Edward St. Aubyn: Lost for Words (FSG 2014) [IBR2022]

She kept trying to argue that the other novels lacked the qualities that characterized a work of literature: “depth, beauty, structural integrity, and an ability to revive our tired imaginations with the precision of its language”.
The poor woman didn’t seem to realize that what counted in the adult world was working out compromises between actual members of a committee that reflected the forces at work in the wider society, like Parliament in relation to the nation as a whole. Vanessa had taken on the role of a doomed backbencher, making speeches to an empty chamber about values that simply had no place in the modern world.

The Booker Prize seems to have thrived on controversy for quite a while. As I read the list of the dozen biggest oopsies provided by The Daily Beast, I recognized quite a few missteps that St. Aubyn has included in this comic novel about the fictional Elysian Prize: the origins of the prize in an industry of less-than-ethical origins, last minute decisions changed in the last quarter-minute, a long-list book criticized for vulgarity, judges who don’t bother to read the submitted books at all, a book that was viewed as not really a novel at all, a leaked result, a short list criticized as “too readable.”  Not to mention the infighting and politicking that’s taken for granted in any high-end competition. Whether or not the bedhopping St. Aubyn sprinkles into the Elysian story happens IRL is … no, not gonna go there.

If you read the Goodreads reviews, you’ll find a lot of disappointed readers. Some dismiss it as a formulaic romp with standard characters, or as toothless satire. Most point out that St. Aubyn’s prior works were far more substantial; more literary, if you will. Life imitates art indeed; it reads very much like comments characters make about the books up for the Elysian Prize. Those Goodreads criticisms may be deserved: Is it Literature? On a par with St. Aubyn’s earlier works?  How would I know – I doubt it, but it was fun to read, and I’m not in the business of awarding prizes for literary merit so let me have a good time.

I’ll agree that it’s formulaic. The ensemble book – let’s follow a group of graduates, work colleagues, kids who grew up together, club members, whatever – always features a variety of characters different enough to be instantly recognizable and associated with expected viewpoints. Each one gets a quirk or two in some other aspect of their lives – family, libido, career – to round them out a bit.

Here, we have two such ensembles: the Elysian Prize judges, and writers who have some connection to the prize, either as nominees or wannabes. These ensembles intermix in various ways and push the story of one year’s Elysian prize forward, from submission, to Long List, to Short List, to the Awards Dinner, via the narrative question, Who will win? It’s not just a question of which writer will win, but which judge, as well.

St. Aubyn has admitted in interviews that Sam Black is his doppelganger: a writer torn by the twin forks of doubt and urgency:

He marveled at the speed with which elation had turned into anxiety. Ever since he had found that The Frozen Torrent was on the Long List, he had been torn between a superstitious need to avoid anticipating any further success, and a neurotic need to plan, in case further success came his way….
One thing was clear: he was going to have to drop the topic of art. In England, art was much less likely to be mentioned in polite society then sexual perversions or methods of torture; the word ‘elitist’ could be spat out with the same confident contempt as ‘coward’ at a court martial.

 He’s written the most literary book under consideration, and is championed by Vanessa, an Oxbridge academic who defends Literature and dismisses everything else. And she has a lot to dismiss: a cookbook that, unknown to the judges, was submitted by mistake; a thriller about Enigma (that seems to resemble The Imitation Game); a historical novel about Shakespeare (that reminds me of Shakespeare in Love); and a book in vulgar Scottish vernacular (modeled after, I’m guessing, Trainspotting, from what I read in the Daily Beast article), favored by the committee chairman, a politician who lost a post in Scotland some years before when he made an ill-timed remark. 

Yes, all of that is great fun, but there is substance here in the form of discussions on literature, and the role of literary prizes. I’ll grant that the opinions of these characters aren’t new or particularly incisive, but they sum up, in a captivating way, different ways of considering what it is we read, and why we read it. And it’s quite possible that not everyone who might read this book has spent a lot of time studying literary criticism.

Malcolm, the chairman who favors the Scottish books, seems to consider the purpose of the prize as financial and sociopolitical:

“We have eighty thousand pounds at our disposal, as well as the promise of several hundred thousand pounds which the winner can expect to earn over the next few years, and to me it’s of paramount importance that the money goes to someone who really needs it.”
….“We want to take the marginalized, and the politically repressed voices from the periphery,” said Malcolm, ignoring the spat between the ladies, “from what we might call the Outer Hebrides of the literary scene, and bring them center stage. Now, as we know, there are a lot of vested interests that have got used to the idea that the literary scene belongs to them, and when we reclaim it for the ordinary readers of this country, let’s not pretend they’re going to thank us for it.”

How much discussion of literature today revolves around marginalized and suppressed voices? And how often does this lead to accusations of reverse racism by, shall we say, one of the most widely published (white) writers in the world? But look again: That Malcolm stands to benefit from his pick winning by perhaps getting another chance at his post in Edinburgh is the not-terribly-subtle subtext of his advocacy. Be forewarned: no matter how much you agree with a character’s opinion, there’s something about them you’ll find less agreeable.

Vanessa Shaw, the Oxbridge academic, seems to have a rather sterile view of what makes a novel literature, until we see her fretting because her anorexic daughter has asked her to edit an essay for a pro-anorexia website:

She felt a violent desire to tear the bird feeder off its branch, and then she realized she was thinking of King Lear after Cordelia’s death. Why should a bird have life when Poppy…
And then she found herself wondering why any book should win this fucking prize she had become involved with unless it had a chance of doing what had just happened: coming back to a person when she wanted to cry but couldn’t, or wanted to think but couldn’t think clearly, or wanted to laugh but saw no reason to.

Isn’t this why classics become classics? From Odysseus’ long journey home, to Othello’s self-destructive jealousy, to Celie’s recapturing of hope, aren’t these moments what we remember, and keep for use when we need them ourselves? Would a police procedural with a feisty heroine comfort us in our despair or remind us to keep our eyes on the prize?

 As for those genre novels:  Penny, in the process of writing the second of a trilogy of spy thrillers, is more interested in realism and authentic details: “[A]part from anything else, one actually learned something from such a well-researched book, which was more than could be said of the neurotic musings of a lot of writers stuck at home, reading, writing, and thinking about literature. Why didn’t they get out and do something for a change?” How many times have I said how much I love a book that teaches me something? It was a bit alarming to see that sentiment here, in this character who uses an app called Ghost Writer to generate sentences for her genre novels. But it holds.

Tobias, a popular actor now touring in “a hip-hop version of Waiting for Godot” (wouldn’t you love to see about twenty minutes of that?), who rarely shows up for meetings and hasn’t read anything, makes a point as well when he praises the transgressive novel as “a welcome change from a novel about a failing marriage in Hampstead…” And again, how many times have I sneered at domestic realism and proposed the BASS Bingo Card including “a sensitive tale of a decaying marriage”? As with Penny, I’m a bit embarrassed to see myself reflected in Tobias, who clearly has little interest in literature beyond the roles it provides him.

And then there’s Auntie, whose privately published Indian cookbook was accidentally submitted instead of the literary novel that was supposed to win it all. Auntie, as elitist as she is around the heritage of her Indian family (descended from Krishna himself), keeps insisting it’s a cookbook – and she didn’t even write it, as she explains to the agent (John Elton – really? REALLY? I just learned the other day, via Jeopardy!, that when Elton John was knighted by the Queen, the Lord who announced him reversed his name) who’s considering buying the publishing rights for the UK if he can present it in the right way:

“I simply sent my secretary to ask our old cook in Badanpur, who naturally can’t write, to recite the recipes that have been passed down through the generations.”
John Elton let out a gust of confident laughter, as if he were starring in an advertisement for a new mouthwash. There was no doubt that Auntie’s supercilious manner would have to be carefully managed. Just as Magritte hid his surrealism under the uniform of the Belgian Bourgeoisie, India’s Laurence Sterne takes a mischievous pleasure in playing the grand dame. She appears to get her secretary to “write” a “cookbook” in order to challenge our expectations about the nature of authorship – something like that might work.
“I hope you can keep this up in the interviews,” he said. “It’s superb: the illiteracy that engenders literature; the rhetoric that denies rhetoric; ‘I will a round unvarnished tale deliver, as Othello says, before speaking some of the most beautiful English ever written. And the narrative frames: the secretary who interviews the cook – the man on the quayside who knows a story about the Congo; the man on the coach who could tell you a tale about the Caucasus. Superb!”
“I’m not following you,” said Auntie, irritably.

And for the third time I’m embarrassed: Elton’s bullshit interpretation is right up my alley. I’m always intrigued by the ongoing issue of authorial intent (and yes, “Death of the Author” is mentioned in the book): just because Auntie says it’s a cookbook, does that mean it is one? Do I, veteran of so many cooking competitions that refer to a meal as a story, to cuisine as culture, agree with Jo, the columnist who defends the choice against Oxbridge’s dismissal:

In any case, Jo turned out to have an impressive command of all the right jargon.
“I’m surprised that you don’t recognize its qualities,” she said to Vanessa. “You claim to be an expert on contemporary fiction and yet, faced with a ludic, postmodern, multi-media masterpiece, you naively deny that it’s a novel at all.”
“It’s not a novel,” said Vanessa, “it’s a cookbook. It’s called The Palace Cookbook because it’s a cookbook.” She let out a growl of childish fury.
“It tells the story of a family,” said Jo, admirably calm under fire, “through cooking. What could be more universal, after all, then the language of food?”
“Inuit, Catalan, Gaelic, any fucking language,” said Vanessa, “because food isn’t a language, it’s something you you eat.”

Or am I going to side with Vanessa, who, remember, knows something about anorexia, which is a pretty dramatic way of using food to communicate? Don’t tell me this novel is fluff. It may rely on commonplaces, but it has some hidden corners where treasures are tucked.

Towards the end, we meet Mr. Wo. He’s just purchased the Elysian company, inheriting the Prize sponsorship in the deal. When asked about his view of the purpose of the Prize, he speaks what just might be the truest truth about the absurdity of big literary prizes.

“It’s a prize for literature,” said Mr. Wo. “I hope it will go in the direction of literature. My wife takes a great interest in these things. Personally, I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize,” Mr. Wo couldn’t help laughing.
Jo didn’t know where to begin. She disagreed with everything that Mr. Wo had said, as well as with the assumptions behind everything he had said, but she was temporarily paralyzed by the abundance of potential targets.

Is a literary competition about art, and thus nonsensical? Or is it about something else: craft, maybe, or catching the public imagination, or making a point in a way that stands a chance of being heard? Is it about supporting writers on the way up, about rewarding those who’ve consistently done great work? If the judges aren’t trained in literary arts, just what is it they’re judging?

The cover of the book – at least the edition I got – includes a little jest as well. A gold disc encompassing the words “A Novel” is similar to those emblems declaring a book to have won a Pulitzer or some other prize.

So my apologies to those who were disappointed with this book because it wasn’t more like St. Aubry’s more literary books. I use a Whitman quote on my Twitter profile: “And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else.” It’s not a Booker-winning book (St. Aubry was on the short list for one of his more literary novels, but didn’t win). It’s familiar rather than innovative. It’s fun rather than profound. And every once in a while it works in something thought-provoking. I loved it for what it was.

Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Vintage 2003) [IBR2022]

Another question I’ve been regularly asked over the past year is what models I had in mind when writing Curious Incident. Was it To Kill a Mockingbird? Was it Catcher in the Rye?
In fact, the book most often in my mind was Pride and Prejudice.
Jane Austen was writing about boring people with desperately limited lives…. Her heroines were bound by iron rules about what they could do, where they could go and what they could say. Their futures depended on the single question of who they would marry. Was it going to be the baronet? Or were they going to fall for a cad in tight red trousers and be discarded in a boarding house in Bath?
Yet Jane Austen writes about these humdrum lives with such empathy that they seem endlessly fascinating. And her first act of empathy is to write about them in the kind of book these woman would themselves read – the romantic novel.
This was what I was trying to do in Curious Incident. To take a life that seemed horribly constrained, to write about it in the kind of book that the hero would read – a murder mystery – and hopefully show that if you viewed this life with sufficient imagination it would seem infinite.

Mark Haddon, Guardian article

I read this book back when it was first released, nearly twenty years ago, to a flurry of praise. I don’t really remember my impressions, other than I loved the opening, lost interest during the train ride, but loved it again at the end. This reading was very different, which is why I’ve included several re-reads in these In-Between periods. Not only have I become a better reader, but what interests me has also changed. Expanded, I believe. It’s a wonderful book, and I was delighted, and still am, that it became so popular.

One of the better-reader things that stood out to me this time around was the self-reflexive nature of the book; that is, the book is written by the character Christopher. Obviously there was an author who exists in our reality, but it’s a great way to emphasize, even beyond the first-person narration, that this is all through Christopher’s point of view. I always wonder when I read first-person: why is the narrator telling this story now? That’s not often answered; here, it’s part of the story. And not just a minor part: Christopher’s losing the book, and looking for it, kicks the primary conflict into high gear and generates the rest of the book.

Not just that, but he discusses how he’s writing while he’s writing. For instance, he wants to write about a proof he has to do for his math exam. His teacher (or social worker, her precise role isn’t clear) Siobhan mentions that some readers won’t be interested in that kind of thing so he should put it in an appendix, and sure enough, there’s an appendix with the proof. Again, it’s part of the story, and emphasizes that this is Christopher’s book.

I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can’t tell lies.
…. A lie is when you say something happened which didn’t happen. But there is only ever one thing which happened at a particular time and a particular place. And there are an infinite number of things which didn’t happen catch that time and that place. And if I think about something which didn’t happen I started thinking about all the other things which didn’t happen.
For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milkshake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea I start thinking about Coco Pops and lemonade and porridge and Doctor Pepper and how I wasn’t eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room and father wasn’t wearing a diving suit and so on and even writing this makes me feel shaky and scared, like I do when I’m standing on top of a very tall building and there are thousands of houses and cars and people below me and my head is so full of all these things that I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to stand up straight and hang on to the rail and I’m going to fall over and be killed.
This is another reason why I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.
And this is why everything I have written here is true.

Christopher has a unique point of view and distinctive voice. Although no diagnosis is given in the book, it’s fair to say he’s somewhere on the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum. Haddon has remarked in interviews that he’d just as soon not get into specifics, but let the character have, as he mentions above, certain constraints. Through the course of the book, he finds ways around some of them. Like lying: he discovers the white lie, which he defines as not telling the whole truth, and doesn’t count it as a lie.

Another technique I might not have recognized the first time around was that many of Christopher’s digressions – or what seem like digressions – are thematically related to some part of the story. For example, he’s writing about his memory, which is extraordinarily detailed for most events from his life:

My memory is like a film. That is why I am really good at remembering things, like the conversations I have written down in this book, and what people were wearing, and what they smelled like, because my memory has a smell track which is like a soundtrack.
And when people ask me to remember something I can simply press Rewind and Fast Forward and Pause like on a video recorder, but more like a DVD player because I don’t have to rewind through everything in between to get to a memory of something along time ago. And there are no buttons, either, because it is happening in my head.
If someone says to me, “Christopher, tell me what your mother was like,” I can rewind to lots of different scenes and say what she was like in those scenes.

At this point he demonstrates his detailed recall and remembers a particular date and time.  He was with his mother at the beach, and she dove under the water; he was afraid she’d been eaten by a shark but she came back up and comforted him. Christopher was told some time ago that his mother was dead; he might not be able to say, “I miss my mom” or cry, do, or say the things many fifteen-year-olds might do when their mother dies, but this conveys the same sense of loss and love.

And father said, ‘Christopher, do you know that I love you?”
And I said “Yes,” because loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble, and looking after them, and telling them the truth, and Father looks after me when I get into trouble, like coming to the police station, and he looks after me by cooking meals for me, and he always tells me the truth, which means that he loves me.
And then he held up his right hand and spread his fingers out in a fan and I held up my left hand and spread my fingers out in a fan and we made our fingers and thumbs touch each other.

This hand-touching is a substitute for hugging, which bothers Christopher. Again, it’s how he and his family have worked around a constraint. But what stood out to me here is his definition of his father’s love; this becomes crucial later when he discovers his father has indeed lied to him, and about something monumental.

I happened to be on a bus while reading the beginning of Christopher’s train ride. It was an unusually rough ride: the 9am bus never showed, so the 9:30 had more riders than usual. One explained the prior bus had an accident, so there was a lot of nervous excitement; one woman in particular was quite anxious, and it was contagious. All this as I read about Christopher’s anxiety in the train station. I could identify strongly with his confusion regarding the signs all blending together, people and noises; it was uncomfortable, but fascinating in retrospect.

I was aware that the novel had been adapted into a highly successful play. Since so much of it takes place in Christopher’s head, I wondered how that would work. I found some clips on YouTube; it’s almost film-like, and maintains his point of view while blending thought and action. No wonder it won so many awards.

I had no recollection of the ending of the book from my prior read. That’s surprising, because it’s beautiful:

And I went to a bookshop with Mother and I bought a book called Further Maths for A Level and Father told Mrs. Gascoyne that I was going to take A-level Further Maths next year and she said “OK.”
And I am going to pass it and get an A grade. And in two years’ time I am going to take A-level Physics and get an A grade.
And then, when I’ve done that, I am going to go to university in another town. And it doesn’t have to be in London because I don’t like London and there are universities in lots of places and not all of them are in big cities. And I can live in a flat with a garden and a proper toilet. And I can take Sandy and my books and my computer.
And then I will get a First Class Honors degree and I will become a scientist.
And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.

This way of packing Christopher’s just-the-facts voice with emotional content is brilliant. At no point does he get sentimental; he just writes down what he’s going to do, and wraps it up with what he did. He shows us he can do anything. Maybe not in the way readers would do it, maybe not in conventional or easy ways, but he will get around his constraints to get where he wants to be, one way or another.  

I knew I loved this book twenty years ago; now I better understand why.

Jane Pek: The Verifiers (Vintage 2022) [IBR2022]

One thing I wanted to raise is that generally, when we interact with technology, we provide a lot of data about ourselves. And we do it without really thinking because it makes our lives more convenient. And then at a certain point, it’s almost like, there’s no way you could go about your days without Google Maps and without Amazon and without Netflix. In terms of online dating with the world that I created, online dating is really driven by data and algorithms and all that.
Because romance is so essential, finding your significant other is so essential to our conceptions of what we want our lives to be. And in order to have the best match possible, you actually want to get out as much data as you can about yourself to get a more accurate result. I don’t want to say that it’s like, definitely bad or good, but I do think it’s something worth thinking about in terms of what we put out there and what we get out of it.

Jane Pek, interview with Angela Qian at Hyphen Magazine

I became a Jane Pek fan when I read her two BASS stories – one in 2020 and one in 2021 – presenting female characters from Chinese mythology in a more positive light than the original tales held them. When I found out her debut novel was a mystery involving computer matchmaking, I was… ok, yeah, I’ll admit it, a little disappointed. But in the end, I went with my faith in her ability to weave story lines together and keep me reading. And guess what – faith works.

The book features Claudia Lin, verifier for a secretive company that checks out whether the person you’re chatting with on a computer dating site is telling the truth. A client has some unusual requests, which leads to several mysteries. I’m being obscure here because the pace of revelation is part of the pleasure of the book; Pek resolves one question only to raise another and keep us curious about what’s going on. Those who want more details can find plenty of reviews (I’ve never considered these posts reviews; I have no training for reviewing. I’m instead recording my reading experience so I can remember what was important to me years later) that provide a bit more without being spoilers.  

At my verifier interview, when Komla explained what Veracity did and I said, maybe with a tad too much enthusiasm, “Like a detective agency?”, he looked faintly perturbed – which, I’ve come to realize with Komla Atsina, possibly meant he was one wrist flick away from consigning my résumé to the shred file. That man is harder to read than Finnegans Wake. A detective agency might seem like an obvious parallel, he said, but he tried to dissuade clients from viewing Veracity as such. The verifiers didn’t solve crimes, and they didn’t intervene in the course of events beyond reporting their findings to their clients. Think of us, he said, as a personal investment advisory firm.
A month into the job, it’s obvious to me that all our clients think of us as a detective agency.

I should make a confession here about one of my guilty pleasures: back in the 80s, 90s, into the aughts, I frequently read a small group of murder mystery series writers. It was mostly the hook on top of the mystery that got me interested: Jonathan Kellerman’s psychological and medical settings, Faye Kellerman’s exploration of Orthodox Judaism in contemporary life, Stephen White’s humor (which he dropped after the first two books, but thankfully resurrected later with an entry that had me giggling throughout) and psychological insight, Patricia Cornwell’s detailed explanations of the science used in postmortem exams and crime scene analysis (pre-CSI, by the way).  But even the best series gets old after a while, or takes a wrong turn; I lost interest in them and never found replacements. Then I started reading literary short fiction seriously, and blogging, and taking moocs, and left the mysteries behind. Literally – they (along with other casual fiction) are stashed on a bottom shelf of the bookcase behind my bed, so they’re the last thing anyone looking at my books will find. One of these days I may post about them, just to atone for that.

So in a way, reading The Verifiers was nostalgic, a trip back in time. But better. Because even though the tone has a crisp factual modernity rather than the smooth emotive romanticism of her short fiction, I still love how Pek writes.

She does a lot with this book while keeping the mystery front and center. For example, a minor character is a writer. “Lionel writes the kind of story you read in The New Yorker, where nothing happens but the characters are all thrumming with anguish.” I read that passage within a few days of posting about Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child, about which I’d written, “a self-obsessed man basically muses about how miserable his life is for the first 100 of 400 pages. Then something happens, and we get some crucial story, but it’s back to 50 pages of navel-gazing and description before anything else happens.” (In my – and Murdoch’s – defense, I did find some academic papers that gave me a better understanding of all that nothing-happening).

Lionel isn’t having a good time of it: “The writer’s life, going by Lionel’s example, is a hamster wheel of submission and rejection. He’s told me he has an email folder labeled Dreamcrushers, where he archives all the rejection notes he has ever received.” Well, sure, even I have one of those.  But it’s a kick to see how she works this into the overall story.

Lionel and Claudia tease each other about the stock phrases so many book reviewers use; “beautifully written,” “gorgeous sentences.” As it happens, I made a proposal years ago to my blogging buddy Jake Weber:

I keep thinking about the drinking game – take a shot every time someone… writes a sensitive coming-of-age scene with an age/race gap? Or eloquently portrays the end of a marriage? Nah…I don’t know, there’s something out there. Unnamed first person narrator. Unnamed third person protagonist (“the boy” or “the woman” – man, I hate that). Drawing blanks here, but I’m sure there’s a drinking game in there somewhere.

Me, in an email to Jake Weber

Every once in a while we still refer to it in one of our posts – in fact, Jake just gave me such a shoutout (“Karen! The drinking game begins with the first story!”) when he recently began his read/blog of BASS 2021. One of the reasons I so enjoyed this book was that it fit into my life so well.

Then there’s a wonderfully sly reference to writing in a scene at a Halloween party. She’s introduced to Rina, and they begin one of those conversations that in subtle ways has them both figuring out if they’re interested in each other. Claudia picks up on something:

That tangents us into a discussion of buttermilk versus ricotta, fluffy versus chewy, toppings versus fillings, and where to find the best pancakes in New York. Rena stakes all nine of her cat lives on a breakfast-only restaurant in Harlem called the Fitz. “When I lived up there I went every weekend,” she says. “I was on a mission to get through their entire menu.”
There’s a slight hitch in the rhythm of her statement, as if, maybe, she had been about to say when we lived up there. Now I get it. The Very Recently Single And Unhappy About It. Not any kind of situation I’d want to insert myself into; I’d be like the chapter in a novel that the author clearly wrote because their editor told them it needed some sort of transition between Exciting Event A and Exciting Event B.

What makes this particularly sly is that it’s in a transition section between one exciting event and another, between one discovery about character related to the murder and her confrontation with him. I just want to jump up and down and say, “I see what you did there!” That’s something I saw in one of her stories as well: she sneaks in Easter eggs everywhere, and I’m probably only noticing a fraction of them. And I just found another while writing this post: Claudia was recruited to Veracity via an online mystery game, which brings to mind the crossword puzzle used in the film The Imitation Game to recruit cryptography staff (a fictional technique, as it turns out).

She brings in literary references as well, channeling Chaucer’s Wife of Bath with advice on timing of romantic advances, and mentioning Jane Austen and Henry James. She has a lot of fun with Inspector Yuan mysteries, a (fictitious) detective from a mystery series set in the Ming dynasty. She recalls his techniques as she tries to solve the murder of a client. Sometimes they help her (“Right then it comes to me that I’m in the information-asymmetry scene in every Inspector Yuan novel where one out-of-the-loop character keeps asking questions so everyone else can reveal important information in a vaguely naturalistic way”); sometimes it’s more like “How come Inspector Yuan never had to worry about this?” That information-asymmetry is a real thing, by the way, from, of all things, economics.

One of the more emotional stir-ins concerns Claudia’s family, which has some psychodynamic similarities to the family of the woman whose murder she’s investigating. There’s an incredibly touching scene late in the book as she realizes her brother Charles had been fighting his own demons all along. He tells her he’s always acted in whatever way was expected, to prove to their mother that he was “an asset, not a liability” out of fear that she might escape with Claudia and leave him behind:

My brother loves me, I’m sure he does. I’ve felt it any number of times. When we are in his car and he brakes suddenly, he will fling his arm across the passenger seat like seatbelts are a scam and I’ll crash-dummy out through the windshield otherwise. Every time I’ve asked for help he showed up, making sure to nag me halfway to hell. But: what he said to me while we were driving through the hushed, late-night Queens, Symposium a melancholy sweetness through the speakers. You become something if you act that way for long enough. Maybe that’s the truth of why my brother loves me. And it might have made him a better version of the person he would have been otherwise, but the fact that he felt he had no choice but to be that way – it hollows everything out.

