cultures. In both cases, diversity leads to health and strength. But while much has changed in London in recent years, prejudice is still painfully evident:
"This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O'Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checkups. It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best -- less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other's lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover's bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist." (pp. 271-272)
And the lot of the immigrant is not easy:
"These days it feels to me like you make a devil's pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started... but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers -- who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally housebroken. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil's pact... it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere." p. 336
And assimilation, even if it were desirable, is basically impossible, at least for the first and second generation:
"Because this is the other thing about immigrants (fugees, emigres, travelers): they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow." p. 385
Through the character of Marcus Chalfen, the author introduces the theme of genetic engineering. Marcus seeks to improve, to "perfect" mankind, artificially. His promising experiments with mice have led to his prototype "FutureMouse", a life form that he seeks to patent.
So from the plight of unassimilated immigrants in London, the theme expands to deal with the fate of mankind. Here random genetic variation is goodness, essential for survival. And genetic engineering, justified in the interests of "perfection" is a serious and imminent danger. Present-day scientific advances are the heritage of fascist dreams and experiments from World War II, and are, in part motivated by the desire to control and dominate, "You eliminate the random, you rule the world." (p. 283)
And along the way, the author scatters memorable little bits of wisdom, any one of which would make the reading of this novel well worth the investment of time. (How can she be just 24? And this her first novel?)
"I can't see the difference, frankly," said Archie. "When you're dead, you're dead."
"Oh no, Archibald, no," whispered Samad,
melancholic. "You don't believe that. You must live life with
the full knowledge that your actions will remain. We are
creatures of consequence, Archibald... Our children will be born
of our actions. Our accidents will become their destinies. Oh,
the actions will remain. It is a simple matter of what you will
do when the chips are down, my friend... In that moment our
actions will define us. And it makes no difference whether you
are being watched by Allah, Jesus, Buddah or whether you are
not." (pp. 86-87)
The text on the dustjacket of Anil's Ghost led me to expect a suspense thriller in an exotic setting, something along the lines of Smilla's Sense of Snow, where in the unravelling of the mystery you get a feel for life in Denmark and Greenland. And early in this story a key plot element, the reconstruction of a face from a skull, reminded me of Gorky Park.
But Anil's Ghost is not a plot-based page-turner, where you simply want to find out what happened next and next. Here the plot is simply the thread that holds the jewels together. The jewels are:
The final chapter doesn't deal with "solving"
the crime or bringing the perpetrators to justice. It doesn't
deal at all with Anil and the crime she became obsessed with.
Rather, it tells of Ananda's reconstruction of one huge old
Buddha and his painting the eyes and hence giving life to
another new one built on the same field. "These were fields
where Buddhism and its values met the harsh political events of
the twentieth century." It ends not with truth, but with beauty,
seen through the eyes of Ananda as high above the fields he
paints the Buddha's eyes. "And now with human sight he was
seeing all the fibres of natural history around him. He could
witness the smallest approach of a bird, every flick of its
wind, or a hundred-mile storm coming down off the mountains near
Gonagola and skirting to the plains. He could feel each current
of wind, every lattice-like green shadow created by cloud." This
is a book well-worth reading more than once.
The main character is a proofreader, who succumbing to an inexplicable urge, changes one word in a history book he is working on. And for a moment, the reader is led to believe that the narrative might take a scifi twist into alternate reality, following all the consequences of the change of that one little word, from "yes" to "no". Then instead, it turns out that the proof-reader will write a novel exploring those consequences, at the behest of his new boss, who was hired as a quality control overseer after his one wild incident of single-word rebellion.
Along the way, we are given not just one view of a crucial moment in the history, when in 1147 with the ousting of the Moors from Lisbon the Portuguese nation was formed. These accounts are all consistent with the fragmentary historical evidence, though only one thread has been sanctioned as "real." And the world created by the meticulous and well-informed proof reader has texture and life and credibility, despite the one twist -- the "no." That was the answer given by the Crusaders who, officially, joined the siege as they happened by Lisbon on the way to the Holy Land and made a crucial difference in the battle, and who in this version decide to leave the pompous ungrateful would-be Portuguese king to handle matters himself. But rather than a tornado of consequence, changing forever all that came after, what we see is leaves twirling in a backyard wind. The changes turn out to be all local -- differences in how the battle is won and who deserves credit, rather than the outcome of the battle. So we see characters challenged and tested, revealing their rough-hewn medieval brand of humanity, and the rip in time closes as if it had never opened. And for all anyone knows, the speculative version created by the proofreader may in fact be closer to what actually happened than the version found in today's textbooks.
Meanwhile, the proof-reader in modern Lisbon in fact lives in a building that dates back to the days of the siege and near where one of the old gates of the city had been, and gets a view from his window that would have been that of a Moor at that time; which makes it easy for his imagination to slip from the one time frame to another.
And he creates a love story in his fiction, which vaguely parallels his own love story, which unfolds during the writing of the book, with the woman who had asked him to write it.
Miraculously and deftly, the author turns what at times threatens to be an intriguing but academic discourse on history, fiction, truth, and reality, into an entertaining and sympathetic double love story that plays itself out in the same city, but separated by 850 years. Yet, even as you get involved in the story, he reminds you again and again, with the structure of his narrative, that something very strange is going on here. The author of the history book was not to be trusted, because of the fragmentary nature of the evidence he based his account on, and because of the rumor-like nature of the writing of history -- historians perpetually repeating the mistakes of those who came before them. Nor is the proof-reader to be trusted, despite his passion for detail, and his apparently intimate knowledge of both the historical facts and the human nature behind them. In fact, the narrator goes out of his way, near the very beginning, to undermine the proof-reader's credibility by giving examples of his mistakes and limited understanding. And the narrator himself does not present himself as infallible. No facts can be known with certainly -- even down to the level of punctuation and paragraph structure, which is idiosyncratic, and deliberately ambiguous. There are no quotation marks to show where speech begins and ends. Rather when someone is speaking, sentences end with commas, instead of periods -- which strangely and unexpectedly is far more natural and readable that it sounds. It seems that the author is refusing to draw anything with sharp outlines and edges. One narrative fades into another, just as one time period fades into another and back again, informing, while at the same time continually raising doubt about what is "real" or "true."
But in this book, facts don't seem to be terribly important -- certainly not as important as they are usually represented to be. One gets the sense that there are a few fixed or reasonably well known points along a time line, and there are numerous possible story-paths from the one point to another, all of which are equally valid, because they lead to the same conclusion, and by looking at more than one possible path, you come to know the characters and their circumstances far better, with all the texture and shading of reality, with its dynamic tensions and ever-changing possibilities, than in the usual static, linear historical narrative.Basically, the story is told so well that you can forget all the philosophical and stylistic paraphenalia and just enjoy the love stories. The muted, but very credible emotion reminds me of Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban. And the inner view of the unfolding, evolving feelings of a meek underling call to mind Dostoyevsky. Rare, indeed, is the writer who can totally involve the reader without concocting wild and extraordinary events, who can make everyday people show their heroic and passionate potential in everyday circumstances.
This is the second volume of a still-unfinished multi-part work. The first volume, August 1914, was first published in English in 1972. This one came out in 1999. In between, the Soviet Union crumbled and our perspective on 20th century history totally changed as well. No longer was Communism vs. Capitalism the main theme. No longer was it presumed that the Soviet state was the natural, inevitable outcome of previous Russian history. Suddenly, other tendencies and themes from Russia's past, such as religion and nationality, emerged from the background and became important once again. The focus and tone of the new book reflect the new perspective. Solzhenitsyn's detailed analysis and fictionalized portrayal of the World War I era brings to the fore all the possibilities, tendencies, and diversity of the Russia that seemed to vanish with the Revolution and that has now resurfaced. It is as if Russia is now a country with an identity crisis -- if we are not Communists what are we? -- and this book seeks to resurrect an historical moment that had been largely forgotten and misrepresented when told by Communists and by anti-Communists, events and facts that were irrelevant to Communism but are very relevant today.
While technically this book is fiction, the heart of the story is, in fact, meticulously researched and exhaustively presented history. The central figure is a Colonel Vorotyntsev, who also figured prominently in August 1914. Much of the story is seen through his eyes, as he moves from the Eastern Front to Moscow and Petersburg, then to Russian military headquarters in Mogilev. He has his personal ambitions and concerns, his love life, his human weaknesses. But he is driven to understand what is happening to Russia and try to find out if and how he can intervene to save his nation.
There are literally hundreds of other characters, some historical and some meant as representatives of different tendencies and perspectives that were important at that time. But the real "hero" of the story is Russia itself, for Solzenitsyn seems far more interested in the fate of nations than in the fate of individuals. Repeatedly, his characters ponder what is the nature of national character? How does the character of the Russian nation differ from that of German, English, and other nations? What is it that holds a society together? What makes it all work for everyone's benefit, in peace and in war? While novelists typically place their main characters in crisis to test them and reveal their true nature, Solzhenitsyn picks the historical moment that places the Russian nation in crisis and tests it. In a sense, he is exploring the nature of man, in that each nation has a developing personality, like an individual, and each nation expresses different aspects of human possibility. But first and foremost, Russia is what matters to the author -- every spoken word and every characteristic incident that uncovers previously forgotten trends and possibilities, that might shed light on the nature and destiny of Russia needs to be dramatically presented and analyzed in context. In fact, this book seems to have no beginning and no ending -- it's all middle, with the texture of life and the trends of thought more important than the fate of any individual character.
Considering the monumental task that the author set for himself and the style of presentation that he has chosen, it is remarkable that this book works at all -- and it does, driven by his personal passion and the passion of his diverse characters, not just to understand the destiny of Russia, but also to influence it. For that is what makes this book stand apart from mere fiction or mere history -- Solzhenitsyn is a player, someone with the stature to be heard and respected by his countrymen, and someone with a sense of his own personal mission to redefine his nation, to give it new self-confidence and pride, to give it a new sense of identity and direction.
The explorers and adventurers that you have heard of before -- Burton, Gordon, Stanley, Livingstone, and Baker -- are mentioned in passing as part of the general historical context. But the "heroes" of this story are much less well known: Count Samuel Teleki, Arthur Donaldson Smith, Johann Ludwig Krapf, Joseph Thompson, William Astor Chanler, Arthur Henry Neumann, Captain Vittorio Bottego, and Alexander Xavieryevich Bulatovich. As the blank spaces on the map of Africa get filled in, less and less territory is available to be "discovered," and the exploration becomes a frantic race among individuals seeking notoriety and wealth rather than a scientific or even a political endeavor. Once the territory has been thoroughly explored and the once abundant herds of big game hunted to scarcity, the lake drops back into obscurity, of no great interest in and of itself.
Along the way, the author, who spent a number of years serving as a doctor in Africa, uses his medical knowledge to illuminate the physical challenges and risks faced by these explorers. (Today he is Distinguished Service Professor and Chair of the Deparment of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at SUNY Health Science Center, Brooklyn, NY.)
For me, the chapter dealing with Russian
explorers in Ethiopia in the 1890s ("An Orthodox Partnership")
was particularly valuable. In it the author helps make sense of
this bizarre and puzzling historical interlude, with insight
into the motivations of Russian officers such as Count Nicholas
Leontiev and Lieutenant Alexander Bulatovich, and their dealings
with the Ethiopian emperor, Menelik II, who sought to carve out
an African empire in competition with France, England, and
Italy. In particular, he puts Bulatovich's scientific
accomplishments and writings into context.
The story is told in three parts, in each of which the main characters take on new names, as the political and social environment in Denmark changes, and in keeping with the layers of legend on which the Hamlet story is built. Gerutha becomes Geruthe, then Gertrude. Her father is first called Rorik, then Rodericke. Her first husband changes from Horwendil to Horwendile to Hamlet (the elder). His brother goes from Feng, to Fengon to Claudius. The son's name evolves from Amleth to Hamblet to Hamlet (the younger). Meanwhile the Lord Chamberlain shifts from Corambus to Corambis to Polonius.
Part 1 begins in the crude and bloody medieval world of Vikings. The kingdom is nominally Christian, having recently been converted by order of a recent king, as a political ploy, to ally them with the Holy Roman Empire. But old beliefs are still strong. Far away, in Mediterranean lands visited by Feng, other belief systems and modes of living prevail.
In Part 2, the realm is more civilized, with more Christian notions of the role and duties of a king as God's anointed, and with Christian conscience tempering brute passion. Notions of courtly love are powerful, but not strong enough to keep Geruthe and Fengon apart.
Part 3 feels modern, with each character psychologically unique. In the relationship of Gertrude and Claudius, passionate love, personal ambition, and feelings of obligation and guilt are intertwined in interesting ways. The two of them feel very real. Their motivations and actions seem inevitable based on their well-established personalities.
On the one hand, this is a story of post-menopausal passion which stands on its own -- the uncontrollable love of a 59 year-old man for a 47-year-old woman.
On the other hand, this is a clever commentary on the Hamlet story, providing interesting and credible new insight into the relationship of Hamlet with his mother, father, and uncle, and the cultural environment in which his story unfolds.
Both Claudius and Gertrude are portrayed as justified in their actions. Their love has grown over many years. And Claudius (without the knowledge of Gertrude) murders the old king out of self-defense -- after the king discovered their affair and was ready to take his revenge on the two of them and also on Polonius, their co-conspirator. And it is Polonius who gives Claudius the information and the key his needs to catch the king alone at this desperate moment.
Here and there, Updike scatters delightful passages that play on what we all know about Shakespeare's Hamlet. For instance (p. 34), "As the powers of language and imagination descended upon him, the boy dramatized himself, and quibbled over everything, with parent, priest, and tutor. Only the disreputable, possibly demented jester, Yorik, seemed to win his approval: young Amleth loved a joke, tot he point of finding the entire world, as it was composed within Elsinore, a joke. Joking, it seemed to his mother, formed his shield for fending off solemn duty and heartfelt intimacy." Later, King Claudius provides this analysis of Hamlet's character and its origins (p. 189), "The King was stern and commanding; he loomed to the boy like a god, in armor, on horseback. Yorick was the closest to a human father young Hamlet had, but was a drunken rascal, and could act as mentor in nothing but antics and folly." Hence, Yorick, who never appears directly, comes across as Hamlet's Falstaff; and Claudius as a sensitive, understanding and even a loving step-father.
Meanwhile, Gertrude, too, seems to understand Hamlet, though her perspective is quite different from that of Claudius or of Polonius, who wants to force Hamlet and Ophelia apart in order to trick him into taking her more seriously, indirectly, deviously moving him in the direction of marriage. (pp. 188-189) "Gertrude impatiently heard in all this the doddering Lord Chamberlain's faith that human affairs could all be managed, manipulated with cogs and ratchets like millwheels and clocks, by a clever enough puppeteer. Her own sense was of tides, natural and supernatural, to which wisdom submits, seeking victory in surrender. The young lovers should be, she felt, left alone in desire's grip, to be lifted by it above the maze constructed by their elders. But in these opinions she knew Polonius and Claudius both would call her sentimental and irrational, yielding up all initiative to God, like a benighted peasant woman or infidel Muhammedan."
The book ends ironically at the point in the
story where the play begins. "The era of Claudius had dawned; it
was shine in Denmark's annals. He might, with moderation of his
carousals, last another decade on the throne. Hamlet would be
the perfect age of forty when the crown descended. He and
Ophelia would have the royal heirs lined up like ducklings.
Gertrude would gently fade, his saintly gray widow, into the
people's remembrance... He had gotten away with it. All would be
The Hive Mind is spreading from universe to universe, and another super-intelligent species in another universe is trying to stop them. High energy collisions in a supercollider on Eart generate signals that alert these two species of the existence of our universe and provide the information necessary to build Einstein bridges -- tunnels from their universes to ours.
