Weike Wang, “Chemistry” (Vintage, 2018)

The Chinese word for chemistry is hua xue. The first character means to change, transform, melt. The second character means to learn. Said with a different inflection, xue could mean snow, hua could mean speech, and chemistry becomes the melting of snow, becomes the learning of speech.

No, this isn’t a chemistry text, nor is it a Chinese language guide; it’s a novel about a woman who comes to several dead ends in her life, and has no idea what to do next. In her NYT review, Alexandra Alter called it an “anti-coming-of-age story: Instead of figuring out how to be an adult, the narrator learns to live with uncertainty and indecision.” Wang pushed back on that a little in her Asia Society blog interview: “the novel ends in the middle of [the narrator’s] development. She’s on the upswing as far as potential for change, but you don’t see the victory dance.” I’m not sure I like “coming of age” for someone who’s well into adulthood, but there is a coming-to-terms with, or at least a recognition of, a number of problematic relationships she’s been at the mercy of: with her mother, her father, her boyfriend, her career goals, and her identity as a Chinese-American woman and daughter.

I didn’t notice until I read the Penguin Reader’s Guide that only the boyfriend Eric is named. That’s interesting. Except for the narrator – who, naturally enough in a first-person story, doesn’t refer to herself as anything other than “I” – everyone but Eric is referred to by their relationship to her: parents, best friend, lab mate, math student. It almost feels like this is an inversion of the usual thing where the named characters are the most important. That Eric’s relationship isn’t labeled fits with both the odd relationship they had at the outset, and his departure midway through the novel.

The brittle humor and style – many smallish sections, about a page or so – keep things from edging into sentimentality, but there’s plenty of emotional territory covered. As well, some scenes are downright hilarious. Early on, our narrator loses her place in grad school; whether it’s because she’s just not a good enough chemist, or because she doesn’t love chemistry enough to do it well, is one of the issues she’s struggling with. Best Friend tries to help:

The best friend has sent me a present. It is a stuffed doll with yellow yarn for hair and two Xs for eyes and a line for a mouth. It is called a Dammit Doll. I am to grasp this doll by the legs and whack the stuffing out of it, while shouting, Dammit, dammit, dammit. I try, but the doll has proven to be made from industrial grade stuff. I have named it Science, You Motherfucker.

I can sympathize; mine would be named Math.

The beginning of the novel finds our narrator working outrageously long hours as a graduate student in her chem lab, yet unable to produce the result she needs. The confidence she felt as an outstanding student in high school is long gone, and she’s losing the love she had for the field:

Coming in, I think myself the best at chemistry. In high school, I win a national award for it. I say, cockily, at orientation, Yes, that was me, only to realize that everyone else had won it as well, at some point, In addition to awards I have never won.

I am a senior in college when I decide to go into synthetic organic chemistry. I am mesmerized by the art of it. The purpose of this kind of chemistry is to build a molecule that is already present in nature, but to build it better than nature, in the least number of steps, with a beautiful key step. Technique is everything. Percent yield is everything. For months I am running the same reaction over and over again, the seventh step of a twenty-four-step synthesis, just so I can get the yield up from 50 percent to 65 because anything under 60 is unacceptable to the advisor. Then for months, I am running step eight. Then for years, the advisor is asking, Do we have it, the molecule? And I say, no, it is still at large.
In time, you find yourself no longer mesmerized.

I’m reminded of an article by Kamil Ahsan about the falling-out-of-love-with-biology that happens when you “inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years.”

Add to this her sense that her boyfriend’s academic career is soaring, and she feels left behind. “Please stop, just for a little while, and let me catch up. How do you expect me to marry you if you never let me catch up?” she whispers at night as he sleeps.

Then there are parental expectations, both expressed and unexpressed. Her father has set a high bar by example:

My father’s is the classic immigrant story.
He is the first in his family to go to high school and college and graduate school and America. He is the first to become an engineer. …
But such progress is made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.

Her mother has a very different story.

My mother’s mother was one of the best architects in Shanghai.
In the late 1970s, she helps reconstruct the Bund. During this time, she tells my mother, still a teenager, that if she were ever to settle down and have children, she need only had daughters. Daughters have more chu xi and xiao shun, she says. Chu xi is the ability to succeed. Xiao shun is filial piety. My grandmother believes this because she was one of those daughters – having accomplished a great deal, having married well, raised two kids, and taken care of her parents in the last years of their lives.
But to follow my father to America, my mother inevitably gives up both.
And for this reason, I think she believes herself to have failed.
Then the moment of shock sets in. A daughter? You must be mistaken. I do not have a daughter. And if I did, how would I raise her if I cannot set for her an example?
Upon putting that car in reverse and leaving, she thinks, finally, a chance to start anew. But then she realizes that she cannot get very far without my father. There are many things she cannot read or say. And money, she doesn’t have her own money.
Maybe she also comes back because of you, the shrink says. The maternal instinct kicking in.
If she does, she never shows it.

This not only sets up high expectations – anything less than a PhD is unacceptable – but adds to the narrator’s reluctance to marry Eric and follow him when he is offered the job of his dreams at Oberlin.

All of this culminates in a meltdown (chemistry, the study of melting) in the lab and the breaking of beakers. She is put on medical leave and sent to a shrink, then cut from the program. Eric gets his dream job and moves without her. Now what?

Now what turns out to be continuing therapy, watching her best friend have a baby and leave her husband when he cheats on her, and working as a math and science tutor. Without the pressure of the lab and the exhausting work schedule, without the constant self-comparison to Eric, and without the pressure to decide about marriage, some things start to sort themselves out. Her memories of her parents grow less damaging. Her confusion about how to keep her Chinese identity while remaining American starts to become less burdensome. And she starts to enjoy teaching.

Science is used as example and metaphor throughout the novel.

Biologically, physical strength comes from mitochondria, which are organelles that generate all of our body’s energy. A unique feature of mitochondria is that they have their own DNA. Whereas the rest of the body is built on code that is half paternal and half maternal, mitochondrial DNA is entirely maternal and passed down from the mother.

Thus the narrator, instead of fearing she will disappoint her mother, can claim the strength she has inherited from her. Finding a different path does not have to mean failure; it can mean success is redefined, and becomes more fulfilling.

And if you think in terms of the nuclear family, physics teaches more than equations:

For a long time, scientists did not know why the nucleus of an atom held together. Theoretically, it should not. It is made up of all positive charges that should repel, but somehow, it persists.

It’s not by accident Wang chose science for the background of her first novel. She did her undergraduate work at Harvard in Chemistry, completed a doctorate in Public Health, and then picked up an MFA from Boston University. It’s interesting, in this STEM-focused era, how some people find their way back to the humanities.

I put this book on my TBR list when I first heard about it a couple of years ago; the blend of science and cultural adaptation appealed to me. Then I came across Wang’s story “Omakase” in last year’s BASS. Interestingly, it involves a woman moving to another city for a man, a man who annoyed me greatly. In my wrap-up post for the volume, I said I wasn’t sure about it yet; that’s still the case, but it was enough to move this novel from list to bookshelf for this year’s read.

I think the style was used to great effect here; a novel with a more fluid style, scene transitions and more filled-out prose, would have felt unduly heavy and almost trite. Instead, the novel bubbles and bounces, leaving its marks in concentrated packets. Of course, I enjoyed the use of science. And it turns out I like academic novels even when they stop being academic halfway through.

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin (Vintage International edition, 1989)

How should we diagnose his sad case? Pnin, it should be particularly stressed, was anything but the type of that good-natured German platitude of the last century, der zerstreute Professor. On the contrary, we was perhaps too wary, too persistently on the lookout for diabolical pitfalls, too painfully on the alert lest his erratic surroundings (unpredictable America) inveigle him into some bit of preposterous oversight. It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight. His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence. He was inept with his hands to a rare degree; but because he could manufacture in a twinkle a one-note mouth organ out of a pea pod, make a flat pebble skip ten times on a the surface of a pond, shadowgraph with his knuckles a rabbit (complete with blinking eye), and perform a number of other tame tricks that Russians have up their sleeves, he believed himself endowed with considerable manual and mechanical skill. On gadgets he doted with a kind of dazed, superstitious delight. Electric devices enchanted him. Plastics swept him off his feet. He had a deep admiration for the zipper. But the devoutly plugged-in clock would make nonsense of his mornings after a storm in the middle of the night had paralyzed the local power station. The frame of his spectacles would snap in mid-bridge, leaving him with two identical pieces, which he would vaguely attempt to unite, in the hope, perhaps, of some organic marvel of restoration coming to the rescue. The zipper a gentleman depends on most would come loose in his puzzled hand at some nightmare moment of haste and despair.
And he still did not know that he was on the wrong train.

How come no one ever told me how wonderful this book is?

I don’t even remember why I added it to my in-between read list this year; I vaguely recall reading somewhere something like “the novel about the very funny Professor Pnin.” I could be imagining that, but since I have a longstanding fondness for “campus novels” (a subgenre I didn’t realize, until I read David Lodge’s 2004 commentary on the novel, only came into existence in the early to mid-1950s, and thus of which Pnin serves as an early example) I would have been tempted by such a description.

It worked both as a casual surface read – wonderful turns of language, amusing characters, arpeggios running from preposterously funny entanglements to heartbreaking pathos, the incorporation of poignant phrases done so subtly it’s almost as if they were accidental – and, with some help from those more perceptive than I, as an example of literary skill as well.

It’s fairly short for a novel – less than 200 pages for my trade paperback edition – and divided into seven episodic chapters. It comes close to being the “novel in stories,” in fact. And I discovered there’s a reason for that: four of those chapters were serialized in The New Yorker over the course of a couple of years in the mid-fifties, before its publication as a novel in 1957.