This leads Claudia to understand more about the key element in the mystery. But what strikes me is: This idea of becoming what you practice is straight out of Confucius. One of his most famous quotes is how he started to study at age 15, and by the time he was 80, he could act morally because he’d been practicing all his life and no longer wanted to act any other way. I’m no expert on Confucius, but Harvard’s Michael Puett is, and in his mooc “The Path to Happiness: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches Us About the Good Life” he says, “For Confucius, a ritual, in other words, is not a habit. It’s what breaks us from our habits and begins the possibility for us to become good….The ritual forces you to become a different person.” (This is also closely related to the Twelve-Step mantra, “Fake it ’til you make it.”) Claudia mentions Confucius a few times, and it turns out this is one key to understanding the motives behind the overall mystery: how to be our most authentic selves in order to connect with our best romantic partner.

I’m also impressed by what Pek doesn’t do.

I didn’t want this novel to be about what it means to be gay or what it means to be Asian, or what it means to be a gay Asian. It’s just the fact that Claudia is both gay and Asian, and she’s living her life in New York. There are some ways the world is shaped by those traits of hers, but there isn’t a deep dive into what either of those two things mean….I just wanted that to be part of the character, the same as how she works as an online-dating detective and she likes cycling and she likes reading mysteries.

Jane Pek, interview with Angela Qian at Hyphen Magazine

She doesn’t ignore those details – part of the tension of the family scenes comes from her not having told her mother she’s gay, and she both resents and uses the assumptions so often made about any “soft-spoken petite Asian female,” sometimes kicking back against it, sometimes allowing it to shield her from unwelcome scrutiny when she’s trying to fly under the radar. And, as I just mentioned, there’s Confucius. But it’s all presented as who Claudia is, not as a key to her conflicts or as any part of the mystery.

There’s a more technical aspect I’m wondering about, having to do more with stylistics than with content. More than halfway through the book, I tripped over this passage:

“Wait,” he says. “I… There’s something I would like to do for her.”
“The story she was working on. She thought it was about something important.” He sighs. “Enough to get back in touch with me.” He would like to complete it for her and have it published posthumously under her name. “Will you help me with that?”
And now I feel like an ass.

It strikes me as odd that in the third paragraph here, the discourse changes from direct speech to indirect speech (I’m a little hazy on the terminology, so forgive me – and please correct me – if I’ve got it wrong). That is, there’s a sentence in quotes, a sentence as narration, and a sentence in quotes. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it strikes me as unusual, particularly with single, fairly short sentences. I would normally think of this as being used to compress an idea that might be complicated to express in speech. But here, it would be just as simple to have the indirect sentence as “I would like to complete it…” and keep all three sentences in a single quote block.

This stuck with me so strongly, I went back after I finished the book to see if I’d overlooked other instances. I found a few other similar passages, but they had other elements that made the switching less unusual: an attribution, an explanation that required narration, and different position. I even re-read Pek’s short stories from BASS to see if this was just a writer’s quirk, but didn’t find much; those stories were in past tense and had less dialog, and in one, the dialog was presented as italics, so it was harder to figure out.

Maybe it’s insane to obsess about 45 words out of a 350-page book, but is there some reason for the switch? I wonder if it’s meant to trip up the reader, cause us to slow down and pay attention, but I don’t really think so; it’s no more crucial than dozens of other spots. It also occurred to me it could be an editing artefact: a longer passage was cut down, but the quote structure wasn’t changed. That would be highly unusual for a fairly high-end publisher and a meticulous writer. Maybe it’s just how Pek hears it as she writes, the way I start a lot of sentences with conjunctions (yes, I know, that makes them incomplete sentences and when writing more formally I edit them out, but it’s how I hear what I’m writing).

As for the central mystery, I have to admit being less than horrified at the “oh, so that’s what’s going on” moment. It’s hard to discuss without revealing way too much, but I have a feeling my lack of concern reveals more about me than it does about the book – which is a really interesting point, by the way.  I’m not sure if I’m particularly cynical about the standards being violated, or if I just have a pessimistic view of reality and feel less threatened by the irregularities. This all goes back to the interview quote I opened with: how do we evaluate what we put out there, and what we get from it – as well as what the risks are, particularly given the unstable political environment we find ourselves in. I’ve pretty much decided we’re doomed (by several present threats), but I’m old enough to not have to worry about it for that much longer.

The very ending of the novel is wonderful, bringing both a sense of resolution, and of the future. There’s an even that could be setup for what could be another mystery; Claudia, at home with her family for Christmas, texts her colleague, now partner in detecting, who warns her to stand down. Then she gets another text:

And this time if you do anything stupid, God help me, I am going to kiss you.
*KILL YOU. Fucking predictive text. I mean: I am going to kill you.
One thing happens and then another. Maybe all of it means nothing, or maybe everything has already changed and the question is what happens next. I type my reply and hit send. Suddenly I can’t wait to find out.

What a great ending for this particular book! Autotext is frequently hilarious; switching kill to kiss would seem to be benign, but it’s followed by the all caps correction KILL YOU which is a lot less benign, and then the question of attraction is subtly sprinkled into the mix, completely accidentally. And of course it could, but doesn’t have to, serve as a springboard for another book – or just a reference point in a second book, linking it back to this one. Such a smart ending.

I’m quite delighted with the book. Sure, I would’ve liked more Chinese mythology, but I can see where that could get old, too, and as Pek writes it, this is not just another mystery. She’s mentioned in interviews that she’s working on something new, and isn’t saying what, but the idea of continuing with Claudia is something she’s considering. Will I be adding a new mystery series? Or finding something completely different?  And suddenly, I can’t wait to find out, either.

Iris Murdoch: A Word Child (Penguin 1975) [IBR2022]

At the heart of Murdoch’s moral vision is what she calls “unselfing,” something surely worth revisiting in the age of the selfie. As one might guess, this amounts to finding a way out of the claustrophobia of our self-regard by answering a call from outside…. For Murdoch, the life worth leading is a life that leads to others, to a beyond, to an other. The moral self is pierced, porous, opened.
This vision of unselfing is related to a second central theme in her work, something she appropriated from Simone Weil: the moral significance of attention. “If loving attention is bestowed on others,” Browning summarizes, “then the self is changed.” By attending to the world, to something outside of the self, the self is pulled outward, stretched, grows. Attention, as Murdoch describes it, is “a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.” And it is this, she says, that is the distinguishing mark of a “moral agent”—not will or intellect but the capacity to attend, to notice, which is its own kind of love.

James K. A. Smith: “The moral vision of Iris Murdoch” available online at America Magazine

I had a bad experience with Iris Murdoch in college. Or, rather, with her novel, The Severed Head. I don’t think I read more than 20 pages of it, but that was enough to hate it. 

But Murdoch has been coming at me for the past couple of years, both as a philosopher and a novelist. I began to feel a little guilty about not reading the book, and thought, hey, she wrote 27 books, maybe I’ll like one of the others. Out of the group FiveBooks recommended, this one sounded the most interesting.

I finished it, but wasn’t terribly happy along the way: a self-obsessed man basically muses about how miserable his life is for the first 100 of 400 pages. Then something happens, and we get some crucial story, but it’s back to 50 pages of navel-gazing and description before anything else happens. I guess I’m just not a Murdoch fan. So I did what I do when I’m stuck: I consulted other sources, which, fortunately when it comes to Murdoch, are plentiful.

Interestingly, I found reading about the novel, and reading about Murdoch’s philosophy, to be fascinating. This is a problem I have: I prefer learning about to doing; in this case, I preferred reading about to reading. I suspect that’s why I was so fascinated: the particular philosophical particle at work here is unselfing, a technique Hilary sorely needed, and indeed perhaps makes some headway with, in the closing pages.

Let’s start with a basic outline of the story: Hilary Burde starts off life pretty badly, a veritable Oliver Twist of the 20th century. Miraculously, a teacher recognizes he had a talent for languages; he becomes a polyglot, setting him on course to an Oxford education and position. Hence the title: “I was not, except in some very broken-down sense of that ambiguous term, a love child. I was a word child….”  Alas, he gets involved with the wife of his boss, and she ends up dead while trying to break it off. That’s the end of Oxford, the end of pretty much anything enjoyable, for Hilary; he spends the next twenty years making himself miserable.

He becomes a low-level civil servant in London. His sister – half-sister, as it turns out, Mom got around and didn’t keep track of fathers – accompanies him; they have some strange entangled relationship, which he insists, somewhat convincingly, is not at all incestuous. And now, twenty years later, the man he cuckolded, having left Oxford and dabbled in politics and government, is coming to London to be, again, his boss. And bringing his second wife. Guess what happens next… It’s a mark of Hilary’s moral growth that he doesn’t bang #2, even turns down her pleas for same. She dies in his presence anyway. The result is some surprising moral growth for Hilary.

A few days ago my blogging buddy Jake mentioned how delighted he was with a story “full of symbolic grist,” so I recommended this to him, where it turns out everything is symbolic: Big Ben, water, weather, the Circle Line, staircases, animals, food… let me repeat, I would not have gotten very far with this book had there not been a great deal of analysis floating about, pointing out all these symbols; I was too irritated to notice most of them.

Three articles in particular – two academic papers and one intellectual magazine piece – provided real insight into what I was reading and made it worthwhile, even for me.

The First Paper

In “The Misfortunes of a Word-Watcher: A Reading of Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child” Layla Raïd traces Murdoch’s philosophical interactions with Wittgenstein, the similarities and differences in their outlooks. She  compares Wittgenstein’s transition from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where words are viewed as Hilary saw words in his early life, to the Philosophical Investigations, where words are seen in the context of their use. She compares this to Murdoch’s Hilary finding survival (escape from the orphanage and poverty, an academic career), but not salvation, in his early life as a Word Child; salvation came later (if it came at all) when he faced the messy realities and dealt with them, instead of just throwing up his hands and retreating into misery.

To make this comparison, I will describe Hilary Burde’s relations to words: how words were special for him, how he admired the order of language, and what could have been missing here. Then I will recall the path that Wittgenstein followed from the Tractatus to the Investigations…. The Investigations tell the story of how Wittgenstein came back from the temptation to see language as something pure and orderly to a sober examination of the innumerable, unclassifiable, different language-games in which we talk.
….Hilary’s first love was based on this confusion, as was the Tractarian vision of language. Hilary’s first love was an illusion, necessary for his survival, but to survive is not to live, and to live he had to give up his old vision.
The kind of salvation by words Murdoch refers to in her article is one which accepts the words in their relative disorder, and in their endless differences.

Lalya Raïd, 2019: “The Misfortunes of a Word-Watcher: A Reading of Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child” available online

Hilary’s affection for syntax over semantics provides one of the humorous moments (to me, at least) of the novel:

There were those who held that I was merely, in the narrowest and dullest sense, a linguist. “Burde reads poetry for the grammar,” was a mot of my college enemy, Stitchworthy, who had, I was of course rapidly informed, bitterly opposed my fellowship….
Stitchworthy, who was also a historian, had written an article for a learned journal concerning Cromwell, in which he had included a discussion of Marvell and a reference to Horace’s Epistles. He quoted a piece of Horace and made clear from his remarks that he had misconstrued it. When I spotted this I could hardly believe my luck. I wrote a short dry note designed for the journal in question, pointing out Stitchworthy’s howler, and concluding, “Grammarians may or may not read a poem adequately, but those ignorant of grammar are not reading it at all.”

This is one of those illustrations of the old saw, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low” (which even the intrepid Quote Investigator can’t attribute to an original source).

One of the key points in Raïd’s argument is the name of Hilary’s sister: Crystal. He sees her as perfection, though physically he knows she’s rather dumpy and plain. I’m never sure what it is that makes her so special to him. They didn’t grow up together as he was placed in an orphanage while their mother kept Crystal at home. Yet they are enmeshed in some way, and his idolization of her, his imperfect vision of her as perfect, is what is keeping her trapped, unable to marry and have the child she desperately wants to have. After the death of the second wife, Hilary decides he will reform and make Crystal happy:

This would now be my only task. Crystal was the only being whom I loved and I was fortunate to be able to express this love in innocence and fullness of heart and to devote to it what remained of my life. I would take her far away from London and find in some country place the very best paid job which my talents could command. And I would live with her in a cottage and she would have her garden and her animals and all her little hearts desires, and I would simulate with her a kind of peace, perhaps even a kind of joy, into which some of the reality of these things might merge at last. We two alone shall sing like birds in the cage.

Of course, this only keeps Crystal in the cage with him; he still has some growing to do.

Raïd points out that in Tractatus, Wittgenstein uses the word ‘crystal’ to describe thought, the order of language; then in the Investigations, he notes the discrepancy between “the crystalline purity of logic” and reality: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk.” It isn’t until Hilary gives up his imperfect vision of Crystal, and allows her to be a real person with a history that is separate from, though related to, his, that he is able to relinquish his hold on her.

The second paper

I also found “Inner Circles, Goodness, and Lies in ‘A Word Child’ by Iris Murdoch: A Cognitive Facet of Literary Analysis” by Liliia Tereshchenko and Tetiana Tkachuk to be very helpful in appreciating the book.  [Off-topic: these authors were, in 2019, lecturers at a Ukranian university; I hope they are safe today]  It takes a different approach, using a wide variety of tools and techniques from cognitive linguistics, a subject I’ve dabbled in via various moocs. In fact, one of their reference sources is Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics; I took his brief mooc based on that text back in 2014, and still follow him on Twitter.

And that’s a good place to start:  Tereshchenko and Tkachuk use  Stockwell’s description of ‘superforegrounding’ – emphasizing an organizing element of text by theme, repetition, vocabulary, or other textual element – as a way of describing the cycles found in A Word Child: “every cycle denotes situations that occur several times in the novel until a crucial moment breaks the cycle.” The cycles they discuss range from sentence-level to book-level.

On the sentence level, the authors do an amazing reconstruction of a short paragraph in which Hilary describes the office hierarchy:

I worked to a man called Duncan, now briefly seconded to the Home Office, who worked to a Mrs Frederickson, now on maternity leave, who worked to Freddie Impiatt, who worked to Clifford Larr, who worked to someone too exalted to be in question here, who worked to someone more exalted still, who worked to the head of the department Sir Brian Templar-Spence, who was now about to retire. Arthur Fisch worked to me. Nobody worked to Arthur.

This is the kind of paragraph I would have overlooked, only noting that Crystal’s boyfriend, Arthur, is at the bottom of the ladder, and Hilary is just one step above him. But Tereshchenko and Tkachuk assign codes to some of the words (most importantly, worked = a and Arthur = d) and show how the chain becomes a circle, with thematic consequence:

After restoring the logical sequence of relationships among the referents, we see that the chain is circular: in the interim between “Arthur Fisch worked to …”, and “Nobody worked to Arthur” the narrator mentions his own persona (me); so the previous information about the organizational hierarchy (I worked to …) can be easily incorporated here…. The symbolic meaning of this ‘locked chain’ can be related to the image of a convict kept in chains. This image, in its turn, activates the IMPRISONMENT concept. The concept is sustained further by the image of captives, which refers to the employees of the office: “In our daily bondage what can be more preoccupying and ultimately influential than the voices of our fellow captives? How they go on and on: nothing perhaps, in sheer quantity, so fills up the head” (ibid., p. 33). Thus, at the very beginning of the story we prospectively become aware of Hilary’s attitude to his drudging job as a form of captivity, or punishment, which – as we will learn later – is self-imposed and futile.

Liliia Tereshchenko and Tetiana Tkachuk, “Inner Circles, Goodness, and Lies in ‘A Word Child’ by Iris Murdoch: A Cognitive Facet of Literary Analysis” available online at LEGE ARTIS

One of the most obvious cycles for the reader meshes with the notion of his fondness for grammar, for structure: the “particular rigidity with which my life was arranged.” He has a weekly schedule, and visits certain people on certain days. Each chapter of the novel, until the very end, is titled with a day of the week. 

The most dramatic cycle, of course, is the overall story itself. Hilary has a stable situation, he has an affair with the Don’s wife, disaster occurs. Twenty years later, the setup for the same situation occurs; however, things proceed differently, yet end at the same point. Is this an exoneration, or the start of yet another cycle? The authors recommend looking at the other cycles. Hilary’s rides on the Circle Line (the London subway loop that showed up in DeWitt’s The Last Samurai as well) are clearly a cyclical feature. Big Ben, its symbolic appearance changing with each iteration, makes another; I’m sure there’s a thesis out there (or someday will be) examining each appearance of Big Ben and relating it to Hilary’s state of mind.

Then we come to the crucial cycle: Hilary’s moral growth.  Keep in mind, as Tereshchenko and Tkachuk point out, “There are three child figures in the book: Peter Pan is a child, Jesus Christ is persistently called the Christ Child, and Hilary considers himself a word child.”

We believe that the last cycle – Hilary’s spiritual life – is the most important because of the author’s philosophical concept that lies at the heart of the text. The images used to describe Hilary’s spiritual life – the underground man, Peter Pan, the Christ Child, Word, the Good – are actualised in multiple ways in the text. We believe that this system of images sustains the global coherence of the text by outlining its conceptual nucleus– the SPIRITUAL GROWTH concept.

Liliia Tereshchenko and Tetiana Tkachuk, “Inner Circles, Goodness, and Lies in ‘A Word Child’ by Iris Murdoch: A Cognitive Facet of Literary Analysis” available online at LEGE ARTIS

Hilary’s self-description as an underground man refers both to the Dostoyevsky character, and to his habit of riding the Underground. This is his state at the beginning of the novel, a state the authors of the paper call low spirituality and complete immaturity.

Peter Pan is also part of the story: the office staff plans to do a pantomime of the play, and frequently discuss the logistics and casting. Peter’s immaturity is also a subject for some discussion, including input from Gunnar that spells out his state of development:

Gunnar, who had either become pompous through being grand, or was now so out of nervousness, made a speech to Freddie to the effect that of course Peter Pan was about parents and being unwilling to grow up, but what made sinister was that childishness had been invested with spirituality. “The fragmentation of spirit is the problem of our age,” Gunnar informed Freddie. “Peter personifies a spirituality which is irrevocably caught in childhood and which yet cannot surrender its pretensions. Peter is essentially a being from elsewhere, the apotheosis of an immature spirituality.”

Thus Peter Pan embodies Hilary’s second stage: he has some idea of spirituality, but still is at a very immature level.

The Christ Child, symbolizing high spirituality and spiritual maturity, is hammered home by, of all things, chapter titles, as well as the setting of one of  the final chapters. Throughout the book, each chapter is titled with a day of the week. This pattern is broken – always an important indicator – by the final two chapters, which are titled “Christmas Eve” (which takes place, in part, in a church) and “Christmas Day” and it is in them that Hilary achieves a more mature spirituality, evidenced by his willingness to let Crystal go, to witness her wedding and relinquish her to someone else who can give her the life she wants.

The third paper

“The moral vision of Iris Murdoch” by James K. A. Smith (who is the editor-in-chief of Image Journal, familiar to me from several Pushcart selections), does a very nice job of dealing with the secular philosophical themes and indicating where they might lead to religious considerations. A Word Child is not mentioned in the article at all, but I find the concept of un-selfing, as described in the opening quote above, to be central to Hilary’s spiritual growth. Smith quotes philosopher Charles Taylor who frames Murdoch’s basic moral question as “What is it good to be?” rather than “What is the good life?” and goes on to show how unselfing, triggered particularly by focusing on nature or art and beauty, or, though more problematically, religion, leads to this attending to others that is the crucial step for morality:

If one can learn to attend, unselfing can happen in the most unlikely of places, including places that do not look all that “moral.” In The Sovereignty of the Good, Murdoch starts with examples of nature slicing into one’s field of vision, like a hawk’s reflection carving across my iPhone’s screen, pulling my eyes up to the sky.
….Such experiences, she says, are preludes to morality, practice for attending to other people. She suggests the same can be true of art, since “beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love by instinct.” (Henri de Lubac, S.J., who emphasized our natural desire for the supernatural, might beg to differ.) Indeed, her definition of “good” art is what “affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent.” It kindles love in the highest part of the soul. In fact, “considered as a sacrament or a source of good energy,” art is “more edifying” than nature in this respect because attending to a work of art not only pulls me outside of myself, it also pulls me into a relationship with other people, with creators. In art, I encounter not only something not me but the product of someone not me. That is the beginning of the end of egoism.

James K. A. Smith: “The moral vision of Iris Murdoch” available online at America Magazine

I find two points of great interest here relating to A Word Child. One is the unselfing, which Murdoch has related to observation of beauty and/or nature, and religious fervor. Although he spends a great deal of time walking around in the rain and noticing animals, he’s always in his own head when he does so; there’s very little of any unselfing in Hilary’s life, until the very end when he sits in the church on Christmas Eve, at which point he attains the spiritual growth to at least release Crystal.

The other point is attention. It was the attention of the schoolteacher that first rescued him from the orphanage, that led to his own love of language and the possibility of a greater life. Yet attention, as the attention he pays to Crystal, can be damaging if it is not based in reality and the other but in the self. Two suicides occur in the later chapters of the novel; both of them could have been prevented, perhaps, with a bit of attention from Hilary. And he knows this, though he faces it obliquely:

Clifford had been carried away by the cold river and I had not stretched out my hand to him, not even touched his fingers. …. Clifford had died differently, he had died of being unloved and uncared for, as if the door had been shut upon him on a cold night. I did not know, and would never know, how much he really cared for me…. And after a while I began thinking about Mr. Osmond, and how he had died alone, and how he had once taught me out of Kennedy’s Latin Primer to conjugate the verb of love, his shabby coat sleeve pressing gently against my arm.

What’s most interesting about Smith’s article is how captivating its description of an early Murdoch novel, The Bell, became to me. I have to remind myself how I have struggled with two Murdoch novels now, and how susceptible I am to reading about, rather than reading, or it might end up on next year’s In Between Reading list.  It seems contemplating this 396-page work of art has brought me into a relationship with, if not Murdoch, then Smith, who has kindled in me a desire to read more by an author whose works I started out insisting I did not care for. Wouldn’t that be a strange irony.

And back to my own (sadly inadequate, in this case) devices

I have been told by those who’ve read my posts on BASS and Pushcart stories that I (sometimes) have a tendency to write in a style similar to the story I’m writing about. I find here that I’m taking after Hilary, writing about this book in a rather technical way, and not conveying how lovely the writing is in so many places. In spite of the tediousness, there are sentences and paragraphs that are beautiful; in fact, one of my first thoughts was that there were so many drop-dead sentences, I wondered if it defused them to have so many on the same page, rather than letting one shine on its own. So let me remedy my oversight now with several selections:

The wind was moodily rattling the windows, producing that odd not-unpleasant sense of solitude which winter winds evoke. After a long day in the office and undergoing my fellow men in the tube rush hour I felt tired and crumpled and begrimed with weariness. A hard monotonous life favors salvation, so the sages say. There must have been some other element, absent in my case. Oh the piercing sadness of life in the midst of its ordinariness!

Like an emo singer, Hilary is often at his most eloquent when he’s at his lowest:

But I was simply crushed, unmanned. I had lost my moral self-respect and with it my ability to control my life. Sin and despair are mixed and only repentance can change sin into pure pain. I could not clean the resentment out of my misery. Did I repent? That trouble question troubled me as the years went by. Can something half crushed and bleeding repent? Can that fearfully complex theological concept stoop down into the real horrors of human nature? Can it, without God, do so? I doubt it. Can sheer suffering redeem? It did not redeem me, it just weakened me further. I, who had so long cried out for justice, would have been willing to pay, only I had nothing to pay with and there was no one to receive the payment.

The general theme of repentance, atonement, penitence, redemption, forgiveness is a large part of the book. It’s a theme I gravitate towards. Hilary has spent twenty years in self-imposed suffering for his sin, but it has not brought him peace, nor moved him any closer to redemption. It’s only in this unselfing, this attending to what others need and being willing to provide it, that he may be moving towards some kind of resolution.

And yet the ending is ambiguous. He walks off with Tommy, off-again-on-again Tommy, returning her banter about marriage. Is this a hint towards his future? Or is he moving into another cycle, and in twenty years there will be yet a third confrontation to promote him towards spiritual maturity?

We are all muddlers. The thing is to see when one’s got to stop muddling.

Yes. It’s time to stop my muddling here. But it’s been a fun muddling, and not (I hope) totally useless.

Steve Stern: The Frozen Rabbi (Algonquin 2010) [IBR2022]

It’s a very literal title. I woke up pretty much and said I’d like to write a story about a frozen rabbi [laughs]. The perennial question of where your ideas come from I’ve never been able to adequately answer — the angels speak to me [laughs again]. As you probably realize from my stuff, I read a lot of folklore and in folklore, Jewish folklore in particular, there always seemed to be this kind of supernatural element that is perfectly natural in that world, especially the world of Yiddish fiction. I sort of draw upon/steal from that on occasion. I grew up in a Reform congregation in Memphis that was trying its best to be invisible. I thought I was a Methodist until I was 35-years-old. Then I stumbled down a rabbit hole to Jewish folklore and mysticism. It was about coming around to a heritage that I never really owned before. It’s really one of those typical traditional born-again experiences that’s too corny to own up to.