Meanwhile back on Earth, scientists are struggling with problems related to the operation of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Waxahachie, TX.
And a woman writer of monster scifi novels (mutant animals and instects that threaten to kill everyone) poses as a science report and thereby gains access to the SSC and gets the cooperation of the scientists. Evidence seems to indicate that ants may be eating critical components deep underground and hence causing the operational problems. That would fit in well with the kind of story she's interested in writing -- the radiation could cause mutations in those ants...
That was plent enough plot to make a novel. But in 1993, while Cramer was still working on Einstein's Bridge, Congress concelled the SSC project. So the story turned out quite a bit different than originally planned.
The benevolent aliens make contact with the scientists and offer them knowldge and expanded mental powers far beyond current capabilities, hoping to hlep them stop the Hive. But the Hive attacks sooner than exptected and destroys our universe -- all because of the SSC.
Fortunately, at the last moment, the key scientists escape to the past, and a whole new plot unfolds. Their mission now is to use what they know from the benevolent aliens to subtley, unobtrusively change the course of history -- in particular to make sure that Congress defeats the SSC and hence saves the universe.
It's a fun ride from start to finish.
Diamond's earlier book, The Third Chimpanzee, was a series of illuminating, interrelated essays about man, viewed as "just another species of big mammal." He touched upon such subjects as "The Science of Adultery," "How We Pick Our Mates and Sex Partners," "Why Do We Grow Old and Die," "Why Do We Smoke, Drink, and Use Dangerous Drugs?" with wit and scientific authority. As he looks at the three-million year history of man, he tries to make sense of it all, and to find grounds for optimism, despite the two ominous clouds on the horizon -- nuclear holocaust and environmental holocaust. It's a bold and informative book, that is very entertaining, while daring to uncover lessons that might help save mankind from itself. We hear the voice of a scientist speaking the language of the layman, with skill and style, trying to spread important insights to the general public because salvation depends on general understanding and cooperation in dealing with the serious issues that face us today.
Guns, Germs, and Steel has a much clearer focus, seeking and convincingly providing the answer to the question "why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?" In other words, why did Columbus discover America and Pizarro conquer the Incas rather than the Inca "discovering" and conquering Europe? Why did Europe colonize Africa instead of vice versa? And he isn't satisfied with simply considering the immediate causes -- "guns, germs, and steel" -- but rather pushes back in time 13,000 years trying to determine why it was that Europe and not the Incas had the guns, germs, and steel.
His approach is scientific, with a bent toward Darwinian biological explanations. He is not interested in the minutiae of historical accident, but rather the broad sweep of history. And his inquiry into this one question leads to one fascinating insight after another.
The direction of the inquiry in some ways resembles that of David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. That book dealt with the question of why some species become extinct, and along the way relates intriguing tales from the history of science, and acquaints us with the biological diversity that arises from isolation of some animals on islands of varying sizes, and their precarious fates when the territory is too small. The island of Madagascar gets particularly close scrutiny. Quammen succeeds in clearly explaining a previously obscure branch of biology, and hammering home its importance not just for understanding why some species are "endangered," but also for understanding the interdependence of species, understanding that the extinction of species threatens to unravel the Persian-rug tapestry of life on this planet -- that the possible extinction of mankind is at issue.
Geography -- in particular, islands like Madagascar and New Guinea -- plays a very important role in Guns, Germs, and Steel as well. The extensive East-West orientation of the Eurasian landmass, as opposed to the North-South orientation of Africa and the America proves to be the crucial determining factor in the fate of man. By the time he has laid out all the evidence, his conclusions -- which before would never have occurred to you -- seem patently obvious. "That demographic shift of the last 500 years [from Europe to the Americas] ... has its ultimate roots in developments between 11,000 BC and AD 1." (p. 375) "In short, Europe's colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography -- in particular, to the continents' different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate." (pp. 400-401) "... some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for ultilizing inventions, than do other environments." (p. 408) Basically, food production is essential to the growth of large concentrations of population, to the rise of states and the consequent rise of writing and technology, and food production ultimately depends on biology and evolution and related geographic considerations; hence the science of biology can provide insights into the course of human history and ultimate destiny of man. At the same time, domestication of large mammals for food and work and warfare plays an important role in history and at the same time leads to the passing of animal-borne diseases to man, leading to differences from one continent to another in exposure and immunity to those diseases, which, too, plays an important role in history -- with diseases from Europe decimating the native populations of the Americas and also of Australia. (The historical role of germs as an unintended but very effective weapon calls to mind their role as the defenders of planet Earth against alien species in H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds.)
In passing, Diamond ponders the intriguing question of what role, if any, "Great Men" have in shaping the direction of history: "Perhaps Alexander the Great did nudge the course of western Eurasia's alrady literate, food-producing, iron-equipped states, but he had nothing to do with the fact that western Eurasia already supported literate, food-producing, iron-equipped states at a time when Australia still supported only non-literate hunter-gatherer tribes lacking metal tools." ( p. 420)
Dealing with all of human history, worldwide, in very broad strokes, Guns, Germs, and Steel focuses on what really matters: geography, food production, diet, domestication of mammals: all the stuff that traditional history courses ignore.
All in all, this is an extraordinary book -- bringing together biology, anthropology, and history, providing extraordinary insight into human destiny over the last 13,000 years.
If you have time to read only one book this
year, make it this one.
The title essay examines the question of how to make "open source" software projects work. In the background is the incredible success of Linux. In the foreground is the development of a mail utility with the author as the leader. Based on his experience, he tries to explain how it is possible to manage such a project -- with self-selected volunteers all over the world identifying and fixing bugs and contributing new code. The contrast is between software which is developed like a cathedral by a group working in isolation and only releasing the code when it is "totally finished"; vs. the open "great babbling bazaar" which is how open source development is described. He tries to understand what makes an effective manager in such an environment, and how to keep the volunteer team motivated and on target.
In the additional essays that appear in this book, Raymond takes a closer look at motivation, and comes to the conclusion that open source coders operate as in "gift economy" as opposed to an "exchange economy." The classic anthropological case of a gift economy was the Kwakuitl from the vicinity of what is now Vancouver. There social status was determined not by what you possessed but by what you could give away or deliberately sacrifice/destroy. This type of behavior/motivation is characteristic in cases of abundance -- whether for an entire society or a class within a society. The conspicuous consumption of Veblen's "leisure class" is an instance of this general phenomenon. It is easy to see it in operation in the exorbitant expenditures of Hollywood celebrities on parties and weddings, and the public charitable contributions of the wealthy. Raymond's application of this concept to the realm of open source coders is both unexpected and convincing.
He examines the behavior patterns of this set of people with the eye of an anthropologist, presuming that the truth lies in what they do rather than in the reasons they publicly state for their actions. He uncovers interesting contradictions between public statements and actual motivation, and makes a strong case for their close adherence to a rigid set of unwritten rules. As a key player in the very society that he is describing, he proudly takes on the very unanthropological role of helping these people better understand what makes them tick, as well as helping would-be leaders better understand how to lead in such an environment.
In other words, enabled by the Internet, a self-selecting group of people has evolved which operates with the motivations of a gift culture/economy. This culture crosses all geographic barriers and all social barriers, where membership has nothing to do with wealth or class in the traditional sense. Marx would have been dumbfounded.
As if that were not enough, Raymond goes on to make convincing arguments that two well-established "laws" of human behavior do not apply in this case.
According to Garrett Hardin's "tragedy of the commons," without law and supervision, a village of peasants will turn their common -- where all are free to graze their livestock -- into a mudhole. While they all might be aware that cooperation is necessary, without enforcement they each greedily try to grab as much as they can for their own livestock, which destroys the resource for all of them. Following such a model, one would expect that a team of software engineers could not stay together voluntarily for any extended period of time, that greed would lead to its inevitable and rapid collapse. But, as Raymond points out, "using software does not decrease its value. Indeed, widespread use of open-source software tends to increase its value, as users fold in their own fixes and features (code patches). In this inverse commons, the grass grows taller when it's grazed on." (p. 151)
Likewise, "Brook's Law" from the book The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks, predicts that "as your number of programmers (N) rises, work performed scales as N but complexity and vulnerability to bugs rises as N squared, which tracks the number of communications paths (and potential code interfaces) between developers' code bases. Brooks's Law predicts that a project with thousands of contributors ought to be a flaky, unstable mess. Somehow the Linux community had beaten the N-squared effect and produced an operating system of astonishingly high quality." (p. 199)
Raymond's examination of what makes that possible leads to the inevitable conclusion that not only is open source development possible, but rather that it seems to be the only economically viable way to develop a large and important piece of software that will affect many people.
At the beginning of the book, it seemed like Linux was the anomaly -- a special case that might never reoccur. By the end, it appears that Microsoft is the anomaly -- that it is extremely difficult, extremely expensive, and almost impossible to build a program as immense as the Windows operating system without the help of a vast community of volunteers. With the Internet as an enabler, with Linux, Apache, and other projects as clear examples, and with Raymond's analysis of how it all works, open source seems to be the only logical way to go. The cathedral is not an alternative to the bazaar. Rather it is an historical artifact, an outmoded method of operation, left over from pre-Internet days.
Then with clear-headed balance, Raymond, rather than simply proclaiming victory, considers the limitations of open source, and when and how a balance of proprietary and open approaches is necessary.All in all, this book helps open our eyes to an important new force that is changing the high-tech business world today. And at the same time, it leads us to re-evaluate what had seemed like fundamental concepts of human nature and destiny. He starts by asking intriguing questions about how software is developed, and winds up providing valuable insight into the question of "what is man?"
This article was heard on the radio program "The Computer Report," which is broadcast live on WCAP in Lowell, Mass., and is syndicated on WBNW in Boston and WPLM in Plymouth, Mass.In the beginning was the voice.
The authors don't use that phrase, but that's the sense of what they have to say.
By voice, they don't mean sound, rather they mean personal expression, the kind of self-revelation that comes when you speak candidly or type rapidly and the words just flow, without the typical self-censoring of corporate-speak.
For them, everything that matters about the Internet seems to be related to voice.
Markets are "conversations." And companies that don't realize that and don't participate fully and honestly and openly are locking themselves out of the online marketplace -- and hence out of any marketplace at all.
The efficient internal operation of companies, as well, depends on open dialogue, which is made possible by Internet technology, but which runs counter to the corporate culture of many large companies.
This is a favorite theme of mine, as well -- that knowledge management means nothing if people don't share information, if the corporate culture, instead, favors information hoarding as a mark of status and a means of personal advancement. They make the point that the current opportunity evolved from earlier advances, including the total quality effort associated with Deming. They quote Deming as saying "drive out fear." If employees are afraid of speaking up, quality efforts are basically doomed. And the same applies now over corporate intranets. The real value to be gained comes with employees feel free to candidly share their insights, inspirations, and criticism.
And customers and partners, also want to be dealt with candidly, without the hyperbole and the fuzzy jargon of press releases and brochureware. They want to be able to talk with real people who understand their concerns and will try to give them real answers.
Many companies have been reluctant to head in that direction, for fear of legal liability if "unauthorized" employees make unedited statements to the outside world. The authors make the point that the loss of business from not speaking with a clear voice, from not letting responsible and caring employees help customers, is probably far greater than any liability. If you don't take part in the conversation that is the marketplace -- through email, forums, newsgroups, etc. -- you simply won't stay in business for very long. And if your employees don't have the confidence and experience of speaking out clearly in their own voices over your corporate intranet, chances are good that they won't be able to effectively help customers over the Internet.
The authors convincingly, eloquently, irreverently, and humorously point out the typical mistakes and the right direction. But they refuse to provide a formula for success -- a neat list of things you need to do to put your company on track. While the problems seem obvious -- once they have been pointed out -- there's no cookie-cutter solution.
They provide a mock 12-step program for Internet business success:
"... The lesson is: don't wait for someone to show you how. Learn from your spontaneous mistakes, not from safe prescriptions and cautiously analyzed procedures. Don't try to keep people from going wrong by repeating the mantra of how to get it right. Getting it right isn't enough any more. There's no invention in it. There's no voice..."Scary isn't it? Good. You ought to be scared. That's a realistic reaction. You want comfort? Invent your own. Exhilaration and joy are also in order. But face the facts: the tracks end at the edge of the jungle."
(Second of two reviews of this book)
The following article is based on a chat session about the book The Cluetrain Manifesto, with one of the co-authors, David Weinberger, as a guest.
This article was heard on the radio program
"The Computer Report," which is broadcast live on WCAP in
Lowell, Mass., and is syndicated on WBNW in Boston and WPLM in
The main theme of The Cluetrain Manifesto is that markets are really conversations. Traditional companies that lock themselves out of the conversation, lock themselves out of business. People need to express themselves over the Internet in their own unique voice and style, and companies need to let them, to encourage their employees to engage in dialogue with customers and partners, without the usual censorship and corporate-speak. But while it's easy to describe the problem, there doesn't seem to be any simple way to solve it.
Talking about this book with Phil Grove, who I used to work with at Digital, Phil made an excellent point -- voice is important, but listening is also essential, and is often neglected. Especially in a corporate environment, it is very difficult to get people into the mode of listening. Everyone tends to be locked in their own little office or cubicle, with their own narrow goals. That's part of the typical corporate culture.
"Listening" sounds like some New Age touchy-feely seminar topic. But it's a very serious matter. You can't carry on online discussions with fellow employees, customers, or partners if you aren't attuned to "listening" in the broadest sense -- paying close attention to what other people are saying and showing the respect that comes with trying to understand and then responding on their terms, rather than just rattling out your pre-rehearsed PR-trained messages.
So why don't people listen? Weinberger see this not as a business decision, but rather as a psychological/sociological problem. He pointed out that learning to listen is "a lot like learning to join the party. There's a global party going on. And it's where the real work of commerce is going to happen. It's very hard for many companies to take the party seriously. Listening has something to do with respecting others and controlling your urge to 'own' the conversation. It requires giving up the reflex to manage every damn thing that exists... I don't think there are easy techniques to create a culture that values listening. E.g., you don't listen to people you don't respect. And often you don't listen in order to show that you don't respect them. Watch just about any business committee meeting..."
In our chat session, Bob Zwick agreed, "I battle that all the time. It's like my ears are turned on, but I'm not hearing. Just waiting for a good opportunity to jump in and get my say in control."
The typical manager in a major corporation has Internet access today, but uses it just get to static information and to distribute edicts by email. It takes a change of mindset to start to "listen" to what's happening in forums and newsgroups and over distribution lists -- even to really "listen" when people send you email.
Here we have all these great tools for high tech communication -- voice over IP, videophone, full-blown videoconferencing on the desk. But we haven't learned to listen in face-to-face meetings, and we haven't learned to listen to voices that are loud and clear in plain text. As usual, technology is running ahead of humanology. And the biggest benefits for business are likely to come not from adopting more technology, but rather paying attention to the basics of person-to-person communication.
Tim Berners-Lee tells his story in the first person, as autobiography, because the story of the Web is the story of his life. He conceived it, implemented it, and now heads the effort to shepherd it forward and help it thrive despite challenges from big business, big government, and clueless interpreters of the law, worldwide.
Over the years, the idea of the Web slowly formed in his mind. "Inventing the World Wide Web involved my growing realization that there was a power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained, weblike way. And that awareness came to me through precisely that kind of process. The Web arose as the answer to an open challenge, through the swirling together of influences, ideas, and realizations from many sides, until, by the wondrous offices of the human mind, a new concept jelled. It was a process of accretion, not the linear solving of one well-defined problem after another." (p. 3)
"Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked... Suppose I could program my computer to create a space in which anything could be linked to anything... Once a bit of information in that space was labeled with an address, I could tell my computer to get it. By being able to reference anything with equal ease, a computer could represent associations between things that might seem unrelated but somehow did, in fact, share a relationship. A web of information would form." (p. 4)
The power of this idea directly related to its simplicity and to the lack of central control.