Thanks to the paper “A Resolved Discord” by Gennady Barabtarlo, I discovered an additional structure to the inner chapters (excluding the first and seventh, which have a different relationship): they begin and end in ways to strengthen their themes:

Chapter Two opens to the tune of the Waindell College chimes, replaced by the ringing of the Clementses’ telephone (Pnin calls to inquire about renting a room in their house), and ends with a close-up of Joan Clements abstractly examining the cover of a local magazine with the Waindell belfry on it, while Pnin yields to utter despair.
Chapter Three begins with a description of Pnin’s uncomfortable, sound-leaking lodgings and closes at the point when Pnin will have to vacate the first room in which he feels really at home.
Chapter Four, which is central both compositionally and thematically, has been studied more thoroughly than any other chapter. Victor Wind dreams of his imaginary father, a lonely and betrayed King, at the beginning; at the end, Pnin (Victor’s water father, as his real father, Eric Wind, jokes, perhaps more aptly than he may suppose) sees a sequel to Victor’s fantasy in his own dream….
In Chapter Five the woods of “beautiful New England” fan out most tranquilly as far as the view from a watch-tower can afford. Towards the end of the chapter, however, they change gradually into, and then are replaced by, the ominous German forest where Pnin’s sweetheart was murdered in one of the extermination camps situated inside a serene environment, at the core of a German cultural memorial.
At the beginning of Chapter Six, a new semester at Waindell starts on its routine autumn course, and Pnin finds a suitable home at long last; at the end, he must give up his position at the university and the sweet hope of settling in the house for good.

~ Gennady Barabtalo: “A Resolved Discord”

The first and last chapters are something like bookends, giving us our first and last glimpses of both Pnin, and the narrator. Barabtalo calls them “outward facing,” a phrase I don’t quite understand but quite like, and notes they also face each other, a concept I can see more clearly and will get to presently.

The one writing technique I noticed on my own was the question of the narrator’s identity. In fact, the story often became less important to me than the question of who is telling the story, and it’s not a question that is ever definitively answered.

And, incredibly enough, this ends up relating to language, translation, pain, and … Don Quixote! Stephen Casmier ties them all together in his 2004 paper (2004 seems to have been a banner year for Pnin analysis, I’m not sure why), “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation.” His thesis, as I interpret it (and I could be misreading; it’s a bit above my pay grade) is that Nabokov conceived of this novel while giving a series of lectures on Don Quixote (one of which is referred to, by the way, in Jason Brown’s “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” from Pushcart 2020), and was intrigued by Quixote’s pain, how it was narrated, translated into language, alongside Wittgenstein’s and Scarry’s concepts that pain confounds language; all of this gets wrapped up in Pnin, who teaches Russian language and mangles English in hilarious ways (whisky and soda comes out as varnish and sawdust, yet his landlady knows exactly what he means).

In many ways, pain is the white noise of Pnin, a constant pulse, throbbing in the background. Pnin is a man in unrelenting, unforgettable and often unexpressed pain.

~ Stephen Casmier: “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation”

Let’s start with pain; then we’ll look at narration, and let Casmier tie everything together.

Pnin’s narrator reveals his pain several times. Even his name – he gives explicit instructions on the pronunciation of his first name, Timofey, but we never know the correct way to say Pnin – speaks to the garbled language of pain. Several specific instances stand out to me. In the first chapter, for example, as he is struggling to get to a speaking engagement but has found himself on the wrong train, he suffers some kind of seizure, one of those moments of extreme emotionality in the middle of a comedic episode.

In the second chapter, we meet his ex-wife, a piece of work if there ever was one. That she is a psychiatrist is the icing on the cake. When they are still living in Europe, she dumps him for another guy, gets pregnant, claims to want Pnin back in order to use his possession of a special visa to obtain passage to the States, and sends the cuckolder to dump him again on board the ship even as Pnin is enthusiastically planning the adoption of his child. Now, thirteen years later, she shows up, insults his lodgings, his clothing, his salary, and asks him to send money monthly to the child, a gifted teen artist in boarding school, as she is again divorcing. It’s painful to read. Even as he agrees to her request, Pnin recognizes her flaws, and after she leaves, he contemplates the downside of heaven as being reunited with her. Then he encounters a highly symbolic squirrel:

He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths ) on the verge of a simple solution of the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request. A squirrel under a tree had seen Pnin on the path. In one sinuous tendril-like moment, the intelligent animal climbed up to the brim of a drinking fountain and, as Pnin approached, thrust its oval face toward him with a rather coarse spluttering sound, its cheeks puffed out. Pnin understood and after some fumbling he found what had to be pressed for the necessary results. Eyeing him with contempt, the thirsty rodent forthwith began to sample the stocky sparkling pillar of water, and went on drinking for a considerable time. “She has fever, perhaps,” thought Pnin, weeping quietly and freely, and all the time politely pressing the contraption down while trying not to meet the unpleasant eye fixed upon him. Its thirst quenched, the squirrel departed without the least sign of gratitude.
The water father continued up on his way ….

I’ve noticed several commentators refer to the frequent appearance of squirrels in the book, but this is the only one that I noticed, perhaps because it has a neon sign flashing “I’m recreating the prior humiliation!” It’s not irrelevant that the ex-wife, when she told Pnin about the pregnancy, referred to Pnin as the boy’s “water father” because of the ocean voyage.

In Chapter 5, the émigré weekend at The Pines, a deeper agony is revealed. Pnin recalls his first love, Mira, who was lost to him by circumstances beyond their control: “The Civil War of 1918-22 separated them: history broke their engagement.” They each married others, and ran into each other in Berlin some time later. This might seem like enough pain, but we’re just getting started:

In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin — not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind (alas, recollections of his marriage to Liza were imperious enough to crowd out any former romance), but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget—because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past.

If Pnin suppresses his pain, he has not forgotten it, as we see in Chapter 6 when he, at his most buoyant in the novel, giving a “house-heating” party for his new home, looking forward to a new semester, unaware he is about to be fired, makes enthusiastic plans with the dean who is about to do the firing:

You and I will give next year some splendid new courses which I have planned long ago. On Tyranny. On the Boot. On Nicholas the First. On all the precursors of modern atrocity. Hagen, when we speak of injustice, we forget Armenian massacres, tortures which Tibet invented, colonists in Africa …The history of man is the history of pain.

This is also where he mentions he has been advised by doctors, upon x-ray examination, that there is “a shadow behind the heart.” There sure is. By the way, it’s interesting reading the above paragraph on a weekend when statues of slaveholders, slave traders, racists and exploiters of various nations are being torn down by those tired of honoring evil.

Now about that narration. Things start out as typically third-person omniscient, a narrator who has insight into Pnin’s thoughts and knowledge of all his past and present actions. Sometimes it seems to address the reader a bit – “Now a secret must be imparted,” we’re told, the secret being that Pnin is on the wrong train. “How should we diagnose his sad case?” as an introduction to an encapsulation of Pnin’s overall personality and manner. The narrator refers to him as “our friend”. All of this could be seen as a stylistic approach to a standard narration, a style generally abandoned over a hundred years ago when somehow it was decided that narrators should blend into the woodwork, but it seemed a bit odd to me beyond the now-abandoned technique of having a pseudo-personality as narrator.

And sure enough, about two-thirds of the way through chapter 1, in discussing the episode of physical distress Pnin experiences when he realizes the complexities of getting to his lecture on time and with his paper, the narrator coalesces into a person, though an unidentified one: “I do not know if it has ever been noted before…” leading into a metaphorical discussion of Pnin’s distress. “Was his seizure a heart attack? I doubt it. For the nonce, I am his physician, and let me repeat, I doubt it.” I was led astray by this sentence, and thought the narrator was indeed Pnin’s physician, thus could conceivably have more access to the material revealed. But that was a misreading. “For the nonce” makes physicianship a momentary function of the narrator, not their relationship. I would like to believe this was a deliberate misdirection on Nabokov’s part, but since I don’t see reference to it anywhere else, I will have to put it upon myself and my less-than-sophisticated reading skill.

This personhood of the narrator, though not the identity, is nailed down at the end of the first chapter, when we find he would have preferred to see more pain for Pnin:

Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival to Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next. Actually, however, he not only arrived safely but was in time for dinner ….

This narratorial intrusion (can that be a thing, please) continues throughout the book, but we don’t get a clue as to the identity of the person until the last chapter, when we discover he is an incoming Waindell professor, a replacement to Hagen, I presume, and claims to have met Pnin several times over his life, the first when they were children (though Pnin disputes those accounts). And here’s where the Casmier paper becomes an excellent guide to this mystery:

Nabokov uses several techniques to create a profoundly unsteady literary landscape—casting aspersions on the first-person narrator and what he actually knows about his subject, Pnin, and thus hopelessly alienating Pnin from the narrator and the instance of narration. Readers learn, for example, that Pnin leaves the scene at the same moment that the narrator enters the timeline of his own narrative. Pnin drives off down the highway while the narrator pursues him by foot, never catching up. Because of this, the reader surmises that knowledge that the narrator has about Pnin must be second-hand and garnered through the mostly unreliable sources of Waindell.
….
Indeed, by the end of the novel, it becomes manifest that much of what the reader knows about Pnin could have been made up just so the narrator could flaunt his own, brilliant writing abilities. In essence, Pnin (the character) seems like a horrible translation, presented by a translator with a dubious relationship to his subject.

~ Stephen Casmier: “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation”

That last scene, literally the last page of the book, is so wonderful, it’s worth quoting here:

Hardly had I taken a couple of steps when a great truck carrying beer rumbled up the street, immediately followed by a small pale blue sedan with the white head of a dog looking out, after which came another great truck, exactly similar to the first. The humble sedan was crammed with bundles and suitcases; its driver was Pnin. I emitted a roar of greeting, but he did not see me ….I hurried past the rear truck, and had another glimpse of my old friend, in tense profile, wearing a cap with earflaps and a storm coat; but next moment the light turned green, the little white dog leaning out yapped at Sobakevitch, and everything surged forward – truck one, Pnin, truck two. From where I stood I watched them recede in the frame of the roadway, between the Moorish house and the Lombardy poplar. Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying which miracle might happen.
Cockerell, brown-robed and sandaled, let in the cocker and led me kitchenward, to a British breakfast of depressing kidney and fish.
“And now,” he said, “I am going to tell you the story of Pnin rising to address the Cremona Women’s Club and discovering he had brought the wrong lecture. .”