Steve Stern, interview with Paul Griffith at Chapter 16

You could think of this as an adventure story about a slacker teen in Memphis, alienated from his own Judaism until his discovery of a nineteenth-century Hasidic rabbi in his parent’s freezer changes his life.  You could also think of it as a saga of the late Jewish Diaspora, from the Polish shtetls to the cities to the US and Israel, from a mystical faith to a political one, or, sometimes, to no faith at all, and back again.  You could think of it as a way to incorporate a century of backstory without losing the momentum of the present story. Or you could see it as a disconnected family saga.

However you see it, what you have is two alternating time lines: one in the present at the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and the other from the late nineteenth century until it catches up with the present. Chapters are helpfully labeled with dates to keep things straight.

And, oh, one other thing – it’s a lot of fun to read. I don’t say that about many books that wander through pogroms, thuggery, and loneliness, but somehow this manages to be fun even when it’s disgusting. Even the darkest moments feel less tragic than amusing, the way Mo, Larry, and Curly slapping each other around is funny rather than violent. Stern addresses this in his interview:

The humor generated from the Diaspora experience was bred in a language with a built-in sense of irony. You can hear it in the rhythms and inflections of every spoken phrase. Irony was a natural function of a language that evolved in a world defined on the one hand by oppression, persecution, and poverty, and on the other by a natural intimacy with the sacrosanct. To maintain one’s religious faith in the face of such a hostile environment is to preside over the marriage of irreconcilable opposites, a rocky relationship at best and one that seldom achieves wedded bliss.
It’s an absurd situation, really, when it isn’t tragic, and so every joke is marked by a fatalism never far from galgenhumor, gallows humor. It’s a world in which the schlemiel is Everyman.

Steve Stern, interview with Paul Griffith at Chapter 16

The book starts in 1999, with one Bernie Karp, a fifteen-year-old who’s just discovered Alexander Portnoy. Eager to try out some of Portnoy’s techniques, he goes rummaging through the family freezer, looking for a piece of liver (those who know, know; if you don’t know, google Portnoy and Liver but don’t blame me for what you get). He throws aside the Butterballs and pork loins – wait, pork loins? That casual reference gives you a good idea of what kind of Jewish family the Karps are, much like Stern’s family was prior to his discovery of Yiddish folklore.

Turns out, under the frozen peas lies a man frozen in a block of ice. Bernie isn’t sure what to do with that, but his urge to procreate with organ meats forgotten, he asks his parents about it at dinner that night. They’re pretty blasé about it: “Some people got taxidermy pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It’s a family tradition.” And he came with a book, but it’s written in Yiddish, which no one in the family can read. Which, again, tells you something about the level of ancestral curiosity in this family.

Then we go back to 1889, and the circumstances under which the Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, called the Boibiczer Prodigy for his early mastery of releasing his soul to visit heaven via concentration on holy language, became frozen in a pond on the outskirts of his shtetl in rural Poland. And we are introduced to his first caretaker, one Salo Frostbite, the name bestowed upon him for his attachment to the family ice house where the Rabbi is kept until a pogrom forces him to move to Lodz.

And it’s back to 1999, when Bernie’s parents take a weekend in Las Vegas, leaving Bernie alone with the Rabbi during a storm that knocks out power and … you can see where this is going, yes? Good, because we’re only on Page 17 of 370 and it gets more complicated from here, as we follow, in alternating sections, the transfer of the frozen Rabbi from Lodz to New York to Memphis via several intermediaries, and the adjustment of the unfrozen Rabbi to contemporary life:

In the omnipresent news broadcasts the old man showed little interest: The relentless advance of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse was already a stale subject on earth even before the rabbi had entered his suspended condition. But about the splenetic woman who conducted a daily din toyreh, splitting hairs over laws concerning two-timers and clip artists with the perspicacity of a Daniel; about the smug gentleman who encouraged public loshen horeh (gossip) and orchestrated encounters between parties of mutual betrayal; about the portly schwartze who invited intimate confessions from her guests and wept openly over their Job-like afflictions; about antic surgeons, garrulous chef, faithless couples, deceitful castaways, teenage exorcists, and the Jew repeatedly duped into fornication with shikses, old Eliezer was deeply inquisitive. He was especially interested to observe the willingness of citizens to air their indiscretions in public forums.
“If a man to other men will sell his wife,” he might ask in the crossbred Yinglish to which Bernie was starting to grow accustomed, “is not obliged Reb Springer to cleave open his breast and tear out his farkokte heart?” “When they shimmy, these daughters in their supple skins in the orgies of the MTV, do not their fathers say already Kaddish for them?”

It helps to have some familiarity, however vague, with Judaica, particularly Kabbalah, and/or the Yiddish folklore Stern mentions above. I didn’t recognize much beyond Yentl, and now I wish I’d read more Isaac Bashevis Singer; I may dive into Sholom Aleichem (who wrote the stories that formed the basis of Fiddler on the Roof) at some point. Those who have a broader background in this area probably pick up references that passed by me unnoticed. I’m not sure how this would read to someone completely unfamiliar with such topics. But it’s clear how some character traits are passed along – a head for business, a desire to understand the mystical parts of Judaism, a sense of shame and/or guilt – and whether you want to see those as pieces of the soul re-inhabiting another life to complete a mission (as in Gilgul), as Jungian collective unconscious, or some combination of necessity and coincidence, it works.

One of the more interesting (to me, at least) episodes of the frozen rabbi’s journey concerns his arrival in New York as the means to smuggle a shipment of black market caviar in the care of Max Feinshmeker, nee Jocheved, daughter of the original Salo, once a talented pushcart snowcone barista who has to leave Lodz after she is assaulted and thus shamed (because that’s how it was in those days). She figured it would be easier to survive as a man. Yes, shades of Yentl, as I said. And of course, this causes complications when the keeper of the New York ice house in which she stores the rabbi, one Schmerl Karpinski, a lad with a knack for mechanical invention, finds Max an enjoyable companion.

Another awkward moment for Max came when they stopped for a bowl of borscht at a dairy cafe, and Schmerl – digging into his knippl, the knot of cash he’d been hoarding since he’d become a hired hand – insisted on paying the tab. Having passed a dark season as the object of charity, the beggar now wished to be benefactor, despite having no material resources to speak of.
“It is for me my pleasure,” his host assured him, proud to be arm-in-arm with such a silken youth, so delicate-featured and slight of frame, attributes almost unseemly for a man. With a sigh Max had accepted the refreshment, just as later he learned to graciously accept the ticket to a Yiddish theater production of Hamlet, der yeshiva bocher, translated and improved for the edification of the general public, or the price of admission to a cabaret. For his part, Schmerl felt heartily beholden to his companion for allowing him to show them both a good time. How long he had waited for someone with whom to share his enthusiasm for the knockabout streets and the institutions he’d been too shy to enter alone. It was as if he finally belonged to the teeming neighborhood and had at last arrived in America.
As for Max, he still couldn’t quite believe that he’d fallen into such agreeable circumstances. For one thing, despite the forced physical intimacy of their digs, it was relatively effortless to hide Jocheved’s gender from his host….. In this environment Jocheved sometimes felt she might even relax a bit her tenacious secrecy; she might steal a peek on occasion from behind the mask of Max Feinshmeker, as if the world were not such a daunting place after all.

Having just read The Member of the Wedding, I also see a sprinkling of McCullers’ theme of belonging in there. All these loners who just happen to find themselves another loner to pair up with, courtesy of the man in ice.

In the present, the unfrozen rabbi has an idea, an idea as American as apple pie: he’s going to start a business, pandering to the basest needs of contemporary USAian society while wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of religion:

“I ain’t talking your zayde’s study house. I’m talking Rabbi ben Zephyr’s House of Enlightenment, where I’m dispensing on demand ecstasy.”
Mr. Karp went livid. “You mean like drugs?”
Now it was the rabbi’s turn to sigh. “Julius,” there was the patronizing note again, “today religion is good business. Give a look by the gentile revivalist with his double breast polyester in the stadium, and even the Jewish boys and girls, that they sacrifice to some barefoot swami all their possessions, who tells them, ‘Go dress in shmattes and dance in the street.’ And it ain’t even Simchat Torah! Wants to acquire everybody, along with the BVD and the satellite dish, a bissel the living God, but for the years discipline they ain’t got time. So now comes a tzaddik ha dor, which it’s yours truly, to give them a few easy steps a taste sublime.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you intend to pedal…” Mr. Karp searched without success for the word, which the rabbi supplied:
“Be-a-ti-tude,” tasting every syllable on his glaucous tongue. Then he allowed that he might also sell a few specialty items on the side – books and talismans, red strings to ward off the evil eye, everything marked up and elegantly packaged of course…
“Slow down!” says Mr. Karp. “What’s a two-hundred-year-old greenhorn know about markup?”
“You would be surprised how much business deals is in Talmud…..”

At the same time, Bernie is delving into Jewish lore, checking books out of the synagogue library that has the rabbi concerned. Then his soul starts taking spiritual flights from his body, which has his teachers concerned. But he meets a girl, who isn’t concerned at all; she wants him to take her with him.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the book, about the soul-swapping that seems to be going on, about the ending that may be a little too goofy or may be the only way to bring the novel to a close. But that I’m thinking about it, tells me it’s a book that works for me.

As I said in my introduction to this reading period, I hated the first Steve Stern story I read, because it seemed so mean, and loved the second because it was chock full of fascinating folklore and tradition. This book borrows from both. Parts of the book are so cinematic, and the book as a whole is so episodic, it’s make a great limited series. Not all of the characters are admirable, but it’s impossible not to cheer them on as they pass the rabbi along, all the while wondering how, given this history, it’s going to turn out. I’m a little uncertain about the ending;

I keep thinking about soul-swapping, and I’m not entirely sure I know exactly what happened. But the journey to get there is worth a little uncertainty.

I’ve read two of Stern’s stories via Pushcart; as I said in my intro to this In-Between Reading period, I hated the first, loved the second and reconsidered the first. I’m glad I added this to my read list, and now I’ve got my eye on some of his story collections.

Carson McCullers: The Member of the Wedding (HM 1946; Bantam 1973) [IBR2022]

I hadn’t thought about it in terms of social problems. I always think more in terms of human beings, and the basic theme is just the need to belong… to belong to something, to feel oneself a part of life. ….I think that the sources of creation are very mysterious, and I don’t think one can find them by just looking for them, I think they have to come from a window within you.

Carson McCullers, 1951 Ship’s Reporter interview with Jack Mangan at LitHub

I’m of two minds about this novel. On the one hand, I just want to let the snark fly: it’s more of a very long short story than a novel (it takes place in three days with a brief coda projecting a few months into the future); there’s barely a plot, which is evident when the climactic event is revealed in one hindsight paragraph; at least two important points are left frustratingly ambiguous; and even though I read it in early Spring with the temperature rarely getting out of the 40s, it always left me feeling hot and sweaty and drowning in humidity. I grew up in Florida, I know what August in the south feels like, I don’t need to read the gritty details.

But then I have to look at what McCullers has done: she’s taken a bare-bones plot and done a deep insightful character study touching on issues of belonging and coming of age in a slender 150 pages; she’s used some interesting techniques that emphasize, presumably, what she wanted to emphasize; she lets the reader be a partner in creating the story; and boy can she create a mood just by describing the environment in which her characters exist.

There was in the neighborhood a clubhouse, and Frankie was not a member. The members of the club were girls who were thirteen and fourteen and even fifteen years old period they had parties with boys on Saturday night. Frankie knew all of the club members, and until this summer she had been like a younger member of their crowd, but now they had this club and she was not a member. They had said she was too young and mean.

The basic story focuses on twelve-year-old Frankie, who feels like she doesn’t belong to anything or anyone. Some of her former friends have formed a club, but she can’t be in it because they’re a year of two older and she’s too young to talk about boys. The only belonging she has is with her housekeeper, Berenice, and John Henry, her six-year-old cousin, and that’s a group she’d rather not belong to. Her outlook changes when her brother, on leave from the Army, announces he’s going to marry his long-time girlfriend the next weekend. Frankie decides she’s going to go with them on their honeymoon, and get out of her stultifying town.

When I wrote about Marcus Spiegel’s Pushcart story “A Tale of Two Trolls,” I mentioned the phenomenon by which one assumes a plan will work simply because one has thought it up, and wants it badly enough. That’s Frankie’s concept of escaping with her brother and his bride. She’s very young, and she’s very naïve; the story is set in the 40s, before music videos, before R-rated movies (at least publicly available ones), before the internet, and twelve-year-olds were kept isolated from anything that might involve sex, so she doesn’t realize the absurdity of being a third wheel on a honeymoon.

Her sexual innocence is underlined in other ways in the story. The girls who won’t let her in their club presumably feel she has nothing to contribute to the subject of boys, and they seem to be right. She seems to have committed some kind of sin with a neighborhood boy, but she’s not sure how bad the “unknown sin that he had showed her” is. Interestingly, McCullers chooses not to reveal that to the reader, either; we’re so deep in Frankie’s head, we can’t get out, and she doesn’t seem to want to think about the specifics. I’ve seen guesses that it was a kiss, relating to her father’s kiss goodnight, which have recently been curtailed. Because of the phrasing, I wonder if it was a game of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours type of thing.

That she keeps it secret, that she can’t even think about it, is, however, the point; she can’t face growing up. This coincides with her father deciding she can’t sleep in his bed any more, and that feels like not-belonging. It feels like punishment.  It’s practically expulsion from Eden, this rejection by the father. And she hasn’t figured out how to make the jump to the older girls’ clubhouse, where at least there are compensations, a different kind of belonging. She can’t grow up.

Her naivete isn’t just a quirk; it puts her in danger when she makes a date to meet a soldier at night, then goes with him to his room. It’s not clear what she’s expecting, but it is clear what he’s expecting.

These are the burdens of growing up:  losing her place at her father’s side, dealing with sins she doesn’t understand, and fending off advances she doesn’t know are coming. No wonder she’s scared to grow up. But she doesn’t want to remain a child in the kitchen with Berenice and John Henry, either.

The structure of the book plays into Frankie’s learning process. Part 1 deals with her in her depression; the weather is likewise oppressive. But at the very end, she learns of her brother’s wedding, and that catapults her into a better mood: she has a plan for escape.

The long hundred miles did not make her sadder and make her feel more far away than the knowing that they were them and both together and she was only her and parted from them, by herself. And as she sickened with this feeling a thought and explanation suddenly came to her, so that she knew and almost said aloud: They are the we of me. Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All other people had a we to claim, all other except her. When Berenice said we, she meant Honey and Big Mama, her lodge, or her church. The we of her father was the store. All members of clubs have a we to belong to and talk about. The soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on chain-gangs. But the old Frankie had had no we to claim, unless it would be the terrible summer we of her and John Henry and Berenice—and that was the last we in the world she wanted. Now all this was suddenly over with and changed. There was her brother and the bride, and it was as though when first she saw them something she had known inside of her: They are the we of me. And that was why it made her feel so queer, for them to be away in Winter Hill while she was left all by herself; the hull of the old Frankie left there in the town alone.

In Part 2, she changes her name to F. Jasmine and visits the entire town telling anyone who’ll listen that her brother is taking her on his honeymoon. This is her attempt to be grown-up, but it’s clear she doesn’t understand what’s involved. Her flirtation with the soldier could have led to disaster, but turns out she’s pretty handy at defending herself. A piano tuner accents dinner with Berenice and John Henry. I wonder if there’s been a thesis on music, about sound in general, in the book, because it seemed quite pointed to me. But then there’s the incident with the soldier. Never mind, she’s going to the wedding.

The day before the wedding was not like any day that F. Jasmine had ever known. It was the Saturday she went into the town, and suddenly, after the closed blank summer, the town opened before her and in a new way she belonged. Because of the wedding, F. Jasmine felt connected with all she saw, and it was as a sudden member that on this Saturday she went around the town. She walked the streets and titled as a queen and mingled everywhere. It was the day when, from the beginning, the world seemed no longer separate from herself and when all at once she felt included.

Part 3 is brief. The events at the wedding are revealed in somewhat disjointed fashion, a brief narration, then a recollection in more depth. This almost cursory inclusion of what should be the climax of the story hints to me that it isn’t, in fact, the climax, that the story is not about the wedding at all. That would make the climax more about her realization, after the altercation with the soldier, that John Henry is a child and she no longer is: “It was impossible to understand his point of view. And he did not understand her either.”

The wedding, in Part 3, certainly has its moment:

She wanted to speak to her brother and the bride, to talk to them and tell them of her plans, the three of them alone together. But they were never once alone…. She stood in the corner of the bride’s room, wanting to say: I love the two of you so much and you are the we of me. Please take me with you from the wedding, for we belong to be together. Or even if she could have said: may I trouble you to step into the next room, as I have something to reveal to you and Jarvis? And to get the three of them in a room alone together and somehow manage to explain. If only she had written it down on the typewriter in advance, so that she could hand it to them and they would read! But this she had not thought to do, and her tongue was heavy in her mouth and dumb. She could only speak in a voice that shook a little-to ask where was the veil?

This inability to speak is a change from Part 2, where she was telling everyone what she believed would happen, and now, faced with the reality, she’s struck dumb. It’s only as the newlyweds are getting into their car to leave that she finds her voice – “Take me! Take me!” – but of course it was never going to happen. Having lost her opportunity to escape, Frankie makes an abortive attempt to run away from home, but ends up back where she does, in fact, belong.

And then we close with the following Fall, the weather cooler and more manageable. She’s met a friend, Mary, to belong with, a friend a couple of years older, but nonetheless more on her level as a child. The wedding plan is replaced by a new plan, to tour Europe when they’re sixteen and eighteen, and she now calls herself Frances. And we see several things have changed: Berenice’s son has been arrested, and John Henry has died. Frances doesn’t seem to dwell on these losses; she focuses on her brother’s post cards from exotic places (Luxemborg!) and on her future trip to Europe.

The book ends with an enigma.

Dark, when it came, which come on quickly, as it does in winter time. “I am simply mad about – “ but the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.

Again, it’s sound that brings her out of her introspection. But what she’s just mad about we never know.

I read something of McCullers’ life along with some commentary on the book. It was pretty tragic: a young marriage that failed then was resumed; relationships that seem to indicate heterosexuality was not her comfort zone; illness and an early death. She only wrote four books; Heart was her first, and established her as a literary talent. Wedding was her second. I have to wonder if the order had been reversed, if her career might have gone differently.

I was assigned this book in college, as part of an adolescent literature class; I’m not sure I ever read it, since it’s not familiar to me at all. Maybe it just bored me at the time. Last year’s read, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, had a lot more to offer. Or maybe it just seems that way; for such a short book, there’s a lot packed in. It’s one of those books that I can’t say I enjoyed, but I can say I appreciate. McCullers adapted the book for the stage, and it was later written as a movie. Structurally and in terms of scenes, that makes sense, but so much of the book is internal to Frankie, it must have been a challenge. Still, I can see why it would be popular: who hasn’t felt the need to belong, and who didn’t, at some point, fear growing up with its burdens.

Sharon K. Grosh: 𝘾𝙖𝙥𝙩𝙪𝙧𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝘽𝙪𝙩𝙩𝙚𝙧𝙛𝙡𝙮 (Black Rose, 2021) [IBR2022]

Image card, left, by Sharon Grosh
I attended Romancing the Wild Soul, by Geneen Hogan and Bill Plotkin, in northern wilds of Scotland. It was there I experienced and tried emotive writing, words coming directly from the experience of being in nature. I filled journals over the years but always struggled with questions about what this means, did I communicate my meaning etc.
The throat chakra is between the mind and the heart and is the source of your voice. I tried to speak through Pink, Claudius and Mina using my sweetest, deepest heart and mind to tell the story. This is probably the source of my discomfort as it is sometimes hard to understand the meaning as it flows. I write without knowing, without an outline, but with a daily plan to write from 8-10 each morning. The characters flow from my heart/head to the keyboard. This leaves me with the challenge of making a story out of it.

Sharon K. Grosh, email interview

About a year ago, Sharon – a reader and occasional commenter on this blog – asked if I’d be interested in writing about the books she’d written: the first, Lazarus Rising, an apocalyptic novel inspired by John Hersey’s Hiroshima, or the second, Capturing the Butterfly, bringing together three characters from different times. The second worked out best at this time; I’ve been feeling caught in an extended apocalypse for a while now, so I didn’t particularly want to read about one. Sharon offered me a free copy of the book, but I declined and purchased it myself, as I have with other acquaintances whose books I’ve written about.

The book opens in a cave with a pink bear whose hibernation is disturbed by the arrival of a young woman named Mina. She comes with a translating device which enables her to communicate with Pink, and explains she was, one minute, at her home in Hiroshima, preparing for the birth of her baby, and then was suddenly somehow transferred to another body, five years later. The transfer coincided with a strange event that most of us will recognize from history:

“That morning, I set the water to boil for tea and sat down to watch the wisteria branches flow in the wind. I rose out of my chair to bend down and pick up a few leaves that fell in the garden path. The red feather-like leaves seemed strange. My maple had a beautiful, delicate leaf shape that suddenly turned yellow on the underside and then white in my hands. This strange light grew across the whole garden that surrounded me. Then everything turned white, the fence, the house, blasting away all color, everywhere.
“I looked up at the perfect tomato bushes, pruned into uniform oblong bubbles, which now appeared like an array of round ice globes. Strangely, at that moment, I remembered the owner of the garden and wondered if he would blame us for the whitening of the trees and shrubs. The whole garden began dissolving before my eyes, breaking apart into separate points of light and then vanishing.
My last thought was fear. I heard voices screaming; from my husband, my mother-in-law, my neighbor? Water from the teapot sprayed across the room. This is the last point of memory I had of my life and my former body.”

Pink is concerned about the human intrusion, having been told by his mother to avoid people as they are dangerous, but he doesn’t see Mina as a threat.  He’s unable to use the translating device at first, but he eventually figures out what words are and gets the hang of it. It’s the Winter Solstice, an important break in his hibernation, and he struggles to learn how words work, how to use the translating device, to communicate this to Mina before continuing his sleep:

Mother established a pattern to observe this day. This day turned everything over. My heart was just a little lighter, and it lifted my spirits. Everything around me, trees and small animals and raptors, all took note. This was the day the earth turned toward the light. The change was small, the feeling was barely noticed, but it was an important moment. The turn toward the sun was slow, but the hope for spring was there….
This was Mother’s Winter Solstice ritual. Most animals do not participate formally, but we were lucky as Mother presented us with this treat, in our first year. I added small things to the ritual after Mother disappeared. I’ve continued this ritual in hope I could connect with Lily, after she left me behind, following a large male bear. What is she doing right now? Does she continue this tradition?
I reached for the translator box. The following thought, passed on to me by mother, had to be translated to words for Mina to understand. Finally, I spoke these words.

Long nights of winter

Getting shorter

Find your wild dreams

No fear

Peace and courage

Stay wild.

When the hibernation is over, Mina tells Pink more about her strange transformation. They then discover another person near the cave. Claudius has an even stranger story: he’s very old, and claims to have caused, by his actions, the deaths of millions.

“I learned from a wise man, one whom you know, Mina. He said humans have two choices in life. One is to follow what the brain says. For example, does your brain tell you when to get married and who to marry? Do you marry someone for money with a high status in the village? The second choice is to follow your heart and instead of leaning on security to make your decision, you marry for love. Do you listen to your heart on the way to work? Do you walk the same way to work every day or do you change your route, a small meaningless decision that you make? Do you take the longer path, the scenic route, and do you get to your appointments on time even if your heart yearns to slow down a little? Do you make a meal for your family from the heart or do you make a meal on time? Following your heart is the simple key to the universal law for humanity.” He looked at me and added, “The animal kingdom as well, Pink. The animal kingdom does not always live making big decisions, but with many small ones. Instead of thinking with your brain, you can think with your heart, which is following its knowledge, which guides you through a different pathway through life. Heart-love is connecting to the greater good and will create wealth and success, more than any plan conceived by the brain. The brain is over-rated.”

From there, the book sorts out who these people are, and how they might change the present via the past. The title thus refers to the Chaos Effect, where a small change in the past – a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world – might have a big effect on the future. Mina and Claudius are part of the effort of a future time traveler to repair one rift in the history of the world; the story follows their efforts to do this.

I asked Sharon if I might include an email interview her about the book, since it was outside of my comfort zone and I wasn’t sure I was reading it properly. Her responses were comforting, in that I seem to have picked up on a few of the major issues, and they revealed her writing process and intent more fully:

1) KC: What inspired the story? You’ve told me your first book, Lazarus Rising, was inspired by John Hersey’s Hiroshima and followed the format. In Butterfly, you also have a character from Hiroshima, and follow several characters, though in a different way. Is this another inspiration, or is it more about the way you considered the book from the outset?

SKG: Pink, the character and the original name of the book, started at a retreat where we selected a clump of colored clay laying on a table, sat down and closed our eyes while moving the clay around in our hands. I moved my hands laterally, as multiple inner plates shifted between my palms. I looked down at the pink piece of clay I was moving and I saw a pink bear. I added a sea shell for his ears. Yes, an unusual way to start a story but it worked me. At some point I read David Abram and wrote a short story from the point of view of a young deer. There must not be many stories from that POV as everyone that read it said it was a Bambi moment for them. But that story helped me exercise my animal chops.

2) Who do you see as the audience for this book?

The audience is difficult. It’s also such a small book and I would be surprised anyone would pay $19 for it. Here are the genres that I provided the publisher.
BISAC code one – FIC009000 FICTION / Fantasy / General
BISAC code two – FIC061000 FICTION / Magical Realism
BISAC code three – FIC010000 FICTION / Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology

3) What kind of research did you do about the Butterfly effect and Chaos theory? At what point did you introduce the devices, the translator and orb? Were they something you knew you’d need from the start, or did it become evident as you wrote that you’d need them?