"The art was to define the few basic, common rules of 'protocol' that would allow one computer to talk to another, in such a way that when all computers everywhere did it, the system would thrive, not break down. For the Web, those elements were in decreasing order of importance, universal resource identifiers (URIs), the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).
"What was often difficult for people to understand about the design was that there was nothing else beyond URIs, HTTP, and HTML. There was no central computer 'controlling' the Web, no single network on which these protocols worked, not even an organization anywhere that 'ran' the Web. The Web was not a physical 'thing' that existed in a certain 'place.' It was a 'space' in which information could exist." (p. 36)
When he looks ahead to the potential future impact of the Web on the world, he gets mystical.
"If we succeed, creativity will arise across larger and more diverse groups. These high-level activities, which have occurred just within one human's brain, will occur among ever-larger, more interconnected groups of people acting as if they shared a larger intuitive brain. It is an intriguing analogy. Perhaps that late-night surfing is not such a waste of time after all: It is just the Web dreaming." (pp. 201-202)
He now approaches this life-long challenge with a sort of religious awe and sense of responsibility toward humanity. The mindset in some ways is similar to the corporate culture of Digital Equipment under the guidance of Ken Olsen, where rule number one was "do the right thing."
"I feel that to deliberately build a society, incrementally, using the best ideas we have, is our duty and will also be the most fun. We are slowly learning the value of decentralized, diverse systems, and of mutual respect and tolerance. Whether you put it down to evolution or your favorite spirit, the neat thing is that we seem as humans to be tuned so that we do in the end get the most fun out of doing the 'right' thing." (p. 205)
The Web has been an important part of my life since 1993, so many of the events recounted in this book sound familiar, though I remember them in a different context. It's illuminating to see them all unfold through the perspective of the Web's creator. It's also disorienting to re-experience the central story of your own time presented as history -- to read about these events from the perspective of their long-term meaning -- with a beginning, a middle, and an end -- rather than as we heard about them or encountered their effects day-by-day, as disconnected happenings in an open-ended, continuing present-tense, with many possible outcomes. And it's gratifying to discover that behind it all at the beginning and guiding now -- collaboratively, unobtrusively through the World Wide Web Consortium -- is someone motivated and inspired by an optimistic vision based on faith in the human spirit -- a vision of the future totally different from the dark satiric world of Kurt Vonnegut.
"This system produced a weird and wonderful machine, which needed care to maintain, but could take advantage of the ingenuity, inspiration, and intuition of individuals in a special way. That, from the start, has been my goal for the World Wide Web.
"Hope in life comes form the interconnections among all the people in the world... We find the journey more and more exciting, but we don't expect it to end..."
Tim Berners-Lee concludes "The experience of
seeing the Web take off by the grassroots effort of thousands
gives me tremendous hope that if we have the individual will, we
can collectively make of our world what we want." (p. 209)
The Englishman is named "Fogg" and is continually in a fog -- it doesn't matter how far from London he ventures; he brings his fog with him. He never bothers to glance at the sights and people of the countries he passes through. He'd rather play whist.
His newly hired French servant is "Passpartout". He is curious, versatile, capable, and brave. He has his eyes and his heart open everywhere. When resourcefulness and true courage are needed, Passepartout -- not his master -- steps forward. He is the one who rescues the girl from the funeral pyre in India, and he is the one who during the attack by Sioux somehow manages to pull himself along under a moving train (a la Indiana Jones) to uncouple the engine and save all the passengers.
Fogg is a caricature of the typical Englishman, taken to extremes. He is ridiculously rational, and silent, and unflappable. Nothing bothers him, in part because he is oblivious to just about everything. But underneath the icy exterior there are hints of true humanity and generosity, starting with his giving an exorbitant sum (that just happened to be in his pocket from winning at whist) to a beggar girl at the London train station when he starts. This kind of humanity/generosity gradually becomes a more important part of his character (the ice melts) through the course of the narrative -- i.e., he becomes more French.
In fact, Fogg has much in common with Dickens' Scrooge -- not miserliness, but lack of evident human feeling at the start; and then a burst of human emotion at the end.
NB -- this book dates from 1873, just three years after the disastrous defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. The national ego was probably at an all-time low. This is a tale of two countries, a contrast of two life styles/world views; with an indication that underneath the exterior there is a common humanity -- ground for future understanding.
By the way, in the movie, the most memorable
icon was the hot-air balloon. There is no balloon in the book.
Quite logically, Fogg goes by train to Brindisi (in the south of
Italy) and by steamer from there to Suez. The story jumps from
the train departure in London to Suez, where the interesting
part of the journey begins.
On finally reading from cover to cover, I discovered that the story of the invasions of Greece by Darius and Xerxes takes up a very small part of the book, at the end. Yes, that part has some dramatic scenes, some quotable quotes, and is "history." But most of Herodotus is anecdotal anthropology and travelogue and a delightful collection of rumors and traditions. The heart of the book isn't the history, it's the digressions. That's where you get the flavor of the times, a sense of what it might have been like to live in the fifth century B.C.
The subtitle is tough to swallow -- "Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions" -- but the book itself (The Song of the Dodo) is remarkably readable, explaining fascinating and difficult concepts in simple language. You come to see the give and take and evolution of evolutionary theory right up to the controversies of today, where theories which seem quite similar and are built on the same base of scientific evidence can lead to different public policy stands, with enormous consequences for natural habitats and the species that live there.
But what is uppermost on my mind is not what I read there, but what the reading prompting me to think about. I had not before realized that evolution depends on the existence of isolated populations. Only if members of a species become isolated from one another for extended periods of time -- for instance by an island splitting off from a continent -- will a new species evolve, adapted to the new physical circumstances. As long as there is a common gene pool, variations will be relatively minor, mutations will be drowned, and the species will remain relatively unchanged for vast periods of time. So, in this context, there is evolutionary value to an instinct for colonization -- for breeding groups migrating vast distances and setting up residence in a new area, with no expectation of ever returning or communicating with the original group. (This is my interpolation.)
Presume that there is a planet in a distant star system that has reached the pinnacle of advanced civilization. The entire planet is settled. The peoples are at peace with one another, and have arrived at a stable and sustainable population level. (I'm thinking in terms of the game "Civilization" carried through to its limit.) Thanks to their advanced technology, they have the capability for space travel. But there are no other habitable planets without reasonable distance. So their space travel has been limited to scientific, exploratory missions.
Say the rulers of this planet arrived at the kind of understanding of the evolutionary process shown in this book. Then they might realize that despite their accomplishments, their civilization and their genes are are great risk. Because their species on that planet represents a single gene pool, there are no significant variations and there will be no further evolution. Hence they are at risk of a single unpredictable natural catastrophe wiping them out entirely (since none of them would have evolved variant biological characteristics enabling survival.)
Then they might well arrive at the conclusion that they should send forth space-going colonists in all directions, with no desire or expectation that they would ever return. Then their space-going colonies and eventually the colonies their descendants might spawn on planets many light years away would naturally evolve. So hundreds of thousands of years hence there would be not just one species on one planet, but rather dozens or hundreds of species that had evolved from that single species, scattered through the universe and ensuring the perpetuation of the genes.
With this scenario in mind (and not going into the enormous technical difficulties involved in any kind of space colonization), it occurred to me that the likelihood that Earth will come in contact with intelligent beings from elsewhere in the universe is far greater than I would have otherwise believed.
Before, based just on the kinds of motivation I was familiar with, it seemed extremely unlikely that in the vastness of space there would occur such an encounter. Given the vast distances involved and the limitation of the speed of light, conquest made no sense at all, for there would be nothing gained by conquering another world several lifetimes away from your own. And the notion of colonization to reduce population pressures made no sense because 1) a society that advanced would certainly have found the means to control population growth and 2) the numbers of individuals who could be put on an Ark-like space ship would be very limited in comparison with the total population and hence would provide minimal population relief.
But with this new motivation -- preservation
of the genes by creating opportunities for continued evolution
-- I could easily imagine any and every advanced planet in the
universe sending forth colonizing ships in every direction.
Brilliant details and minor characters and digressions engage the reader, but overwhelm the storyline. Memorable characters (a la Dickens, or Irving, or Pynchon) abound, but not a single one with warmth and humanity. Minor figures are given amazing, complete and totally bizarre pasts, but the main story with its numerous interrelated threads is never resolved.
Many of the details resounded for me in particular because the setting so carefully described is Boston -- a very recognizable Boston, even though most of the action is set about ten years in the future. Also, one of the major (unresolved) plot threads is the quest for an "entertainment" (a futuristic next stage beyond movies/videotapes) referred to as the "samizdat" (which happens to be the name of my company -- meaning "self-published").
This is a science-fiction novel with all the flavor and feel and nitty-gritty smell and taste of the present. It is presented in a series of seemingly jumbled strokes. Gradually the picture becomes clearer, the imaginary history between 1996 and the time of the story gets filled in; and we are gradually introduced to bizarre elements of technology and politics long after the terminology was first used.
Much of the story (and the innumerable digressions) revolves around drugs and alcoholism. And this is paralleled by story elements dealing with "entertainment" and its affect on the mind (and soul). It both cases, it's as if the mind has hidden switches and compartments and stimuli of particular kinds can produce massive, grotesque, and yet predictable results. (Like the mind is a machine, and there are important aspects of its operation that up until now have remained unknown.) This aspect of the plot is reminiscent of Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and the rampant spread of the ridiculous "religion" of Bokonism.
The band of legless, terrorists who had deliberately lain in front of trains to lose their legs, is reminiscent of the self-mutiliation of the Alice Jamesians in Irving's Garp, who deliberately cut out their own tongues.
The fascination with technology, and the exuberant multiplication of subplots and digressions, is reminsicent of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
Some of the most bizarre and amusing aspects of the invented history ring frighteningly true in terms of human nature, including the notion of "subsidized time" (the government selling the names of years to commercial sponsors) and the "concavity" (a large tract of land from Maine to upstate New York rendered uninhabitable as the dumping zone/reprocessing zone for the waste from the rest of the nation).
The extended metaphor of preparation for professional tennis (and the secondary comparisons to serious chess) leads to a series of provocative insights into human nature.
The mythic image of the mind-boggling dangers of perfect beauty is presented credibly as the other side of the coin of Medusa-ugliness.
The opening scene (where young Hal is interviewed for admission to a college which is very interested in him because of his exceptional tennis talents but is skeptical of his academic ability) is handled brilliantly, pulling us into the middle of the story very quickly. But the very puzzle that was raised by that scene is never resolved, in the nearly 1000 pages of narrative.
This reads like the work of someone with
incredible talent, who simply didn't finish writing the story.
He just left all the plot strings hanging -- instead of pulling
them together and tying them up neatly as Irving and Pynchon and
Dickens would do. The result for the dedicated reader is
disappointment at a great work left unfinished.
The property on Long Island also plays an important role in the story. Its changing physical layout becomes intertwined with the characters and the action. For instance: the photos of Timmy and Tommy on the walls, then just picture hanger hooks, then new photos of Ruth, then the photos gone and the holes filled in and painted over; first the back yard is rough and wild and untended, then when Marion leaves, Ted adds the swimming pool, shower and privet hedge; the squash court becomes a suicide scene, then an office, and will probably be used in new ways as Marion moves back at the end). In other words, the property is both a physical given and a human construct. The layout leads to events that affect people's lives (the memories of pictures and picture hangers; the four-year-old Ruth wandering into the master bedroom and seeing her mother with Eddie); and their experiences lead them to change the layout.
The characters and the incidents are consistently engaging. There's anticipation and surprise, humor and pathos from start to finish. This is Irving's most consistently brilliant and well-crafted novel. It is also a book about the craft/life of writing fiction. This is the mature work of an excellent writer -- one who began with great talent and promise and now writes with mastery.
The stories in his previous books centered
around humorously improbable events and grotesquely exaggerated
characters -- like the conception of Garp and the bear in Hotel
New Hampshire. Widow feels real and immediate. Here Irving seems
to extract more meaning from the events he recounts, rather than
rushing on to tell of more events. Here he creates a fully
wrought story, rather than a series of uneven but often
Most compelling is his description of likely advances over the next 20 years -- where working prototypes of the underlying technology already exist. In this realm, Kurzweil, the entrepreneurial inventor responsible for the Kurzweil Reading machine, the Kurzweil synthesizer, advanced speech recognition, etc., speaks with convincing authority.
By 2099, his predictions become sci-fi-like. People are "software" which can be instantiated in other kinds of bodies, including nanotech ones; with everyone having (by law) several backup copies of the "software" (memories and thinking patterns) that is their identity; where there is no reason for anyone to die (in the biological sense); where human and machine minds exist together on the same universal network.
Kurzweil tells his story in the broadest possible terms, beginning (like Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time) with the creation of the universe in the first second of the Big Bang, and presenting his underlying thesis in terms of the relationship of entropy and evolution, order and disorder. He formulates and clearly explains three basic laws of nature:
The future he paints has enormous risks as well as opportunities. Imagine "nanopathogens," the 21st century edition of today's computer viruses, and imagine the mischief that creative villains could wreak at a time when people (all people) "live" as software in computer networks. He also points out the possibility that in a world in which people are just software, a handful of minds/entities might decide that there was no need for ten billion such entities, and might decide to eliminate the masses, seeing them as an inefficient expenditure of resources. This sounds like great material for sci-fi. But should we as individuals worry about possibilities that are so far off in the future? Well, if we believe Kurzweil, people who are teenagers today, might well still be in their prime when mankind passes the technology/evolutionary threshold and ordinary people become virtually "immortal" -- with the opportunity to "live" well beyond the 21st century, if disaster (deliberate or accidental) does not intervene.
This tale takes place in the near future, in a world that closely resembles our own. Like in Erickson's earlier novels, time is very important, and subject to unexpected shifts; but here the shifts are felt as changes in scene and perspective, rather than unpredictable distortions of reality in a world where the physics of time differs from our own, where there seem to be more dimensions.
When the character known as The Occupant says "I determined that if modern apocalypse is indeed an explosion of time in a void of meaning, then time is moving, and hte timelines of the Apocalyptic Calendar are moving as well. All the routes and capitals of chaos on the Calendar are constantly, imperceptibly rearranging themselves in relation to each other... " you read this passage as the obsessed but insightful observation of one character -- someone who would fit in very well in a story by Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Robbins. But unlike Vonnegut and Robbins, the emphasis here is not on the ideas, but rather on the characters, on the felt and lived through experience. This is not a clever satirical lecture delivered by a series of comic and improbable characters. Rather this is a modern myth, told with the haunting immediacy of dream. He defines the modern apocalypse as "an explosion of time in a void of meaning," but pursues this thought dramatically, rather than intellectually -- it becomes part of a fabric of metaphors, rather than the thesis of a lecture.
As an eleven year old boy, The Occupant's life is thrown into turmoil by the sound of a gunshot in Paris at 3:02 in the morning on May 7, 1968, as one of his parents shoots a young woman -- presumably the lover of either his father or his mother -- and that sound touches off the riots of the almost-revolution in Paris. And another character in America hears that same shot at that same time and is also puzzled, intrigued and intimately affected by it. This kind of twist of the time-space continuum is typical of Erickson's style, but here feels more like the wildly improbable and playful coincidences of Vonnegut and Robbins, which occur in an otherwise predictable reality, than entry-points to new and bizarre scifi-like or kafka-esque worlds as in Erickson's earliest novels (Days Between Stations and Rubicon Beach).
The relationship between The Occupant and Kristin resembles that of Cupid and Psyche as told by Apuleius in The Golden Ass. And The Occupant's pent-up passion, and emotional remoteness feels byronic. But these and other familiar narrative elements become twisted in new and intriguing ways.