This brings us back to the beginning (I love circular structure; the first and last chapters facing each other, indeed) but, more importantly, it indicates there is a possible source for the material the narrator could not know: Jack Cockerell, fellow professor and skilled Pnin mimic (and possibly rooster-man), who has bored more than one party (such as the one in Chapter 2) with far too many re-enactments shading from humorous to caricature to cruelty. So not only could the writer/narrator be making things up to show off his literary skill (though his reluctance to change the Cremona ending to suit his taste for a more tragic ending might hint against that) but his source is likely exaggerating simply to give himself better performance material. And of course there could be other sources in addition to Cockerell.

What does this have to do with Don Quixote, with translation? The issue isn’t one of language translation, but of character translation from reality to page, via a writer and, possibly, a narrator. Then Casmier looks at how the character himself leaves the work and becomes something on his own, something outside the control of the writer, narrator, or anyone other than whoever is creating him in their mind, memory, and imagination. DQ with its multiple layers of narration – an original manuscript, a second manuscript, a translation, and someone who put it all together, reaching back to the creator of the universe, for that matter – is how Casmier sees the narrative structure of Pnin, all metaphorically reflecting how our pain gets conveyed. Philosophers would start using words like qualia – conscious experience, such as pain, that simply can’t be transferred from one to another but only described, the ultimate problematic translation – but I’m already way over my head here so I’ll just drop that there.

But let me drop in one more observation, one I didn’t recognize until I started putting together the header image for this post featuring the book cover of the edition I read. I confess that it is my favorite cover of the options I see, though it’s mere coincidence that this is the cover I ended up with; I ordered it used, sight unseen. Yet here I see Pnin, the title, author, and bow tie, is neatly encased in a frame or shadow box, which is neatly encased on a shaded background. Did the layers of narration make it to the cover art, or is this merely aesthetics?

None of this is really necessary to enjoy the book. There isn’t much plot; most of it is coming to know more about Pnin through his interactions with colleagues, landlords, his ex-wife, and her child. Some may find the wordiness annoying, in this age when minimalism rules, but that’s one of the things I liked most. I enjoyed the mystery of the narrator, the blend of joy and agony, Pnin’s rise to bliss, and if I’m sad that this bubble was popped at the end, I understand he shows up again in Pale Fire and so has landed on his feet. A happy ending, narrator be damned.

Daniel Kehlmann (Ross Benjamin, translator): Tyll (Pantheon, 2020)

The war had not yet come to us. We lived in fear and hope and tried not to draw God’s wrath down upon our securely walled town, with its hundred and five houses and the church and the cemetery, where our ancestors waited for the Day of Resurrection.
We prayed often to keep the war away. We prayed to the Almighty and to the kind Virgin, we prayed to the Lady of the Forest and to the Little People of Midnight, to Saint Gerwin, to Peter the Gatekeeper, to John the Evangelist, and to be safe we also prayed to Old Mela, who during the Twelve Nights, when the demons are let loose, roams the heavens at the head of her retinue. We prayed to the Horned Ones of ancient days and to Bishop Martin, who shared his cloak with the beggar when the latter was freezing, so that they were then both freezing and both pleasing to God, for what’s the use of half a cloak in winter, and of course we prayed to Saint Maurice, who had chosen death with a whole legion rather than betray his faith in the one just God.
Twice a year the tax collector came and always seemed surprised that we were still here. Now and then merchants came, but since we didn’t buy much they soon went on their way, which was all right with us. We needed nothing from the wide world and gave it no thought until one morning a covered wagon, pulled by a donkey, rolled down our main street. It was a Sunday at the beginning of spring, the stream was swollen with meltwater, and in those fields that weren’t lying fallow we had sown the seed.
A red canvas tent was pitched on the wagon. In front of it crouched an old woman. Her body looked like a bag, her face seemed made of leather, her eyes looked like tiny black buttons. A younger woman with freckles and dark hair stood behind her. But on the coach box sat a man we recognized even though he had never been here before, and when the first of us realized who he was and called his name, others too realized, and soon many voices were calling from all directions: “Tyll is here!” “Tyll has come!” “Look, it’s Tyll!” It could be no one else.

And here we go again: I love a book that teaches me something. Those who’ve read those words from me before know this will be one of my long, meandering posts that may not really address the book as much as the learning experience. So let me give you the short version up front: I loved this book. I loved the themes of decision points, of contrasting points of view, of modernity’s science and individuality emerging slowly from the pre-modern superstition and group identity, of the absurd juxtapositions of Christian words and deeds, of the obscenity of war. I loved the writing style that changed to fit the story from chapter to chapter, acting something like Tyll himself: now mocking, now thoughtful, now playful, now caring and kind, now terrifying, now uncertain. I loved the philosophy woven into the story, the art and drama, the historical personages, the major works of scholars. And I loved the touches of the supernatural, the hints that sometimes were never really nailed down, and the other outright magic.

If you’re wondering if you would enjoy reading it, I suggest you check out one of the many professional reviews can be found in all the usual places: TNY, the NYT, the Guardian. Rob Doyle for the TLS is the only clearly negative entry: while he admires the sprinkling of “Borgesian tidbits”, he feels “it is quite a slog – there’s lots of history and not enough story.” I would disagree, arguing that the history is presented as story, with the characters evincing their own unique qualities and undergoing various trials and adventures, all of which involve, at some point, meeting up with Tyll Ulenspiegel, himself a semi-historical character. Then again, I did my second read in front of my computer, checking out every name, place, and date, which, ok, some might consider a slog. I found it great fun.

I don’t remember how this book came to my attention, but someone said something that grabbed me. Kehlmann is a German writer, not likely to come across my screen by the usual channels. The book was published in German back in 2017 with great success in Europe; the English translation was released this year. I’ve read that it’s being filmed as a Netflix series (though who knows what the pandemic may do to that idea); I think that means it will be in German, since those notices preceded the English publication. If that’s the case, I hope Netflix will make English subtitles available. I’m very curious to see how they realize the book.

I knew nothing about the Thirty Years’ War in which it is set, and the only thing I thought I knew about Til Eulenspiegel turned out to be completely wrong (for some reason, I thought he was a female fairy or a nymph, not a male prankster). I hit Wikipedia and the Youtube for some general info before I read the book. The original Tyll Eulenspiegel (the spelling of both names varies; the novel uses Tyll Ulenspiegel) was possibly a real person from the fourteenth century, but was solidified as a prankster character by a sixteenth-century chapbook. The background image of Tyll I used in the header image above is from a 1921 German “emergency note”, temporary money issued after WWI. Seems a little weird to put a famous prankster on money, but it was a weird time. The war is way too complicated to really understand; I can’t keep straight who’s Catholic and who’s Protestant, and have no idea how all the many kingdoms are organized. I did some additional basic research on individuals as I read along, which helped; in one case I recognized a character from something I read last year, which really curled my toes. I’m guessing my toes would have curled more if I’d been more up on the war, but my lack of info didn’t get in the way of the read at all.

The chapters – or maybe sections would be a better word for it, since some of the longer ones are subdivided into numbered chapters – each have distinctive characteristics, and are set at various times during the Thirty Years’ War that devastated great portions of northern and central Europe in the seventeenth century. The sections aren’t in chronological order, they feature different characters, and different narrative styles and tones are used. There’s some mild confusion for a few pages at times until it becomes clear who’s who and when, but in general, I found it read easily. And of course, what ties it all together is Tyll, even though he barely appears in some sections.

Let’s go through it, shall we, and I’ll add in some extras along the way.

We start out with “Shoes,” which, as quoted above, opens in a small village as yet unaffected by the war. This chapter introduces us to Tyll’s travelling circus at perhaps the height of his fame as an entertainer, and to the qualities that sum him up as a person. For example, his signature talents are tightrope walking and juggling, which serve as metaphors for his life skills throughout the book. It’s told in third person plural from the point of view of the town; this gives the final paragraphs great impact.

In his NYT interview with Tobias Gray, Kehlmann explains how he heard the shoe story as a child as a moral tale, with Tyll’s pranks “showing people their folly.” He later disagreed with this; a purported translation of the original chapbook gives the impression the “Shoes” incident was more about revenge for the village boys dumping him in the river than about an ethics lesson. So Kehlmann has rewritten it in this book with a conversation that indicates more clearly that this Tyll’s point is shining a spotlight on hypocrisy and the evil that lurks even in the most upright towns: he chats with a young girl, asking her if the people are “good people…. Peaceful people, help each other, understand each other, like each other, is that the sort of people they are?” The girl assures him they are. Yet, during his tightrope stunt, they are easily goaded into attacking each other over, of all things, shoes. The town remembers:

We never spoke about what had happened. Nor did we speak about Ulenspiegel. Without having arranged it, we stuck to this; even Hans Semmler, who was so severely injured that from now on he was confined to his bed and could eat nothing but thick soup, pretended it had never been otherwise. And even the widow of Karl Schönknecht, whom we buried the next day in the churchyard, acted as if it had been a blow of fate and as if she didn’t know exactly whose knife it had been in his back. Only the rope still hung for days over the square, trembled in the wind and was a perch for sparrows and swallows until the priest, who had been roughed up especially badly during the brawl, because we didn’t like his boastfulness and his condescension, could climb up the bell tower again to cut it down.
At the same time, we didn’t forget. What had happened remained between us. It was there while we brought in the harvest, and it was there when we bargained over our grain or assembled on Sunday for the Mass, where the priest had a new facial expression, half wonder and half fear. And it was there especially when we held celebrations on the square and when we looked each other in the face while dancing. Then the air seemed heavier, the water different on our tongues, and the sky, where the rope had hung, not quite itself.

This entire first chapter is available online at Bomb Magazine; it’s short, entertaining, moving, and worth the read. But don’t be misled (and don’t worry, if you happen to hate first person plural); remember, each chapter has its own narrative style and tone.