The research was very exciting. I delved into Hitler’s family tree, finding out that Klara was a servant in the household, became pregnant and then married. I did some calculations of when they were married and how old her first son was etc.
At least in my research, I did not see any mention of childhood bullying and an abusive father to explain Hitler’s personality. So I made that up. Me bad.
As with Lazarus, I don’t want to geek out into SciFi as much as I was to use it to enhance the character and solve problems. That’s a big admission but I’m sure I’m not the first story teller to do that. The blue Orb first appeared at Dr. N’s retreat center. I did try other approaches to time travel but the Blue Orb stuck.

4) I notice that the reader doesn’t find out if Claudius’ ultimate mission was successful or not, since we go back to Pink. This seems highly significant to me: nature doesn’t take notice of geography or war but just keeps living either way – though of course we know at this point that isn’t true, that politics alters nature dramatically as we’re about to find out. This indicated an ecological theme on top of changing the past: did you intend that?

In my heart, the story started with the protection of nature. I had to find a time when woods and forests were not touched by large numbers of humans. That was before snowmobiles! Regarding Claudius’ story, he went back in time and changed the nature of the parks in the US, and preserved Pink’s area, saving his mother. I wish I had added his final story, as you mentioned. I think my overall discomfort with the story is I had a deadline, which is always good but I might have wrapped it up too early.
If WWII did not happen, the population would have more smart people, population explosion would have been addressed earlier and hopefully a better awareness to save the planet. Isn’t writing fun?

5) Do you have a new writing project in mind?

Three of us designed the cover, my niece, an amazing graphic artist and myself. We had such a good time and they being seasoned advertising professionals, got it done on time with everyone giving input. I would like to get them back together and do this book or a newly created one for 5–8-year-olds. This project needs work from me e.g. storyboard 23 pages.
My next writing piece will be a collection of short stories with intention, brevity and a way to connect each story to the whole. I love short story titles and keep a running list. If you are person that says, “that sounds like a good name for a band,” that is me with short story titles.

6a) Is there anything you wish someone would ask you about the book, the process of writing it, or about you as an author?

Would you rather do read or write?
What is your favorite passage from the book?

6b) Lol, ok, so I’ll ask: Would you rather do read or write? And, What is your favorite passage from the book?

My favorite lines: Morning light held a magical atmosphere, created by drifts of snow enclosing the cave in stillness. The quiet was complemented by sunlight filtering through each crystal of ice, caked across the entrance. The curtain of light sparkled as it bounced against the cave wall. When I see light play against the cave walls, I want to stay motionless just to watch.
My smartass answer is, “Writing versus reading is like preferring to read War and Peace over watching Netflix.” I have thought about how I came to writing. I read a lot and wanted to be a writer and told my father. I guess I was asking him where do I start as he told me to start describing something in the room, like an apple. That sounded pretty dull so I did not do that. I wrote my first story and the teacher was so aghast she asked me to change it as it was too dark. I had a Steven King theme going. Therefore, I never started to write other than for school, college and work related things.
Now I think of myself as a reader’s writer, drawing on decades of reading.

I like to get outside of my comfort zone a couple of times a year, and this fit the bill. And it’s always good to support new writers. I’m so impressed (and more than a little envious) when someone I know writes a book. Or, in Sharon’s case, two books. Why can’t I do that? I don’t know, but I haven’t been able to.

Daniel Kehlmann: Measuring the World (Carol Brown Janeway, translator) (Vintage, 2007) [IBR2021]

It was both odd and unjust, said Gauss, a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. Each gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-à-vis the future.
Eugene nodded sleepily.
Even a mind like his own, said Gauss, would have been incapable of achieving anything in early human history or on the banks of the Orinoco, whereas in another two hundred years each and every idiot would be able to make fun of him and invent the most complete nonsense about his character.

Aha! Enter Daniel Kehlmann with his fictionalized biography – a dual biography, in fact, of both Gauss and Alexander Humboldt – ready to supplement history with a little fun, slipping in “complete nonsense” as well as sly meta-comments along the way. It’s great fun to read.

Alexander Humboldt and Carl Gauss: The two men were contemporaries, were both famous in Europe, and published vast works that established new fields of science and mathematics. Yet they were quite different. One was from a wealthy Prussian family, the godson of a Duke, and was made a Baron; the other was the son of a German gardener. One wanted nothing more than to explore and document the world; the other preferred to stay home and work in a room, reasoning out abstractions. One never married; the other took a second wife to make up for the loss he felt when his first wife died. And yet, by the end of the book, they have more in common than we might suppose.

I spent a lot of time initially trying to determine what was documented fact and what was fancy, but eventually gave that up. I found an article by an eminent Dutch mathematician (all links provided below) castigating Kehlmann for taking such liberties (I hope he never reads Irving Stone or watches Amadeus). Then I found a Harvard mathematician who was a lot more enthusiastic, particularly about the film made from the book.

One of the scenes that so irritated the Dutch professor concerned a balloon ride that almost certainly never happened, as it appears to have taken place after the balloonist died (in a balloon accident, tragically). It’s one of my favorite passages:

And seizing him partly by his collar, partly by his hair, he hauled Gauss up.
The curve of the earth in the distance….
This is how God sees the world, said Pilâtre.
He wanted to say something back, but he’d lost his voice. How fiercely the air was shaking them! And the sun—why was it so much brighter up here? His eyes hurt, but he couldn’t close them. And space itself: a straight line from every point to every other point, from this roof to this cloud, to the sun, and back to the roof. Points making lines, lines making planes, planes making bodies, and that wasn’t all. The fine curve of space was almost visible from here. He felt Pilâtre’s hand on his shoulder. Never go down again. Up and then up further, until there would be no earth beneath them any more. One day this is what people would experience. Everyone would fly then, as if it were quite normal, but by then he would be dead. He peered excitedly into the sun, the light was changing. Dusk seemed to be rising in the still-bright sky like fog. A last flame or two, red on the horizon, then no more sun, then stars. Things never happened this fast down there. We’ve started to drop, said Pilâtre.
No, he begged, not yet! There were so many of them, more every moment. Each one a dying sun. Every one of them was decaying, and they were all following their own trajectories, and just as there were formulae for every planet that circled its own sun and every moon that circled its own planet, there was a formula, certainly infinitely complicated, but then again maybe not, perhaps hiding behind its own simplicity, that described all these movements, every revolution of every individual body around every other; maybe all you had to do was keep looking. His eyes smarted. It felt as if he hadn’t blinked for a long time. We’re about to land, said Pilâtre.
No, not yet! He rose on tiptoes, as if that could help, stared upward, and understood for the first time what movement was, what a body was; most of all, what space was, the space that they stretched between them, and thatheld them all, even him, even Pilâtre and this basket, in its embrace. Space, that …
They crashed into the wooden frame of a haystack….
Now he knew, said Gauss.
That all parallel lines meet.
Fine, said Pilâtre.
His heart was racing. He wondered if he should explain to the man that all he would need was to add a hanging rudder to the basket, and he could turn the air current to make the balloon move in any specific direction.
But he kept quiet. Nobody had asked him, and it wouldn’t be polite to force his ideas on these people. It took no stretch of the imagination, and one of them would think of it soon.
But now what this man wanted to see was a grateful child. With an effort, Gauss put a smile on his face, stretched his arms wide, and bowed like a marionette. Pilâtre was happy, laughed, and stroked his head.

I’ve found several sources that credit Gauss with coining the term “non-Euclidean geometry” and conducting  an exploration of the Fifth Postulate as a way into the curvature of space; he never published anything on these topics, apparently feeling it would seem too fanciful, but the ideas were passed down to others, culminating in Riemann and Einstein. So while this particular incident may never have happened, its point – that inspiration and insight, comes from many other sources other than the hard work credited with 99% of genius – is well-taken.

Kehlmann relates the more familiar story of the discovery of Gauss’ mathematical talent by a schoolteacher who, as punishment or pedagogy, who knows, has the young children add the numbers from 1 to 100. Gauss completes the task in moments, using the method that is now codified for summing consecutive integers, and is thus vaulted into serious mathematical study. Whether or not this tale, which exists in several versions, is true is debated; maybe it’s more like George Washington telling the truth about cutting down the cherry tree, a legend that has become so ingrained it’s inseparable from fact. In any case, it’s told charmingly. Humboldt’s childhood inspiration was a bit different:

Once they stumbled on a story about Aguirre the Mad, who had renounced his king and declared himself emperor. He and his men traveled the length of the Orinoco in a journey that was the stuff of nightmares… Hardly any scholars had ever penetrated this region, and there was no reliable map.
But he would, said the younger brother. He would make the journey.
Naturally, the elder brother replied.
He really meant it!
Yes he understood that, said the elder brother and summoned a servant to note down the day and the exact time. The day would come when they would be glad they had fixed this moment.

The chapters alternate between Gauss and Humboldt, proceeding chronologically after a brief opening section preparing us for their eventual meeting later in life. Possibly because Humboldt’s life reads like an adventure novel while his personal life was rather limited, we see a great deal of him travelling, particularly of his trip to Latin America, collecting samples, and, indeed, measuring the world. Gauss’ studies, once his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae was published in his early 20s, are more summarized than dramatized, at least until his work with Wilhelm Weber on magnetism later in his life.

Yet Kehlmann gives us a picture of him through various short scenes, such as the (presumably fictional) moment he met his first wife, Johanna, while working as a surveyor shortly after qualifying for his doctorate:

He climbed over a hedge and landed panting, sweating, and strewn with pine needles in front of two girls. Asked what he was doing here, he nervously expounded the technique of triangulation: if you knew one side and two angles of a triangle, you could work out the other sides and the unknown angle. So you picked a triangle somewhere out here on God’s good earth, measured the side that was most easily accessible,and then used this gadget to establish the angle of the third corner. He lifted the theodolite and turned it this way,and then this way, and do you see, like this, with awkward fingers, as if doing it for the first time. Then you fit together a whole series of these triangles. A Prussian scientist was in the process of doing exactly this among all the fabulous creatures in the New World.
But a landscape isn’t a flat surface, retorted the bigger of the two.
He stared at her. There had been no pause. As if she had needed no time to think it over. Certainly not, he said, smiling.
A triangle, she said, had one hundred and eighty degrees as the sum of its angles on a flat surface; but it was on a sphere, so this was no longer true. Everything would stand or fall based on that.
He looked her up and down as if seeing her for the first time. She returned his look with raised eyebrows.
Yes, he said. So. In order to even things out, you had to scrunch the triangles, so to speak, after measuring them until they were infinitely small. In and of itself, a simple exercise in differentials. Although in this form … He sat down on the ground and took out his pad. In this form, he murmured, as he began making notes, it’s never been worked out in this form yet. When he looked up, he was alone.

The Prussian scientist mentioned is, of course, Humboldt, off looking for the mysterious channel between the Orinoco and the Amazon. This was a culmination of sorts for him; we watched him attend the completion of the triangulation of longitude that defined the meter: “People wanted to name it ‘the meter.’ It always filled Humboldt with exultation when something was measured; this time he was drunk with enthusiasm.”

Both men had to search for funding for their projects, as much a major, if unpleasant, effort then as it is today. Kehlmann’s fiction has a lot of fun with some of this: as Humbolt is trying to charm sponsorship out Mariano de Irquijo, the minister of Madrid (who did initially sponsor him), he is mistaken for a physician there to provide the regent with an aphrodesiac (“His power over the land rested on his power over the queen. She was no longer a young woman, nor was he a young man now.”) Quick-thinking Humboldt starts listing ingredients from all over the world, and offers to collect them to make a superb remedy. “Never before had foreigners received such documents.”

This use of humor is, for Kehlmann, the point:

Some readers, he concedes, may have bought it because they were flattered to be reminded of Germany’s role in the Enlightenment’s avant garde.
In fact, he says, it was intended as the antithesis of that – “a comedy about German high culture, about the German cult of genius”. “I have met people who didn’t want to read Measuring the World because they thought it was a serious, educated, self-important book about intellectual history. It has gained an aura that is the very opposite of what it really is, and I do regret that a bit. I also think it’s problematic that it is now on the school syllabus, because, in reality, it’s a parody about how we deal with educational values.”

Interview in The Guardian with Philip Oltermann

One of the clearest examples of this poke at German genius comes from Humboldt’s measuring of a solar eclipse while in South America. His assistant/collaborator, Aimé Bonpland, was astounded by the fading light, the momentousness of it all. Humboldt was too busy taking measurements to pay attention. “Did one always have to be so German?” sighs Bonpland.

Some of that humor has an ironic bite. While discussing the miracle of a parrot who is the last surviving speaker of a tribal language, Bonpland asks the head of the mission where the scientists are staying what happened to the tribe, why it disappeared.

It happened, said Pater Zea.
Pater Zea stared at him with narrowed eyes. It was easy to be like that. A person came here and pitied anyone who looked sad, and back home there would be bad stories to tell, but if that person suddenly found himself with fifty men ruling ten thousand savages, wondering every night what the voices in the forest meant, and being amazed each morning to find himself alive, perhaps he would judge things differently.
A misunderstanding, said Humboldt. Nobody had intended to criticize.

On a later stop in Mexico (New Spain at the time), Humboldt recommends to the Spanish overseer that the mine passages be repaired, to reduce accidents. “They had enough people, said Don Fernando. Anyone who died could be replaced. Humboldt asked if he’d read Kant.” This sly way of bringing up the categorical imperative to treat people as ends, not as means, doesn’t land for the overseer, but it does for the reader.

And also in Mexico:

Shortly afterward, as Humboldt packed up his instruments, he knew that on the day of the solstice, the sun when seen from the highway rose exactly over the top of the largest pyramid and went down over the top of the second-largest. The whole city was a calendar. Who had thought it up? How well had these people known the stars, and what had they wanted to convey? He was the first person in more than a thousand years who could read their message.
Why was he so depressed, asked Bonpland, awakened by the sound of the instruments being closed.
So much civilization and so much horror, said Humboldt. What a combination! The exact opposite of everything that Germany stood for.

That Spain inflicted horror on the New World is without doubt, but those of us who are familiar with the 20th century, yet future to Humboldt, might find somber irony in his exclamation.

I’m impressed with Kehlmann’s ability to compress these ideas into short statements, but the best is yet to come. Towards the end of his life, Humboldt and his brother, always close, speak of destiny:

Nobody, said Humboldt, had a destiny. One simply decided to feign one until one came to believe in it oneself. But so many things didn’t fit in with it, one had to really force oneself.
The elder brother leaned back and gave him a long look.
Still boys?
You knew?

That exchange of five words carries great impact. Yes, biographers and scholars of Humboldt’s travels have assumed, with varying degrees of certainty, that he was gay. I keep thinking of a trope that runs through the Gauss chapters, how he recognizes, as in the first quote above, that the state of knowledge, and society,, is always in flux, and what we accept today will most likely be different in fifty or a hundred or two hundred years. Humboldt didn’t have the luxury of waiting around for acceptance; I think that underlines some of his obsessive work.

Last year I read Kehlmann’s more recent book, Tyll, and enjoyed it so much I decided to read this earlier book. I’m glad I did. While the august personages, mathematics and science might intimidate some readers, it’s not a problem. Of course, the more one knows, the more one gets out of it (I love recognizing things I’ve heard of), but Kehlmann makes a point of not worrying about explaining background, be it of the Thirty Years’ War in Tyll, or the discoveries of Gauss – or, for that matter, the Napoleonic Wars which play in the background as Gauss moves from one university town to the next in search of a position.

I feel like you can never leave out enough explanation. We humans are actually used to working with incomplete information, for all our lives, all the time.
Measuring the World was a novel about two German scientists. It did very well in Germany, but then foreign publishers said, “We need footnotes because in our country nobody knows Carl Friedrich Gauss.“ I said, “Very few people in Germany knew Carl Friedrich Gauss either!“ When I read Dostoevsky, there’s so much about the politics of nineteenth-century Russia that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter at all. I feel like we should always trust the reader to deal with incomplete information—because that’s what all of us do all day long anyway!

Interview in Bomb Magazine with Álvaro Enrigue

The book ends not with the deaths of the scientists, but with Gauss’ son, Eugen. Throughout the book, Gauss has dumped on the poor boy, disappointed that he had little facility for mathematics. In more historically accurate materials, he urged the boy to go into law rather than science, fearing he would not be able to uphold Gauss’ name. Eugen leaves Germany, travelling somewhat the same route as Humboldt many years ago, but missing the excitement the journey brought the naturalist; he clearly doesn’t measure up to either man. He ended up in America, and, in historical accounts, became quite a successful businessman. The last word of the book, in fact, is America. If one wishes to deduce a shift in polarity from this, from Gauss the father, German genius, to the son, American entrepreneur, one is free to do so.

But I found the emotional end of the book to be earlier: as they exchange letters towards the ends of their lives, they end up feeling sorry for each other. Gauss pities Humboldt because he can’t explore Russia with the degree of freedom he needs, and Humboldt feels bad that Gauss has seen so little of the world. Humboldt, who yearned for travel and direct experience to measure everything in existence; Gauss, who valued thinking through principles to find truth. Yet, like those parallel lines that intrigued Gauss from an early age: seemingly different, yet they meet.

Kehlmann’s book made me want to read more factual biographies of both men, and I can think of no greater compliment for fiction.

* * *

Philip Oltermann,The Guardian, 11/15/2014: Interview, “Daniel Kehlmann: ‘German writers have been taught to hide their humour'”

Álvaro Enrigue, Bomb Magazine, 2/26/2020 : Interview, “Daniel Kehlmann”

St. Andrews Math Histories: Carl Friedrich Gauss

Eleanor Jones Harvey, Smithsonian Institution: “Who Was Alexander Von Humboldt?”

Frans Oort: Book Review

Michael Harris, Mathematics Without Apologies: “Three mathematicians, three novels, only one movie, part 3”

Oliver Knill, 9/27/2020: “Measuring the World [Film]

Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun (Knopf 2021) [IBR2021]

Do you believe in the human heart?

Every review of this book mentions it’s about Artificial Intelligence. And it is, of course. But to my surprise, I found it to be very much about the spiritual realm as well. I may add it to my under-construction Five Books list of Books about Relgion for People who Don’t Do Religion (to go with my existing list of Books about Math for People Who Don’t Do Math).

Our first-person narrator is Klara, an Artificial Friend available at the local department store. On the plus side, this allows us access to Klara’s reasoning process. On the minus side, it gives the novel a YA feel (we are dealing with a teenager, teenage love, teenage decisions, coming of age stuff) and it’s sometimes hard to understand what’s actually going on. I’m still not sure of the overall environment; it seems stratified by genetic manipulation, but some people have been “substituted” and there’s mention of fascism and white gangs and I’m not really clear on all that. However, I didn’t try very hard. I get enough of that on the news.  

Klara is not one of the intellectually-brilliant-but-socially-inept androids science fiction so loves to throw into human chaos; in fact, it’s somewhat the opposite. She has what contemporary education theory might call emotional intelligence, the ability to read cues from people’s words and actions and know what they are feeling, what they want, what is expected of her. She’s quite attuned to relationships, to love and loneliness, and to motivations. But her logical processes are far less sophisticated when analyzing how the world works, showing – sometimes – a strong predeliction for post hoc ergo proptor hoc.

The pace of revelation is carefully controlled, allowing several important threads to develop both consecutively and simultaneously. Part 1 takes place entirely in the department store where Klara is for sale, allowing us to understand her view of the world. Yet it also introduces Josie, the teenager whose mother will  buy Klara, and it will introduce two events Klara observes on the street: a woman and a man – the Coffee Cup woman and the Raincoat Man – meet coincidentally after what Klara surmises is a very long time, showing both joy at the reunion and sorrow at the time gone by; and the Begger Man and his dog seem to die (though they merely went to sleep in a doorway), but are brought back to life by the Sun.

The Sun was pouring his nourishment on to the street and into the buildings, and when I looked over to the spot where Beggar Man and the dog had died, I saw they weren’t dead at all – that a special kind of nourishment from the Sun had saved them…. They were both hungrily absorbing the Sun’s special nourishment and becoming stronger by the minute, and I saw that before long, perhaps even by that afternoon, Beggar Man would be on his feet again, cheerfully exchanging remarks as always from the blank doorway.

This can only be called Sun Worship: the attribution of both power and the will to use it to a Being who is out of the range of communication. Klara is dependent upon solar energy (as are we all) so assumes everyone is likewise energized by its rays. This becomes central to the overall story. I find it fascinating that, in a world that seems quite done with humanism, it’s a machine that re-invents God and faith, and that acts out of self-sacrifice for the benefit of another. Is that because she is not fully rational, or is it something programmed into her? A great deal of research is showing how algorithms that are supposed to be unbiased show precisely the bias of the people who wrote them; in a world where people are abandoning not just God but their own humanity, is it possible they have subconsciously re-recreated God through AI?

This religiosity goes beyond merely seeing the Sun as a god. To save Josie, Klara prays to the Sun, offering to perform a service she thinks will please It. It turns out this involves a rather large sacrifice on her part, but she gives it willingly. Alas, she discovers the task was a waste of time (very faulty logic, but a human joins her in this and he isn’t any wiser, while I’m shouting “There are other machines!” from my living room), so she prays again, this time relying on faith in the power of human love. This is in line with the Protestant catechism: we are not saved by anything we can do, for our actions are always insufficient; it is only by faith that we can please God and receive His salvation.

There is another course of action, and as we learn more about it, we come into the discussion of whether people have a soul. The word soul is never used, but it seems clear to me that’s what they’re talking about.

‘Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?…’
‘The heart you speak of,’ I said. ‘It might indeed be the hardest part of Josie to learn. It might be like a house with many rooms. Even so, a devoted AF, given time, could walk through each of those rooms, studying them carefully in turn, until they became like her own home.’ ‘But then suppose you stepped into one of those rooms,’ he said, ‘and discovered another room within it. And inside that room, another room still. Rooms within rooms within rooms. Isn’t that how it might be, trying to learn Josie’s heart? No matter how long you wandered through those rooms, wouldn’t there always be others you’d not yet entered?’
I considered this for a moment, then said: ‘Of course, a human heart is bound to be complex. But it must be limited. Even if Mr Paul is talking in the poetic sense, there’ll be an end to what there is to learn…’

So even Klara, the most soul-conscious of the bunch, sees the heart, the soul, as finite. What if it isn’t? That Mr. Paul, an outcast in this society by virtue of having been substituted out of his job, is the advocate of an infinite human heart, which I am  calling a soul, seems telling. This conversation takes place in a context that makes this more than just late-night dorm room stoned gab session, by the way; it’s central to the story, but I’m trying to be discreet about spoilers.

Several other powerful threads run through the book. The process of lifting apparently is only possible for children. There are benefits for both the child and the parents who make the decision, but there is also a significant risk. This brings guilt and forgiveness into the equation, and makes some interesting reading as we in the here and now struggle through the pandemic.

Then there’s the whole issue of Klara’s status as an AF. As readers, we naturally form an attachment to her, but she isn’t a person. Or is she? Forgive me if I lapse into ST:TNG for a moment (you knew I’d go there): “Data is a toaster.” There’s a reason art keeps creating machines and daring us not to care about them. Again, the question comes up: Can a person care about a machine? Does Klara have a soul? Can she even be likened to a service or sporting animal who is eventually retired? Do we owe her anything in that case? We just saw great outcry about military dogs in Afghanistan; does Klara, as a machine, earn that level of respect, or is she a toaster, to be thrown out when she’s no longer needed?

I was surprised by the book; it was less than I’d expected, even though I found the religious aspect compelling. I think I was put off by the voice. The only other Ishiguro I’ve read is The Consoled, and a short story “A Village After Dark” which turned out to be a practice piece for the dream-grammar of The Consoled. I wasn’t going to read Klara at all; I’d just read a Ted Chiang novella about AI and wasn’t really eager to read another. But I read a review or a comment somewhere that caught my attention, so I put it on my list; alas, I can’t remember what it was that interested me, or where I found it. I’m guessing it had something to do with religion.

But, in addition to thought-provoking threads already mentioned, it does have these drop-dead moments: the trip to Morgan’s Falls, which has all sorts of foreshadowing;  the interaction meeting, a sort of social therapy group since no one goes to school any more, which gives a better idea of what kind of society this is; and, perhaps less importantly in the grand scheme of things, but just as dramatically, Klara’s impression of a bull in a field:

I was so alarmed by its appearance that I gave an exclamation and came to a halt. I’d never before seen anything that gave, all at once come up so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper. At that moment it felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun’s pattern at all, that this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.

I crammed this in to this post where it doesn’t belong because it gives me the chance to use the word chthonic, something that doesn’t come along every day. Where there is God, there must be Evil.  

It might not be the first book I’d recommend, but with all the threads it contains, it’s worth reading.

* * *

A Very Particular Risk: Aimee Bender on Jane Campion and Kazuo Ishiguro at Literary Hub (lithub.com)

Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human – post by James Wallace Harris

Adrian McKinty: The Chain (Mulholland, 2019) [IBR2021]

Her phone rings, startling her.
Unknown Caller, it says.
She answers with the speakerphone: “Hello?”
“Two things you must remember,” a voice says through some kind of speech-distortion machine. “Number one: you are not the first and you will certainly not be the last. Number two: remember, it’s not about the money—it’s about The Chain.”
This has to be some sort of prank, one part of her brain is saying. But other, deeper, more ancient structures in her cerebellum are beginning to react with what can only be described as pure animal terror.
“I think you must have the wrong number,” she suggests.
The voice continues obliviously: “In five minutes, Rachel, you will be getting the most important phone call of your life. You are going to need to pull your car over to the shoulder. You’re going to need to have your wits about you. You will be getting detailed instructions. Make sure your phone is fully charged and make sure also that you have a pen and paper to write down these instructions. I am not going to pretend that things are going to be easy for you. The coming days will be very difficult, but The Chain will get you through.”