Here the reality is Escher-like. Reading this
novel is like walking through an Escher scene, where everything
up close seems perfectly normal and clearly and sharply
portrayed; but as you move further along or try to see further,
unexpected distortions appear, and you find yourself moving down
when you thought you were moving up; and while you keep moving
forward, next thing you know, you are back where you started.
The first part of Disruption relies heavily on evidence from surveys -- using a ponderous academic style to prove points that could be presented as common sense. It reads like an account of the debates of professional sociologists, weighing the merits of various dubious statistics.
The second part is simply brilliant, based on observations from nature, philosophy, psychology, movies, popular culture, technology, economics, and business. Instead of a debate narrowly focused on a single topic, with evidence presented leading to a single conclusion, we have a series of inspired insights into modern life and business, including what it takes to be successful in the new Internet-based business environment.
Broad implications of anarchic, self-regulating Internet style: "Max Weber argued that rational, hierarchical authority in the form of bureaucracy was the essence of modernity. What we find in the second half of the twentieth century, instead, is that bureaucratic hierarchy has gone into decline in both politics and the economy, to be replaced by more informal, self-organized forms of coordination." (p. 194)
Online communities: "... if people know that they have to continue to live with one another in bounded communities where continued cooperation will be rewarded, they develop an interest in their own reputations, as well as in the monitoring and punishment of those who violate community rules." (p. 193) [cf. the success of the feedback system at eBay]
Fukuyama repeatedly emphasizes the importance of "social capital": "Social capital can be defined simply as a set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permits cooperation among them. If members of the group come to expect that others will behave reliably and honestly, then they will come to trust one another. Trust is like a lubricant that makes the running of any group or organization more efficient." (p. 16) And he defines "network" in terms of "social capital: " If we understand a network not as a type of formal organization, but as social capital, we will have much better insight into what a network's economic function really is. By this view, a network is a moral relationship of trust: A network is a group of individual agents who share informal norms or values beyond those necessary for ordinary market transactions." (p. 199) In other words, in a network people "are much more willing to engage in reciprocal exchange in addition to market exchange -- for example, conferring benefits without expecting immediate benefits in return. Although they may expect long-term individual returns, the exchange relationship is not simultaneous and is not dependent on a careful cost-benefit calculation as it is in a market transaction." (p. 201)
In other words, Fukuyama provides an interpretation of modern society in which the most bizarre aspects of the Internet environment (e.g., massive social and economic structures thriving with no central control; and companies competing to give away software and content, rather than charge for it) become instances of broad principles of human behavior. And the Internet style of business becomes an economic necessity -- the only way a company can survive.
In a hierarchical organization, "although it is in the organization's overall interest to promote the free flow of information, it is often not in the individual interests of the various people within the hierarchy to allow it to do so." (pp. 203-205). Networks are more flexible and better able to adapt to changing circumstances because "they provide alternative conduits for the flow of information through and into an organization. Friends do not typically stand on their intellectual property rights when sharing information with each other and therefore do not incur transaction costs. Friendships thus facilitate the free flow of information within the organization... A corporate culture ideally provides an individual worker with a group as well as an individual identity, encouraging effort toward group ends that again facilitate information flow within the organization." (pp. 204-205)
He sees the power of informal networks not just within large corporations, but also when the notion of long-term employment at the same company breaks down -- due to intense competition for highly skilled workers and also due to frequent layoffs and business failures. He cites Regional Advantage by Annalee Saxenian, with reference to Silicon Valley, "...beneath the surface of apparently unbridled individualistic competition were a wide array of social networks linking individuals in different companies in the semiconductor and computer businesses. These social networks had a variety of sources, including common educational background... and common employment histories..." (p. 208) Saxenian had contrasted the Silicon Valley culture with that of Boston's Route 128 area: "...the proprietary attitudes of a Route 128 firm like Digital Equipment proved to be a liability." (p. 209)
Fukuyama sees the ties of electronic networks as "weak" compared to those in the Silicon Valley: "...the whole of Silicon Valley can be seen as a single large network organization that can tap expertise and specialized skills unavailable to even the largest vertically integrated Japanese electronics firms and their keiretsu partners." (p. 210) He asks, "If information can now be readily shared over electronic networks, why is there not further geographical dispersal of industries? It would appear that the impersonal sharing of data over electronic networks is not enough to create the kind of mutual trust and respect evident in places like Silicon Valley; for that, face-to-face contact and the reciprocal engagement that comes about as a result of repeated social interaction is necessary." (p. 210) He concludes, "... it is hard to turn ideas into wealth in the absence of social connectedness, which in the age of the Internet still requires something more than bandwidth and high-speed connectivity." (p. 211)
In this passage (unlike the one about online communities quoted earlier), I believe that Fukuyama underestimates the socially cohesive power of interaction over the Internet. An electronic network and the software that runs on it are simply mechanisms that can be used in many ways -- some of which result in weak social ties and others of which lead to close personal relationships, strong feelings of loyalty, and vibrant businesses. The difference comes from the human, personal investment that a company puts into its online community efforts, as well as the overall structure they put into place to encourage the positive interaction of their visitors with one another.
Also, while this book was recently published, Fukuyama's comments about Digital and the Silicon Valley already sound dated. His principles are right on target and cogently explained, but the world has changed a bit since this book was written.
Digital at its peak (around 1987) had over 130,000 employees. It was swallowed by Compaq in 1998 and since that time the great majority of Digital people have either been laid off or left in disgust. In total there are today probably about a quarter million Digital alumni worldwide, all of whom shared a environment of common trust reinforced by free communication for all over the corporate computer network (long before the popularity of the Web). Now dispersed to numerous other companies, these people share a common culture and trust, common experiences, computer and Internet expertise, and shared values and experiences. In other words, the dissolution first of Digital and now of Compaq sets the preconditions for a unique human network of alums, (see the DEC Alumni Website at www.decalumni.org). Also the empty Digital/Compaq buildings, especially concentrated in Eastern Mass. and southern NH, means attractive business real estate is available at low cost. So the demise of Digital/Compaq sets the preconditions for the rise of Mass./NH as a high tech incubator, which today is far more attractive than the Silicon Valley. In fact, the Maynard Mill, a vast sprawling compex of buildings which served as a woolen mill in Civil War days, and later became the headquarters and symbol of Digital, has now become a mecca for high tech startup companies, especially Internet companies.
In the distant past, invading barbarian hordes
blasted villagers out of the valleys where they would have
stayed for countless generations, and dispersed the population,
spreading social capital, and leading to the spread of
civilization. And today we see massive layoffs and the failure
of major corporations leading to a similar dispersal, creating
new kinds of social relationships, making the silicon-valley
style of human networking far more common in other parts of the
world -- laying the foundation for future business success.
In "Blindess", another masterpiece, Saramago begins with a devastating unexplained event -- nearly everyone in the world goes blind at once. The nameless characters reveal themselves (one might say that mankind reveals itself) in how they cope in the very credible aftermath. You imagine yourself there with them. As one character who can see explains, "The only miracle we can perform is to go on living...to preserve the fragility of life from day to day, as if it were blind and did not know where to go, and perhaps it is like that, perhaps it realy does not know, it placed itself in our hands, after giving us intelligence, and this is what we have made of it..."
In "All the Names", we follow the hopes and fears of Senhor Jose, a clerk in the Central Registry -- a descendant of Dickens' Bob Cratchit, Gogol's Akaky Akakevich, and Melville's Bartleby, working in a vast bureaucracy reminiscent of Kafka, Borges, and Charlie Chaplin.. The mind-numbing petty emptiness of the work which fills his life borders on the metaphysical -- "...giving full attention to the names and dates whose supreme importance lies in the fact that, in the present instance, it is those names and dates that give legal existence to the reality of existence." In this bizarre context, petty concerns become all-consuming.
In "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis" we
live the life of a minor poet and scholar, who in his twilight
years returns to Lisbon from Brazil. Seinfeld made comedy out of
nothing. Saramago succeeds in making romance and tragedy out of
nothing. In a work like this, nothing is important -- it is very
important, indeed. The lives of the characters are built around
the nothings that they must deal with day after day, and the
nothings that they obsess over. There is nothing but nothing.
And in the midst of nothing we must be kind to and understanding
of one another; and from nothing we must build the meaning of
In both Aksyonov's Island of Crimea and Saramago's Stone Raft, a change in European geopgrahy leads to bizarre stariic consequences. In one case making, the Crimean peninsula becomes an island; and in the other the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) drifts away from Europe. Both authors use this bizarre, unexplained geographic event as the starting point for satire.
I read The Island of Crimea twice.The first time was in 1987 when the Cold War when the Berlin wall was still standing and the Cold War was still very real. The author was esteemed as an emigre dissident, an opponent of the Soviet regime whose works could not be published in the USSR. I was a fan of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. Of course I would read Aksyonov, and I did. But it left no lasting impression.
When I picked the book up a few days ago, I couldn't remember if I had ever read it. So I read it again, but now in a totally different prollitical context, it reads like a different book -- an antique, an artifact of history. The irony has aged; the satire is arimed at a target that no longer exists. And without the interested generated by the Cold War, this stilted mechanical tale would probably never have been published.In the case of The Stone Raft, the satire (both light and bitter) is just a staring point, an excuse for creating fascinating and memorable characters. The utterly impossible problems they face reveal who they are and change them in unexpected ways. Saramago succeedds in translating global issues and conflicts to family ones; and the resulting story should delight long after the global issues are no longer of interest.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999) begins with elements of the Cinderella story but the author freely and deftly transforms that tale and goes in totally unexpected directions. Apparently, this time the author was confident enough not to limit himself to the scope of the original. It reads more like a creative and fantasized historical novel than a fairy tale.
Lost (2001) has echoes of the Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, but is a totally independent work. The author is fascinated with human psychology and uses fiction to explore unusual and interesting possibilities. As one of his characters explains, “I still think history is really he study of how we change, even how human psychology changes. Not how universal and interchangeable we all are across the ages.” This novel is more historical fiction than fantasy.
Mirror, Mirror (2003) freely transforms the Snow White story. The occasional simliarities to the old tale provide an echoing depth; but anything can and does happen in what once again reads more like historical fiction than fairytale.
Son of a Witch (2005) returns to the very different, tangible, and believable fantasy world of Oz that Maguire created with Wicked. But references to Baum’s original characters and situations are far fewer. The old world is a distant memory. And the new world presents extraordinary challenges for the main character Liir, who may or may not be the son of Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West). The original story is just a launch pad. The adventure told so well here is all Maguire’s. And when we are left with questions yet to be resolved, we are not disappointed. On the contrary, we are delighted at the prospect of many more tales set in this three-dimensional Oz with its unforgettable characters.
I just wish that there were a book that did such a good job on Chinese history prior to 1900. I need a clear picture of what happened and why -- not just names and dates. I long for a book that would treat Chinese history with broad convincing strokes, taking account of fixed factors, like geography and climate, in the style of Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel. I strongly suspect that the East-West flow of rivers in China -- the Yangzi and the Yellow Rivers in particular -- had an enormous impact on the direction of Chinese history. But I get no sense of that here.
The novel Soul Mountain, by Nobel-prize winner Gao Xingjian, puts the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath into a human context of day-to-day life. On one level, this novel tells of a journey today along the Yangzi. The traveler is a writer who has fallen into political disfavor, but is free to move about. Under a variety of pretexts he gathers folk tales by and about various peoples who have been on the fringe of Chinese civilization. We see the consequences of the Cultural Revolution and other such waves of political action/reaction. We also see reconstruction, the salvaging and regrowth of old beliefs and values. Just as in Russia, after the collapse of Communism, we see the resurgence of old beliefs and antagonisms.
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro takes place mainly in Shanghai in the early twentieth century. It helps to have read Spence to understand the chaotic political situation in the 1920s and 1930s, up to and including the Japanese invasion. But China is just the background, not the subject of the story. What we have here is Kafka meets Raymond Chandler -- a modern mystery story with metaphysical overtones, where what happens in the narrator's mind is not always the same as what happens in the external world. Here we have an author born in Japan and raised in England, writing about an English boy who grew up in Shanghai, went to school in England, and then returned to China to solve the mystery of his parents' disappearance. An amazing story, masterfully told.
But the most complete and enthralling picture
of 20th century China comes through in the latest novel by Amy
Tan -- The Bonesetter's Daughter. A double story
unfolds. First and last comes the tale of a mother and daughter
in America: the mother an immigrant from China; the daughter
finding it very difficult to relate to her mother's bizarre
attitudes and seeming lack of feeling. But the heart of the book
is the story of the mother with her mother -- who she didn't
know was her mother -- in a remote village in China and also in
Peking. History unfolds in the background as personal mysteries
and dramas are unravelled. You feel like you were there and
lived through it. You come to accept and take for granted
beliefs and values that at first seemed incomprehensible. You
remember the story and the history surrounding it as experienced
rather than explained.
In The Brothers and Phormio by Terence, once again the love interest centers around slave girls and the challenge is not that of winning hearts but rather bargaining with the procurers who own them.
While Plautus and Terence both borrowed their plots from Greek sources, they modified them in accordance with Roman slave laws, and legal niceties are often key to the resolution.
So -- from the context of the plays -- what are these laws?
Slaves can have, earn, and save money. If they save enough, they can buy their own freedom. The procedure for an owner freeing a slave is quite simple and informal. You tap the slave with your hand, turn him around, and say "Be free, henceforth." But in addition to paying their master, they also have to pay a substantial tax to the Roman government to legalize the transaction.
Slaves can be trusted advisors, teachers, and companions of their owners, but they cannot plead a case and their testimony is inadmissible in a court of law.
There is no obvious physical difference between slaves and freedmen. It's not a matter of race or even nationality. And record-keeping seems to be extremely sloppy. Hence it is easy to kidnap children and sell them as slaves in other cities.
Prisoners of war become slaves. People in debt can sell themselves into slavery to pay off the debt. Criminals may be enslaved as punishment. And the children of slaves are slaves.
However one becomes a slave, once one is a slave, one is treated as property that can be bought and sold and that is totally at the mercy of the owner. Owners can do whatever they please with their slaves, including hiring them out as prostitutes. And there's no sense that there's anything morally wrong with the owners who act as procurers or the slaves who do their bidding. Prosperous young men who enjoy their services fall in love with them and then seek to buy them from their owners, and these are tales of sweet innocent love. Otherwise, these young men would marry as arranged by their parents -- a financial transaction, with the bride's family paying a dowry. So buying a prostitute slave seems much more romantic than that alternative. And in the comic resolution, it may turn out that the slave girl is actually from a good family, having been kidnapped as a child, and that she's exactly the one that the parents would have wanted him to marry anyway.
Owners administer whatever punishment they please on their slaves; and the slaves have no recourse to the law (where their testimony is inadmissible). An owner can even execute a slave, and need not have a reason for doing so.
But, surprisingly, slaves are shown as, for the most part, loyal to their masters; having a sense that this is their fate and their role, and they have no right to dispute it. They are bound by a code of honor; and except in the case when they have just been made slaves by capture in war and have not yet gotten used to the idea, they don't seem at all inclined to escape, though little seems to be done to prevent them from doing so. Rather they focus their efforts on convincing their owners to freeing them or try to earn the money needed to buy their freedom.
By the time of Petronius, the Republic is dead and many of its institutions have changed. But slavery remains and, in fact, seems even more important to society that it was before.
In the Satyricon, Trimalchio, the nouveau riche party-giver, is a former slave, as are many of his wealthy guests. One such guest came from the provinces and voluntarily sold himself into slavery, not because of debt, but because he knew that the prospects for advancement as a slave in Rome were far better than as an ordinary taxpayer in the provinces.