The second section, “Lord of the Air”, is much longer and serves as a sort of origin story, laying down a foundation that will return again and again throughout later chapters. Tyll is just a boy; his father Claus married himself into the town miller job, but is at heart a philosopher. That made it one of the most fun chapters for me, as I watched him wrestle with the sorities paradox, aka the Problem of the Heaps (if you take a grain of sand from a heap of sand, is it still a heap? At what point is it not a heap?) which became the 20th century’s fuzzy logic exemplar, the Indiscernability of Identicals that Liebniz formulated just a few decades after Claus, infinities, and other topics those of us fond of philosophy and logic moocs have encountered along the way. At the same time, he works on spells, potions, and amulets. It’s a wonderful reminder that, even with the spells and superstitions, this is the world on the brink of modernity, with science on its way down the birth canal.

Tyll as well does some thinking that could be considered philosophical; he wonders what it’s like to be a donkey. Thomas Nagel will later write a famous paper about consciousness titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, but for Tyll, the donkey experience is alien enough. He retains an affinity with donkeys for the rest of the novel. I’ve tried to figure out if there’s some symbolism involved, but all I come up with is the helper animal of Christianity, and I’m not sure that fits.

[Addendum: A couple of hours after this post went live, Egyptologist/Historian (and tweeter of Papyrus Stories) Jenny Cromwell tweeted a link to a new French Egyptology book (English title In The Footsteps Of The Donkey In The Egyptian Religion. There’s an English abstract on the publisher’s website:

Donkeys were essential in ancient Egyptian trade and agriculture, but their value was nuanced by their perception in religion. The animal appears in funerary, magical or ritual sources, where it often reflects an ambivalent nature, while its well-known association to the evil god Seth is constantly reminded in the modern literature.
Either benevolent or evil, donkeys are ambiguous entities that can be recognized as dreadful beings possessing powers praised for their protective efficiency. Although they can be associated to Seth, they also followed their own path. In magical texts, the animal was feared and revered at the same time, becoming a powerful entity holding spears and evoked as a protector, while in the context of the temple it will be annihilated as the archetype of evil.

Marie Vandenbeusch: Sur les pas de l’âne dans la religion egyptienne, website English abstract

This sounds a lot more like Tyll than the Christian symbolism. It’s only connected to him via Kircher’s hieroglyphics work, so it’s tenuous at best, but there might be another connection I’m unaware of. And I do love a good coincidence (even if it’s really just confirmation bias).]

Tyll has a bizarre experience in the forest while transporting flour to another town in the care of his mother and a farmhand. The exact details are uncertain, but there are clues that some kind of fundamental shift takes place. His interest in the donkey is cemented here. Yet the highlight is his father’s execution for heresy, a prosecution Tyll unwittingly sparks when he has a brief conversation with a Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher. Kircher (as well as his mentor, Oswald Tesimond) is a historical person, a scholar of great reputation. He will come back into the picture later, and there is much to explore about him, but for now, a brief detour into his expertise in draconology aside, his role as a mini-inquisitor takes center stage.

Tyll realizes his childhood is over; he might have to become a day laborer, unless the Jesuits decide to come after him as well. He asks his friend Nele to run away with him:

Suddenly she felt a wondrous excitement, and her throat seemed constricted, and her heart pounded. “Why do you say we?”
“Because you’re coming with me.”
“With you?”
“That’s why I was waiting.”
She knew she must not think, or else she would lose her courage, or else she would stay here, as was in store for her; but he was right, you really could leave. The place where everyone thought you had to stay – in actuality nothing was keeping you there.
…there are only a few moments when two things are possible, one path as much as another. Only a few moments when you can decide.

This becomes another theme that carries through the book: decision points.

They spend a rough night in the forest, then fall in with a third-rate balladeer, Gottfried. He’s a decent sort, though, and their dancing improves his balladeering, so they team up. They, and we, are introduced to the idea that those in the travelling trades give up the protection of the authorities: “That is the price of freedom,” which sounds something like Hobbes contrasting the state of nature with the social contract.

They encounter Pirmin, another entertainer, and a better one, but a bit of a scary guy. Do you go with the guy who is good to you, or the guy who can teach you something? For Tyll, there is no question, but Nele is more hesitant, and we have another decision point:

It’s true, of course, that Gottfried can’t do much. But he has been good to them. And she doesn’t like this fellow. There is something not right about him. On the other hand, it’s true, of course: Gottfried will not be able to teach them anything.
On the other hand, on the other hand. Pirmin winks as if he were reading her thoughts.
Tyll jerks his head impatiently. “Come on, Nele!”
She need only extend her arm.

Then we zoom forward with the section titled “Zusmarschausen,” named for what would be the last major battle of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. The primary character is the Fat Count, Martin von Wolkenstein, who has been sent by the Kaiser to fetch the now-famous jester Tyll Ulenspiegel from the Abbey of Andechs, where he has taken refuge from the war raging in the area. It’s basically an expose on the horrors of war, punctuated by the hilarity of the Fat Count’s future writings of his life’s chronicle. It’s an interesting narrative technique: the voice of the future following up the events that occur with how the Fat Count will related them in his Chronicle. Whether it’s his memory or his desire to appear less lazy, or both, it’s a bit of a poke at these kinds of memoirs and a reminder that, in the absence of documentation, they might be taken with a grain of salt.

And again, the style of the writing fits the chapter:

In his life’s chronicle, the style of which was still beholden to the fashionable tone of his youthful days, that is, of erudite arabesque and florid ornamentation, the fat count depicted in sentences that, precisely due to their exemplary tortuousness, have since found their way into many a schoolbook, the leisurely ride through the green of the Vienna Woods: at Melk we reached the wide blue of the Danube, alighting there at the magnificent Abbey to pillow our weary heads for the night.
Once again this was not entirely true; in reality they stayed for a month.

Exemplary tortuousness, indeed.

I found a dozen or so examples of this “not entirely true” approach to Wolkenstein’s memoir. Sometimes he doesn’t remember what happened, so he inserts digressions of twelve or seventeen pages on his mother or some other irrelevant topic; sometimes he just shaves the truth to make his journey appear more courageous than it was; he leaves out one incident, it seems, because it felt too personally meaningful, even though that’s what a life chronicle should express. I’ll include just one exemplar. After he retrieves Tyll from the Abbey and is on his way back to the Kaiser in Augsburg, he is caught in a bloody artillery attack, one of the more gruesome scenes in the book (there are several which are worse). I include this because, not only is the Fat Count plagiarizing, but the source he’s stealing is also plagiarized:

Even then he sensed that all this would have to be told differently in his book one day. He would not succeed in any description, for everything would elude him, and the sentences he would be able to form would not match the pictures in his memory.
And indeed: that which had happened did not even appear in his dreams. Only occasionally did he recognize in what seemed utterly different dream events a distant echo of those moments when he had come under fire at the edge of Streitheim Forest near Zusmarshausen.
Years later he questioned the unfortunate Count Gronsfeld, whom the Bavarian Elector had summarily arrested after the defeat. Toothless, weary, and coughing, the former commander of the Bavarian troops named the names and places, he described the strength of the various units and drew deployment maps so that the fat count managed to some extent to account for roughly where he had been and what had befallen him and his companions. Yet the sentences refused to fall into line. And so he stole others.
In a popular novel he found a description he liked, and when people urged him to recount the last battle of the great German war, he told them what he had read in Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus. It didn’t quite fit, because that passage was about the Battle of Wittstock, but it didn’t bother anyone, no one ever raised any questions. What the fat count could not have known, however, was that Grimmelshausen, though he did experience the Battle of Wittstock firsthand, had himself been unable to describe it and instead had stolen the sentences of an English novel translated by Martin Opitz, the author of which had never witnessed a battle in his life.

While the Fat Count Martin von Wolkenstein appears to be a fictional character (it’s implied he is a descendant of 15th century poet and composer Oscar von Wolkenstein) and thus his life chronicle exists only within this book, the rest is from fact. The picaresque novel Simplicissimus from 1668, which by the way has some similarities with the original Eulenspiegel chapbook, was assumed to be semiautobiographical until it was pointed out that Grimmelshausen never participated in the war at all. In the foreword to a 2008 translation of Simplicissimus by John C. Osborne, Prof. Lynne Tatlock tells us: “The vivid description of the Battle of Wittstock in chapter 27 of book 2, for example, that can tempt modern readers to speak of realism, borrows liberally from an encyclopedic work of the seventeenth century, the Theatrum Europaeum.” Opitz is often considered the Father of German Poetry, and did a great deal of translating, though I can’t verify he translated that particular work.

None of this really affects the reading of the novel; I just find it interesting how Kehlmann chooses what bits and pieces to weave into his work. And I love diving into these rabbit holes. This is what the internet was made for!

Although the Fat Count is played as a blowhard, he has his moments and is deeply affected by what he witnessed. Tyll, meanwhile, comments on a couple of incidents from other chapters. As they are wandering in the forest before the artillery attack, he tells them, “I know the forest. I became a forest spirit when I was a small boy….A white forest spirit…. For the great devil.” This recalls the flour experience in “Lord of the Air” and hints at, but doesn’t quite explain, what happened. After the attack, he tells the Count about his experience in the mine of Brno three years earlier; this will be a later chapter. But, again, he stops short of explanation of his escape.

And so each chapter needs to be read mindful of each of the other chapters, even though they exist more or less independently. It’s why I ended up going through the novel three times: once as a straight read, a second time to pull quotes and research the historical mentions, and a third time to make connections. A fourth straight read wouldn’t hurt. It’s a novel that unfolds more and more with each read.

The next section, “Kings in Winter,” begins with someone named Liz in the Hague; it takes a while to figure out who this is and where we are in time, but as near as I can tell, it’s 1632 and Liz is Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England, wife of Frederick V, the Elector Palatine of Bohemia. None of this meant anything to me, and it’s still pretty hazy, but apparently his coronation kicked off the Thirty Years’ War and he fled in exile after less than a year, earning him the title The Winter King – and, for Liz, the Winter Queen. She is now ensconced in the Hague, is running out of money, and is waiting for her husband to return from his mission to reclaim his palatinate (is that a word?). As you can tell, for me the details of the political machinations don’t particularly inspire the research that other things do.