What would you do to save your child from a horrible death? Most parents immediately answer, Anything, of course, but what if it means acting so far outside your life experience you couldn’t have ever imagined it, if it means doing something unthinkable? What if it means killing someone else’s child?

These aren’t academic questions anymore for Rachel. After years of putting her husband through law school, then a divorce, then working while finishing her own education, then beating cancer, she thought she was home free. She and fourteen-year-old daughter Kylie were about to start a new chapter as she took up her first academic job, teaching philosophy at a local community college.

Then the Unknown Caller comes into her life, and plans go out the window.

Apparently there’s something called Mexican kidnapping which involves substituting one victim for another; McKinty got the idea for this book from that, but he developed it into something bigger. When Rachel’s child is kidnapped, she has to kidnap someone else in order to get her back. She has to hold her victim until those parents kidnap yet another child.  The chain can’t be broken; if anything goes wrong, kill the victim and start over, or your child dies. And in the meantime, Unknown Caller has a secret army of former victims available for threats, enforcement… whatever it takes.

The book has three main parts. Kylie is the focus of the first, and longest, section. Then there’s a problem with the next link in the chain, and Rachel is commanded to fix it, or the secret army will come after her and her daughter; you’re never out of danger in The Chain. And finally, there’s a showdown, an attempt to out the Unknown Caller, because nightmares and crushing guilt are only the beginning, and there will be no end, as long as The Chain goes on.

This book won several prestigious awards – including the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, billed as Britain’s most prestigious crime novel award – and has a cover blurb from Stephen King. I heard about it through Five Books, where Anthony Franze put it on his list of Best Thrillers of 2020.

I’m afraid my reaction isn’t as enthusiastic. I found it tense rather than suspenseful. The brief conversations with the Unknown Caller should have created suspense, but it seemed like bad TV movie dialog to me. Fans of surveillance technology will probably appreciate the final sections, but I wasn’t interested. A character was added and removed, which seemed too random to me.  The big question throughout the book is where did The Chain come from, who is running it, and why? The answer felt disappointing. Then again, it did underline the whole banality of evil thing pretty definitively. It’s not a bad book; the idea of the victim becoming victimizer is intriguing.  There’s a particularly gripping scene as Rachel must decide if she’s going to let a child die in front of her, or get medical help that would undoubtedly risk the secrecy of her operation and Kylie’s life. A few side issues – a possible recurrence of breast cancer, a romance – grounded it in real life. It just wasn’t enough to keep me interested.

I have to admit to a personal bias: I never get, in kidnapping movies or TV shows or books, why no one goes to the police. Yes, of course, they’re told not to, and the stakes are very high, but it still seems strange to me. Then again, I have a tendency to overvalue institutions and authority; those more self-confident may well prefer to handle things themselves.

I  used to read series thrillers back in the day – the Kellermans, Stephen White, Patricia Cornwell – but they all had a strong medical or psychological aspect to them that interested me. So this was an experiment. I’m not sorry I read it. I just can’t get excited about it.

Helen DeWitt: The Last Samurai (New Directions Reissue 2016) [IBR2021]

Say you grow up in the type of place that is excited to be getting its first motel, moving from town to town as one motel is finished and another begun. You are naturally not enthralled by school and achieve a solid B- average. Presently you take Scholastic Aptitude Tests and astound everyone by a degree of scholastic aptitude which places the B- average in an entirely different light. Your teachers take the result as a personal insult. You apply to various colleges, who ask for references, and teachers who have reduced you to speechless torpor write complaining of apathy. You are interviewed on the basis of dazzling scholastic aptitude and you are asked about your interests and you have no interests. You have no extracurricular activities because the extracurricular activity was the Donny Osmond Fan Club. Everyone turns down your application on grounds of apathy.
One day you are lying on a bed in one of the motel rooms. Your mother is having a bad day: she is playing Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude for the 63rd time on the piano in the adjacent room. Your father is having a good day: a member of the Gideon Society has come to suggest placing Bibles in the rooms, and he has been able to state categorically that he is not having that piece of trash in his motel. Each bedside table, he explains, has a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species in the top drawer. In fact it’s a really good day because that very morning one of the guests stole the Origin of Species instead of a towel. You stare apathetically at the TV. They are showing A Yank at Oxford.
Suddenly you have an idea.
Surely Oxford, you reason, would not hold non-membership of the Donny Osmond Fan Club against you. Surely Oxford would not insist on mindless enthusiasm just to prove you can be enthusiastic about something. Surely Oxford would not accept hearsay as evidence. Surely Oxford wouldn’t hold a reference against you without knowing anything about the writer.
Why not apply?
I thought: I could leave Motelland and live among rational beings! I would never be bored again!
I had reckoned without Roemer.

Short version: I loved this book. And yes, this is going to be one of those posts that goes on and on to record some of what I saw in it – there are plenty of professional reviews around for those who need that sort of thing, I’ll provide links at the end – but let’s clear something up right now: it has NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH THE TOM CRUISE MOVIE. That should be evident from the above quoted passage, but I’m not taking chances.

It does have strong ties, however, to another film: Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which, sadly, I’ve never seen. Fortunately, Sybella, who found Oxford just as boring as Motelland, by the way, and her son David/Steven/Ludo, watch the movie obsessively, describe scenes in detail, and provide analysis as they find opportunity to apply the themes and processes of 16th century Japan to their own lives. The plot of the book turns into the film. And I understand, from those who know more than I about the movie and about cinema in general (again links provided below), the structure and style of the novel mirrors Kurosawa as well.

I just know I adore this book. It’s another one of those Why Hasn’t Someone Told Me About This Before books.

As with most complex things, it’s easy to state the general idea: A single mother educates her child – who may be a prodigy, a genius, or just an ordinary kid in the right circumstances – far more than anyone would believe possible, which prepares him, at age 11, to seek out his father. When he finds his father doesn’t meet his expectations, he seeks out a more suitable father. And as with most complex things, that overview should be thought of as a container for delicious wonders within, all of which are linked together in sometimes clear, sometimes hazy ways.

I’ve always said I love a book that teaches me something, and this book teaches me so many things I’ve lost count. In fact, it teaches about teaching, about learning.

What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise…. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius….
Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.

Brian Hurley, “Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’” available online at The Millions

I love that phrase, knowledge porn; it’s often applied to Rushdie or Wallace, or the Crown Prince of Knowledge Porn, Umberto Eco, and it fits here, too. Yes, that makes it challenging reading. But that’s one of the themes of the book: we’re all so fucking lazy we just play video games and watch reality TV when we could be learning Greek or Japanese or music or reading the foundational literature of humanity, or reading a book referencing diverse subjects we can always look up on our computers that are more than game devices, because it’s hard, it requires thinking. And we put our kids in front of Sesame Street because we think that’s age-appropriate, we don’t think they can learn languages until high school or college (which is completely backwards from any language acquisition research).

The thing is, they have to be curious, interested, as Ludo is. He wants to know what the funny letters in the big book are. And when he watches The Seven Samurai, with its subtitles, he wants to learn Japanese.

I tell L that in the autobiography Kurosawa has nothing but praise for the marvellous Mifune except possibly that he had a rather harsh way of talking which the microphones had trouble picking up. I say that it’s very charming the way the translators have translated the Japanese into Penguin.
L: What’s Penguin?
I: It’s what English translators translate into. Merely had a lot of fighting experience! Determined to follow you! As it happens most English speakers can understand Penguin even if they wouldn’t use it in daily life, but still.
L: Isn’t that what they say?
I: They may be speaking Penguin Japanese, we can only surmise. Kambei says Tada kassen ni wa zuibun deta ga, tada, just, kassen is battle or combat according to Halpern (but I wonder whether that isn’t just Penguin infiltrating the dictionary), ni in, wa topic particle, zuibun a lot, deta happened, ga another particle which we won’t go into now but which seems pretty common, it’s hard to believe it is giving the flavour of Penguin to the
L: When are you going to teach me Japanese?
I: I don’t know enough to teach you.
L: You could teach me what you know.
I: [NO NO NO NO] Well
L: Please
I: Well
L: Please
Voice of Sweet Reason: You’ve started so many other things I think you should work on them more before you start something new.
L: How much more?
I: Well
L: How much more?
The last thing I want is to be teaching a five-year-old a language I have not yet succeeded in teaching myself. I: I’ll think about it.
I: Well if you read the Odyssey and Books 1–8 of the Metamorphoses and the whole Kalilah wa Dimnah and 30 of the Thousand and One Nights and I Samuel and the Book of Jonah and learn the cantillation and if you do 10 chapters in Algebra Made Easy then I will teach you as muuch as I can.
L: Then that’s what I’ll do.
I: All right.
L: I will.
I: Fine.
L: You’ll see.
I: I know.
L: Will you teach me the alphabet while I’m working on the rest?
I: It doesn’t have an alphabet. It has two sets of syllabaries of 46 symbols apiece, 1,945 characters of Chinese derivation in common use since the Second World War and up to 50,000 characters used before then. I know the syllabaries and 262 characters which I keep forgetting which is precisely why I am not really qualified to teach it to you.
L: Then why don’t you get a Japanese to teach me?
This is a wonderful idea. I could get a benevolent Japanese male to act as an uncle substitute for L! A benevolent Mifune lookalike to come and talk about stamp collecting or football or his car in a language which would conceal the diabolical tedium of the subject. But he would probably want some money.
I: I don’t think we can afford it.

Please forgive the unusually long quotes; since it’s a 482-page book (don’t let that scare you off, it reads rather quickly and is highly engaging, if sometimes mysterious about what it’s doing), I feel like some excess is justified, and to cut it too much would be unfair. Also forgive the approximation of the typography; see the book for details, I have technical limitations on this blog.

I did leave out a part, as you may have noticed, which is one of those inserts that a thinking person sometimes runs through when doing something else, and includes another, thankfully briefer, theme of the book: “What I mean is that I have read books written 2,000 or even 2,500 years ago or 20 years ago and in 2,500 years they will need everything even Mozart explained and when once you start explaining there is no end to it.” Yes! Once you learn something, you realize you don’t know something else, so you have to go back and learn that, which requires learning yet another thing in a whole different discipline, and you have to stop at some point, but most of us stop way too soon.

And did you catch that Ludo is five years old in that quote? What’s amazing is that there’s the discourse pattern of a five year old – demanding, nagging, driving Mom crazy with his persistence – but the content is learning another language on top of the Greek he’s already learned.

We watch Ludo’s attempt at school, which goes about the way you’d expect and seems to last about a week. And we watch Sybella worry about how to teach him, yes, but also how to deal with the father issue. She’s read that a single mother needs to supply male role models for a boy, and here he is with no uncles or family friends to fit the bill.  Oh, but wait –

I suddenly realise that everything is going to be all right, I am providing my fatherless uncleless boy not with 8 male role models (6 samurai 1 gatecrashing farmer’s son 1 fearless farmer) but 16 (8 characters 8 actors) 17 including Kurosawa who does not appear. Only one of the characters is a perfectionist in the practice of his art but all 8 actors & the director who does not appear show this terrible perfectionism making a total of 17 male role models (not including the extras)

There’s also a moment of self-referential meta-analysis as she contemplates the overall structure of Kurosawa’s film:

A striking peculiarity of the film is that though it is called Seven Samurai it is not really about seven samurai. Bandits are about to attack the village and only one farmer wants to fight; without him there would be no story.

I keep going back and forth as to whether Sybella, or Ludo, is analogous to the farmer.

The book starts with a Prologue that outlines the intellectual tragedy of Sybella’s father, cheated at age fifteen  out of a Harvard scholarship to study the science he loved by his father, a minister, who talked him into going to a mediocre Divinity College in order to “give the other side a chance”. He spends most of his Divinity time playing pool, so he has some money when he finishes, but not much in the way of grades, and Harvard is no longer interested. So he builds a string of motels around the country.

We also have an Interlude – and I can’t verify this is accurate, but it seems to me “prologue” is primarily a literary term while “interlude” is more of a musical one, blending music and text – in which we learn about Sybella’s mother, a self-taught musician who managed to talk her way into an audition at Juilliard and is sent away with an exercise she is to play on the piano every day for four hours; she will then be allowed to return for a second audition. And of course that never happens, but her family is always there to say, “It’s not so bad being a secretary” and to her brother, “Is being an accountant so awful?” So Sybella comes from thwarted dreams and failed institutional educational practices.

It’s interesting that DeWitt (who, by the way, completed a Classics PhD at Oxford) uses this structure to convey Sybella’s background. They’re funny/sad chapters, captivating to read, and give us some idea of her motivation to learn everything important, and to instill a passion for rational thought and for learning in her son, without the limitations so many assume children must be subjected to.

When Ludo is still very young, Sybella takes him on the London subway to keep warm, since she can’t really afford to heat their flat all the time. It turns out the Tube is something like a precursor to Twitter: everyone has an opinion, and insists you hear it. In another of the more humorous moments of the book, Sybella keeps track of how many people think a five-year-old reading the Odyssey in Greek is 1) wonderful, 2) a great way to learn about spelling and grammar, 3) too hard for his age, etc. etc.

Faced with officious advice feel almost overwhelming temptation to say:
You know, I’ve been in a terrible quandary over this, I’ve been racking my brains for weeks trying to decide whether I was doing the right thing, finally this morning I thought—I know, I’ll take the Tube, somebody on the Tube will be able to advise me, & sure enough you were able to tell me just what to do. Thank you so much, I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come along—
So far have been able to resist temptation 34 times out of 35. Pas mal. When able to resist temptation I say (which is perfectly true) that I never meant this to happen.

Ludo’s amazing learning adventure does come about as something of a surprise, generated by the boy himself. Sybella only wants to teach him a word every day, an  English word from Hop on Pop, but he starts demanding more, and it grows from there. This isn’t a case of an overzealous mother trying to live vicariously through her son; it’s a case of the son having an innate desire to learn and dragging his mother along with him. Is this inherited? Brought about by nurture and example? If she’d told him in the beginning, “No, you’ll learn to read when you go to school,” would he have retreated, or would he have found other ways to learn? If Ludo is gifted, It’s this desire to learn that is the gift, not points on an IQ test. I’m reminded of the quote paraphrased from The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” It isn’t a matter of skill drills or discipline, but a desire to know.

Ludo’s father first comes into the picture when Sybella, working as a secretary in a publishing house, goes to a party where he, a Famous Travel Writer, will be. She refers to him in the book as Liberace: more flash than substance, “slick, buttery arpeggios, the self-regarding virtuosity,” a kind of showman adored for his lack of intellectual rigor. I keep reading of their night together, because it’s hilarious: she kisses him because she wants to shut him up and that seems a non-rude way to do it, and sleeps with him for much the same reason. That, too, is a Liberace performance:

No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realised how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow, swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley.
The Medley came at last to an end and Liberace fell into a deep sleep.
I wanted to clear my head. I wanted strangeness and coldness and precision.

She decides to leave, but again worrying about appearing rude, decides to leave him a note, “to imply that we had had an interesting conversation.” That emphasized “imply” reinforces just how she feels about the guy. She hits on the idea of a Rosetta stone, something she’d mentioned in their conversation during the evening though he didn’t seem interested, but to follow up would, again, imply, that he was a person capable of appreciating such things. It takes her five hours. When Sybella writes a Rosetta stone, she doesn’t fool around.

Eventually, of course, Ludo wants to know about his dad, and the puzzle she presents – figure out what’s wrong with three different artistic expressions, plus the hiding of an envelope “To be opened only in the event of my death” – reminds me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” the story that was the basis for 2001: A Space Odyssey (and given the prominence of the original Odyssey in the novel, this doesn’t strike me as too strange) in that an object was left on the moon to signal an advanced civilization that the beings of Earth had finally figured out how to get there. When Ludo has the rationality to either decipher her riddle, or find the envelope, he will be ready to meet his father, armed with enough intellect to resist being snowed by Liberace slickness.

When Ludo does meet his father, it’s five pages of rich dramatic irony, as the dolt keeps saying things that mean one thing to him, and another to Ludo, who keeps thinking, He knows. But he doesn’t. He assumes, when Ludo says he’s read all his books, that he did so because he liked them, while of course Ludo had another motivation. It’s wonderful.

I mentioned the blending of music and text. Music seemed very important to me throughout the book, though it was at times subtle. In fact, it forms what I see as the axis of the book. I’ve read that The Seven Samurai opens with three minutes of drums over the title card opening typical for Japanese films of the time. The Prologue might be seen as that kind of introduction, since it gives us the genesis of Sybella’s distrust of institutional wisdom, and drums are a crucial element sprinkled throughout the book. The Interlude again uses music in relating her mother’s intellectual trauma.

Then we have the subplot describing an erratic but brilliant pianist Yamamoto, one of the artists/heroes who Ludo sees as a mirror for the Samurai. This is another feature the book shares with the movie: Kurosawa tells little stories of all the Samurai while working his way through the main plot of rescuing the farmers from the bandits, and DeWitt also tells us stories of various artists and heroes through the book.

Specifically, Yamamoto was struggling with the idea of piano, his instrument, as percussion, whether the music of the piano should compensate for its percussive nature or revel in it. He reads a (fictional) book about an Australian’s visit to Africa:

The sun was near the horizon; at any moment it would be dark, for it sets quickly in the tropics. The sky was a deep dark blue. The men tilted the drums against wooden rests; they began to tap the drums very lightly with sticks, and the sound seemed to melt away over the lake. Then they stopped, and at a gesture from the leader they struck the drums a single louder blow. They stopped. Another beat. Another beat. Another beat. When they had struck the drums six times like this the sun vanished and they struck the drums once, very loudly, and stopped. Several seconds went by, until at last, from over the dark water, the sound of the drums came back. Again they struck the drums, and again the sound came back, and when this had happened seven times they laid down their sticks and walked away, and the women picked up the pallet and walked away, and McPherson saw that the boy was dead. In the morning the drums were gone.

This idea of the drums fading away and coming back – of people, of life, fading away and coming back – haunted me, and in retrospect I see it all over the book. It appears in broken form in Yamamoto’s own story, as his visit to Chad to hear the drums himself has a tragic end, a fading away without a coming back. Its not by accident that there is a fading away – and, blessedly, a return – more specific to Sybella in connection with a Yamamoto concert. It is Yamamoto’s segment that had me looking up Schoenberg’s opera, Moses Und Aron, to be sure I understood the description of Sprechgesang, the rough speaking voice of Moses; and by the way,  Messiaen.  Years ago I sang  O Sacrum Convivium, a motet with nightmare harmonies, during one of my many choral adventures, but here we focus on his piano work Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, a study of “the dying sound.”

The idea of the musical axis, however, didn’t occur to me until the very end, when the book concludes with a kind of  return, the echo of resurrection when Luco finds this Samurai. Sublime.

Although I’m no Ludo (if even Ludo is a Ludo), I found the book highly validating. I’ve often faced a sneering  consternation in others when they find out so much of my time is spent taking moocs (I don’t have an accurate count, but it’s at least 163) in subjects that have no practical benefit whatsoever. Even mooc providers have moved on from 2012’s “Let’s Teach the World” to “Let’s Sell Certificates,” and the only people who will pay for certificates are those looking for work credentials, so not only are universities turning into Vocational Training Centers (a drum I’ve been beating since the 80s, and DeWitt’s Afterword somewhat echoes it) but now moocs are mostly business and computer courses. Me, I take anything but. Biology, of course – I mean, come on, our lives depend on something like 37 steps between glucose and the last oxygen being taken up by two hydrogens, it’s a miracle this happens at all, let alone at a pace that keeps us breathing, yet for some reason everyone’s studying cloud computing and how to come up with the next Angry Birds?? – and math, of course, as an instrument since that’s needed to understand the bio and chem, even though I’m a senior citizen and will never set foot in a lab but damn, this is amazing stuff. But let’s also do Balinese Gamelan music, or Kabbalah, or Codicology and Paleography of Medieval Manuscripts, and what about  Icelandic Sagas? Sure, and when I ran into Njals Saga and the Althing on Ludo’s birthday I feel a kind of joy – hey, I know what those are! And of course the Greek literature courses gave me enough of the Odyssey to feel some kinship with him there as well, knowing why Sybella is helping him with the word for weaving and what the Cattle of the Sun had to do with HC’s climbing the mountain to save the outcast child.

And then there’s the math, oh, the math I took for years, trying to fix whatever damage I did to my math brain back in the 60s in high school. Why are you doing this to yourself, a friend said, when I cried because I could not do u-substitution. Why indeed, because I want to learn it – and then this book comes along, and one of the heroes/samurai stories concerns a mathematician/physicist whose plane crashes in the Amazon and he takes a boy under his wing, hoping to teach him mathematics though they can’t speak each others’ languages, and all is well until they get arrested and the only chance is to bring the British Consulate in to rescue both of them, presenting Pete, the boy, as a genius:

Sorabji looked at Pete. His head had fallen back, and the whites of his eyes were showing. He would die soon but that was not good enough. He could probably get a decent mark at O-level; it was a miracle of sorts but not good enough.
Sorabji said: He is a mathematical genius. I shall take him back to Cambridge.
The consul looked at Pete. If you are a consul people are constantly spinning you ridiculous stories and expecting you to believe them, but this was the most ridiculous he had ever heard. He said correctly: If he is a Brazilian national I’m afraid there is nothing—
Sorabji said: You. Stupid. Ignorant. Bureaucrat.
And he said: Newton is sitting in this cell. If I leave they will kill him. I shall not leave this place unless he goes with me.
But what exactly do you think I can—
Sorabji said: Do you have a piece of paper?
He was handed a piece of paper and a pen, and he wrote on it
and he said: How long do you think it would take you to add it up?
The consul hesitated—
That boy, said Sorabji very gravely, can add all the numbers between 1 and 500 in 20 seconds.
The consul said: Hm.

And if all this again reminds you at all of Kurosawa’s Samurai shaving his head to save a child, well, it does, doesn’t it. But I was talking about validation – and here, I forgot my faith, and was truly depressed, because this author was going to pass off a parlor trick, one I happened across in the Mathematical Thinking mooc that changed my way of looking at math (though it didn’t help with u-substitution), as genius. O ye of little faith, because the next sentence…

Sorabji was a Zoroastrian but he was not much of a believer, and he had been to chapel a lot at school but he believed even less in that, and yet he found himself saying Please Please Please Please. Please let him not know about Gauss please please please please please.

And again, I felt a kind of joy, like I had an answer to Why are you doing this to yourself? Because it’s what some of us do, and there’s so little reward, but here it is on this page. Ii know why he hopes the consul hasn’t heard of Gauss.

I’m getting carried away (the validation, it’s such a high), it must be time to stop, even though there’s so much more.

I’ll have to read this book again, of course; there’s way too much to get it on one read. I want to study the film first, something I should have done this time, but I wasn’t aware how central it was.

I don’t even remember how I discovered the book; somehow I came across a review proclaiming it a Best Book of something (the century?) and I was puzzled, since I was still thinking Tom Cruise, so I read a little about it. All I remember is something about an American woman in England, but it must have been more than that to find its way onto my list. I would assume I saw the Millions and Paris Review articles back in 2016, but dismissed them out of confusion with Tom Cruise (I’m surprised I don’t remember being puzzled back then, but maybe something else was going on).  

It had a complicated publication history, which DeWitt explains in her Paris Review interview (link below): first published in 2000, it went out of print when the publisher got gobbled up in a merger, and it was hard enough convincing a publisher to tackle it the first time (all those languages!), but somehow that happened. I’m so grateful. And if you’re still here – I expect most people stopped reading a few sentences into the opening quote (oh no second person! Don’t worry, it’s just a few paragraphs) or by the first few sentences of my rambling – chances are you’ll be grateful as well.

* * *

The Trouble of Rational Thought: Miranda Popkey for Paris Review, June 10, 2016 “Trying to guess which contemporary novelist DeWitt might be eviscerating is one of the many delights of The Last Samurai.”

Helen DeWitt in the My First Time video series (Paris Review): “Different people liked different parts of the book, and so each person would feel that with some assistance I could be helped to make the whole book like the part that they liked, or maybe we could just get rid of all the parts they didn’t like and just keep what they liked.”

Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai Is the Best Book of the Century (for Now) (Christian Lorentzen for Vulture) “It drinks deeply in the canon while at the same time renewing it.”

Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’ (Brian Hurley for The Millions): “As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.”

Seven Samurai – A Lesson In Storytelling VIDEO (Jack’s Movie Reviews): “It’s one story that is the result of many”

Seven Samurai: A Masterpiece in Eight Minutes | Video Essay (Arttective) “In these initial three minutes, legendary composer Fumio Hayasako weaves a repetitive but hypnotic drone of drum sounds…”

Rumaan Alam: Leave the World Behind (Ecco, 2020) [IBR2021]

There it was again: shuffle, a voice, a quiet murmur, a presence. A disruption, a change. Something. This time Amanda was more certain. Her heart quickened. She felt sober, awake. She put her cup down on the marble counter, quietly—suddenly that seemed right, to move stealthily. “I heard something.” She was whispering.
Such moments, Clay was called upon. He had to be the man. He didn’t mind it. Maybe he liked it. Maybe it made him feel necessary. From down the hall, he could almost hear Archie, snoring like a sleeping dog. “It’s probably just a deer in the front garden.” “It’s something.” Amanda held up a hand to silence him. Her mouth was metallic with fear. “I know I heard something.”
There it was, undeniable: noise. A cough, a voice, a step, a hesitation, that uncategorizable animal knowledge that there’s another of the species nearby and the pause, pregnant, to see if they mean harm. There was a knock at the door. A knock at the door of this house, where no one knew they were, not even the global positioning system, this house near the ocean but also lost in farmland, this house of red bricks painted white, the very material the smartest little piggy chose because it would keep him safest. There was a knock at the door.