The world is in constant flux. And slavery is a transitional state. Ambitious slaves just need to be prudent -- to not anger their owners and bring on punishment, and to save the allowance they are paid and earn additional money, to quickly accumulate enough to buy their freedom and pay the manumission tax. Once freed, they can rise socially as their wealth increases.
The conspicuous consumption of these wealthy former slaves is part of their world view -- fortune is arbitrary, unstable, and just as unpredictable as the acts of a despot like Tiberias, Caligula, or Nero. With no belief in gods or moral rules, it makes sense to play the game was well as you can play it, and if you happen to be on top today, then eat, drink, and be merry. As for what happens after death, you just hope that it will be a continuation of this same kind of life, with the same kind of pleasures.
It's easy come and easy go both in terms of
money and of life. Those who happen to do well today enjoy
watching gladiatorial battles and staged wars fought to the
death. Perhaps the pleasure of watching people suffer and die in
the arena comes in part from the relief of knowing that, today
at least, it's not they themselves who are suffering and dying
-- for only chance separates them from the victims.
The Musketeers are a bunch of drunken bums, always getting into trouble, and acting the part of gigolos -- asking for and expecting money and jewels from the rich married ladies they court. The King is an idiot. The quest that the Musketeers go on is a farce (that they take quite seriously). They are defending the honor of the Queen who has been flirting with the prime minister of France's greatest enemy, England; and although they are the "king's" Musketeers, they are working for the Queen against the King. The Queen also is a Spaniard, who has written to her brother in Spain asking him to go to war against France. Buckingham is a pompous conceited ass. He gets a kick out of seducing ladies and would like to think of himself as irresistible. He tries to impress the Queen by saying he is going to start a war between England and France just so he will be sent to Paris as ambassador to negotiate the peace when it's over, and that will give him an opportunity to be near her. She is very impressed with this absurd gesture of passion.
These brave mustketeers are willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of the Queen (or the King). They are quite serious (and quite impressed with their own valor and seriousness) -- but the quest is like jousting with windmills.
In the first half of the book (the adventure of the Queen's diamonds), the style of the narrative is delightfully ironic. Occasionally D'Artagnan (by far the most intelligent of the Musketeers) get a whiff of the irony "He was amazed at what fragile and unknown threads the destinies of a people and the life of men are sometimes suspended from." This part of the book has far more in common with the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, and Cervantes than with adventure/suspense novels of the vein of Tom Clancy.
By the second half (the tale of de Winter), the characters of the Musketeers (and even of their lackeys) have been firmly established, and the story takes off. But the underlying irony continues -- the Queen and Buckingham and Louis XIII are all frivolous fools whose shenanigans lead to the deaths and miseries of many ordinary well-meaning, honorable, and brave people. Richelieu is actually the savior of France, and a very reasonable, if devious man. Richelieu has nothing personal against D'Artagnan. He recognizes D'Artagnan's abilities as a man who can devotedly follow orders, and would like to recruit him. As for de Winter, her personal wickedness is essential for saving France -- she brings about the assassination of Buckingham (whom the Puritans, with good reason, consider to be satanic) and hence ends the war between England and France (saving many lives). So questions of personal morality are often at odds with national goals and the needs of the many.
Note, too, that D'Artagnan is no saint, nor is he a genius. Despite his flashes of insight and tactical cleverness, he has no grasp of the overall international political situation, of the large-scale implications of his acts of personal bravery and personal loyalty (only Richelieu seems to understand that.) His "love" for Constance is very much a la Don Quixote -- he is in love with an idea of himself being in love: knight serving lady. He hardly knows her. And after her second kidnapping, there are long stretches when he seems to completely forget about her (allegedly because he doesn't know where she is and hence can't take direct action to save her). He is fascinated by de Winter, and is passionately drawn to her in the flesh, despite himself. In order to get to her, he is willing to lie and trick and use people (including her), without any scruples. His treatment of de Winter's maid (Ketty) is incredible. He seduces her, tells her he loves her, etc., all in order to get into bed with de Winter. And at the end of the book, with both Constance and de Winter dead; there is no mention at all of what became of Ketty.
Putting the story into historical context, D'Artagnan comes from Bearn, a territory bordered on three sides by Gascony and on the fourth by the Pyrennees in Spain, and which included the cities of Pau, Nerac, Tarbes, Orthez, and Lourdes. This territory was the center of Huguenot (Protestant) activity in the French religious civil wars just a few years before. For about 50 years (about 1560-1610) no Catholic mass was performed there, b.ecause of the influence of the protestant Jeanne d'Albret, mother of Henry IV (Henry of Navarre). Interestingly, Dumas says nothing about the religious issue, focusing instead on personal ideals, personal concepts of loyalty and what is right. This must be deliberate. With the siege of Rochelle, the overthrow of Charles I, etc., organized religion is just one of the elements of political power politics. Personal belief does matter (the Puritan pursuaded by Lady de Winter to kill Buckingham), but it is a question of character, a predictable element of personality that is the source of individual pride, but also is subject to manipulation by the unscrupulous.
The world Dumas portrays in the Three Musketeers resembles the modern corporate world, where princes of business, with personal ties of friendship, vie among one another and pursue their personal ambitions, with no regard for their subjects/employees.
In the sequel, Vingt An Apres, the Musketters remain true to their personal homor and duty when public duty is a complex mess. This story takes place about twenty years after the first (hence the title). The moral landscape is even more complex than before -- or rather the Musketeers are more aware of the complexities. They now realize that while Cardinal Richelieu was a villain, he was also a great man. His successor, Cardinal Mazarin, is simply petty. They miss Richelieu.
Also, the Queen (Anne of Austria), the vain coquette whose honor the Mustketeers had saved at great risk to themselves, has secretly marred Cardinal Mazarin (who not having taken religious vows is, in fact, free to marry), and she has turned on her old friends.
In the third book of the series, Le Vicomte to Bragelonne, thanks largely to Athos, the Musketeers restore Charles II to the throne of England. Aramis becomes the head of the Jesuits -- richer and more powerful than the King of France. Portos becomes a wealthy landowner. D'Artagnan becomes a general. There's enough story here for half a dozen full-length movies.
Here, too (in Bragelonne), is the tale of The Man in the Iron Mask -- but a very different story than we have seen from Hollywood. Aramis (as head of the Jesuits) sets up the situation, having plotted for years the overthrow of the Louis XIV, in order to assume control of the country with his puppet, the king's twin, on the throne. The twin is imprisoned in the Bastille, but without the knowledge of the king. There he is treated with kindness and respect, and with no mask. When Aramis' plot goes awry, because D'Artagnan realizes what is happening and intervenes to save Louis, Porthos winds up dead, and the twin is sent back to prison, this time to a small barren island and this time forced to wear the iron mask, because of his treason. Aramis escapes to Spain, and later returns to France in triumph as an ambassador from Spain. It's an emotional rollcoaster ride -- a couple thousand pages of delight. You come to know these characters very well, and get wrapped up in their ups and downs, their moral qualms, their selfless heroism, their petty vanity, their blindness to the broader implications of the political events in which they play major roles.
Note -- Dumas in French is a great read for a non-French-speaking person. The language is clear and direct, with almost no colloquialism or slang. Dumas simply and directly tells his story, without any fancy linguistic flourishes. He is also very easy to appreciate in translation -- which makes it all the harder to understand why the available English translations seem to miss the comic, ironic tone, and why the sequels are so hard to find.
Similarly, Jack London, Ernest Hemmingway, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dashiel Hammett are extremely popular and well-respected abroad because their clear, direct narrative style is very easy for foreigners to understand, and because their books translate o well.
A final thought: Dumas reminds me a bit of
Robert Parker. His books pack far more action and take place on
a far broader field, but much of the appeal comes from your
familiarity with the main characters -- wanting to see them in
new circumstances, doing new things that teach you still more
about them. And the characters in both Parker and Dumas are
primarily defined by their internal moral codes, and the stories
are designed put those codes to the test, repeatedly.
In normal mode, anticipation of this kind means that we are ready to respond to threats and opportunities very quickly -- often acting before the related sense data has arrived at the brain, much less been analyzed and understood. That could be an enormous survival advantage (from the perspective of evolution). It's a bit like "cache" memory in computers, being ready with answers to familiar questions in RAM, without having to go through the whole process of retrieving information from the hard drive.
This works very well when change is predictable. When what happens next fits neatly into the pre-existing context. But when change is discontinuous, when something significantly new occurs, this process can get in the way of our recognizing it. Anticipation in this sense is a habit of perception -- we see what we expect to see, and it takes a major shift, a major perceptual denial of what we anticipated for us to take a good hard look at what is actually happening and make sense of it, and change our judgments and our actions and our plans.
In the How Proust Can Change Your Life, true art breaks the habit -- leads to a temporary suspension or modification of the process of habitual anticipation -- helping us to see the world as if it were fresh, with new eyes.
Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct Instinct provides an explanation of part of the mechanism involved. He talks in terms of built-in wiring in the brain and its subsequent language-specific elaboration of anticipation and habit (though he doesn't use those words). We, as adults, truly cannot hear sounds of a new language because we haven't been wired to anticipate them.
When I was visiting at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe [January 1998], anticipation played a major role in my experience. We all heard about the dangers and beauties of the Zambezi River and the Falls. The resultant fear, anxiety, excitement all led to a suspension of habitual anticipation. That meant that more sense data were noticed and saved than normal.
(The anticipation process is very efficient, making it so I can operate with a minimum of input, paying minimum attention to what is happening to me, selecting only a small part of the multitude of sense data which assails me at every minute.)
Note the change in how I'm using the word "anticipate." Normally we say that we "anticipate" an experience and that the anticipation is actually greater than, more memorable than the event itself. In fact, what we have done is suspend or tone down our habitual anticipation, which enables us to operate efficiently with just an occasion confirm/deny glance at the world, but which means that it takes a real jolt for us to notice something new.
This is the phenomenon noted by Scott Adams in The Dilbert Future, that we actually react to sounds and other sense data before the stimulus signal reaches our brain. We are making our judgments based on anticipation. hence we can judge/react at lightning speed (which is good for survival in the wild or in competitive sports; this is the "instinct", the "feel", the "flow" that comes form mastery of a skill or sport [e.g., chess]). We anticipate rapidly and accurately and in great detail, based on minimum sensory input.
Consciousness consists largely of this continuous interplay of habitual anticipation (images generated from memory and imagination) and sense data, which confirm, deny, or modify what has been anticipated.
In habitual mode, sense data are barely needed at all. And in heightened consciousness (normally associated with the word "anticipation" or "awe" or religious experience) the emphasis is on the sense data which we then allow to pour in on us in prodigious quantities at prodigious speed, providing memories to be mulled over and "explained" and interpreted over and over again, long into the future.
No wonder science is so difficult. Obviously, our hypotheses color (anticipate) our results.
The moral code is part of the anticipation/perception process, determining what you "see" as well as what you immediately presume it means.
Hence the difficulty in appreciating (directly getting involved in) works of art (writing in particular) far from your own moral code (e.g., Dryden and Corneille's plays). If the shift is slight, you make adjustments; you become used to the author's voice and perspective and suspend disbelief for the duration of reading and become involved in the story,. If the shift is major -- a significantly different contemporary culture or a culture form the past -- it will take work and study to come to understand the context in a way that the situations and reactions begin to seem real and human to you.
Works from other cultures and times are suddenly "discovered" when some element of that code happens to be in harmony with a contemporary one -- not that you appreciate the work in its original context, but rather it seems to speak to you today (often a partial experience, that selectively edits out and doesn't perceive all that is dissonant form that view in the work itself.)
The work that was "before its time" didn't speak to the people of the context when it was written. That is not a sign of pre-science, and should not be a criterion of quality.
(Consider anticipation/hallucination and 3D
effects and other Hollywood special effects.)
Strangely, the two series of books have much in common. Yes, the one is set in a fantasy world of wizards and dragons hidden behind the scenes in modern England, and the other takes place far in the future when Earth is threatened by intelligent bug-like creatures from a distant star system. But in both cases, very young boys must match wits, will, and courage with an inscrutable evil force that threatens all of mankind.
The narrative in each case has three threads -- the competition among teams of kids in an elaborate and difficult game, the kids' ongoing espionage and trying to get away with things vs. the teachers, and looming in the background, becoming more important over time, the ultimate conflict to save the world from an incredibly powerful evil force.
Most of the action takes place in a school intended to train children for challenges very different from what they've encountered before in the ordinary world. Harry and his friends must learn magical skills; Ender and Bean must learn to cope with zero-gravity outer space. Harry learning how to maneuver a flying broom bears similarities to Ender and Bean becoming accustomed to the zero gravity of the Battle Room -- learning to reorient their thinking as well as get used to the new sensations. In both cases, classroom study is also an important factor needed for success and the heroes are excellent students, with intellectual curiosity that extends far beyond the assigned work. In both cases, the central character is marked from birth as having extraordinary abilities that single him out as the possible savior of the world -- partly a matter of heredity and partly circumstance. They must also train for that role and prove themselves worthy, time and again, through intermediate struggles.
In both cases, they are leaders, not just loners, and the devoted support of other kids is essential to their ultimate victory, though the full, almost crushing burden of responsibility rests on them.
And saving the world happens by the slimmest of margins. There are twists and turns and one impossible challenge after another and one surprising revelation after another. It goes down to the wire.
The teachers think they are aware of the dangers facing the world, and keep judging, plotting, and keeping secrets, as they try to figure out which of the children might prove a savior, and they try to help him along. But, actually, the kids have to figure things out for themselves, with little or no help from the teachers. Even the most brilliant, well-meaning, and well-informed adults are just spectators in the struggle to save the world and have less insight into what is actually going on and what really matters than do the kids, who have far fewer facts to work with.
In both cases, victory depends not just on courage and skill, but also on solving the puzzle of what's really going on and coming up with brilliant tactics.
In both cases, too, preparation for the struggle to save the world -- learning their own abilities and limits and learning to work as a team with the other kids comes from dedicated practice of an elaborate, complex, physically and mentally challenging game -- a game that the kids take extremely seriously, where not only individual contests matter, but also long-term standings extending for many months. Harry Potter's game, Quidditch, is dangerous, leading to broken bones, and bringing Harry close to death several times. In contrast, Ender and Bean's Battle Room is more controlled, with no real weapons, just simulated wounding and death, by a temporary process that leaves combatants who are "hit" temporarily "frozen" until the end of the game. But Ender does kill a child -- a bully who threatened to kill him -- in a hand-to-hand fight that adults allow to happen in order to test his will.
Indeed we've come a long way from Tom Brown's School Days and Boys Town. The kids aren't just in training for the "real world". They are more intelligent and more physically capable than the adults. Childhood isn't an extended practice session, in a safe controlled environment. The fate of the world rests in their hands right now, while they are kids, engaged in deadly combat with enemies that adults would have no chance against.
And why are so many of us drawn to these books?
The fourth book of the Harry Potter series, which won't be published until summer, is already the number one best seller at Amazon.com, just from people placing advanced orders. And the other three have dominated the best seller lists, simultaneously, for many months.
Is it just that the writing -- the plain
old-fashioned story-telling -- is so extraordinarily good? Or is
there also a longing for a Messiah, for a chosen one, a child of
more than human abilities for whom the complexities and
impossible challenges facing mankind are little more than play,
who, no matter how bad things get, will find a way out and save
I subscribe to three literary magazines: TriQuarterly, Plougshares, and Granta. All three are book-length, perfect-bound collections that come out three or four times a year. But I rarely read anything in TriQuarterly; I usually read just one or two stories per issue of Ploughshares, and I often read Granta cover-to-cover.
I have great respect for all three magazines and religiously save the back issues. (I became acquainted with Ploughshares back in the heyday of small press publishing in the mid-1970s and have every single issue of it). What makes Granta stand out as readable and enjoyable?