Liz starts out as something of an out-of-touch elite, but by the end of the novel she was one of my favorite characters. In this chapter, she affords the opportunity to bring in John Donne (who wrote a poem for her upon her marriage to Frederick, referring to her as “fair phoenix bride”), Shakespeare (who appears, uncredited and briefly, and then by implication), and a great deal of venom towards the German language. Oh, and Daddy issues: “This was just how Papa was. When you were counting on him, he left you in the lurch.”

Daddy – who, remember, is King James I of England – is also the mechanism by which the hypocrisy of Christianity is revealed in this chapter. Following the failed Gunpowder Plot (which I finally understand to some degree), her father deals with the conspirators:

He summoned not only the best torturers of his two kingdoms but also three pain experts from Persia and the emperor of China’s most learned tormentor. He commanded them to cause the prisoners every kind of agony that was known to be possible for a person to cause other people, and in addition he had tortures invented that no one yet envisioned. All the specialists were ordered to devise procedures more refined and dreadful than any the great painters of the inferno had dreamed. The one condition was that the light of the soul not be extinguished and that the prisoner not go mad: the perpetrators still had to name their confidants, after all, and they should have time to ask God’s forgiveness and to repent. For Papa was a good Christian.

Tyll showed up on her doorstep one day, along with Nele. They danced, he juggled, and finally they put on a little play with clear similarities to the death scene of Romeo and Juliet. Given Liz’s fondness for theatre, and particularly the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting troupe), she invited them to stay. She needed a court jester, to further convince herself she was still a Queen. And here I learned about the fool’s license: it’s the jester’s duty to make fun of the royal, since no one else is allowed to.

Tyll plays a joke on the entire court:

He had made his debut by giving her a painting. No, it was not a painting, it was a white canvas with nothing on it. “Have it framed, little Liz, hang it up. Show it to the others!… Show it to your husband, the beautiful picture, let the poor King see it. And everyone else!”…
“It’s a magic picture, little lives. No one born out of wedlock can see it. No one stupid can see it. No one who has stolen money can see it . No one option no good, no one who cannot be trusted, no one who’s a gallows bird or a thievish knave or an arsehole with ears can see it – for him, there’s no picture there!”
She hasn’t been able to help laughing.
“No, really, little Liz, tell the people!…. Tell them, watch what happens!”
What had happened still astonished her, every single day, and it would never cease to astonish her period the visitors stood helplessly before the white picture and didn’t know what they were supposed to say. For it was complicated, after all. They knew there was nothing there, of course, but they weren’t sure whether Liz knew it too, and thus it was also conceivable that she would take someone who told her there was nothing there for illegitimate, stupid, or thieving. They racked their brains. Had a spell been cast on the picture, or had someone fooled Liz, or was she playing a joke on everyone? The fact that by then almost everyone who came to the court of the winter King and Queen was either illegitimate or stupid or a thief or a person with ill intentions didn’t make matters easier.

Among the many things Kehlmann does so well in this chapter is his capturing of the marriage between Liz and Frederick. Both of them think the other is stupid; one of them is right. Royal Marriages were, of course, dynastic and more about power than love. It seems Daddy had some trouble figuring out just whom Liz should marry. The King of Sweden was an option, but she feels he didn’t want her, while sources I found seem to imply it was Daddy who nixed that deal. We see both sides of the wedding night, with one detail – rose petals floating like little boats on a puddle of water –as a lovely point of comparison. Which version is true? Maybe both, maybe neither.

We find out that it was Liz who persuaded Frederick to accept the crown of Bohemia, or whatever it should be called. Others advised against it, but she said, hey, how often does someone offer you a crown? And later, when he muttered, “I listened to the wrong people,” she knew that was her.

At that moment she realized that he would not forgive her for this. But he would still love her, just as she loved him. The nature of marriage consisted not only in the fact that you had children, it also consisted of all the wounds you had inflicted on each other, all the mistakes you had made together, all the things you held against each other forever. He would not forgive her for persuading him to accept the Crown, just as she would not forgive him for having always been too stupid for her.

The chapter gets a bit confusing, since there are comings and goings and two sets of characters. We’re with Liz and then with Frederick, and Tyll is with both, and then he isn’t. It’s full of interpersonal betrayals and loyalties, and a great deal of political barter as Frederick visits the King of Sweden to get back his Palatinate (is that the word?). The characters themselves are often confused. Frederick wanders in the snow, having failed in his mission, and thinks, “A king without a country in a storm, alone with his fool – something like this would never happen in a play, it was too absurd” as he tries to compose a message for Liz, the theatre lover, the admirer of Shakespeare, with whose King Lear she would be quite familiar. But it’s a wonderful confusion, laden with significance.

And by the end of the section, the King is dead, the Queen is alone, and Tyll, Nele, and the donkey have headed off to somewhere else.

Then we return to Tyll and Nele in their early days with Pirmin in the section titled “Hunger.” It’s a very short section, more of a transition. It is Pirmin who first tells Tyll and Nele about Liz and Frederick, as he was in London when they married. Tyll becomes aware that aging is not easy for travelling performers; he is young here, so it seems far away, but it’s something he tucks away. He and Nele refer to each other as brother and sister; sorry for those of you who were looking for romance, but you won’t find it here. But they have learned some skills, and with those skills they just might be able to eke out a living as performers.

“The Great Art of Light and Shadow” brings us back to the scholars Adam Olearius, Athanasius Kircher, and Paul Fleming. All three are historic personages. We have met Kircher, who prosecuted Tyll’s father Claus for witchcraft, before. He now comes to Olearius for assistance in hunting down a dragon so that he can make medicine for the plague. It’s pretty weird reading this at this moment, by the way, but let’s not go there, the book is so much more fun than hydroxychloroquine.

This section again really drives home how close the world is to modernity, and how far it still has to go. Parts are hilarious. Kircher embodies the know-it-all so certain of his certainty he can’t conceive of alternative possibilities, who spouts illogical logic. To wit:

“… The experiment gave me the idea of having a decoction of sulfur and snail’s blood administered to a plague victim. For on the one hand the sulfur drives out the Marian component of the disease out of him, while on the other hand the snail’s blood as a dracontological substitution sweetens that which sours the humors.”
“Excuse me?”
Kircher again contemplated his fingertips.
“Snail’s blood is a substitute for dragon’s blood?” asked Olearius.
“No,” Kricher said forbearingly, “dragon’s bile.”
“And what brings you here now?”
“The substitution has its limits. The plague victim in the experiment died despite thick decoction, which clearly proves that real dragon’s blood would have cured him. Thus we need a dragon, and one of the last dragons of the North lives in Holstein.”

“Has it been sighted then, the dragon?”
“Of course not. A dragon that has been sighted would be a dragon that did not possess the most important quality of dragons – that of making itself undetectable. For this very reason one must treat all reports by people of having cited dragons with extreme skepticism. For a dragon that let itself be cited would be recognized a priori as a dragon that is no real dragon.”
Olearius rubbed his forehead.
“In this region, evidently, a dragon has never before been witnessed. Hence I am confident that there must be one here.”

Ya gotta love this guy. By the way, he’s not entirely wrong. Jordan Ellenberg’s book How Not to be Wrong starts off with the story of Abraham Wald, who solved the problem of where to reinforce airplanes to reduce the likelihood they would be shot down: don’t reinforce the areas with bullet holes on the planes that have returned; they survived the damage. Reinforce the areas where you rarely see bullet holes on returned planes; those are the ones that needed reinforcing. Kircher had some twisted inkling of this idea called survivorship bias, but started with a false premise: that dragons exist. I mean, they don’t, do they?

I mentioned before that I would return to Kirchner, and here we are. At some point he mentions his prior work on hieroglyphs, how he found the true Christian significance to them, and I thought, wait, I’ve seen this before. But where? Oh, yes – last year I read Eco’s Serendipities, a collection of lectures on topics of scientific errors that turned into valuable research avenues nonetheless. Kirchner’s work on hieroglyphics – and on Chinese characters – was central to Chapter 3, From Marco Polo to Leibniz, Stories of Intellectual Misunderstandings. Eco acknowledges that Kircher was “one of the most learned men of the seventeenth century” and was also “insatiable in his lunatic curiosity.”

When Kircher set out to decipher hieroglyphs in the seventeenth century, there was no Rosetta stone to guide him. This explains his double mistake, namely, believing that hieroglyphs had only symbolic meaning and the absolutely fanciful way in which he identified their meaning. …But it was his conviction that, finally, hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world that prevented him from ever finding the right track.

Kircher was then wildly wrong. Still, notwithstanding his eventual failure, he is the father of Egyptology, though in the same way that Ptolemy is the father of astronomy: in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was mistaken.

Umberto Eco, Serendipities, Ch. 3

The hieroglyphs are irrelevant to this book, but Kircher’s belief in his own infallibility, his tendency to prove what he wanted to prove instead of hypothesizing, experimenting, and following the evidence, is one of the things the practice that will become Science needed to change to move out of the pre-modern and into the modern. Not that we don’t have trouble with the same issue today. But science aspires to be a self-correcting mechanism, willing to change theories when new evidence emerges.

And come on, Kirchner wrote a book on dragons. Because never having seen a dragon is the surest sign there is one. I suppose if I mentioned his Katzenklavier, it would be going too far? But, hey, Kehlmann uses it, so it’s fair game:

“Several princes wants to have a water organ constructed according to my design. And in Braunschweig there are plans to build my cat piano. It astounds me a little. Really I presented the idea mainly as an intellectual game, and I doubt that the results will please the ear.”
“What is a cat piano?” asked Olearius
…“A piano that produces sounds by torturing animals,” said Kircher. “One strikes a note, and instead of a hammer hitting a string, well-dosed pain is inflicted on a small animal – I propose cats, but it would work with the voles too, dogs would be too big, crickets too small – so that the animal makes a noise. When one releases the key, the pain stops too, the animal falls silent. By arranging the animals according to their pitches, the most extraordinary music can be produced. “
For a little while it was quiet. Olearius looked into Kircher’s face. Fleming chewed on his lower lip.

To be fair, Kircher’s works on music and medicine were considered masterpieces and are still respected as great works today. Everyone should be forgiven one cat piano.