This was not at all the book I expected it to be. That’s not a complaint: I wasn’t sure how the book I expected could possibly live up to they hype I’d heard. Now I understand how: by being a different book.

Descriptions typically read something like: A white couple rents a vacation house, then an older black couple show up, say they’re the owners, and there’s been some sort of blackout in the city, can they stay in the house. Naturally this sets the scene for racial tensions. It sounded a bit like Six Degrees of Separation (which the book mentions). But no one would say much about anything else, though there were indications that something else was going on. Not since The Sixth Sense have I felt such a refusal to reveal. I was driven by curiosity more than anything else: what could possibly happen, given the initiating event, that would be so surprising?

Well, for one thing, there’s more than one initiating event, and the knock at the door is just the first one.

Granted, that knock leads to some interesting moments, including a bit of casual racism (“This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived. But what did she mean by that?”) and some class envy. For that matter, race and class run through the whole thing. But it’s not a dramatic version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (which the book also mentions, with a twinkle of humor). Nor does it disintegrate into a white-vs-black doubles match of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And no, I’m not going to tell you where it does go.

I will point out how all the usual markers, the guideposts we use to understand  fiction, the details that set expectations, are confounded. It’s right there in the paragraph above: a red brick house painted white, near ocean but in farmland, and lost to GPS. Amanda: “….it was unclear whether she was guest or host. She liked clarity about the role she was meant to discharge.” But there is no clarity. And we, too, as readers, are off the literary grid. And as the story tells us, “The brain abets the eye; eventually your expectations of a thing supersede the thing itself”, but when those expectations are contorted by conflicting messages, how do you get your bearings? You just let the story be what it is, as uncomfortable as that may be.

In an interview with Emma Straub, Alam addressed this kind of open, rolling genre idea directly. He said he wanted to “push through the vacation novel (a very specific thing) into the political novel; to go through the domestic into the very big.” He definitely achieved that. He also talks about dropping in elements from genre fiction – horror, thriller, suspense – but not following the expectations. “If the narrative chooses to deal with that in a way that you are not necessarily expecting, it can feel electric, and weird, and fun.” Yes, it can. It can feel like you’ve lost your GPS, your Wi-Fi.

Rose saw a deer, with abbreviated velvet antlers and a cautious yet somehow also bored mien, considering her through dark, strangely human eyes.
She wanted to say “A deer” but there was no one there to hear her. She looked over her shoulder into the house and saw her parents talking. She wasn’t supposed to go in the pool, but she wasn’t going to go in the pool. She walked down the steps onto the damp grass and the deer just watched her, barely curious. She hadn’t even seen that there was another beside it – no more. There were five deer, there were seven; every time Rose adjusted her eyes to try to understand what she was seeing, she was seeing something new. There were dozens of deer. Had she been up higher, she’d have understood that there were hundreds, more than a thousand, more than that, even. She wanted to run inside and tell her parents, but she also wanted to just stand there and see it.

The narration has an interesting twist to it. Most of the time it’s head-hopping: close third-person from one character then another. But eventually, a broader view pops in, just for a  moment in a few scattered places, which orients the main in a wider frame. In the quote above, this was the first occurrence of this that I noticed. While in this case the broader view is peculiar; later glances will be increasingly alarming. For me, this was reassuring; I was reading correctly, I wasn’t on some flight of fancy, and the narrator – the author – hadn’t left me behind.

To me, the book didn’t so much end as it just stopped. This would normally be a big flaw, but here it worked. And it’s maybe why so many readers are talking about it as the book that captures the off-GPS feeling of the pandemic, and the political tensions of the moment, though, published in the fall of 2020, it was obviously written before we were using words like pandemic and before the pro-life party turned out to be anti-public-health, before  anyone dreamed the Capitol could be attacked and the party of law and order wouldn’t want to investigate the origins. The book has the same feeling as some of us have now: we’re waiting to get back to normal, or for a new normal, but normal is nowhere to be seen.

I’m still trying to figure out if I “liked” the book; I’m in something like a state of literary shock. I’m waiting to see if it comes back to me over the coming weeks and months, and in what ways, particularly this idea of being “not lost but not quite not lost.” That feels more important than “what a great read” anyway.

I’m very glad I read it, though not for the reasons I thought I would be. Who needs GPS, just look at the scenery and enjoy wherever you are.

Wilton Barnhardt: Gospel (St. Martin’s, 1993) [IBR2021]

I had lost my faith, Josephus.

I’ve always been a little embarrassed by my great fondness for this novel. It’s one of the books I used to read about once a year – all 773 pages –  back before I started living on the internet, blogging, and taking moocs. When I put it on my re-read list for this year, I wondered: would I find it a bit silly, a kind of Dan-Brown-writes-Indiana-Jones thing, the historical and religious background material that so captivated me now recognized as trivial at best, invented at worst? Would the characters – a cantankerous alcoholic professor, having failed academically and personally, out to redeem himself but unable to get along with anyone, a young earnest grad student sent to track him down who becomes enmeshed in his project against his will and hers – annoy me as stereotypes rather than captivate me as flawed people doing their best to recapture their own faith?

When you put it that way, this sounds like a really stupid book.

But it isn’t. And, in fact, as I re-read it this time, I discovered something I couldn’t have seen when I last read it about ten years ago: it’s Kierkegaard. At least, it’s what I think of as Kierkegaard. Granted, I’m no expert – and I’ve barely scratched the surface for this particular philosopher – but the thought crept in about halfway through, only to be strengthened by the final sentences. I went looking for more info on Kierkegaard, particularly his views on subjective vs objective truth, on faith vs reason, and his complaints against the church as an institution vs religion as personal experience. And I become more convinced: this is Kierkegaard.

The overall story of the novel can be summed up quite simply:  Patrick O’Hanrahan, a theology professor at the University of Chicago who’s been on the way down for a long time, is searching for a gospel rumored to be written in the first century, the earliest gospel recorded, written by an actual disciple rather than cobbled together from notes and letters a hundred years later. It’s been floating around for decades, but was considered untranslatable and/or heretical and/or dangerous, and bounced from one place to another between rich collectors and institutions academic and religious. A scholar-priest claimed to be deciphering it, but he met with an unfortunate, um, accident and the scroll disappeared. And now, it’s turned up again.

The problem is, O’Hanrahan has fallen off the radar screen since heading for Europe on his quest. The University sends Lucy Dantan, naïve and sheltered graduate student torn between her rigid Catholic background and academia, to find him. O’Hanrahan doesn’t particularly want to be found, especially by some dewy-eyed innocent. Nevertheless, she persisted, and found him. Then she decided to go home. Then she persisted again, then decided to go home, etc etc, and they travel through Northern Ireland, Italy, Greece, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Sudan over the course of a month or so, chasing the elusive Gospel and looking for research materials that will lead to its translation. And, in doing so, dealing with kidnappers, spies, mad monks, zealots, illness, and a language that will not yield to translation.

The gospel itself is embedded in the novel, a chapter preceding each change of venue.

Textual note: Throughout the gospel, the editor has arranged the text in paragraphs, punctuating as seemed reasonable, and using quotes in the dialogue for easier reading. The editor has endeavoured to retain a bit of the self-important and stilted tone of this confession, reminiscent of the Byzantine church historian Eusebius, but of an earlier era.

This is something of a self-spoiler – here is the Gospel, translated, edited, and notated, so someone must have had success finding and reading it – but there are other possibilities: what if it’s consigned to flames at the end, and  what is recorded exists only in the minds of the participants? Or what it if’s discovered to be a forgery, all that work down the drain?

It doesn’t really matter, because the story I’ve outlined isn’t what the book is about; it’s merely the engine, how it gets to what it’s about. And it is, as the first line states, about finding one’s faith. The three main characters – O’Hanrahan, Lucy, and the writer of the gospel – all have lost different kinds of faiths in different ways, and the book is about how they find it again. 

O’Hanrahan looked once more to the spires and would have prayed for a second chance to use his gifts anew, more wisely this time, more productively, if he thought such a prayer would be heard, let alone answered. Or if he thought prayer worked at all and wasn’t the vainest waste of words yet conceived.
(You have lost your faith, Patrick.)
“I have lost my faith,” he said aloud to the rain-soaked night.

Oh, wait – there is a fourth main character: God. Or, maybe more accurately, the Holy Spirit. It appears in parentheticals throughout the book, and as a literary device serves many functions: to point out a character’s misunderstanding or self-delusion, as foreshadowing, and sometimes as conversation. O’Hanrahan refers to “the voices,” indicating he’s heard them before, and engages in some back-and-forth. Lucy seems to be responding to something she interprets as her own thoughts, conscience, perhaps, though it’s unclear. What is clear is that these aren’t psychotic voices or delusions, since the Voice of God persists when no one hears it. And sometimes, it’s just to inject some humor. Yes, God has a sense of humor:

Lucy was a born worrier. Between the plane crashing and dealing with Dr. O’Hanrahan, whose ferocious presence she had witnessed in lecture halls a time or two, her body pumped and adrenaline of incessant worry….. [S]he looked out to see London in a soup of low-lying rain clouds. Oh thank you, Father, Jesus, and Holy Ghost, for delivering me safe and sound!
(No problem.)
Although, then again, most planes crash on takeoff or landing.
(This is not the fighting spirit we might have hoped for, Lucy.)

With O’Hanrahan, the humor is more sophisticated, but he’s up to the challenge, as when he finds himself ill in Jerusalem, and discouraged because of the problems with getting his hands on the scroll, for one thing, and figuring out the undeciphered language it seems to contain:

… And now in the Holy City of Jerusalem in the middle of the night on a deserted street with goddam Mt. Ararat between me and my bottle of pills – no, not Ararat with the dove and olive branch, but Pisgah, Mt. Nebo! With the Promised Land of his worldly ambitions glimmering at him from the valley, unreachable! And the Lord said to O’Hanrahan, this is the scroll that I swore to those before thee, and I will give it to thy rivals. I have let thee see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not translate it and make a pile of money.
(Because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people at the waters of Jack Daniels, in the wilderness of Jamisons…)
God the Heckler, now. Catcalls from the cheap seats!

Refer to Deuteronomy 32; this is a variation of God’s punishment of Moses for his impatience 40 years before, by taking him to Pisgah to look at Canaan, but not to enter. And come to think of it, most of the times when O’Hanrahan and the Voice of God converse, it’s when the professor is ill.

Now, what does all this have to do with Kierkegaard?

I see two, possibly three or four, uses of his ideas, all of which relate to each other. First is his concern, written in his journal at age 22, about finding the purpose of his life:

What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.

Kierkegaard, Journal 1A

For O’Hanrahan, this comes up, as in the quote above, when he realizes he’s squandered his talents and produced little. As a young man, he translated a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls and made a name for himself, but hasn’t published since, and that “publish or perish” thing is taken quite seriously, even for those who have made a name. He later looks at the bookshelf of his friend the Rabbi Hersch, and thinks of the books he could have written, but didn’t.

The first-century gospelist also has a similar moment when he realizes he’s been on the wrong path all along. He has been publishing, writing, though his works have mostly been destroyed (one burned by Peter himself). His travels in search of faith take him to visit Peter; when he mournfully admits he can’t perform healings or other miracles, Peter attempts to console him, but the effect is anything but, as he records in his Gospel:

A moment later, upon reflection, Peter volunteered a confession to ease my feelings: “My brother… I’ve never spoken in tongues. Yes, John gets to jabbering and I nod along pretending I understand. I’m frankly embarrassed; it looks so silly. Even at the Pentecost, I didn’t learn anything that I already didn’t know. Some people get some gifts and others others. Like Paul. He’s never healed a sore joint, to my mind – ah, but the difference he has made to us! A Roman and fine scholar that he is!”
And then I understood.
O bitter my revelation!
I saw clearly that it was to be my lot to teach and evangelize, to take my fortune and travel with the Nazirene message to the Gentiles, to dictate epistles like Saul’s to be read throughout the Church, to be revered and studied. And I did not do it! And therefore our Lord and Master, impatient but resolute, appeared by the grace of Our Father and recruited someone else – Saul of Tarsus! Mine enemy! The man I reviled! He was but fulfilling the mission that I did not complete!
I found myself weeping hopelessly before Peter.
‘I am a failure in the eyes of God,” I told him.
“But so are we all, dear friend,” he replied.

Lucy’s dilemma is different, as she hasn’t yet begun her career and still isn’t sure what it is she is working towards. Her dissertation on changes in Greek alphabets is dragging; when she describes it, she assures O’Hanrahan it’s more interesting than she’s making it sound, and the Voice of God mutters, (Not really). But she doesn’t know what else to do. She still considers her teenage idea of becoming a Poor Clare, but isn’t sure that suits her, either. By the end of the book, she has a much clearer vision.

While her revelation is life-changing and inspiring, it’s a decision she makes in connection with it that bothers me as a reader (I’m being discreet in the interests of limiting spoilers). In a novel where necessity of decisions is dictated by motivations, this decision seems less necessary than the others. I feel a little authorial intrusion here, the author’s wish to include a particular resolution, rather than it springing from the character herself. Her changing attitude toward the catechism seems pushed a bit too far. That may or may not be an accurate impression. It is a new impression on this read; I didn’t give it a second thought in earlier reads.

The clearest (to me, at least) Kierkegaardian aspect uses his idea of subjective vs. objective truth as the key to faith. This is related to his “leap of faith” (which both the journal of the College Theological Society and the TV show The Good Place, as well as various other sources inside and outside of Academia) will tell you is better translated as “leap to faith”. Religious faith, he argues, is not found by reason; in fact, it’s the uncertainty that makes it faith.

When subjectivity is truth, the definition of truth must also contain in itself an expression of the antithesis to objectivity, a memento of that fork in the road, and this expression will at the same time indicate the resilience of the inwardness. Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person. At the point where the road swings off (and where that is cannot be stated objectively, since it is precisely subjectivity), objective knowledge is suspended. Objectively he then has only uncertainty, but this is precisely what intensifies the infinite passion of inwardness, and truth is precisely the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite. I observe nature in order to find God, and I do indeed see omnipotence and wisdom, but I also see much that troubles and disturbs. The summa summarum [sum total] of this is an objective uncertainty, but the inwardness is so very great, precisely because it grasps this objective uncertainty with all the passion of the infinite…But the definition of truth stated above is a paraphrasing of faith…Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and the objective uncertainty.

Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments

That’s a lot of verbiage (he tends to do that) so let me repeat the key point: “Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held  fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth,  the highest truth there is for an existing person.” Don’t get me started on “existing;” I’m already way above my pay grade.

It is our disciple from antiquity who makes the clearest case for this embrace of objective uncertainty with the strongest passion, in the final paragraphs of his Gospel. Having spent years writing the most objective and factual treatises in the interests of research, and at the end of his long journey that makes up the Gospel, having visited the other Disciples and found little to restore his faith, he at last comes to a life-or-death decision that forces him to decide between Fact and Faith, and chooses Faith:

I preferred, dear brother, in this final gesture, Faith to Truth.…
The Master Of The Universe’s gift to us is not Truth, which we clearly don’t have the capacity to perceive; it is instead the capacity for Faith. These past years I have allowed my obsession with what was true to lead me down faint, irrelevant paths. One cannot retrieve Faith by a world of proofs, facts, histories, and tracts, as if it were Truth one had lost.

I am leaving out a great deal here, since to reveal more would spoil the impact of the novel; as such, I’m afraid it seems weak and diluted. But trust me, the circumstances under which he declares this are goosebump-inducing, and brings me to tears every time I read it. This was the passage, late as it is in the book, that convinced me of the connection to Kierkegaard.

The book as a whole, however, embodies another of Kierkegaard’s themes. Even ten years ago, I described this novel as making fun of religion while still revering God and faith. Those who have strong beliefs in the tenets of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Catholicism in particular, might well find it an offensive book, as O’Hanrahan needles Lucy with tales of what people have done in the name of God: martyrs, Crusades, extremes of asceticism. Yet there’s that Voice of God, which keeps the focus on Something beyond all that, Something that wants more for us. It’s this Voice that recounts St. Francis of Assisi rejecting the trappings of his own ascendency:

His conscience led him to oppose his followers who raised a monastery in his honor – are the sick eased in their suffering? Will the poor be served? Francis was not listened to. So as Lucy and Gabriel and all the other children of Mine spend the night in serious thoughts, dreaming of the security of rules, orders, traditions, habits, the set routine from matins to nones, they would do well to consider the first Franciscan to resign his place in the order to continue the search for God: in 1220, St. Francis himself.

The tradition of mocking what people do with God goes back a long ways, even for Catholics.

This, too, was a Kierkegaardian theme. Philosophy professor and Existentialism scholar Robert Solomon sums it up in a lecture:

The problem with organized religion is it transfers what in fact is a very personal experience to something which is at its very heart purely institutional.
Now of course in this one can see Kierkegaard’s Protestantism reacting against essentially Catholicism, something which was a very common move of the day, but also he wants to move against Lutheranism itself, which, as far as he was concerned, had become much too herdlike, much too organized, and for all its talk about the inner spirit and the emphasis on individual freedom, nevertheless it was still much too impersonal, much too social, for his taste.

Robert Solomon, lecture available online

One can mock what people have made of God without mocking God, and here we have are 772 pages showing how.

The potential fourth aspect of Kierkegaard that shows up is his three levels of existence, from the Aesthetic to the Ethical to the Religious. I suspect O’Hanrahan is the symbol of the first, though, interestingly enough, he started out as a Jesuit priest, so his journey is convoluted. Lucy might display characteristics of the Ethical stage. And that leaves our Disciple, the ancient Gospelist, to show us Religious Existence, if only briefly. I’m too uncertain about the meanings of these terms to claim this, so only cite it as a possibility. Maybe in ten more years, I’ll have the understanding to go into more depth.

There’s something  about absurdity as well. O’Hanrahan delights in recounting the crazy things done in the name of religion – self-mutilation, imaginary foreskins as wedding rings, sitting atop a tower for years – and I wonder if those things seem absurd from the outside, but are part of each individual’s construct of faith. But, like the notions of Existence, I’m groping in the dark here, and need to understand Kierkegaard’s use if the term better.

The net result of my re-read: I still love this book, it still makes me cry in spite of myself. Because I too find little for me in organized religion, but can’t help feeling there is Something that all of the religions point to, like the Blind Men and the Elephant. This book brings me closer to understanding that Something than the hours I spent in Sunday School and prayer meetings and worship services during my Misspent Youth as a Fundamentalist; and, by the way, O’Hanrahan’s mock etymology of the word “fundamentalist” is a special treat – and based on fact, to boot.

Our Gospelist confides to us while on his way to find Reason in the city of Meroe:

I confess to a brief, foolish flirtation with the adventures of my youth, my brother. I lay awake at night, in the camps of other travelers, looking at the desert night sky and imagining that I should go into the court of Meroe and perform miracles as Moses before Pharaoh, that I should win over a kingdom where Matthew before me had failed. And that finally my gospel alone would touch another man’s heart and that the world might change ever so slightly toward the good and then it would be my words and faith that engendered this inclination.

This fictional gospel touched at least two fictional lives in soul-changing ways, and perhaps, situated in this novel, has had other effects beyond the confines of the fictional world. I’ve quoted that opening line several times (once, in connection with a math mooc, of all things).

A Medievalist I follow on Twitter remarked back in May, “One thing I wish more people got about pre-modern history is how very *little*  documentation usually survives and how little we actually know.” I wonder if that’s why religion in antiquity provides such a rich setting for fiction: it allows great leeway of fact while weaving among some of society’s most strongly-held beliefs.

I count this as a highly successful re-read. And I’m glad to realize I may have learned something from all those philosophy moocs.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby [IBR2021]

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I’ve encountered this book several times over the years, but as I came to the end of this read, this re-read for my ReRead Project, I began to wonder: did I ever read the whole book before? Those last lines quoted above are practically memorized, of course, but the opening paragraph was unfamiliar, and my memory of the book seemed to end a couple of chapters before the book itself came to a close.

I don’t think it was a book I was assigned in high school, but when Robert Redford was cast as Gatsby, I dug in. [Hey, come on, some day Idris Elba will seem like an old man to your grandkids, too.] Then in college, when I did a teaching pre-practicum at a local high school, the class was studying Gatsby so I read it again. I again started it back when Colbert had his short-lived Book Club, but I got distracted by something I don’t remember now (see how that works?) and didn’t get very far. And now I’m beginning to wonder if I ever read the whole thing at all, if I’ve just picked up a lot of commentary so that it feels like I read it.

I decided to add it to my re-read list because of a tweet that happened to float by me a few months ago. Someone mentioned that there was a line of analysis claiming Gatsby was a black man, or part black, and was passing. I’d never heard that before; it sounded like a really interesting hypothesis. It’s based on several  factors: the forty acres on which Gatsby’s mansion sits, the predominance of the color yellow (“high yellow” is a term for a light-skinned or white-appearing black person), the honorary medal from Montenegro, the original working title Trimalchio (a freed Roman slave famous for his parties), and Tom Buchanan’s racist rant. Since so much of Gatsby’s persona is based on his escaping his childhood past on the North Dakota farm, it seemed plausible to me that race could be part of it.

Scholars don’t seem as easily swayed, however. One sputtered, “If Fitzgerald wanted to write about blacks, it wouldn’t have taken 75 years to figure it out. If that’s what Fitzgerald wanted, he would have made it perfectly clear in April 1925.” I had to laugh at that one given how good white America is at ignoring, or co-opting, anything that isn’t white, then claiming it doesn’t exist.

But while I’m intrigued by the theory, I had to step off the train when Gatsby’s father showed up for the funeral. Nothing in his demeanor suggested his son was black, or mixed race, or even had that proverbial one drop of blood that would have characterized him at the time. And, had Fitzgerald been deliberately inserting this theme, that would have been the place, giving Nick even more uncertainty about his friend. I’ll leave the analysis to those more qualified than I, but for this reason I remain skeptical. I don’t consider it a wasted trip, more of a detour full of interesting scenery.

And by the way: I didn’t remember the funeral at all from prior readings, which is a big reason I wonder if I ever read the entire book.

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Other riches in the book came to my attention via a FiveBooks weekend reader (FiveBooks asks every Saturday: What are you reading this weekend? and the responses, and interactions, often show me interesting new directions) who recommended Maureen Corrigan’s book And So We Read On, a history of the book and its place in the literary canon. I don’t have a copy (yet) but listened to a talk she gave for the 2015 National Book Festival. I was surprised to learn that Gatsby was not that popular on publication. Fitzgerald never saw himself as a success; in later life, he’d wander into bookstores to see if his books were available, and they rarely were. That’s a book right there.

I have a fondness for Fitzgerald that comes from another story of his, “Thank You For the Light,” a story that was soundly rejected by The New Yorker in the 30s (“…this Fitzgerald story is altogether out of the question. It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic”). Even readers in 2012 when it was finally published, hated it, called it a story written to serve up a punch line. I loved it for my own reasons, reasons Fitzgerald probably didn’t share: the bestowal of compassion from an unusual source. He probably wrote it as a lark, but I can see how he might have craved the same kind of mercy his character received, and how he, too, might have made a joke out of it rather than turning maudlin.

But back to Gatsby. Another thing I didn’t remember was how beautifully he wrote. How can you read a book and forget the paragraphs of Nick’s musing. The opening paragraph itself should have stuck in my mind:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person…. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

It becomes obvious later, of course, that Nick, who holds himself to be the only honest man he’s ever met, turns out to be full of crap, and this paragraph, in which he interprets “advantages” a bit differently than we would expect, sets it up so that we can’t miss it. Yet I missed it, whenever I read the book earlier. If I ever did.

And that’s what I take with me from this entry in my ReRead project. Oh, I’m glad to more fully understand the book, but what horrifies me is how I thought I already did. I wonder what I’m reading now that I’m not really getting, or if I’m forgetting entire sections of novels that change the overall experience. I’m beginning to think re-reading is as important as reading; maybe I should incorporate more of it into my life. So I don’t continue to forget what I don’t remember.

* * *

Maureen Corrigan discusses her book, So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

Salon Article:  “Was Gatsby Black?”

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (Penguin 1985) [IBR2021]

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

I haven’t failed to notice that the number of visits to this blog follows the American school year; and thus I have surmised that students are looking for clues to help with their homework, with talking points for classroom discussions, for writing assignments, exams, etc. I hate to disappoint them, but there’s really nothing here that will help. Oh, I’ll throw in a few sources at the end, but for heaven’s sake there’s plenty of that out there and my two cents isn’t worth the effort to type.

My purpose for these re-reads, particularly with the two Literary Classics, is instead to trace my own reactions to the book over the years. It’s an idea that I found in a short story, “To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers (yes, The Overstory guy) in a Pushcart volume from ten years ago. That’s how long it’s taken me to follow through.

I first read P&P in high school. It would have been 1971 or so. It was not a good time for me; I was sunken into the first of what would be many major depressive episodes. So I didn’t think it was funny, or cheeky, or cute, or satirical. It scared the hell out of me. So many rules! How to talk, what to say, what to do, how to visit friends, how to go to a ball. And if someone didn’t follow the rules, there would be scathing gossip about their lapses. How did people learn to do all these things? You might think I was an idiot for not realizing it was a different era, but TV and movies at the time were full of people “dressing for dinner” and holding conversations with perfect strangers, knowing how to breeze into a town with a couple of lovebirds in a cage and end up hiding in the corner of a house when the birds attacked. I was scared to go to a football game; college was out of the question.