TriQuarterly follows the usual literary magazine style -- the editors select prose and poetry that meets the criteria of their subjective judgement. If your taste happens to be in tune with theirs, the magazine gives you not just occasional short pieces by well-known authors, but samples of the best work of lesser known and new writers that you are likely to enjoy. On the minus side, when such a publication has a stable staff, their subjective taste is likely to stay the same for long periods of time, meaning that one issue becomes virtually indistinguishable from another. There's nothing special about the order of the selections, and they have nothing in common. When I pick up an issue, my inclination is to check the table of contents to see if I've heard of any of the contributors, and to read first the works of the big-names. And having read one item, there's nothing to motivate me to read another. Hence while I subscribe, in part, to learn about new writers, I almost never read their works there.
Ploughshares tries to break away from the trap of sameness of taste and style and judgement by having a different guest editor for each issue. On the rare occasions when the guest editor is an author whose works I'm familiar with and enjoy (like Tim O'Brien), it's the editor's perspective that catches my interest. The selection tells me something about that author/editor, and writers included in that issue take on a special aura as having been singled out and recommended by him or her.
Granta has a different theme for each issue, and reads like a quirky and sometimes comprehensive book on the subject. Some subjects are a bit off-the-wall, as if chosen just for the fun of it and interpreted in wild and unexpected ways -- like #44 (summer 1993) The Last Place on Earth (about the final moments of our lives), #68 (winter 1999) Love Stories ("a temporary and permanent state of affairs; between strangers, within families; the lack, the loss and the need of it."), and #41 (autumn 1992) Biography ("what are they and why do we like reading them?"). Others are deliberately constructed to help introduce the reader to new writers, like #43 (spring 1993) Best of Young British Novelists and #54 (summer 1996) The Best of Young American Novelists. Often I've started reading a newly published novel, had a feeling of deja vu, and realized that I'd read an excerpt years before in Granta. But, for me, the best issues are the ones where the theme is a country or a city, like #70 (summer 2000) Australia: the New New World, #64 (winter 1998) Russia: the Wild East, #59 (Autumn 1997) France: the Outsider, and #65 (spring 1999) London: the Lives of the City.
I may not read an issue when it first comes out. I might not pick it up until years later, but once I start reading (and I inevitably start with the editor's essay explaining the theme), I usually can't stop and read everything, cover-to-cover, in order. The selection is invariably eclectic, broad, refreshing, and entertaining. The essays complement the fiction and vice versa, creating a whole that often changes your view of the subject -- whether it's Russia today or the nature of biography. You read about (and enjoy reading about) subjects that you never would have sought out on your own, and you discover interesting and important trends that news magazines simply miss. For instance, in the recent Australia issue, I savored tales of misunderstanding, hardship, and prejudice; learned about the status of aborigines and Irish immigrants; and enjoyed a first-hand account about growing up in Tasmania and fleeing to England.
Especially in the issues devoted to a single
country or city, I enjoy the freshness of the writing and
appreciate the way the pieces complement one another to provide
a memorable image of that part of the world and how it has
changed and what matters to ordinary people there, and what
trends are important there today -- all the telltale little
symptoms that don't get reported on by the media, and that can
wake you up to how much the world can change in a short time,
and how much the concerns and aspirations of people of all walks
of life throughout the world resemble one another from one
generation to the next.
A.S. Byatt has been quite fortunate in generating a large, best-selling audience for works of such complexity and based on such literary scholarship. Meanwhile, another writer in the same genre and with perhaps equal skill has passed unnoticed (as so many fine writers do).
The Notebooks of Lana Skimnest by Anselm Atkins is a novel presented as a critical commentary on the notebooks of a present-day naturalist (an expert in birds, butterflies, etc., and an amateur poet), together with a subjective, quirky biographical account of that naturalist's bizarre life. Like Byatt's work, this book calls to mind Borges, Saramago, Nabokov (as lepidopterist, as author of Pnin, and as commentator of Pushkin's Onegin), and Douglas Hofstadter (whose monumental Godel, Escher, Bach is alluded to as if the author of this novel had actually written that work under a pseudonym). You also find here playful, totally bizarre plot elements relating to a mad monk who is obsessed with Lana. Those elements help tie the story together with a touch of global paranoia that persists in the narrator's mind through numerous delightful and informative digressions, reminiscent of the styles of both Nabokov and Tom Robbins.The book was published nine years ago by Roberta Kalechofsky's Micah Publications, and is still available from them at www.micahbooks.com or through Amazon The Notebooks of Lana Skimnest, despite the fact that only a dozen copies have sold in all that time. According to Roberta, "The author, Anselm Atkins was an ex-Trappist monk and knew whereof he wrote. He made his living by designing stained glass windows and was quite talented in a variety of ways. He died last year of pancreatic cancer." This is a rare treat: buy it and enjoy it.
As we are told in Douglas Day's introduction, Flags was rejected by Horace Liveright, the editor who had bought the first two. Faulkner's agent, Ben Wasson, eventually sold the third to Harrison Smith, an editor at Harcourt, Brace & Company, but only on condition that it be severely cut. The agent did the cutting -- about a quarter of the text, and the book appeared with the title Sartoris. Flags in the Dust was the original title and the current edition with that title is the original uncut text
Flags is brilliant, classic Faulkner. It's hard to believe that the same person who wrote Soldier's Pay and Mosquitoes could have written in this totally different style -- the style we instantly recognize as Faulkner. Somehow, he suddenly found his voice and his subject.
Sartoris was dedicated to Sherwood Anderson, who gets credit for encouraging Faulkner to write about the Mississippi he grew up in and to use characters based on people he had known or heard of.
He begins Flags with dialect, reminiscent of Mark Twain. It's as if now, instead of having to invent and structure characters and stories, he just has to record what he hears in his head. He has a complex multi-generational story to tell, and he's anxious to get it all down.
Each scene is fully envisioned. Every character matters and is fully portrayed. You sense that he has much more to tell about each person, each place, each animal. Every detail of description seems tied to a myriad of other details, equally important. What's on the page is just what he's been able to capture for now; but he'll be back, again and again, to focus on a different character, a different generation, a different piece of a very large interconnected tale. And the unity which seems to pervade his work from Flags on comes not from meticulously planned structure, but from talking about the same set of folks and events, over and over again, not worrying about inconsistencies from one book to the next -- just trying to put the essence of it all down on paper. It's as if he could begin his life's work anywhere -- telling about any person, any event, any animal, any desktop at any time. It's all there waiting to be revealed. In his telling, he is moving a flashlight from here to there across time and space, revealing now this, now that -- but regardless of how much is shown at any one time, we sense the pieces are all integrally tied together, and that they in turn are tied to the far larger and more intricately complex story of mankind and nature. Yoknapatawpha is no "microcosm". We don't see the world portrayed here in miniature. Rather the world is all one huge, fascinating fabric of story, and this is a piece of it.
Rare is the rambling and beautifully wrought paragraph that doesn't contain at least one extended simile or metaphor, connecting the everyday ordinary people, circumstances, and events of this piece of Mississippi with the rest of human history and nature.
This first of the classic Yoknapatawpha books, like others to follow, consists of a series of short stories or character sketches, strung together or interleafed. Perhaps that's what confused the editors Faulkner submitted it to. This book is an essential part of the single work which Faulkner wrote for the rest of his life. But it must have seemed wild and undisciplined, unstructured and aimless when seen out of context.
The Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion, published as a single volume by Modern Library) is probably the best introduction to Faulkner's world, because there, in over 1000 delightful pages the tale has time and space to take full shape, with beginning and middle and end; and you can get wrapped up in these lives and begin to really care for the characters and their fates. So when you encounter a Gavin Stevens in another book (like Intruder in the Dust), you already know him and understand him, like an old friend, and can get right into the new story.
And one book will tell in a paragraph or two the basic story of what becomes another entire book. For instance, on p. 181 of Flags, Faulkner gives a quick summary of the rise of the Snopes clan. And in the Snopes Trilogy, on pp. 450-451, you see in capsulized form the main event from Flags: Colonel Sartoris ("Old Bayard"), owner of the bank, dies of a heart attack when his grandson Bayard (twin brother of John, killed as aviator in WW I) crashes his car.
Inconsistencies from one book to the next make these tales sometimes feel like parallel worlds, where much of the detail is the same, but one small change has led to the spinning out of new stories. For instance, in Flags, the lawyer is Horace Benbow, brother of Narcissa Benbow, who married young Bayard Sartoris. But by The Snopes Trilogy, Horace has disappeared, and his place appears to be taken by Gavin Stevens, a major actor in many of Faulkner's books. (Perhaps it was not a coincidence that Faulkner dropped "Horace", the name of the editor who gave him his start as a novelist, but then rejected Flags). In another minor change, V.K. Surath, an itinerant salesman of sewing machines, who appears briefly in Flags, becomes V.K. Ratliff, the itinerant salesman of sewing machines who figures prominently as a narrator in the Snopes Trilogy.
In Flags, Faulkner turned not just to the land and people that he knew, but also to story for the sake of story, regardless of structure. Old Bayard (Colonel) Sartoris reads and rereads Dumas, another master of story. And the name Bayard recalls the hero of many rambling interwoven Charlemagne romances. The impractical, often fatal, and yet fascinating idealism of the Sartoris family is contrasted again and again with the down-to-earth calculating practicality of the Snopes family; as the feudalistic idealism of the Confederacy is to the capitalistic materialism of the new breed of southern leaders in the early 20th century.
In Faulkner's world, everyone, regardless of status or race or mental condition, matters. Mentally deficient, ignorant, and broken people are presented with the same humor and compassion as the most brilliant and successful citizens. They are all part of the same fabric, all interdependent, all equally valid as subjects and narrators.
Like Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy sometimes focuses on minimalist, broken characters, as in Child of God. But McCarthy's portrayal, while "realistic" and compelling, lacks Faulkner's humor and compassion. The God behind the scenes in Faulkner's world is a quirky old-timer, perhaps forgetful and fallible and inconsistent, but basically benevolent, with love for all, whoever they may be and whatever they may have done.
My favorite passage in Flags is the dialogue between Horace Benbow and his sister Narcissa about Shakespeare (starting on p. 185):
"Shakespeare doesn't have any secrets. He tells everything." [says Narcissa]
"I see. Shakespeare had no sense of discrimination and no instinct for reticence. In other words, he wasn't a gentleman," he suggested.
"Yes... That's what I mean.
"And so, to be a gentleman, you must have secrets."
"Oh, you make me tired." She returned to the magazine and he sat beside her on the couch and took her hand in his and stroked it upon his cheek and upon the fine devastation of his hair.
"It's like walking through a twilit garden," he said happily. "The flowers you know are all there, in their shifts and with their hair combed out for the night, but you know all of them. So you don't bother 'em, you just walk on and sort of stop and turn over a leaf occasionally, a leaf you didn't notice before, perhaps you find a violet under it, or a bluebell or a lightning bug; perhaps only another leaf or a blade of grass. But there's always a drop of dew on it."In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Shakespeare was considered wild and untamed, unrefined, incapable of keeping to a structure or maintaining the "unities" (which were so important to the generation of critics in the days of Dryden, Corneille, and Racine). Faulkner, similarly, has no "secrets." He tells everything -- some here, some there, but not, apparently, in accordance with some master plan or aesthetic theory. Sure, he uses all the traditional tricks of narrative to hold a reader in suspense and build to a climax of revelation. But, overall, he feels compelled to tell us everything, just as Shakespeare feels compelled to give us every side of Hamlet's dilemma rather than crisply focusing on a single aspect. Let all the secrets out. Faulkner tells everything from this perspective and that, shining light in all directions. Then he retells it again from a different starting point and with a different focus. He loved to tell that story, and reading it and rereading it in all its forms is a sheer delight.
None of these books are translations. The authors all live in America, write in English, address their works to an American audience, and focus on cultures that are very foreign to typical American experience: Interpreter and Death of Vishnu -- India (both Hindu and Moslem); Waiting -- China; House of Sand and Fog -- Iran; The Samurai's Garden -- both China and Japan
In all these books, the cultural assumptions of the main characters are essential to the plot
In Samurai's Garden, Stephen, the first-person narrator, is the son of a Chinese mother and a father who has lived so long in Japan that he is now "more Japanese than Chinese." Brought up in Hong Kong, Stephen finds himself in Japan while Japan is conquering China (prior to WW II). He falls in love with a Japanese girl, and becomes close friends with Matsu, the caretaker of his father's summer house. The heart of the book is a unique love-triangle story that he gradually uncovers involving Matsu and two other local villagers -- Matsu's best friend Sachi, and Kenzo, who suffers from leprosy and has been ostracized for many years.
Stephen acts as the interpreter of Japanese culture, gradually providing the reader with the context for understanding the values and assumptions of the other characters, and doing so dramatically, rather than didactically, helping us to identify and sympathize with people acting in ways that otherwise would have seemed totally bizarre.
In House of Sand and Fog, we follow two parallel story lines that intersect in a battle over a house. Colonel Behrani, head of a family of formerly wealthy Iranian immigrants, buys at an incredible bargain price a house mistakenly put up for auction for non-payment of taxes. Kathy Nicolo, a helpless and confused young woman, strives to regain her house, with the help of a married sheriff, who becomes romantically involved with her. The misunderstandings that move the plot along and prevent these well-meaning people from ever resolving their differences are all culturally based. Their misinterpretations of one another's actions and intentions lead from one crisis to another, and on to tragedy. And the author does an excellent job of helping the reader see, understand, and empathize with both sides.
In The Death of Vishnu, the frame of the story deals with a poor man, with the same name as a Hindu god, who lives and dies on steps of an apartment building in Bombay. But the main drama deals with two families -- one Hindu and the other Moslem -- that live in that building. The son of the one and the daughter of the other run off together, triggering a series of culture-based misunderstandings among well-intentioned people, leading to tragic violence. The author deftly introduces American readers to the religious, cultural, and caste assumptions of both sides.
The stories that make up the collection Interpreter of Maladies often deal with caste-based assumptions and aspirations of Indians in India and in America. In "A Real Durwan," the main character has a social role very similar to that of Vishnu in the Death of Vishnu, living on the steps of an apartment building, and acting as servant and helper of the residents. In "Sexy," a young American girl has an affair with a married Indian immigrant. (The most memorable line in that story is the definition of "sexy" provided by a young boy "It means loving someone you don't know." ) In the title story, we meet Mr. Kapasi, a tour guide in India and the Das family, of Indian descent, but living in New Jersey and looking at the world through American eyes. He explains to them his "other job," interpreting for a doctor. "He has a number of Gurjati patients. My father was a Gurjati, but many people do not speak Gurjati in this area, including the doctor. And so the doctor asked me to work in his office, interpreting what the patients say." Mr. Kapasi is old enough to be the father of Mrs. Das, but he is attracted to her and fantasizes that she might be interested in him. Then, when they have a brief moment alone together, she confesses to him that one of her children was conceived in a casual affair with a friend of her husband, during a brief visit. He is tempted to see such a confession as a gesture of intimacy. But she explains that she hopes that as an "interpreter of maladies, Mr. Kapasi can help. "I'm tired of feeling so terrrible all the time. Eight years, Mr. Kapasi, I've been in pain eight years. I was hoping you could help me feel better, say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy." "She did not resemble the patients in the doctor's office, those who came glassy-eyed and desperate, unable to sleep or breathe or urinate with ease, unable, above all, to give words for their pains. Still, Mr. Kapasi believed it was his duty to assit Mrs. Das... He decided to begin with the most obvious question, to get to the heart of the matter, and so he asked, 'Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?'" In this story and others in the collection, Jhumpa Lahiri acts as cultural interpreter, helping us to understand people who misunderstand one another, helping us to see the world through very different eyes.