This section does have a plot, and it concerns the musicians Kircher needs to tranquilize the dragon. It just so happens a travelling circus complete with musicians is in Holstein at that moment, the circus headlined by… Tyll Ulenspiegel.

First they meet the donkey, whose name, Origenes, might invite some speculation. For the characters, however, the fact that the donkey is talking to them is curious enough. Even Kircher is “aware that it could damage his reputation to talk to a donkey before witnesses.” But they need the musicians, and they must get through the talking donkey first. It’s a nice little scene showing how those who take themselves too seriously can be utterly confused by a little unexpected fun. Then they need to get past Nele, and the old woman travelling with them, before they get to the musicians.

But Kircher has another meeting, one that shakes him to the core, one that sends him back to the safety of Rome and his books for good.

The meeting of the scholars and the travelers is significant for another reason: Olearius is taken with Nele, and asks her to marry him. Here Kehlmann shows his versatility, and the last portion of this section turns gentle and sweet as she and Tyll part. It’s quite lovely.

But the loveliest is yet to come: the chapter ends with the last dragon of the north, seventeen thousand years old, and tired of hiding. I didn’t know I could cry over a dragon.

I found the section titled “In the Shaft” to be the least to my liking. It’s 1645, the town of Brno has been under siege, and Tyll and several miners are trapped in a mine shaft that has collapsed. The chapter itself is claustrophobic, which may be why I had trouble with it. Tyll is more uncertain than he was as a child lost in the woods. He mentions a couple of incidents, but we get no explanation. And then it’s over. We don’t find out how he escaped, or if anyone escaped with him. To me, it was unsatisfying, but I suspect I just missed the point, which is why I so want to discuss this book with someone.

“Westphalia” is the final chapter, and as might be expected, is primarily about the negotiations around the end of the war and the establishment of what would be called The Peace of Westphalia. Liz is the primary character, and she is motivated to fight all the assembled powers of Europe to obtain a Palatinate for her son Charles, showing a loyalty to her son that her father never showed to her. For it is here she finally thinks the thought: “Ultimately Papa had sacrificed her and Friedrich to keep his country out of the war.” Was that sacrifice justified? I don’t have the background to decide, but if it comes down to one daughter or a country at war, I’m not so sure I’d be outraged by this decision.

In a 2018 interview with Marc-Christoph Wagner for the Danish Louisiana Literature Festival (in English), Kehlmann discusses, among other things, the difficulty of the negotiations in an age when diplomacy had not yet been invented. He expresses this clearly via Liz’s attempts to meet with various representatives while keeping herself in a position to be respected, a position that requires many behavioral signs such as who asks whom for refreshments, who opens doors, and on what type of chair she should sit.

Without pausing, she walked towards the doors. Now she could not afford to hesitate. The briefest hint of uncertainty would be enough to remind the two lackeys standing to the right and to the left of the doors that it was also entirely conceivable not to open them for her. If that should happen, her advance would be staved off….She would all at once no longer be a queen but a complaining old woman in the anteroom.
That was why it had to work. There could be no second attempt. One had to move as if the door weren’t there, not be slowed down by it; one had to walk in such a way that if no one opened the doors, one would crash into them at full force.…for that very reason, they would open them; that was the whole trick.
It worked. With confused expressions the lackeys reached for the handles and heaved open the doors.

Liz, 1; the confederacy of self-important men, 0. But wait, there’s more: in the next meeting, she executes her right to sit, but then realizes she is sitting on a stool. A stool! Liz’s reaction as she realizes what she’s sitting on tells us how crucial this detail is.

Of course she could neither remain standing nor let him invite her to sit, but a chair without a backrest, that should not have happened to her under any circumstances. As a Queen, she was entitled to sit on a chair with a backrest and armrests even in the presence of the Kaiser, a mere arm chair would be an indignity, but a stool was out of the question. And he had deliberately placed stools all around the reception room, yet only behind his desk was there an arm chair.
What should she do? She smiled too and decided to pretend it was of no consequence. But now he had the advantage …

I wonder if diplomacy has progressed much, really. Every scene I’ve watched on TV or in the movies has involved worrying about placement of flags and water glasses and making sure no one’s notepad is even a quarter inch further away than anyone else’s. Then again, maybe that’s fictional fantasy. But the news footage I’ve seen of some US Presidents meeting with foreign leaders clearly indicate some gamesmanship at work.

Tyll shows up as Liz gets a breath of air on a balcony. She invites him to return to England with her, offers him safety and comfort, a place to grow old safely. There’s a kindness between them that speaks of mutual respect. Another decision point.

If you’ve come this far, chances are you’ve read the book and found it as interesting as I did. I hope I can find a couple of readers who would be willing to discuss it, perhaps starting with reactions to my impressions above (which, of course, could be completely off base), and I hope progressing to areas I’ve overlooked. I think this is a book that offers real opportunity for deep dives.

A Lot More Than Windmills: Three Months with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

In short, our hidalgo was soon so absorbed in these books that his nights were spent reading from dusk till dawn, and his days from dawn till dusk, until the lack of sleep and the excess of reading withered his brain, and he went mad. Everything he read in his books took possession of his imagination: enchantments, fights, battles, challenges, wounds, sweet nothings, love affairs, storms and impossible absurdities. The idea that this whole fabric of famous fabrications was real so established itself in his mind that no history in the world was truer for him….
And so, by quite insane, he conceived the strangest notion that ever took shape in a madman’s head, considering it desirable and necessary, both for the increase of his honor and for the common good, to become a knight errant, and to travel the world with his armor and his arms and his horse in search of adventures, and to practice all those activities that he knew from his books were practiced by knights errant, redressing all kinds of grievances, and exposing himself to perils and dangers that he would overcome and thus gain eternal fame and renown.

Don QuixoteI.1, Rutherford

Three months, one thousand pages of source text, two additional critical/historical texts, one mooc and one OCW later – I have some idea of how that madness feels.

It’s all Salman Rushdie’s fault.

I saw some comments about his newest novel, Quichotte, and thought, yeah, it’s time I read him, and that sounds kind of interesting. But I’d never read Don Quixote, and knew nothing about it beyond windmills, Sancho Panza, and To Dream the Impossible Dream. I remember observing a high school English class, a multi-level experiment that had the “smart” kids reading the original work (in English translation) and the “regular” kids reading/watching Man of La Mancha, which struck me as a really good way to grind teenage egos into dust. One of my favorite movies of all time, They Might Be Giants (the band took their name from the film) was a big reference to Cervantes, turning a crazy judge into Sherlock Holmes instead of an hidalgo into a knight errant.

Dr. Mildred Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.
Justin Playfair: Well, he had a point. ‘Course he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

They Might Be Giants, James Goldman, screenwriter

It’s such an intimidating work: a thousand pages, written four hundred years ago in a language not mine (two years of college Spanish and 121 days of Duolingo don’t really count). Fortunately, there’s a mooc for that – or rather, a series of twenty-four one-hour lectures from Yale’s Open Courses (not quite a mooc, but close enough) by Prof. Roberto González Echevarría. This course not only cover the entire text but throw in a few other of Cervantes’ works, and uses a casebook of academic essays on various literary aspects of the novel (which was great), plus a history of Renaissance and early modern Spain (which was a little too detailed for my purposes). The Rutherford translation of Quixote – or, more accurately, “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha” but I’m going to abbreviate where I can – was recommended as Prof. González wrote the Introduction, but the lectures often quoted the Jarvis translation, which is available online.

And then there’s Overly Sarcastic Production’s humorous version (part 1 only, unfortunately) which was useful for solidifying plot points in a book that has so much plot, so many characters, it’s easy to forget them when they come back around 400 pages after they first blew through. And I just love Red’s style.

And oh by the way… since I was watching both OSP and the Yale lectures on Youtube, other Don Quixote videos cropped up, and I discovered a mooc offered by Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, featuring Prof. Eric Clifford Graf. This course focused more on scene-by-scene events and characters with brief mentions of literary and historical elements; it also included numerous original illustrations of various scenes (I’m including several in this post), which was helpful in visualizing exactly what was meant by certain descriptions. It was a very nice complement to the Yale OCW, which took a much broader view and discussed selected literary and historical features more deeply, rather than plot.

I was surprised that the book, while huge, was so readable. Some of that might be the translation, though Prof. González mentioned that the original Spanish, while quaint to contemporary readers, is less arcane than Shakespeare seems to today’s American readers. It’s also divided into fairly short chapters, which made it easier to read in short sessions. I also found the chapter headings useful, as they set up what would follow (usually; once in a while, there would be a goofy “Which relates what will be in it” kind of thing). But mostly, the characters and their activities just carried it right along.

Contemporary editions of DQ almost always include both Parts I and II, but Prof. González points out that Cervantes did not originally intend to write a second book. Given how well Part II recapitulates, and un-enchants (I’ll get to this), part I, it’s hard to believe this was not in the works, but he finished Part I and did some other things before realizing he’d written a best-seller, and a sequel might be a good idea. They were published ten years apart, but another writer, using the pseudonym Alonzo Fernandez de Avellaneda, wrote a “False Quixote” in between. Cervantes became aware of this as he was writing Part II, and – this is where I get goosebumps – references it several times. It’s part of the self-reflexivity of the novel, a feature I particularly enjoyed.

And about that reflexivity: the first printing of Part I contained errors, most notably, the disappearance and reappearance of Sancho’s donkey, and the misalignment of several chapter headings. Apparently it’s great sport to assign blame to the printer or to Cervantes. Part II mentions these errors. And in the most amusing example, combining reflexivity with metafiction and just plain weirdness, DQ happens across someone mentioned in the False Quixote and demands that he sign a statement that, having now met the real DQ, the history in which he appeared featured someone else.