So I missed all the stuff that might have helped. Like Elizabeth’s terrific line, “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” Or the irony when she said, “That would be the greatest misfortune of all! – To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”

I read it for a second time – really a first time, since I barely read it at all in high school, just a few lines from random pages – in college, and had a much better time. At least, I think I did. I don’t remember any details, just a lot of character shifts as Elizabeth goes from hating Darcy to liking him, and from admiring Wickham to realizing he’s a piece of work. I was quite taken with the letters, and wrote my required paper more on the English postal service of the era rather than on the ironies, plot twists, and character revelations.

And now I read it again, and find I’m still impatient with all the girls-fret-about-boys stuff in the first half of the novel. It gets a lot more interesting when set against the customs of the time, since marriage was a matter of survival. And that may be what I got out of it overall: no matter how badly textualists want to scream about literature existing in itself, context matters, and the novel doesn’t make sense unless 21st century social mores are held at bay and the realities of the 19th century are better understood. I think of Mrs. Bennett, a flibbertygibbet if there ever was one, cranking out one baby after another hoping for the male child who will assure the family’s future, but surrounding herself with daughters who will be victims of the entailment against the estate. Then there’s all of Elizabeth’s fretting about her family’s reputation ruining her prospects for marriage, particularly when Lydia takes off with Wickham.

It turned out that the Lydia episode caught my interest the most at this point. It was hilarious, in a kind of tragic way, that marrying her to this conniving and dishonest shark was seen as the best solution. But it made for a merry chase.

As an aside: I bought a used copy of the book, my college copy having long ago disappeared, and discovered someone had underlined all the passages I wanted to underlined, and had written brief summaries on the first page of each chapter. That isn’t so odd for a used copy of a widely-read text, but what kind of freaked me out was how much the handwriting resembled mine of thirty years ago! For all I know, this was my college copy, come back to haunt me!

I used to say most 60s sitcoms and romcoms would be ruined if anyone ever spoke honestly what was on their mind. That’s the case here, as well. Elizabeth begins to think she might like Darcy, but doesn’t want that to be evident to anyone. Jane doesn’t want anyone to know she’s heartbroken at losinn Bingley. In fact, the most honest character might be Lydia, who openly declares she wants to snare her a soldier, and everyone assumes she doesn’t really mean it until they hear she’s headed for Scotland (I’m still not sure exactly why Scotland is so evil, but it has something to do with marrying people without the usual strictures of English society, a less respectable marriage. I don’t even want to get into the burden on women to uphold all this respectablility, when it’s the men in the legal and governing professions who have placed such restrictions on their ability to survive outside of marriage.

All in all, I still view this as a fun book. Yes, I know, there’s all this literary gold, but it’s hard to keep a straight face when reading it. I gave up on Bridget Jones’ Diary one of the contemporary resettings of the general plot, pretty early in the film when it came out long ago, for the same reason. But I admire Jane Austen for putting it all out there at a time when no one else would.

* * *

Ten Things to Know before Reading “Pride and Prejudice” by Jay Pawlyk: a handy video review of the historical and social background.

John Green’s Crash Course on P&P: John Green has quite a following from his YA books, but I find his rapid-fire style exhausting; I’m out of breath after the first minute. Those younger than I will surely enjoy them more, and they do contain some good information.

The story of the  P&P Cake created by Night Kitchen Bakery in Philadelphia in March, 2021 (header image). The peacock edition, no less!

Nathan Englander, kaddish.com (Vintage, 2019) [IBR2020]

This is what ritual does. It binds from chaos. Across time.

A typical description of this book tells you that Larry, the strayed oldest son of an Orthodox Jewish family, outsources his duty to recite Kaddish, in three services a day for eleven months in memory of his dead father, to an internet site. That, of course, is the setup. It’s what happens next that is the real book. This post is going to get a bit spoilery as it goes on, so be ready to bail when the warning light goes on.

The novel is divided into four parts. In Part One, we have the setup, an excellent examination of what it’s like to be an outsider in one’s own family, and to have a burden one cannot imagine either honoring or failing to honor. It’s 1999, and Larry is sitting Shiva at his sister Dina’s house in Memphis, which apparently rivals New York in the intensity of its Jewish neighborhood. Larry’s still in New York, in advertising (“Branding,” he’d correct me. “It’s part of advertising, but it’s different”), and is taking a lot of heat for his semi-observance of Shiva. He’s about to take a lot more heat as Dina reminds him of his filial duty to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in three separate shul services a day for the next eleven months. He can’t believe it really matters, but he can’t quite shake the feeling that it does.

That conflict is what interests me most about the book. I, too, have left behind a religion that just won’t vacate a few small strongholds in my mind. Mix that with the genuine grief Larry is feeling – I have no doubt he loved his father and misses him terribly – and I can understand his dilemma.

“I think the World to Come is just a long table where every­one, on both sides, sits, men and women—”
“No pets,” his father said.
“Fine,” his father said. “Under the table, the dogs and cats. But no birds. I can’t picture it with birds.”
“Fair enough,” Larry said.
“This long table, with its perfect white cloth, is set not with food and drink, but with the Torah, copies for everyone, so that you can read to yourself or learn in pairs.”
“I can picture that.”
“And you know what happens at this table?”
“All you do for eternity is study. Nothing else. No interruption. No day, no night, no weekend or holiday, no y’mei chag or chol. For it is the afterlife. Time unbroken—all of it given over to one purpose.”
“Sure,” Larry said.
“This is why, for the souls gathered, that single place serves as both Heaven and Hell.”
Here his father had gulped at the air, fishlike himself.
“It goes like this,” his father said. “If you have a good mind and a good heart, if you like to learn Torah and take interest in knowledge, then studying for eternity is, for you, Heaven.”
He had looked to his son, and Larry had nodded.
“And if all you want is to waste time on narishkeit and bunk stuff, to think your greedy thoughts though the money is gone, and to think your dirty thoughts though your schvontz is buried down below, then for you that same table is torture. Then sitting there, with your bad brain, you find yourself in Hell.”
Larry considered the idea, poised at his father’s side.
Partly, he’d thought it was funny, and thought about making a Larry-like joke. But being his father’s son, Larry also took it seriously. He was awed at the notion and somehow afraid.
His father, who could read him like no one else, reached out with his liver-spotted hand and, laying it atop Larry’s, said, “I’m sure, in that place, for you, it would be Heaven.”
Larry had gasped, not from surprise, but choking back the rush of comfort he took in his father’s ruling.
“Trust me, Larry, it’s all right that you don’t believe. This period in your life—it feels like it’s forever, but if you’re lucky, life is long and each of these forevers will one day seem fleeting. You think when I was your age that I could have pictured this? That it would be 1999—the edge of a new millennium—and I’d be saying goodbye to a handsome, grown son at the end of my days? I can tell you that even back then, I already felt old and thought I knew it all.” His father gave a weak squeeze to Larry’s hand. “You’re a good boy. And I pray that I don’t see you across from me until you reach a hundred and twenty years. But for you, my boychick, when it’s the right time to take your seat, that table will feel like a blessing without end.”

Larry’s problem is that he can’t imagine himself actually carrying out the duty of reciting Kaddish so often for so long. Remember, it’s not just saying the prayer; that he could do. But it must be said in a minyan, a gathering of ten or more Jewish men, and that means it must be said in shul, which means attending services three times a day. Every day. For eleven months. When Dina spells it out, he promises, because he can’t imagine not promising. But he’s got his fingers crossed behind his back:

…As long as Larry promises he’ll say the prayer, what does it hurt Dina if it skips? And honestly, what does it hurt their dead father, in heaven above, if Larry says a prayer or not? Does anyone really think God sits up there with a scorecard, checking off every one of Larry’s blessings?

That’s a second theme that interests me greatly: just how seriously do we take our religions? Do we really believe in hell and purgatory and a day of judgment and that wine and bread becomes blood and body and that baptism has power and our prayers are heard and acted on? I’ve always felt that if we really took eternal life seriously, we’d be living this life a lot differently. Some areas of philosophy and evolutionary psychology wonder if all the guilt that’s built into Western religion is outsourced from our own consciousness, rather than the typical religious notion that it is God who implants conscience in us and without God there is no morality. So when Larry asks these questions – does it really matter if I say the Mourner’s Kaddish on schedule? – I understand how a ‘yes’ can lurk underneath the ‘no, of course not.’

This brought in something I wasn’t aware of. I’m not Jewish, so my (limited) knowledge of Orthodox tradition is based on what I’ve read in academic and popular reading, but I’d never heard this before: after death, the soul goes into a kind of purgatory for a year, to be purged of sin. Saying of the Mourner’s Kaddish (for there are several varieties of Kaddish) helps to ease that process, sort of like Dante depicts in his Comedia for Christians in Purgatory when prayers are received on their behalf. So the question “Does it matter” is more than tradition; it impacts his father’s afterlife experience, speeds along – or delays – his passage to paradise.

Because she’s a pretty good judge of character, Dina explodes at Larry’s promise to say Kaddish, because now she knows he’s lying. Enter her rabbi, who tries to come up with solutions. The most promising is a proxy, someone who will say Kaddish for him. So his responsibility has been pared down to: find a proxy.

Enter kaddish.com. And yes, there is a current website of that name offering this service, though I understand it was set up after the novel was published (how foolish of the publisher and/or Englander not to register the domain name themselves). The service has been, however, available for quite some time through other long-established Jewish organizations, so it’s not some newfangled thing. If it were me, I’d probably go to one of them. But this is about Larry. Englander plays the scene of Larry signing up for all it’s worth, including a pornographic pop-up involving a glass dildo (um… really?) that becomes visible when he closes the Kaddish site page. It’s very effective, with details that weave through the rest of the book.

Then we come to Part Two (this starts getting a bit spoilery, be forewarned), which starts a year later when Larry receives a letter from his proxy, Chemi, to indicate his service has come to an end. This sets Larry on a road back to Orthodoxy, via the word “assimilate.” The thing is, this crucial moment feels a bit skimmed-over to me. The bones are there, but I’d like a little more flesh padding them out. We understand the changes Larry goes through to become, twenty years later, Reb Shuli, teacher of Gemara at a Brooklyn yeshiva, but it’s thin. It’s as if Englander suddenly decided he didn’t want this to be that deep a novel, so kept this transition at beach-read level before moving on to the next order of business: Shuli realizes the depth of what he committed to on that website twenty years earlier. He explains to his wife:

What has left Shuli lightheaded is the understanding that all his years of t’shuvah, a lifetime of redemption, had – for his father – done nothing. Not the yahrzeit candles lit, nor the services led. It was twenty years of Kaddishes without meaning, as they were not Schuli’s just say….
“It’s the kinyan,” Shuli tells her, looking around nervously as if someone might overhear. “Just because I returned to the fold doesn’t mean I brought everything back with me. On that website, a lifetime ago, I gave up what was mine.”
“This isn’t news, Shuli. How many times have we discussed this over the years? You paid for a service, and that’s all.”
“But it’s not all. I don’t know if I ever told you. When I signed, there was a digital pen that I put into a digital hand. I made a kinyan. I transferred over my rights – for real. Which means, even now, remembering my father is that other man’s job….It was my intent to be rid of that responsibility for life. The privilege doesn’t just revert on its own. The other party would need to return it.”

This is where things get a bit frustrating for me. I don’t fully understand the kinyan, and I haven’t found an explanation that really makes sense to me. Shuli observes a wedding ritual involving a kinyan, and this reminds him of the twenty-year-old transaction. It seems like a real leap of logic to equate clicking on a web page, moving a pen icon into a hand icon, with the ritualistic and symbolic trading of tokens. His wife also finds it a bit of an exaggeration, and feels confident it’s not binding.

Maybe it makes sense if you’re more familiar with this Jewish custom than I am (though Shuli’s wife would be), but to me, it just seems like a way to carry forth the plot. Then again, we can look at it through the lense of character: Shuli’s guilt over shirking his duty creating a need to take further action. I think that’s the key to the whole novel: see everything through the eyes of the repentant, needing to atone for past sins, including not only outsourcing Kaddish, but leaving the fold in the first place.

Shuli makes his attempts to reconnect with Chemi, his proxy from so long ago, via the Kaddish.com website, still in operation. He enlists the help of a student. And my frustration mounts, because everything here is overcomplicated. Setting Gavriel’s age at twelve feels forced (since he hasn’t been bar mitzvah’ed, he’s not implicit in any sin), and the constant trading of extra recess for computer help just feels sleazy. By the way, do twelve year old boys do recess?

Be that as it may, a brilliant passage emerges from this scene:

When he first entered this miserable room and found his way back onto the web, Shuli had prided himself on the belief that all knowledge was contained inside the Torah. And now, as he waits for Gavriel to pinpoint the exact spot on the planet where this hidden yeshivah stood, he’s forced to admit that inside this terrible machine is a different kind of all knowingness. A toxic, shiftless omniscience.
To unlock the secrets of the Torah, one had to be disciplined. One had to work and to think. But this? If one only knew how to ask the question, all knowledge was lazily yours.
…And here in these machines is that exact knowing – for the advertisers and for the governments and for those with good and bad intentions to use as they saw fit. It’s all accessible, your wants and dreams, your sins and secrets, so that Gavriel, tapping away at the keys, can tell where someone around the world sits right then – a humble, hidden someone who does not want to be found. But the Internet knows, and it has no compass to guide it and no will to guard what was meant only for the Maker. Here, it all waits to be plucked out of the air by a child.

Those of us of a more secular bent are indeed quite aware by now of the perils of all that information just sitting somewhere that anyone could find it. It goes well beyond what ads show up on the websites you visit. Just a few days ago, a major effort at vote deterrence was discovered as a major source of voter suppression in 2016: people targeted as Democratic voters who could be persuaded, not to vote for the other guy, but not to vote at all. And think of AI, all those algorithms, programmed without morals, without judgment, without, well, soul. I can see how Shuli might see this through a religious lens.

SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT: But that raises another complaint I have with the book (hey, I often avoid negativity, but I think Englander can handle it). Shuli just seems hopelessly naïve. He was in New York advertising, people! He knew his way around internet porn. This isn’t some sheltered yeshiva bocher who’s never been outside Williamsburg. And yet he doesn’t catch on as Gavriel’s inquiries to kaddish.com go unanswered. He thinks Chemi is hiding from modesty. He really doesn’t get what the rest of us realized immediately, what we suspected back when we first read the words kaddish.com: that it’s a scam. This stretches credulity to the breaking point. But it’s still a book worth reading, if you can get into that mindset.

Part Three follows Shuli as he roams through Jerusalem trying to find the yeshiva, and thus the server, responsible for kaddish.com. And again he finds himself studying, waiting for a mysterious donor whose middle name might be abbreviated Chemi. Since I’ve given up on credibility at this point, I just went with it and enjoyed the chase. But it’s easily the least interesting part of the book.

Part Four is where the money shot is, and yes, I use that term advisedly, since Shuli’s father (as well as the Lady of the Glass Dildo) makes another appearance. Shuli, and through him, we as readers, finally gets the picture of the scam. It’s not as bad as it could have been, and I give a lot of credit for that. It would’ve been easy to have put the server in the back of someplace awful – a New Jersey muffler shop? – but this is more nuanced, though the upshot is the same: there was no recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. For Shuli, resolution comes while he sleeps. I’m not a big fan of the use of dreams to resolve metaphysical questions, but the interaction between Shuli and Dad is quite lovely, and there’s a religious question resolved quite handily:

One earthly year – what they’d always been taught, what he himself said to his students. This was the maximum period a soul might be purged in the afterlife. And yet, twenty years later, here his father is caught in a ceaseless kind of kaparah.
…”A year is still the maximum,” his father says. “Only without day and without night to signify change, without a son who has been studiously saying Kaddish to go silent at the eleventh month, how are we to know when judgment comes to an end without such markers?”
Shuli, already sweating, says, “I will fix it, Abba. Don’t worry. For you, and for all the others. I will put it right.”

Although I had my complaints, I did very much enjoy this book. The questions of religion and character overshadowed my misgivings about plausibility; for someone more interested in what a character does than in the philosophies raised, I think it might work just as well. I ended up feeling very warmly towards Shuli; he screwed up a lot, but he was able to find his heart and follow it when it mattered. And while some background, however vague, in either Judaism or internet configurations might be helpful, I think the action, and the thought, is accessible to just about anyone.

Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone: This Is How You Lose the Time War (Saga, 2020) [IBR2020]

We wanted the war, and the whole of time and space, to be a backdrop to the characters. We’re in some ways anthologizing a war, drawing from the whole breadth and depth of science fiction, and… historical fiction for that matter. There are tropes and characters that we’re referencing… If you’re getting the references then oh, ok, all of a sudden I’m there, but if you’re not, the question is, how do you navigate the book? And the answer we settled on is: This is really the story of these two characters. Anyone who picks up the references is going to see how they connect; and anyone who is really used to the particular old-school science fictional game of taking tiny little hints of how worlds assemble and extrapolating from that to a complete sense of the society and culture will be able to do that too. But for people who are coming for the characters, they’re still going to be able to follow Red and Blue and understand them enough to enjoy the book, to go on the journey with them.

Interview: An Online Conversation with Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone via Read It Again Bookstore (14 minute mark)

I haven’t read much contemporary (that is, post-1970s) science fiction. Even though I can quote some scenes from ST:TNG by heart, I’ve never been a piece-it-together kind of viewer/reader, and my affection for Dr. Who never got beyond the Christmas Carol and Vincent episodes (which I love enough for the whole series to be dear to me, however). I do like a lot of the literary fiction that uses other-world settings, mostly because it invites a variety of interesting structural and stylistic elements. But at heart I am, I suppose, more of a litfic reader putting up with strange other worlds than a scific reader tolerating emotion and social meaning.

So it’s odd I would choose to read this book. Ah, the power of marketing: I just kept seeing it on my feeds, with words like “imaginative,” “chaos,”, “wordplay,” and, my favorite, “affective center of motion.” I don’t even know what that last one means, but it’s irresistible. And I will admit, my favorite ST episodes were always about time, or at least multiverses.

It was a very different experience for me. It’s the first time I’ve enjoyed a book while not really understanding the setting, and, even more strangely, not having a clue as to what happened at the end.

When Red wins, she stands alone.
Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.
That was fun, she thinks, but the thought sours in the framing. It was clean, at least. Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged — the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.

If it weren’t for the back cover synopsis and promotional teasers, I would’ve been completely lost. Red and Blue are on two sides of a war: Red, from the technologically-grounded Agency, and Blue, from the back-to-nature Garden. Both go into various strands of time to adjust events so their entity will come out in charge in the final analysis. Both try to undo, or compensate for, the other’s adjustments.

And they fall in love. But that’s just where their troubles begin: now what do they do?

Getting to that point is really half the fun. This is where words like “imaginative” come into play. They start leaving each other letters, but they’re letters on unusual media. A letter that must be burned before reading, then the ashes mixed to a paste. A letter that’s part of a fish, “sealed” in a seal – a cute little Arctic seal. Letters written in the rings of centuries-old trees (they are time travelers, after all), in the lava of the volcano that sank Atlantis, in berries and leaves and tea dregs. Letters that are smelled, tasted, consumed rather than read. And letters that would get both of them executed as traitors, if discovered by their superiors.

It starts out more as admiration for a worthy opponent, a kind of “Across the havoc of war, I salute you” kind of thing as Churchill was supposed to have said of Rommel (not quite; he said something similar). Then they get curious about the other side: “Do you eat?” “Do you laugh?” “Do you dream?” Admiration turns to fondness, turns to affection, turns to love for two solo warriors. Who are, by the way, both women.

…So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden’s, not your mission’s, but yours, alone.
I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review your words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn. Yours. Still, I suspect you will appreciate the token.

I found it interesting to watch them go through known history: Genghis Khan, London of various eras, the aforementioned Atlantis, World War II. And Ozymandias. Oh, yes, the literary references, those are great fun. “I’m contradicting myself. The geometers would be ashamed,” writes Red (or is it Blue?). Maybe, but Whitman would rejoice. And the fun stuff: “How many boards would the Mongols hoard if the Mongol horde got bored?” They must’ve spent time in the 20th century US.

As the earth shakes and the sky burns, even the bravest and most single-minded leave their work. Notes and sums and new engines remain behind. They take people and art. The math will burn, the engines melt, the arches fall to dust.
…That man built a steam and pinwheel engine six centuries earlier than the mean. This woman, through reason and ecstatic meditation, discerned the usefulness of zero to her mathematics. This shepherd built freestanding arches into the walls of his house. Small touches, ideas so fundamental they seem useless. Nobody here knows their worth, yet. But if they do not perish on this island, someone might realize their use a few centuries earlier and change everything.
So Red tries to give them time.
… the mathematician still has time to grab her wax tablets at least.

As for the ending, I have no idea what happened, but I was glued to the last thirty pages. I found a Reddit thread that tried to explain it, but it didn’t help much; I was that lost as to the overall setting. I would imagine those who recognize the tropes, as the authors say above, would have been quite happy. In looking at various reviews, it seems the romance was central to many readers. Though I am in neither camp, I did enjoy the book, as little as I understood of what was happening, mostly because of the references I got, and the idea of letters encrypted in ingenious forms.

It’s unusual for a book to be written by two authors. The interview quoted above gives some insight into the process (starting at about the 40 minute mark). They decided to work together on a project, then decided it would be a novella, then came up with the concept. Oh, and I discovered this is a post-singularity world. Singularity is one of those concepts I only vaguely understand: the point where machines take over from us. So that adds to the conflict: it’s a red pill/blue pill thing. One reader mentioned US political leanings associated with those colors. That never occurred to me; odd, really, since I’m fairly keyed in to politics, but I was perhaps distracted, given the jovial nature of it all, by Overly Sarcastic Production’s use of the pseudonyms Red and Blue.

I’ll admit I didn’t try all that hard to figure out the battleground or the sides or exactly what happened at the end. I didn’t feel any particular need or desire to do so, and I’m not sure it would have done me much good. So I’m not your typical reader for this sort of thing. But it was fun to visit.

Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea (Anchor, 2002) [IBR2020]

On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces. A young girl here, one Alice Butterworth, discovered the fallen tile at the base of the statue, carefully gathered up the bits and shards, and quickly conveyed them to the offices of the High Island Council. Tiny Alice delivered these fragments into the hands of Most Senior Gordon Willingham who promptly called an emergency meeting of that lofty body to glean purpose and design from this sudden and unexpected detachation.
This aforementioned gleaning – this is important.

My reaction to this novel went through a number of revisions as I read. I started out amused by the premise: a tiny island nation off the South Carolina coast, a nation named for and dedicated to the (fictitious) deceased creator of the quick-brown-fox pangram, interpreted the tiles falling off his cenotaph as a message that those letters should no longer be used, and thus language becomes more and more restricted. I’m not really a fan of the epistolary novel in general, but it’s the perfect form for this tale, as the text itself reflects the linguistic difficulties posed by the loss of each letter in turn.

I formulated the following reaction early on: “A clever one-page satire expanded into a 200 page YA-dystopia novel.” I rather dreaded reading through another 170 pages of shrinking alphabet. Fortunately, Dunn is far better writer than that, and he soon changed my mind. And the ending – and I mean, the very end, the last five pages – it really landed.

Although the central progression is the deletion of letters of the alphabet, a lot more happens. Ella, our title character, views the loss of the first letter – Z – with some amusement, but her friend Tassie is more alarmed. Sure enough, Ella discovers all books in the library have been destroyed. The punishment for using the forbidden letters is, for the first offense, a rather stern talking-to, but then gets draconian: second offense, whipping or being placed in the stocks in the village square (offender’s choice); third offense, banishment from the island, or death. Offender’s choice.

One family, condemned for a second offense as a unit, made a special request:

“We also wish to be flogged in the presence of as many town residents as choose to be in attendance. And if this produces no outcry – especially the laying of leather tassel upon the youthful backs of my nine-year-old twin daughters Becka and Henrietta – then please trundle us without delay from this island of cringe and cowardice, for we no longer wish to belong to such a Despicable confederacy of spinal-defectives.”

Neighbors start turning each other in. Mail is read (by a French savant who knows no English but can recognize the forbidden letters). The Council drives eminent domain into high gear. Various means of reversing the edict are proposed, and meet obstacles. Throughout there are subtle ironies and humorous passes that might escape notice, such as when one resident defends the edict (and her tendency to squeal on anyone who happens to accidentally let a forbidden letter pass their lips):

I sincerely believe, as do several who have joined me for biweekly talk group sessions, that Nollop, as one who put great emphasis upon the word, is now attempting to pry us away from our traditional heavidependence on linguistic orthodoxy. Through this challenge, he hopes to move us away from lexical discourse as we now know it, and toward the day in which we can relate to one another in sweet pureplicity through the taciteries of the heart.

And when this leopard-eating-faces-party supporter finds the leopard eating her own face, there’s a moment of forgiveness so pure, it would surely make Jesus weep.

I was impressed at how forward momentum was maintained in what could have been the one-trick-pony book I initially expected. And, even though the last twenty-five pages got pretty hard to read, by then it was impossible to stop.

The ending – not only a plot resolution but a bit of linguistic philosophy – left me laughing and shaking my head in disbelief. By the end, this had become minimalist fiction. The language restriction forced it, to some extent, but a typical novel would’ve had another thirty pages of everyone discussing what had happened and what was going to happen and how they felt about it all. But none of that was necessary. Paring down the letters also pared down discourse, as predicted, to the simplest possible presentation: here, this is how it ends, bye now. It’s perfect.

But I was left with one question: Is there such a thing as a reverse McGuffin?