In Waiting, we come to know and care for a doctor and a nurse in modern China, whose love for one another grows and matures over the course of two decades. But cultural and government rules (in a time that overlaps the Cultural Revolution) prevent them from being able to marry or consummate their desire for one another, and severely restricts even social contact. Through the deft intepretation of the author, we come to accept the assumptions that the characters accept, to see the world through their eyes, and to thoroughly enjoy the story.
Another Faulkner-award winner, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Gutenberg helps us to understand and empathize with the plight of Japanese Americans during and after World War II. That plot, too, centers around culture-based misunderstanding.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden probably also belongs in this category -- but with broader scope, introducing us not just to Japan, but Japan in the process of change, through the course of the 20th century, where the cultural assumptions of the characters at the end of the story differ sharply from those at the beginning.
In all these books, the role of the author as a cultural interpreter for an American audience is key.In contrast, consider Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian (winner of the Nobel Prize), The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and Salman Rushdie's books, especially Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses. We read Soul Mountain in translation, but the others were written in English. And regardless of how excellent the quality of the writing, how original and striking we may find individual scenes and images, the stories and the cultures they represent remain foreign to us. The books are addressed to people who start with a different set of assumptions and beliefs than ours, and to fully appreciate them, we need to learn more about their history, religion, and culture. The author doesn't help us do that. We are looking in through a window at what is happening inside a house, rather than feeling like we are right there with the characters. We get a glimpse of a different world rather than -- as in the case of the cultural intepreter books discussed above -- seeing the world through new eyes.
The basic problem is how to cope with rapidly changing and discontinously changing business conditions.
The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen deals in particular with instances of "disruptive" technological change. Large successful companies organize to optimize the success they were built on -- focusing on the technology that gave them an important competitive edge, developing improvements in that technology ("sustaining technology"), and setting up all functions to meet the expressed needs of the customers they have attracted. As a result they set themselves up to be blindsided by new technology that takes a very different approach than what their customers are asking for. The new technology, typically, enters the marketplace in a no frills form -- low cost, with very little functionality -- that doesn't appeal to the megacompany's customers. But if it finds a niche where it can thrive -- typically, a new application that the megacompany is ignoring because the market is too small -- by the ordinary evolution of computer technology, later generations of this same product/service will become ever more powerful and ever more feature rich, and pre-existing applications and customers will migrate to it in hordes.
"... in the cases of well-managed firms such as those cited above [Sears, Digital, Xerox, IBM, Apple], good management was the most powerful reason they failed to stay atop their industries. precisely because these firms listened to their customers, invested aggressively in new technologies that would provide their customers more and better products of the sort they wanted, and because they carefully studied market trends and systematically allocated investment capital to innovations that promised the best returns, they lost their positions of leadership." (p. xv)
The post mortem diagnosis is truly excellent, providing historical insight for those of us who used to work for those companies (I was at Digital for 19 years). The irony is reassuring -- the more successful and better managed the company was, the more vulnerable it was to unexpected threats of this kind.
But this book is far less convincing as a predictive tool for investors and as a guide for managers who wish to avoid the collapse of a large successful company or who wish to take advantage of a new disruptive technology to build a new large successful company. There are simply too many variables to try to control. And so much of what is recommended runs counter to human nature.
In Living on the Fault Line, Geoffrey Moore frequently refers to The Innovators Dilemma and tries to deal with the practical question of how companies can survive and thrive in such a bizarre environment. He begins with the intriguing proposition that in the past most instances of disruptive technological change affected high tech industries, and meant nothing to managers in traditional industries. (Christiensen's examples from the retail and construction equipment industries were exceptions, and took a far longer time to play out than the high tech examples. And the fruit fly example -- the one where change was fastest and easiest to study and understand -- was the computer storage industry.) Moore points out that today, the disruptive technology of the Internet is rapidly impacting all industries, and hence everyone needs to become familiar with the dangers and the possible cures of this dilemma.
He does a great job of explaining the stock market's valuation of Internet companies, making it seem quite reasonable that startups that have never made a profit should have multi-billion-dollar market caps. But this book was published early in 2000, before the dot-com crash; and the author would probably write that chapter very differently today.
In other words, like Christensen, Moore is great at analyzing the past, and making sense out of what seems random or even insane. But the manager or investor who relies on this analysis to make predictions or course corrections is at great risk, because in the normal swirling flow of complex events, it is quite difficult to perceive which of the eddies and currents will prove to be important later. Also, as the book progresses, rather than providing fresh analysis of the bizarre new phenomena of Internet business, Moore keeps falling back on the models that he described in his earlier books -- Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado, as if his concepts have greater longevity than the business world he applies them to.
So I come away from these books not with a greater ability to predict the unpredictable or to manage the unmanageable, but rather with a tragic image of today's business world. Managers and workers at all levels are faced with rapidly changing and bewildering business conditions. You spend much of your life at work, but because of the rapidity of change and the likelihood that the companies for which you work won't last long, that work sometimes feels stripped of meaning.
To be motivated and to feel proud of what you do, you need to shift your perspective -- to no longer invest your sense of personal worth in the success or failure of the companies you work for. You need to focus on what you can understand and control -- the projects you work on, the teams you work with. And you need to realize that if you meet your daily challenges, accomplishing what you set out to do, despite the odds against you, you should feel proud, regardless of whether the projects you work on ever reach the marketplace or the company succeeds or fails with it. You are what you do, and that remains, regardless of long-range consequences beyond your control.I also come away with a curiosity regarding the history of nations. The concept of corporate culture derived from that of national and ethnic culture. Now it would be interesting to take what has been learned about corporate culture and apply those principles to the understanding of national culture. What happens to nations when they are faced with disruptive technological change -- comparing Japan and China (as Jonathan Spense does to some degree in his book The Search for Modern China, and as Ruth Benedict touches upon in her brilliant WWII-era The Chrysanthemum and the Sword), and also looking at Russia both at the end of the 19th century and the end of the 20th century. What enables the people of one country to adapt and thrive, while the people of another country seem to collapse in bewilderment when faced with rapid, unexpected change? And how and why does that capability change over time?
He's the kind of author that wakes you up to the fact that the enjoyment of fiction is, in fact, a subjective matter: there are no absolute standards. For this reader, his works are hard to read and easy to forget. They are "hard" not because of complexity, but rather because of the lack of anything compelling -- in character or plot -- to get you involved and pull you along. You read them because you feel you should. It's hard work overcoming the boredom. And when you're done, the work seems to be for naught, because even the books with the best reputation -- like Herzog and Augie March -- are totally forgettable.
There are exceptions: the wacky quirky exuberant creativity of Henderson the Rain King is great fun. And Humboldt's Gift has an interesting plot and interesting characters.
But Bellow's central characters typically wallow in their mental misery rather than trying to get out of it. They define themselves by their misery, they cling to it. They are mental masochists, who make themselves miserable and then act proud of their suffeing, as if Prometheus had chained himself to his rock. They are the sort of people that I would go out of my way to avoid, who I'd never want to have to listen to.
Their claim to fame seems to come from an identification of their personal woes with the state of modern civilization. Their personal problems of identity become society's problems -- or at least that's what the critics claim.
Perhaps some of his appeal, back in the 1950s and 1960s, came from the fact that his approach to fiction was the complete opposite of the materialist realism of the Soviets. Others might show characters being shaped by their environment. Bellow's characters seem almost self-constructed, figments of their own imaginations. Their self is their destiny. They are who they are, and they shape the world around them based on what goes on in their minds. Their heroic misery is largely self-inflicted.
His approach, perhaps, also felt fresh and new because it was the opposite of freudianism. His characters remember the past not to free themselves from it, to cure themselves of psychological damage caused by past events. Rather they remember in order to savor the pain over and over again, to value it, and to value themselves as sensitive, suffering individuals.
In his latest novel, Ravelstein, we get a double dose of Bellow, with two central characters, both authors -- one playing Boswell to the other. But there is nothing admirable about Ravelstein, an author at the peak of success. He is a totally disgusting, self-centered pedant, who treats his "friend" like an annoying pet. And the friend is only memorable for his lack of self-confidence and lack of gumption. You don't care that Ravelstein is dying, you just wish he'd hurry up and get it over with.
So why do I keep going back for more? In part, it's an aftermath of having gone to Yale in the 1960s, when Bellow's reputation was huge. The opinions of professors from back then still loom large, and my inability to appreciate Bellow still feels like a defect on my part -- a fault I should try to fix. And in part it's because his fans are so eloquent. For instance, in the Oct. 9, 2000, issue of The New Yorker, Philip Roth eulogizes Bellow's works (but doesn't mention Ravelstein) in "Re-reading the Novels of Saul Bellow." His accounts of Bellow's novels are fascinating. For instance,
"In Augie March, a very grand, assertive, freewheeling conception of both the novel and the world the novel represents breaks loose from all sorts of self-imposed strictures, the beginner's principles of compositon are subverted, and, like the character of Five Properties in Augie March, the writer is himself 'hipped on superabundance'."
And again "The character of Moses Herzog, that labyrinth of contradiction and self-division -- the wild man and the earnest person with a 'Biblical sense of personal experience' and an innocence as phenomenal as his sophistication, intense yet passive, reflective yet impulsive, sane yet insane, emotional, complicated, an expert on pain vibrant with feeling and yet disarmingly simple, a clown in his vengeance and rage, a fool in whom hatred breeds comedy, a sage and knowing scholar in a treacherous world, yet still adrift in the great pool of childhood love, trust, and excitement in things (and hopelessly attached to this condition), an aging lover of enormous vanity and narcissism with a lovingly harsh attitude toward himself, whirling in the wash cycle of a rather generous self-awareness while at the same time aesthetically attracted to anyone vivid, overpoweringly drawn to bullies and bosses, to theatrical know-it-alls, lured by their seeming certainty and by the raw authority of their unambiguity, feeding on their intensity until he's all but crushed by it -- this Herzog is Bellow's grandest creation, American literature's Leopold Bloom, except with a difference: in 'Ulysses,' the encyclopedic mind of the author is transmuted into the linguistic flesh of the novel, and Joyce never cedes to Bloom his own great erudition, intellect, and breadth of rhetoric, whereas in 'Herzog' Bellow endows his hero with all of that, not only with a state of mind and a cast of mind but with a mind that is a mind."
What serious reader could possibly resist a book described with such exuberant and loving eloquence? I would love to read the books that Roth describes. Unfortunately, I have read them already, and, to me, they bear no resemblance at all to these descriptions.
I got another very different view of Bellow from the book-sized periodical Granta -- issue #41 "Biography." That included an excerpt from an early unfinished and previously unpublished autobiographical novel of Bellow's -- "Memoir's of a Bootlegger's Son" -- and also a biographical essay by James Atlas about Bellow's early years as a struggling unknown author. In those pieces I find it easy to sympathize with and get involved in the struggles of the young Bellow -- to cheer him on and hope he might overcome the impossible odds he faces. And it seems totally extraordinary that this ambitious and talented nobody from nowhere became today's cultural icon.
But despite this marvelous and unlikely success story, Saul Bellow, today's grand-old-man of American letters, remains, for me, an author who drains, rather than one who refreshes and restores, an author whose works you read because you feel you must, even though you don't enjoy them.
PS -- I just read Mr. Sammler's Planet. Much of it is a setup for conversation between Mr. Sammler and Govinda Lal about the nature of man, and followup observations about what makes a "good man," somewhat like a Plato dialogue, somewhat like My Dinner at Andre's. It works remarkably well.
"What does he look like?"
"I don't know. I guess more and more he looks like a friend."
"You thought I was death."
"I considered the possibility."
Peculiarities of McCarthy's style add to the bizarre flavor of this scene. He doesn't use quotation marks for dialogue. He doesn't tell you who is talking; you have to figure that out from context. He doesn't even use apostrophes -- it's "dont" not "don't" in the text. And key passages are presented in Spanish, without translation, once again forcing those of us who do not read Spanish to try to decipher the meaning from context.
Here, for instance, the stranger doesn't say "What kind of man offers to share dry crackers with death?" Rather he asks "Que clase de hombre comparta sus galletas con la muerte?" And Billy replies immediately, "And what kind of death accepts them?"
The style creates an otherworldly atmosphere that persists even when the author is describing the most mundane activities in the greatest of detail. It also trains the reader to keep looking closer, trying to find meaning in the context, never expecting all the answers to be laid out clearly; and the implication is that life itself is just such a puzzle, which may or may not have a solution; and that you may not know you have the solution even if you've found it.
The epilogue seems to shed new light on the destiny of man and could stand alone as a great work of literature, like the Grand Inquisitor scene from the Brothers Karamazov. To appreciate it, you don't really need to know the plots and characters of the three novels; but it does help to be acclimated to McCarthy's unique style, and there is much to be gained by experiencing the full unfolding of the story.
As you get caught up in the narrative, what first seemed like weaknesses become strengths. Sometimes the author proceeds very slowly, providing lots of painstaking detail about dealing with horses and cattle, about healing people and animals, about fixing things. Step by ponderous step, he tells you everything you'd need to know to do it yourself. Some passages read like a handbook for the modern cowboy. But miraculously, the tedious detail helps provide a concrete and very credible background for the occasional flights of allegory and metaphysical insight. The detail is a heavy anchor, holding the narrative in place; it is also a dark background against which the brillance can truly shine.
The basic story is both gripping and extremely painful -- plans are broken, nothing works out the way characters want, random cruelty and violence erases all. But in the very telling, it is transformed; showing how through the ages man has added a flavor of the heroic to the mundane -- ordinary people and events turning into epics. The flat, ungarnished presentation of the facts is just the starting point for the tales that others will tell.
For instance in The Crossing, Billy Parham, a young boy from Texas, who was caught up in a series of dangerous circumstances in the wild wilderness of Mexico and is now returning to try to find his brother, hears a ballad and immediately recognizes that it is about his brother. The ballad is the first evidence he has that his brother was killed and how it happened. And that much is "true." But later he learns that this same song has existed for generations. It applies to his brother as it applied to others before him. The shape of the older story reforms the memory of the recent events. And the recent events lead to subtle changes in the ancient narrative. At other points we see people retelling events that just happened, that must be fresh in their minds, but telling them as legend, because legend shaped their seeing and their remembering.
These books are filled with men and the doings of men. Women appear as objects of desire and as ideal aspirations; but we don't get to see them as real living people. Magdalena, the young prostitute that John Grady Cole falls in love with in Cities of the Plain, is almost an exception. We see her idealized by Grady and also see her on her own and described by her pimp. But her name is used very rarely -- mostly she is just "she," an unknown and unknowable entity, the object of other people's desires, whose own desires remain a mystery.
All in all, McCarthy has created a modern
allegory that works. He portrays concrete daily reality with the
immediacy of a Melville, and manages to loll us with commonplace
detail to the point where we accept, welcome, and savor his
sudden insights into the nature and destiny of man.
Now, more and more I'm seeing and enjoying speculative fiction of a very different kind, where the plot is a means rather than the end, allowing explorations of alternative modes of understanding and of being. Here there may be little or no technological paraphenalia, and the story may very well take place on Earth. Rather than starting from a specific scientific breakthrough or theory, the authors are inspired by science's realization of its own limitations, that human understanding is limited.
For example, in Door Number Three, Patrick O'Leary has created a novel that at first glance looks like standard sci-fi -- a psychiatrist falls in love with a patient who claims to be an alien, and who actually is an alien. But then it turns out that the aliens are not from outer space, but rather are descendants of humans, living on Earth in the future, and at risk of never coming into existence if human history is altered. So you start to think here's a story in the vein of Terminator or Back to the Future, with time travel and alternate universes and people bumping into themselves at different times. And, yes, plot elements of that kind appear here, but the emphasis is quite different. In fact, although the story is exciting and effective, the resolution of the story -- will the hero survive? will he and the girl finally get together? will he succeed in saving the world? -- is not the central question of the novel. The plot is not an end in and of itself. Rather the plot helps to dramatically demonstrate the implications of possible variants of the human condition and the nature of being. As explained in a conversation between the narrator and a priest in a mental hospital, the author is interested in "the Question of Suffering" -- the same question that Dostoevsky dealt with in the "Grand Inquisitor" sequence in Brothers Karamazov -- that suffering is the price of free will, that "people feel betrayed and enraged when God allows the innocent to suffer." (p. 147) People act as if "'there were two possible answers to the Question of Suffering. Two doors: Free Will... or No God. They forget the trapdoor.'