“In short, Don Alvaro Tarfe sir, I am the Don Quixote de la Mancha of whom fame speaks – not that wretch who sought to usurp my name and exalt himself with my thoughts. I entreat you Sir, as you are a gentleman, to be so kind as to make a formal declaration before the mayor of his village to the effect that you have never in all the days of your life seen me until now, and that I am not the Don Quixote who appears in the second part, nor is this squire of mine Sancho Panza the man whom you knew.”
“I shall be delighted to do so,” Don Alvaro replied, “Even though it amazes me to see two Don Quixotes and two Sancho Panzas at the same time, as identical in name as they are antithetical in action; and I repeat and confirm that I have not seen what I have seen and that what has happened to me has not happened.”
….And the mayor took all the appropriate steps; the deposition was drawn up with all the legal requisites, as is proper in such cases, which delighted Don Quixote and Sancho, as if such a deposition were vital to their welfare, and as if their deeds and their words didn’t clearly show the difference between the two Don Quixotes and between the two Sanchos.

Don Quixote II.71, Rutherford

That’s the thing that most intrigues me about this book. It’s often considered the first Western novel, building on a foundation of piquaresques, romances, and chivalric novels. It incorporates those genres in tales related by characters in Part I (Cervantes avoided this technique in Part II, as it apparently drew complaints). It’s full of self-referential material. There’s a lot of metafiction going on. The narration is triple-layered. In short, it’s a mid-20th century novel that somehow kicked off 17th century fiction, which then took took 400 years to find its way back to the fun stuff.

I love the layered narration. The text has a narrator, of course. But this narrator, at the end of Part I, Chapter 8 (remember, Part I has 52 chapters) announces that “at this very point the author of this history leaves the battle unfinished, excusing himself on the ground that he hasn’t found anything more written about these exploits of Don Quixote than what he has narrated.” In Chapter 9, this narrator tells us he came across a street vendor selling notebooks written in Arabic. A Moorish passerby translated the title: History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian – a relative of whom, by the way, may be one of the minor characters in one chapter. Our in-story narrator hired the anonymous Moor to translate the whole thing, which the narrator has set down. And of course all of this is written by Cervantes. It raises the question of the God-like status of writers creating worlds, and also leads to the question, so who, or Who, wrote Cervantes? From the little I’ve read about it, this technique features prominently in the Rushdie work as well.

This narrative technique, linked to the Master Pedro puppet show (II.25-26) is featured in the George Haley essay in the Casebook, appropriately titled “The Narrator in Don Quixote: Maesa Pedro’s Puppet Show.” Prof. González also put a little sketch on the board in his Lecture 17; it’s one of my favorite elements in the lectures.

This is one aspect of the composition en abîme, the hall-of-mirrors effect, which, coincidentally, Jake Weber had just mentioned in a BASS 2019 post. Prof. González further used the story-within-a-story structure of some parts of the novel – in one case, a character tells a story that includes a character telling a story – as another example of this composition en abîme, using Spanish painter Velázquez’ Las Meninas as an extended metaphor.

Another of my favorite elements was that of the journey from enchantment, or illusion, or engaño, to disenchantment, disillusionment, desengaño. This is not disillusionment in the negative sense; this is more of an awakening to truth. Don Quixote starts out in a state of illusion, enchantment: he’s a knight errant, out to right the wrongs of the world. This is Part I, and corresponds to the Renaissance humanist vision that the world can be fixed by people acting morally. Part II moves to the Spanish Baroque, which is characterized by the loss of that illusion, the realization that the world is grotesque and we are only ornamenting our sarcophagus. Or, in Christian Neoplatonic terms, we leave the cave through the grave and enter the really-real of God. From the Yale lectures:

So desengaño is perhaps the most important concept of the Spanish Baroque; it means undeceiving, opening ones eyes to reality, awakening to the truth; these are all valid translations of the term. Engaño, in Spanish, means ‘deceit,’ to be fooled; ‘te engaño’ means ‘I fool you’; ‘engañarse’ is ‘to fool one self.’
This concept is fundamental to Part II because the whole plot of the novel seems to be moving towards disillusionment.
….Deceits are all of Don Quixote’s illusions, and those of the other characters in the novel. While desengaño is what they wind up or what they reach, disillusionment, realizing that it is all vanity of vanities. This is the reason why so much of what happens in Part II is staged. Deceit is the theatricality of so many events which are made up, constructed; deceit is the dream of books that Don Quixote dreams, it is the unbroken chain of texts masked in reality, and even of language also masking reality.

Prof. Roberto González Echevarría, Yale OCW, Lecture 14 10:13

I got so carried away with this idea I saw it in my other reading, particularly the BASS 2019 story “Natural Disasters” which I read just after I encountered this section.

The feminism of some of the female characters also makes the novel seem more modern than it is. Throughout the book, women come up with clever solutions to problems, design intricate plots, and decide what they want and then go after it. But one of the most contemporary instances occurs early, in Part I, chapters 12 through 14. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza come across a group of shepherds holding a funeral for their fallen comrade Grisóstomo who died of a broken heart (there are hints it might have been suicide) after the beautiful Marcela rejected his love. The bros are all hanging around complaining about Marcela, calling her a basilisk and blaming her for all the woes of mankind, when she shows up and gives them a piece of her mind:

You all say that heaven made me beautiful, so much so that this beauty of mine, with a force you can’t resist, makes you love me; and you say and even demand that, in return for the love you show me, I must love you. By the natural understanding which God has granted me I know that whatever is beautiful is lovable; but I can’t conceive why, for this reason alone, a woman who’s loved for her beauty should be obliged to love whoever loves her.
….Well then, if chastity is one of the virtues that most embellish the soul and the body, why should the woman who’s loved for her beauty lose her chastity by responding to the advances of the man who, merely for his own pleasure, employs all his strength and cunning to make her lose it?
I was born free, and to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside…. He who calls me fierce and a basilisk can leave me alone, as something evil and dangerous; he who calls me an ingrate can stop courting me; he who calls me distant can keep his distance; he who calls me cruel can stop following me: because this fierce basilisk, this ingrate, this cruel and distant woman is most certainly not going to seek, court, approach or follow any of them.

DQ I.14

Marcela, 1; incels, 0.

While he creates a new form, Cervantes drew upon a wide variety of literature in his plots, particularly the Iliad, the Aeneid, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the penultimate chapter, in fact, DQ and Sancho stay in a room decorated with sub-par paintings of Helen and Dido, and Sancho predicts: “I bet that before long there won’t be a single eating-house or roadside inn or hostelry or barber’s shop where there isn’t a painting of the story of our deeds. But I’d like it to be done by a better artist than the one who painted these.” And of course, he’s right; not only visual artists, but writers (such as Borges) and thinkers (Freud was obsessed with DQ) have used this work as a springboard.

There’s so much more. Every aspect of Spanish political, religious, social, and economic culture is brought into the tale, either symbolically or literally. Sancho turns out to be a natural logician, as he solves a problem closely resembling the Liar’s Paradox. Don Quixote offers a good deal of advice to writers in various places, mostly following Aristotle, which is particularly ironic since Cervantes left Aristotle in the dust. The Cave of Montesinos as an analog of Dante’s Inferno; Sancho’s ceremony at Altisadora’s catafalque as an analog of the Inquisition. George Mason Professor of Spanish Literature Antonio Carreño-Rodríguez’ paper (“Costello + Panza = Costanza: Paradigmatic Pairs in Don Quixote and American Popular Culture”) citing DQ and Sancho as the original comedy team, leading to Abbott & Costello, and later, Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza. The death of Don Quixote, which Borges considers the reason for the entire book. And the opening question: can books drive one insane?

And here I thought it was just about windmills.

About those windmills: Just as I was finishing up the last chapters, a Presidential rant about the evils of windmills made the rounds, and every pundit who wasn’t on Christmas vacation dragged Don Quixote into it. I got a bit upset. Ok, the windmill connection is funny, but when you spend three months with people who make you laugh, who have a core of kindness and decency even though they’re sometimes selfish or greedy or make things worse, you find yourself caring about them, even if they exist only in the pages of a book. And you don’t want them compared with someone whose only yardstick is personal gain and grandiosity. So I got a bit snippy with a good friend, and I apologize for that. But maybe now he can see why I’m a bit protective of these characters, and don’t want them seen in shady light.

And I wonder if I’ve gone a little crazy, too. Books can do that to you, I hear.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, 2010)

Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.
Call it the world.
The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues that they had thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated they are, the more annotated their mental life, the more taken aback they’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires they had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.
What is this stuff, they ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archaeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and all but forgotten.
Now it’s all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on their watch….
None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That’s what he’s thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen Charles and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He’s thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers.

Back in the 90’s, I fell in love with Sophie’s World, a Norwegian novel about the history of philosophy written primarily for teenagers. It featured long speeches about philosophers from Thales to Sartre sprinkled within a mystery featuring a fifteen-year-old. 36 Arguments… is that book’s grown-up cousin. I adored it.

It’s not a book for everyone. Both critics and readers are divided on whether it’s a pretentious mess lacking plot or characters, or a tour de force stirring in everything from religion and philosophy to math and science in a slickly snarky romance and/or academic roman à clef. It probably depends on what you like to read. Just because I loved it doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the very good reasons it might not appeal to some. There are long, sometimes arcane (deliberately so; these are academics, reveling in arcanity) splitting of hairs, the timeline is hard to follow, many of the characters are cardboard cutouts. Even the main character is pretty bland. The climax is an academic debate that didn’t seem all that brilliant to me. But in spite of all that, I loved it.

The overall present of the story covers one week in the life of Cass Seltzer, psychology professor and recent “intellectual celebrity” for his book Varieties of Religious Illusion which includes an appendix titled “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” and counterarguments to each one.

Cass is still trying to assimilate the fact that his book has become an international sensation, translated into twenty-seven languages, including Latvian. He understands that it’s not just a matter of what he’s written – as much as he’d like to believe it is – but also a matter of the rare intersection of the preoccupation of his lifetime with the turmoil of the age. When Cass, in all the safety of his obscurity, set about writing a book that would explain how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience – so irrelevant that the emotional structure of religious experiences can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost – and when he had also, almost as an afterthought, included as an appendix thirty-six arguments for the existence of God, with rebuttals, his claim being that the most thorough demolition of these arguments would make little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience, he had no idea of the massive response his efforts would provoke.
He never would have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes – he certainly doesn’t – but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It’s the appendix that’s pushed him into the role of atheism’s spokesperson, a literary afterthought that has remade his life.