As I understand it, the McGuffin, as described by Hitchcock, is an item that generates motive but in itself is essentially unimportant: “the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after….the engine that sets the story in motion.” What I am calling a reverse McGuffin (which others have already wondered about; feel free to google about) is, to my mind, something that enters unobtrusively, has no role whatsoever, until, at the end, it suddenly becomes the Key to Everything. It’s a tricky thing to do. I remember The Grasshopper King in which a certain character’s traits seemed clumsily inserted in preparation for their final role; here, the technique works so much better. In fact, its unobtrusiveness is the key to its success. To say more would be a spoiler.

Although this book was first published in 2001, some of the themes and elements seemed particularly suited to the present moment. Elements such as:

∘ The dangers of oligarchy, gerontocracy, theocracy, and various brands of authoritarianisms;
∘ Interpretation of events in mystical terms;
∘ Conflict between science and religion;
∘ Resistance and backlash;
∘ Censorship;
∘ Hero worship of a figure whose background is obscured by time and, perhaps, deliberate deceit;

By the way – you think it’s hard to launch a new book in the middle of a pandemic? Try in the month after 9/11. That this one succeeded – primarily by word of mouth – is a testimony to how good it is. By the way, the subtitle was changed between hardcover and paperback versions: from “A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable” to “A Novel in Letters”. I find that interesting and… disappointing. Given the voice of the letters – initially just a more formal and old-fashioned to the contemporary ear, relying more and more on esoteric vocabulary as common words must be stricken, and resorting at last to phonetic spellings that sometimes only come close to conveying the meaning – the first title seems far more appropriate. A marketing decision, perhaps? I see Dunn has written several novels since this, his first (he was originally a prolific playwright), and a lot of them have rather wacky descriptions. I may have to check these out.

This book came to my attention last March via a Twitter prompt from last March about books to be read while self-isolating. Dear @timtfj, you had me at “arbitrary banning of various letters of the alphabet” but “society collapses” helped, too.

Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Mariner edition 2000) [IBR2020]

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always Immaculate and very soberly dressed.

Once again, I was surprised that a book I expected to be tedious and difficult turned out to be engrossing and wonderfully readable from the first sentence.

I chose to read this book at this time as the end result of a conversation about authenticity and appropriation that started with Alan Gurganus’s essay “I Confess: My Cultural Misappropriation” in Pushcart 2020. Jake Weber and I have been having a long, ongoing conversation about appropriation, and in the comments to my blog post on Gurganus’s essay he pointed me to a 2016 TNY article by Sarah Schulman that gave McCullers as an example of a white writer who was able to portray black characters – many different types of characters, in fact – as individuals, as people instead of ideas. Schulman writes, after considering McCullers’ possible sexual identity as what today would be considered gay or transgender:

It may be that the “ease” with which Carson McCullers was able to inhabit any kind of person, in a manner that was recognizable to a reader as sophisticated as Richard Wright, did not come from empathy. No, perhaps it came from the simple fact of having an identity that history had not yet discovered. And, because she didn’t know who she was, she had no place to stand. So she could stand with others who officially did not exist.

Sarah Schulman, “White Writer”, TNY 10/21/16,

The descriptions of the characters in the article, as well as the near-universal praise McCullers has received for bringing them to such full, vivid life, made me want to read the book. But, as I implied, I expected a novel set in the Depression-era South to be a bit of a slog. How delightful to be wrong about that. But be forewarned: there are events – and language – in the book that reflect the era. So it’s often painful reading.

It’s something of a stranger-comes-to-town story, except the stranger was already in town, just in another part. The flip side of the stranger comes to town is usually the hero sets out on a quest, except Singer isn’t really a hero and he’s not questing for anything.

The first chapter sets the ball rolling: Singer and his Greek friend Antonoupolis have been living together for ten years. They’re complete opposites except for their deafness, but have a connection that’s a powerful blend of family and love.

Singer was always talking to Antonopoulis. His hands shaped the words in a swift series of designs. His face was eager and his gray-green eyes sparkled brightly. With his thin, strong hands he told Antonopoulis all that has happened during the day.
Antonopoulos sat back lazily and looked at Singer. It was seldom that he ever moved his hands to speak at all – and then it was to say that he wanted to eat or to sleep or to drink. These three things he always said with the same vague, fumbling signs. At night, if he were not too drunk, he would kneel down before his bed and pray awhile. Then his plump hands shaped the words ‘Holy Jesus’, or ‘God,’ or ‘Darling Mary.’ These were the only words Antonopoulis ever said. Singer never knew just how much his friend understood of all the things he told him. But it did not matter.

This is the first indication of a motif that seems to be part of everyone’s life in the book: everybody’s talking, whether anyone’s listening or not. Usually not. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: in this first chapter, “trouble came to the two friends.” Antonoupolis, deaf and possibly retarded or mentally ill (or both), begins decompensating, and is committed to a state institution by his cousin over Singer’s desperate pleas. This is how Singer comes to the other side of town, to a boarding house run near a diner where he lives and eats and goes to work and minds his own business. Or would, except four townspeople find him an excellent sounding board.

Singer, who is, remember, a deaf man, becomes a major listener to four who become the focus of the novel. He rarely indicates anything other than smiling and nodding, but they keep coming back and find the exchange immensely satisfying. It’s also interesting that we find out Singer isn’t actually mute; he just found no need to talk after Antonoupolis came into his life, and he continued that policy out of habit. Most of the time he keeps his hands, the instrument of his voice, hidden in his pockets, since the only person who can “hear” him is gone.

The bulk of the novel follows the four people through their lives in the town over the course of about a year. Biff Brannon owns the diner where Singer takes his meals. He seems like an Everyman who thinks deeply about many things and notices a lot of details. He also has some sexual quirks that are more hinted at than described. He and his wife barely see each other since they cover the diner at different times, but he’s impotent anyway so it doesn’t seem to matter. He notices a drunk stumbling around the diner, and watches as Singer takes care of him.

He was glad he had not told Alice about what had happened to the drunk. He had wanted to talk to somebody about it, because maybe if he told all the facts out loud he could put his finger on the thing that puzzled him. The poor son-of-a-bitch talking and talking and not ever getting anybody to understand what he meant. Not knowing himself, most likely. And the way he gravitated around the deaf-mute and picked him out and tried to make him a free present of everything in him.
Because in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons–throw it to some human being or some human idea. They have to. In some men it is in them – The text is ‘All men seek for Thee.’ Maybe that was why – maybe – He was a Chinaman, the fellow had said. And a nigger and a wop and a Jew. And if he believed it hard enough maybe it was so. Every person and every thing he said he was –
Biff stretched both of his arms outward and crossed his naked feet. His face was older in the morning light, with the closed, shrunken eyelids and the heavy, iron-like beard on his cheeks and jaw. Gradually his mouth softened and relaxed. The hard, yellow rays of the sun came in through the window so that the room was hot and bright. Biff turned wearily and covered his eyes with his hands. And he was nobody but – Bartholomew – old Biff with two fists and a quick tongue – Mister Brannon – by himself.

“All men seek for thee” could be a subtitle of the book, as Singer looks more and more like a Christ figure. After all, even the most devout have to admit that if one “hears” an answer to a prayer, it’s in the heart/head, not the ears. Maybe God is a deaf mute. Maybe we create him in our own image, as the four visitors do with Singer: he’s Jewish, or a music lover, or a Communist, or someone who’s figured it all out.

The second of the four spiritual pilgrims is Mick Kelly, the thriteen-year-old daughter of the boarding house owner. She’s an adventurer and a dreamer, full of hopes and the future, and she’s discovered music in a big way, thanks to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and Mozart. And Mr. Singer has a radio, a radio he can’t hear, but he got it to provide entertainment for the four who visit him so often. “Mister Singer reminded her of this music.” She’s trying to turn a ukelele into a violin and wants to learn to read music, and she climbs up on the very top of the house that’s under construction – “But no matter how many Keep Out signs were put up, they couldn’t run kids away” – and sometimes wishes she were a boy. She’s claimed as McCullers’s most autobiographic character.

M.K.–That was what she would have written on everything when she was seventeen years old and very famous. She would ride back home in a red-and-white Packard automobile with her initials on the doors. She would have M.K. written in red on her handkerchiefs and underclothes. Maybe she would be a great inventor. She would invent little tiny radios the size of a green pea that people could carry around and stick in their ears. Also flying machines people could fasten on their backs like knapsacks and go zipping all over the world. After that she would be the first one to make a large tunnel through the world to China, and people could go down in big balloons. Those were the first things she would invent. They were already planned.

Jake Blount is a bit of a vagabond and a drunk. He shows up at the diner while Singer is having dinner, and Singer takes him back home with him so he can sleep it off. “The mute’s face was in his mind very clearly. It was like the face of a friend he had known for a long time.” He sticks around town for the year working at what I imagine is a mini-carnival consisting of one ride, a flying jinny. He’s also a devout Communist, and preaches the evils of communism in a desperate attempt to get people to “know” their labor is being exploited.

Words came to him and he dreamily spoke them aloud to himself. ‘Resentment is the most precious flower of poverty. Yeah.’
It was good to talk. The sound of his voice gave him pleasure. The tones seemed to echo and hang on in the air so that each word sounded twice. He swallowed and moistened his mouth to speak again. He suddenly wanted to return to the mute’s quiet room and tell him of the thoughts that were in his mind. It was a queer thing to want to talk with a deaf mute. But he was lonesome.

Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a highly educated black man (his children are named Portia, William, Harrison, and Karl Marx), is the doctor for the black folks in town, and is passionate about the betterment of the Negro race. Sadly, he hasn’t been that successful in bettering the lives of his own children, and his wife left him years ago. He met Singer briefly outside the diner, when Singer lit his cigarette for him, something no white man had ever done before. “He remembered the white man’s face when he smiled behind the yellow match flame on that raining night – and peace was in him.” Later he describes his desire to better the race to his daughter over coffee:

“The Negro race of its own accord climbs up on the cross on every Friday,” said Doctor Copeland.
Portia’s hands shook and coffee trickled down from the saucer she was holding. She licked it from her arm. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I am always looking. I mean that if I could just find ten Negroes – ten of my own people – with spine and brains and courage who are willing to give all that they have – “
Portia put down the coffee. “Us was not talking about anything like that.”
“Only four Negroes,” said Doctor Copeland. “Only the sum of Hamilton and Karl Marx and William and you. Only four Negroes with these real true qualities and backbone – “

If this sounds familiar, it’s because of the story of Lot pleading with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of fifty – no, forty-five – no, forty – no, ten righteous men.

In my travels of general commentary on this book, I found an interesting structural note (and now I’ve lost the link, sorry, it’s out there somewhere). I’d already figured out that Part I set the stage; Part II, the bulk of the book, shows what happened as it all falls apart; and Part III, very short, wraps up loose ends as a denouement. But wait, there’s more. If you take the first chapter off Part I, the next four chapters introduce the primary characters in the order I’ve listed them above. Then in Part III, the four characters are bid adieu in reverse order, and we see how the year has changed them. They’ve all lost their Christ, their confessor, their center (I’ve seen Singer described as the spoke of the wheel) as Singer is gone (I won’t say how, some things need to stay unspoiled). Dr. Copeland is dying without his Christ; Mick is working in a five and dime instead of dreaming of the future, her family having fallen on hard times and the music in her growing dimmer; Jake Blount is moving on to another town after losing his Christ; and Biff, well, Biff the everyman, having lost his Christ, is still trying to figure things out:

The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. Biff stood transfixed, lost in his meditations. Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended. He saw that he was looking at his own face in the counter glass before him. Sweat glistened on his temples and his face was contorted. One eye was opened wider than the other. The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right gazed wide and affrighted into a future of blackness, error, and ruin. And he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith. Sharply he turned away.

This is all of us in 2020, the year of our disaster.

What none of them knew, of course, was that war was only a couple of years away, and America would reshape itself afterwards in various ways. Many of the changes would not be welcomed by these people. But Dr. Copeland would find there are far more than four Negroes with spines, Mick would find other ways to approach her dreams, and Jake would probably end up in prison during the Red Scare years. But Biff, he’d keep trying to figure out what was going on, and who knows, maybe he’d come up with something.

There’s no one single event that carries the narrative of the story; it’s just a slow collapse of the important parts of the five characters’ lives. They struggle, but it seems inevitable. There is no safety net for these folks. Somehow, even though it’s pretty depressing, it still is engrossing to the last page.

I can see why it’s used as an example of “good appropriation.” The characters vary, even when related by race or class. All have flaws as well as assets, and they’re all very individual in their preferences and their reactions. Even when the four main characters have similar attachment to Singer, it’s always tailored to the individual quirks of each person.

There’s another aspect to my reading of this book that has little to do with the text itself. I bought a used copy, as I usually do with older books, and I found some hand-written notes inside. Often I find some underlinings or a word or two, but these were more extensive and seemed cohesive, like the former reader was comparing the book to something. I just can’t figure out what, so I’ll report, and hope either someone will recognize the references, or someday I’ll see something that brings me back here with a big “Aha!”

On the first page, containing only blurbs, is the notation “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men P. Agee.” I assume that should be J. Agee? I’m not familiar with it, but it seems Agee and photographer Walker Evans put this book together as part of a WPA project to document the South during the Depression era. The text is described as “inscrutable’ (having read some of it, I agree); the photos show exactly what you’d expect, the poor in their homes. But only white people; I remember reading somewhere that the face of poverty was, at that time, white, and poverty was a far more sympathetic state, and remedies far more acceptable, than when that face later became black.

Next to that notation is an outline:

I. Seeing – Joy (maybe Jox)
II. Suffering – Paz
III Needs & Wants
IV. Justice
V. Freedom
VI. Getting There

This doesn’t seem to refer to the plot of the book itself, or to the Agee/Evans book either.

In Part I chapter 4, right after Jake gets his job with the flying jinny, he’s on his way home: the book reads “Dusk softened the outline of the houses…”. There’s another note: “Hunger blurred the outline of the dead chicken”. There’s no chicken in the text, and nobody’s hungry. Could this refer to a photo, to another story?

In Part II, Chapter 2, Biff is buying black ribbon for mourning and cleaning out his dead wife’s clothing to give away; a marginal note reads, “Locky’s death vs pigs death”. This could be Lucky. Again, I have no idea. A few pages later, he’s visiting sister Lucille, and he thinks of his wife but can’t remember her face; the text reads, “The only thing about her that was clear in him mind was her feet…” and a marginal note reads “Mind was bacon”. Now I’m thoroughly confused.

In Part II Chapter 5, as Bubber watches Baby just before the tragedy that will take down the Kelly family, the text reads “Baby looked like a fairy or something in the picture show ….with her yellow hair she was all pink and white and gold – and so small and clean that it almost hurt to watch her. But she won’t talk to them or even look at them.” The marginal note: “It hurts to see what’s really happening to animals, but the pain is nothing comp. to theirs.”

There are other notes, but those are the most content-relevant ones. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know. This is one of the biggest bonuses of buying used books, by the way: it’s almost like a discussion, but, as in the book, you’re never sure if anyone’s hearing you, or if you’re hearing right.

The title is taken from the poem The Lonely Hunter by Fiona Macleod, who was eventually revealed to be the pen name for William Sharp. The final verse:

O never a green leaf whispers, where the green-gold branches swing:
O never a song I hear now, where one was wont to sing
Here in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.

Fiona Macleod/William Sharp, “The Lonely Hunter”

An embarrassing admission: until I read the article Jake pointed out, I’d thought the book was some domestic drama involving neighbors hungrily eyeing each other in secret, or maybe no-so-secretly, and the flare-ups that caused. If I’d known it was such a good book, I would’ve read it decades ago. Learn from my mistakes!

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Trans. Michael Henry Heim (Harper, 1984) [IBR2020]

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurrs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, did in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.
….This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

Authorial intrusion used to be a common enough practice, but for the most part it’s fallen out of favor to the point where a writer can be scolded in workshop for indulging. But not here: Kundera begins his novel with an exegesis on Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, and pops in over and over again to explain what his characters are doing, why they’re doing it, and how it relates to Nietzsche. It’s disconcerting, sort of like reading a self-analytic novel.

But at least it gives the reader a chance to understand what’s going on. And, if you need more, the internet is full of explanations of Eternal Return (including several short and simple Youtube videos). Basically, it’s a thought experiment: what if you had to live your life over and over, just as you had lived it, without any chance to change anything? If you knew that was the case, you’d be weighted down by every decision. But we only live once, which implies a kind of lightness, but also brings some kind of meaninglessness, and even blanket absolution for the mistakes we make, since we only had one chance. Obviously this gets more convoluted – it’s Nietzsche, he can’t order breakfast without convolution – but the gist is that the price of weightlessness is meaning, and the cost of meaning is heaviness.

I have to take issue with the idea that life is meaningless because it is lived once. On an individual level, our choices often stay with us, haunting us if they were bad choices, uplifting us if they were good. As a personal example – and yes, I know I’m neurotic as hell – I often recall something nasty I said in high school, something I doubt anyone else remembers, but it sticks with me and affects my current emotional state and behavior. Our decisions likewise have effects that persist, whether for good or bad. And on a grander scale, what we do affects others, and has resonances that carry forward. Some of these might be greater than others, and some might be so minor as to be overwhelmed by other resonances, but the present is the sum of the past.

I decided to read this book because it kept coming up in connection to Mad Men, in which so many characters become who they want to be without looking back. Don Draper, of course, who literally became someone else, then told Peggy, as she recovered from a pregnancy she’d been unaware of until she went into labor: “It will shock you how much this never happened.” Then there’s Harry telling would-be writer Paul to forget his crappy Star Trek script, his long slide down the advertising ladder into unemployment, his absurd dalliance with Hare Krishna, and go to California: “You don’t understand what it’s like out there. This failure? This life? It’ll all seem like it happened to someone else.” I see the connection now. But all those characters, they still carried the past with them.

So back to the book: It’s a good thing we start with something thoughtful, because otherwise, the first quarter of the book is just a domestic drama about a guy justifying his need to screw as many women as possible while in a committed relationship with one woman who’s working out big-time mommy issues while the tanks roll in after the Prague Spring. If that gives the impression it’s not a philosophico-political novel, that impression will be corrected by the second half of the book.

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to each Hermitude as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht.
If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative called it “A Dirty Book for Philosophy Geeks.” As much as it pains me to agree with anything in The American Conservative, he’s not wrong. I have a fairly low tolerance for fiction that tries to turn sex into something with mystical, psychosocial, or existential meaning. Sometimes sex is just sex, y’know? But there’s so much in this book aside from that, it’s well worth reading anyway. And, of course, for those who think Freud didn’t psychologize sex enough, hey, enjoy yourself.

Considering my lack of interest in the primary characters of the first two sections, I was surprised by how fond of them I was by the end of the book. Tereza and Tomas meet by chance in her small town, flirt just as he’s lightly fluttering away, and she turns up at his Prague apartment bringing her heaviness and her emotional baggage with her in the form of an overpacked suitcase. Tomas doesn’t let her get in the way of his mission to sleep with as many different women as possible, but he improbably falls in love with her and does modify some of his rules: they sleep together, holding hands. He even marries her. She becomes a photographer. They move to Zurich to get out of the way of the tanks (there are other women in Zurich, after all, and he’s a doctor, he can go jut about anywhere), but Tereza is unhappy and returns to Prague. And to his own surprise, Tomas follows her.

For seven years he had been bound to her, his every step subject to her scrutiny. She might as well have chained iron balls to his ankles. Suddenly his step was much lighter. He soared. He had entered Parmenides’ magic field: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being.

On Saturday and Sunday he felt the sweet lightness of being rise up to him out of the depths of the future. On Monday, he was hit by a weight the likes of which he had never known. The tons of steel of the Russian tanks were nothing compared with it. For there is nothing heavier than compassion.

Yes, it was unbearable for him to stay in Zurich imagining Teresa living on her own in Prague.

Unbearable lightness, indeed.

This compassion Tomas feels is a bit more involved than we might think, as Kundera explains in one of his intrusions. He distinguishes between the Latin-derived word compassion, and non-Latinate words from other languages, including Czech (the language in which he originally wrote the book), where the meaning is emotionally broader and less condescending:

All languages that derive from Latin form the word “compassion” by combining the prefix meaning “with” (com-) and the root meaning “suffering” (Late Latin, passio). In other languages, Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance – this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means “feeling”.
In languages that derive from Latin, “compassion” means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, “pity”, connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer. “To take pity on a woman” means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.
That is why the word “compassion” generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.
In languages that form the word “compassion” not from the root “suffering” but from the word “feeling,” the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion—joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.

I happen to know a native Czech speaker (hi, Andrew!), and he confirmed this, so it’s not just a technicality only a linguist would know, but is in fact part of the life-as-lived understanding of both words. Kundera wrote this book in Czech, while living in France (he started writing in French later on), and I would imagine this became an interesting point of translation. I have to wonder if the prospect of translation made this intrusion necessary. It’s rather a crucial point to realize Tomas’ connection to Tereza was not one of pity, but a bond over the entire range of emotions. He did not pity her; he connected with her. He wasn’t trying to help her or save her; he was trying to love her.

Another motif at play in the scene, and elsewhere, is courtesy of Beethoven. Though Tomas has obviously had more formal education, it’s Tereza who introduces him to the string quartet charmingly designated Op. 135. The final movement is titled “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss,” which can translate as “The difficult decision” or “The Weighty Resolution.” Keep in mind that resolution can be a musical term for the completion of a phrase in melody or harmony. The score itself reflects multiple resonances, as the musical phrase labeled “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) is followed by the musical phrase “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). Musician Martin Saving goes into some depth about the quartet on the Elias String quartet blog, a piece well worth reading to better understand what Beethoven might have meant (nobody’s sure) and, more importantly, its relevance to Tomas’s decision to return to Prague and Tereza. Did it have to be? Free will, or fate?

Lest you think Tereza and Tomas are the only characters in the book, let me introduce Sabine and Franz. They are another heavy/light couple, though in this case, Sabine is the light one and Franz the heavy. Sabine, a painter, intersects with both Tomas, as a lover, and Tereza, as a kind of artistic mentor for a short time. Sabine moves to Zurich and takes up with Franz, a married professor who keeps her a secret. He goes through some kind of epiphany in which he decides to “live in truth” and informs his wife, who says don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out, and Sabine, who takes of running for Paris. It’s ok, because he finds an undergrad with big glasses who worships him.

Sabine, the character most dedicated to lightness, despises kitsch, defined as what shows the good side and ignores the bad. The art mandated by the Communist regime, for example: smiling happy people praising the Movement. She does a different kind of painting, one she wasn’t free to do until she got out of Prague:

Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it Behind the Scenes. Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract. After pausing for a moment, she added, On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.

After leaving Franz, she is overcome with melancholy, the unbearable part of lightness. Still she travels the world, unwilling to be weighted down. My take is that too much lightness makes you float away.

Franz is the comic disaster of fakery, a study in trying to be heavy but really being a fool. After Sabine leaves him, he takes part in The Great March, a highly publicized trek of celebrities, intellectuals, and a few doctors to war-torn Cambodia on a mission to be famous treat sick people and the war-wounded. Alas, they aren’t allowed in, but Franz imagines Sabine watching him, following his great gesture of humanity, though she has been oblivious to him since she left him. He ends up murdered in Thailand because he’s a fool. Franz is the embodiment of kitsch, the kitsch Sabine despises.

That leaves us with Tereza and Tomas, who end up running afoul of the Communist regime once they’re back in Prague. They can’t leave because the borders are now closed (I was unaware the borders were ever open under the Soviet regime, so I learned something). Tomas writes a letter to the editor that has a special resonance in the current era:

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.
Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!
And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!
In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe?
It was in this connection that Tomas recalled the tale of Oedipus: Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realized what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by not knowing, he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.
When Tomas heard Communists shouting in defense of their inner purity, he said to himself, As a result of your not knowing, this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done? How is it you aren’t horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!

This goes out to all those concerned senators who aren’t quite concerned enough to do anything about what they’re so concerned about.

Tomas goes through some machinations involving his son from his first marriage after the letter is published, and is eventually demoted from neurosurgeon to window washer. He’s still pretty much ok since it’s amazing how many women you can screw as a window washer. But that gig eventually is barred to him as well, and he and Tereza head for the hills: that is, the countryside, to work on a collective farm. And here is where Tomas finally settles down with his wife and their dog, Karenin.

The dog’s death is highly emotional, partly because, sure, I’m a sucker for a dying pet, but because of how the changes in Tomas and Tereza are demonstrated: he has become less light, and she less heavy. Nietzsche with Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Amor Fata, another Nietzscheism: love whatever fate brings you, the good and the bad. No kitsch. From Karenin’s Smile to the end of the book, I loved these people who I’d merely tolerated pages earlier. Because the stories are interwoven between various characters, we’ve already seen ahead what will happen; the book stops just before then, leaving a poignant ache as the last page turns. I can’t believe it worked on me, but it did.

Seven years earlier, a complex neurological case happened to have been discovered at the hospital in Tereza’s town. They called in the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital in Prague for consultation, what’s the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital happened to be suffering from sciatica, and because he could not move he sent Tomas to the provincial hospital in his place. The town had several hotels, but Tomas happened to be given a room in the one where Teresa was employed. He happened to have enough free time before his train left to stop at the hotel restaurant. Teresa happened to be on duty, and happened to be serving Tomas’s table. It had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza, as if he had little inclination to go to her on his own.

Amor fati. Whether it’s a dying dog, or a girl who just happens to blow your way and teaches you to hold hands in bed. It might take years, it might change your life into something you barely recognize, but love it anyway, because whether it’s guided by fate or our own choices, it’s the only life you’ve got.