"'Strange God. A God inconceivable. As bizarre to us as an octopus is to a bird... Maybe he is to reality what we are to dreams.'" (p. 148)
In a short story entitled "The Maker of Miniatures" in a soon-to-be-published collection by O'Leary entitled Other Voices, Other Doors, the central character's father is "a dabbler in physics who regarded Occam's Razor as intellectual cowardice." (p. 59) The epigraph to that story -- a quote from Dennis Howe in Real-Time Magazine -- defines the doctrine of William of Occam as "'Entities should not be multiplied more than necessary.' That is, the fewer assumptions an explanation of a phenomenon depends on, the better it is..."
In the fiction of both Patrick O'Leary and Victor Pelevin, Occam's principle is itself an unwarranted assumption.
They both build on the unsettling revelation of current science that our minds and the world of physical reality are not perfectly matched to one another -- as philosophers in previous centuries had presumed. Our ability to perceive and understand the world evolved in the concrete circumstances of Earth, at our particular scale of size. At much smaller scales, at much larger scales, and perhaps at great distances, as well, reality is simply "inconceivable. As bizarre to us as an octopus is to a bird." It may take a dozen or even two dozen "dimensions" to mathematically describe phenomena. Concepts that we take for granted, like cause-effect, time, space, even death may not apply at all. Physical "truth" becomes relative and pragmatic -- certain ways of describing phenomena make practical sense at one scale and other ways work better at another scale. There is no "universal truth." Even the concept of "paradigm shifts" is misleading, implying as it does that one description of physical reality is "better" than another and supercedes it, when in fact different descriptions work better in different circumstances. As a practical matter, it often is helpful to think that the Sun revolves around the Earth. And at times it is handy to think of electrons rotating around a nucleus, like planets around a sun. At times it works best to think of light as energy and at other times to think of it as particles. All physical models are approximations, attempts to comprehend phenomena that are beyond the limited capacity of human intelligence. Yes, it feels logical that the simplest model, involving the fewest assumptions, is "better" than more complex models. That fits the way our minds work. But that assumption has no necessary basis in the physical world.
Hence there is a whole new playing field for speculative fiction -- trying on new modes of being, imaginatively exploring outside the Occam's Razor box.
In the story "Bat Boy" (also in Other Voices, Other Doors), a boy, bitten by a bat, is transformed into a bat. One moment the bat is inside the cage, and the next it is out. The boy's father speculates, "Was it possible for reality to turn inside out? What if the intelligence imbedded in the world operated on assumptions we know nothing about? What if the world was as ineffable as god to an atheist, as hockey to a Brazilian... The spaces between the bars [of the cage] were narrow safe things. Like comfortable ideas no one cares to re-examine. Up. Down. Time. Death. The Designated Hitter Rule. How did the bat get out?" (p. 34)
Note the playfulness in the analogies. These stories work well, in part, because the author is not heavy handed; he periodically undermines his own arguments, and mocks himself, just as he mocks our ordinary assumptions about everyday reality. There's an element of masquerade in these stories -- trying on new modes of being, getting a sense of what the world would feel like if... -- like trying on new costumes or new masks, but on a cosmic scale, that creatively throws not just our own identity, but all of presumed reality into question.
Pelevin operates in a similar realm -- part humorous, part philosophically serious. And Pelevin also experiments with transformation stories. What would it feel like to become a wolf, to see and sense the world through a wolf's body and mind. "... the greatest transformation that Sasha sensed was in his own awareness of himself. This was something very difficult to express in human language, and he began barking, whining and howling to himself in the same way he used to think in words. The change in his self-awareness had affected the meaning of life, and he realized that people could talk about it, but they couldn't feel the meaning of life in the same way as they felt the wind or the cold. But now Sasha was able to feel it, he felt the meaning of life continuously and clearly as an eternal quality of the world itself, and that was the greatest charm of his present condition. No sooner did he realize this than he also realized that he was not likely ever to return to his former existence of his own free will -- life without this feeling seemed like a long, tormenting dream, dim and incomprehensible." (A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, pp. 15-16)
Pelevin's stories often have an overlay of
political satire, hearkening back to the absurd tales of Gogol,
Zoschenko, Zamyatin, Bulgakov, etc., who under the tsars or
under the Soviets had to disguise their social criticism. But
Pelevin faces no such censorship today. His satire is more a
salute to the proud literary tradition of Russia, and part of
the overall playfulness. While the overall theme is closer to
O'Leary than Zoschenko or Zamyatin. In The Life of Insects,
Pelevin introduces scenes with characters who look, think, and
act like humans. Then no sooner does the reader begin to see the
world of the story through the eyes of such a character than
it's revealed that the character is in fact a mosquito or an ant
or a dung beetle, who then turns out to have very believable and
provocative views on the meaning and nature of life. And no
sooner does the reader begin to accept that reality, then the
character transforms -- very unscientifically -- from one kind
of insect to another. Pelevin is exploring -- what could the
nature and meaning of life be if it's beyond the limits of
ordinary human understanding? As is the case with the best
literature, Pelevin and O'Leary don't pretend to have answers,
but rather ask familiar questions in new, creative, and
Two books with the same dust jacket -- the same painting by Vermeer: the head of a young girl, with a turban and a pearl earring.
Girl in a Turban is a collection of stories, delicate stylistic pieces that catch you up with their style, that you read with pleasure, and then soon forget both the plots and the characters. The title piece tells of a family of art dealers. The father, Bernhard, delivers a very precious cargo -- the Vermeer painting -- by ship to a friend and customer, a Danish nobleman. There he meets and is intrigued by, but does not pursue the friend's attractive daughter, Ariadne. He is married. His wife is pregnant with their first child. He needs to hurry home. The son, Jan, grows up, the image of his father, carrying on his business with the same exactitude and devotion. After the death of Bernhard, when Jan is 40 and still unmarried, he receives a letter from Ariadne. Her father too is dead, and she has fallen on hard times and will have to liquidate her property. Before doing so, she wants to give back to Jan the painting that her father and his father had so treasured. As the story ends, he rushes, "promptly," to retrieve it. In this low-key story, the reader keeps expecting romance, but the central characters are singularity self-possessed, involved in and pleased with their quiet, comfortable lives. Bernhard leaves his pregnant wife behind, with few qualms, when he sets out on the long and perhaps perilous voyage to Denmark. Business -- or rather the fate of the painting -- comes first. The Danish nobleman is so content with his life that he boasts he has "never slept a single night under another roof," having spent his entire life on his ancestral property. Jan at 40 is devoted to the family business, and while he promised his father on his deathbed that he would marry, to have an heir, he hasn't gotten around to it yet. All three cherish the painting.
There was a brief moment in Denmark, when, while talking to Ariadne, Bernhard had fleeting thoughts of how comfortable it would be to stay in Denmark. But he brushes those aside -- duty calls.
The expression of the girl in the painting is one of a reluctant good-bye. She is leaving, but looks back, as if wishing to stay, as if wishing that things could be other than what they are. Her mouth is partly open, as if there were something that she wanted to say, and she just needs the slightest prompt to come out with it.
In Greek mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos. She gave Theseus the clues he needed to find his way through the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. Theseus took her with him, but then, for no particular reason, simply abandoned her on a island on the way home to Athens. She is a woman abandoned, a woman whose love is not reciprocated.
Girl with a Pearl Earring tells the story of a young girl, who because her father was blinded in an accident at work, is obliged to take a job as a maid, to help support her family. It so happens that her new employer is the artist Vermeer.
In this story, as in Girl with a Turban, emotions are restrained. But here we see a broader context -- we get a sense of what it would be like to be a young girl of little means in the town of Delft in the 1660s. (Rather like Memoirs of a Geisha does for a young girl in Japan in the early twentieth century.)
There's plenty of sexual tension between Griet and Vermeer, and her and Vermeer's patron. Nothing is ever expressed in word or overt deed. But the beauty of the story comes from the degree to which we come to accept the social context as given -- the rules are explained and the game is played out in harmony with them. In this context, the slightest deviation from the accepted norm is a matter of great moment (reminiscent of Jane Austen).
Vermeer is very slow and deliberate in his work -- spending half a year or more on a single canvas. And he needs someone with a careful eye and delicate touch to clean up his studio and put everything back exactly as it was before. Over time, without his wife's knowledge, he trusts Griet with more and more responsibility, even letting her make his paints, while he won't let his own wife so much as enter his studio. He also, under pressure of his patron who likes Griet's looks, agrees to use Griet as a model, while he has never done a painting of his wife, who simply can't stay still long enough.
Griet has an artistic eye and extraordinary insight. She can look at a painting that Vermeer has been working on for months and sense just what is missing -- the one small hint of abandon in the otherwise perfectly controlled picture that gives it its life and significance.
Seeing her own portrait, she knows what is missing -- a pearl earring, in particular an earring that belongs to her mistress. Vermeer realizes that as well. And rather than paint it in from memory, he must have her wear it. She reluctantly puts it on (having to pierce her ear just for that), knowing full well that this would mean good-bye, that the wife, on seeing the painting, would consider it a violation, a breech of trust. Hence the expression on her face -- Griet's wearing of the earring for Vermeer was tantamount to an illicit sexual act with him, it was both a willful expression of passion and an irrevocable public act that would force her departure.
In the epilogue, Griet returns to Vermeer's house. The master has died, and in his will, he bequeathed the pearl earrings to Griet. That's an embarrassment to the widow and to Griet as well, who would prefer that her butcher husband never have suspicions regarding her past. She sells the earrings for a small sum on the way home, little more than what the Vermeer family had owed them from years before. You're left with the feeling that Vermeer's passion was not so much for the girl as for the painting of the girl -- the masterpiece that she inspired. In that sense, the two otherwise quite different stories about the same painting have much in common.
In Turban, the painting is never described, the artist's name is never mentioned, and there is no hint of his life story. Like a black hole, you learn of the painting's power by observing the motions of those around it. And the lives described are all the more lonely and cold because of that deliberate omission. It is a work of darkness, shadow, and absence.
Earring tells about how the painting
was created. Descriptions of previous works set the scene for
the description of this one. And every detail of the painting
relates to the life of Griet, to her relationship with Vermeer,
and to Vermeer's relationship to his own work. This is a work of
light, a work that gains in significance from the angle of the
light, from the perspective, a work that focuses on the essence
of the painting's charm -- the earring, not the turban: the
earring, with its tear-like reflection, perfectly completing the
The writing is delightful. Sometimes the authors sum up a long complex career with a few incisive sentences. For instance, "Charles V was the most impressive failure of his age, and even his virtues were sometimes unfortunate for mankind." (Reformation, p. 642). Also, about Christian II of Denmark, "Christian fled to Flanders with his queen, the Protestant sister of Charles V; he made his peace with the Church, hoping to get a kingdom for a Mass; he was captured in a futile attempt to regain his throne, and for twenty-seven years he lived in the dungeons of Sonderborg with no companion but a half-wit Norwegian dwarf. The paths of glory led him with leisurely ignominy to the grave (1559)." (Reformation, p. 628). There's much here to ignite the imagination of a novelist.
Sometimes the Durants succeed in capturing in just a few words the crux of a situation, for instance about Loyola, in his days as a soldier in Pamplona, "Four years he spent there, dreaming of glory and waking to routine." (Reformation, p. 906).
Elsewhere, they render cursory and eloquent judgement, for instance, about John Calvin (Reformation p. 490), "... we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense."
The books in this series were published over the course of 40 years (1935-1975), and some of the 11 volumes are over 1000 pages long. But this massive work has found its way into the hands of many people over the years, mainly as a perenniel new-member enticement for the Book-of-the-Month Club. (That's how I got the first volumes, back in 1959). For many middle-class, baby-boomer Americans, these books were and remain the standard historical reference work.
But reading Durant today, I can't help but recognize how much has changed, with the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the collapse of Communism. It is only natural to tell a "story" from the perspective of "today." Now "today" has changed, so the "story" feels dated. It is still great entertainment, and a handy reference work for checking dates and names, but the overall thrust of the narrative no longer resounds with authority.
For the Durants, the events of previous centuries were important in part as causes or harbingers of what in their day looked like the ultimate conflict facing mankind. They highlight every minor event and character with any possible connection to the historical development toward Communism and Capitalism. While the narrative ended with Napoleon, the implication was that the story led inevitably to the Cold War issues and conflicts that were the background, the context in which the Durants wrote. But today, the Cold War is a distant era, which we can only understand, with research and effort -- trying to reconstruct a perspective and a set of assumptions that permeated much of Western thinking for a generation, but that is now gone.
Today, there is no ultimate conflict. Hence we no longer see history in hegelian terms, with events unfolding in a single direction. We can now appreciate history as story, as the story of mankind, and it can come alive again -- in many different tellings of many different episodes. And what interesting and obscure events and people will now be resurrected from the junkheap of history?
Today, we can look back on the 20th century as a single play in three acts (WW I, WW II, and Cold War) with a beginning, a middle and an end -- rather than as the culmination of all history. (Only when the Ice Age ended could anyone conceive that ice was not the ultimate state of nature, that there would be other trends and cycles -- some short and some enormously long.)
Before, reading history was like reading a story when you already know the outcome. Yes, you could appreciate the details and the performance, but it all just led to what you already knew. History seen through the colored lenses of today's major issues.
What a relief it is to live (for a brief while) in a time when the major issues are unknown and unresolved -- when one orthodoxy has collapsed and before the formation of a new one. We have the opportunity to look at the past with fresh eyes, with new undefined and shifting filters. The past is alive -- not yet killed by a new orthodoxy.
My nine-year-old son Timmy summed up the importance of history the other day. "We can only know about the future from looking at the past." Sound familiar? More same-old same-old, and we're condemned to just repeat the past? But he meant it in a new sense, "Whatever can happen that hasn't happened yet, will happen."
Response to an irate reader of the above review:I am a great fan of Durant's Story of Civilization, and say "the writing is delightful."
I never say that his account is fictitious or inaccurate. "One whopping story" is meant as a compliment -- he takes all these disparate sources and puts the material together into a very readable, informative, and entertaining story (as the title implies).
I also indicate that he tells this story from a point of view. That is natural with history, though academic-style histories often mask that, and Durant is quite forthright. He calls it as he sees it -- with strong and very well-expressed opinions. For me, much of the charm and delight of the work comes from those opinions and that excellent writing style.
(Gibbon, too, was very subjective, with a delightful style, and judgements that sum up individuals, countries and periods quite well. But Gibbon only dealt with a small subset of the vast topic that Durant took up.)
What I do point out is that Durant wrote this history at a time when it looked like the conflict between Communism and Capitalism was somehow the culmination of history in the western world. This perspective was part of the filter involved his selection of what to tell about and how to tell it.
We all see the world from the perspective of the times we have lived through. That isn't a criticism of Durant. I'm simply pointing out that today's notions of the significance of events may well differ from what was common in Durant's day -- because the world has changed since then.
It has always struck me as bizarre and interesting how history changes over time. We always view the past teleogically, as if what came before is of signifiance mainly in so far as it led to the world becoming the way we see it today. As the present changes, the teleology changes. Hence the need for each generation to rewrite history in terms that make sense for it.
NB -- it is not the facts that change in this
rewriting, but rather the selections of "important" facts and
the judgements rendered.
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