The book is structured in thirty-six chapters, each purporting to be an argument for the existence of religious experience without God. The usual philosophical arguments are included in an appendix (you can see why some reviewers thought this book was too clever for its own good). It’s a handy reference, since much of the discussion uses points from those arguments.

While the present-story is only a week, most of the book deals with the past, following Cass’ academic training from the time he switched from pre-med to follow iconic-but-kinda-crazy Professor Jonas Elijah Klapper (because every academia novel must have a Mad Professor) into grad school in psychology. We also go through Cass’ romantic history, which is pretty tragic. Anyone who doesn’t realize his current girlfriend, the exceptionally ambitious and self-focused Lucinda, is bad news, isn’t paying attention.

Lucinda’s away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that’s presently crystallizing into ice. She’s in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on “Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games”….
Technically, Lucinda’s a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He’s so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience — a bloated category on anyone’s account, but especially on Cass’s, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.

Still, she’s a step up from his former wife, a poet who rejected probability theory in all its guises because something either happens or it doesn’t. An anthropologist girlfriend, now a friend, is sandwiched in there. She seems like more of a keeper, but that didn’t work out for vague reasons and now she’s looking for financing for her longevity project, so maybe she’s a little crazy too.

Those are all amusing and entertaining, if often shallow and/or annoying, characters, but the real plot of the book is a subplot that doesn’t even start until about halfway through when Cass meets a six-year-old boy who’s pretty much inventing number theory while nobody watches. Over the course of the backstory, the boy grows to be sixteen, at which point he is faced with a decision between the necessary but impossible, and the impossible but necessary. The resolution to this closes the book, and it crushed me; yet I see how essential it was, both to the character, and to the book, and the more I thought about it, the less crushed I felt: it’s a perfect counterpoint to the final act of the Mad Professor, and shows that even Messiahood may not require a God.

Because this is a novel of academia, reviewers in the know have some opinions about the real-life inspirations for the characters. Klapper, the Mad Professor, is nearly universally assumed to be Harold Bloom. There’s a fascinating interview on Youtube: Steven Pinker asks Goldstein, “Who is Cass Selzer?” She goes through a brief character sketch, and he asks, “Who is Cass Seltzer really?” she answers: “It’s a misconception that characters in a novel are based on real people,” and claims many people, including herself, contributed bits and pieces of him. This strikes me as fascinating because, first, some reviewers have speculated that Pinker is the basis for the character as he did a highly publicized debate on the existence of God some years before. And second, because Pinker happens to be Goldstein’s husband.

In that same interview, Goldstein does a lovely summary of the book:

It’s one of the points of Cass’ book – and it’s one of the points of my book – that religion is about much more than belief in God. It’s about loyalties to community, it’s about spiritual experiences, it’s about existential dilemmas.

Along the way we’re introduced to a great deal of philosophy and religion, particularly Hasidic Judaism and Kabbalah, some game theory, number theory, and brief visits to neuroscience and music. And probably some other things I’ve forgotten about because it’s just too much to keep in my head after one reading.

I was tempted to make an appendix for this post titled “36 moocs to help with reading this book” because, honestly, when I read “Thomas Nagel” I mentally jumped up and yelled. “What’s it like to be a bat!” and when we got to the “What” region of the brain, I went nuts trying to find which neuroscience mooc showed me exactly where that is (I haven’t found it yet, the down side of taking so many different neuroscience moocs, but it’s in there somewhere/addendum: found it, the ventral visual pathway is the “what” and the dorsal visual pathway is the “where”, Harvard’s MCB80 part 3. That’s 2 hours of my life I spent finding that, but I had to do it) and I wanted to thank all the math teachers who’ve taught me about the infinitude of primes and successive differences. I’ve often said I love a book that teaches me something; I did learn some things here (and I have a couple of new entries on my reading list, including everything Goldstein has ever written) but in this case, it was more about confirming that I’d actually learned something in those 120+ moocs.

And that is why I loved this book. That, and Azarya. And come on, how can you not love a book that includes the line, “There’s no way I’m writing a dissertation on the hermeneutics of potato kugel.”

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (FSG, 2001)

Alfred gestured at his blue chair, which under the paperhanger’s plastic dropcloths looked like something you might deliver to a power station on a flatbed truck. He was trembling with incredulity, unable to believe that Enid could have forgotten this crushing refutation of her arguments, this overwhelming impediment to her plans. It was as if all the unfreedom in which he spent his seven decades of life were embodied in this six-year-old but essentially brand new chair. He was grinning, his face aglow with the awful perfection of his logic.
…But the chair? The chair was a monument and a symbol and could not be parted from Alfred. It could only be relocated, and so it went into the basement and Alfred followed. And so in the house of the Lamberts, as in St. Jude, as in the country as a whole, life came to be lived underground.

I’m always intimidated by things labeled Great Books, whether they be old classics or more contemporary works like this one. On the bright side, there are so many interviews and analyses and reviews of books like this, I don’t feel like I have to actually come up with anything original, but stick to my experience. In this case, I can appreciate the kind of imaginative detail that went into the book, and I loved some of the individual scenes, but overall, I was kind of meh in the end.

The Corrections of the title refers to numerous actions of the book’s characters, but also references the dot-com bubble of the late 90s and the resultant crash in the first months of the 2000s. Each character has his or her own little scheme going on, and each of those schemes eventually crash. I kept waiting for those schemes to be brought together in some way: the railroad reorg that kicked Alfred out of his job, the various forms of shame-removing drugs variously called Aslan (yes, like the lion in Narnia; one of the kids is reading the CS Lewis books, in fact) and Correktal (yes, like the laxative, but a different spelling, and no, they didn’t want to change it) manufactured by some kind of neuroscience guru who seems to be running a scam rather than treating anything; and the scam website set up by a Lithuanian statesman-turned-mobster; and a high-concept restaurant entangled in the love lives of the chef and owner; and a patent dispute; and a cruise. I was looking for some kind of overall mastermind behind them, or at least a common origin.

But no; these threads never came together. Here, I’m with David Gates, whose NYT review points out that a lot of these whacko threads tend to just peter out without resolution,

…but I can’t scrape together much outrage when I’m basically having a good time. Anyhow, you have to expect a degree of indeterminacy in an ambitious novel these days….it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.

He also notices nods to DeLillo and Pynchon, but that’s way over my head; I mention them only for those who want to go find out more.

Much has been made of these being unlikeable characters, but I find them far more sympathetic than unlikeable because of their inability to cope with the world falling out beneath their feet. Chip, the younger son, is an academic until he gets caught screwing the wrong student. To me, it seemed like he was set up, to clear the way for his competition to be awarded tenure, but I don’t see any confirmation of that in any of the reviews I’ve read, so either I’m missing something, or it’s so obvious no one feels the need to state it outright. At that point he goes spiraling down until he’s held by Lithuanian “police” in ski masks. Yeah, he made some very poor decisions, looking for easy outs and quick fixes instead of facing reality. And, oh, he’s writing a screenplay that begins with a six-page lecture on literary criticism. He considers this a “hump” the reader needs to get over in order to get to the good stuff. Here I’m again reminded of the Gates review, in which he feels the first chapters are tough going. But I’m more reminded of an interview – I’m not sure which one, maybe Charlie Rose or Terry Gross, where Franzen says he was writing a more directly serious book, but these characters kept recurring, and he realized they were the story and turned it into more of a tragicomedy. This is also played out in Chip’s resolution late in the book:

His great revelation came when he was a few kilometers from the Polish border. He was straining to hear whether any of the homicidal farm dogs in the surrounding darkness might be unleashed, had he his arms outstretched, he was feeling more than a little ridiculous, when he remembered Gitanas’ remark: tragedy rewritten as a farce. All of a sudden he understood why nobody, including himself, had ever liked his screenplay: he’d written a thriller where he should have written farce.

Chip gets a second compact articulations of the overall theme of the book (he’s something of an alter-ego for Franzen), a theme that I’ve been howling about for a couple of years now: as long as we’re kept entertained by our phones and our apps and our avocado toast, we’ll let the evil powers run the world because, hey, things aren’t so bad for tech-savvy white guys, and all that stuff about kids in cages and rapists in the White House and Russia basically running the country is just so much hot air that has nothing to do with getting our Blue Apron box or listening to cool jazz:

The main difference between America and Lithuania, as far as Chip could see, was that in America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence.
It warmed his Foucaultian heart, in a way, to live in a land where property ownership and the control of public discourse were so obviously a matter of who had the guns.

I have to keep reminding myself this book was published in 2001. And, by the way, see again what David Gates had to say above, about not being able to complain too much about a book that might seem flawed, but is so much fun to read. Not exactly the same thing – I think the “flaws” are deliberate, but an indication of our fragmented attention and the overwhelming number of forces at work against everyday life – but a similar principle. Entertain people enough, and they’ll forgive pretty much anything.

And, oh, by the way, there’s another interesting side note. The publication date was, in fact, September 1, 2001. I’m sure a lot of books fell by the wayside in the wake of 9/11, but this one seemed to encapsulate so much that was ready to happen, it fit right in. And, as people were stuck in all kinds of places unable to get home for days as air traffic came to a halt, it seemed fitting that Enid Lambert was desperately hoping to get her kids together for one last Christmas.

Enid is both the backbone of the family, and the overlooked matriarch. Somehow she reminded me of my mother-in-law: a wonderful, generous, caring woman, but a little ditzy. She isn’t ditzy, not at all. The fact that she’s managing in the face of the physical and mental collapse of her husband is miraculous. She’s a strong lady, and all she wants is this Christmas that no one else cares about. She despairs of her kids:

[H]er children didn’t match. They didn’t want the things that she and all her friends and all her friends’ children wanted. Her children wanted radically, shamefully other things.

Alfred, the aging father, isn’t unlikeable as much as he is deteriorating with some kind of Parkinson-like condition that includes hallucinations, nightmares, and serious depression. There’s hope of getting him into this neurochemical scam for treatment after the Christmas that Enid wants, but only if they keep denying the dementia.

Gary, the older son, has the stable respectable job and beautiful family, seems kind of insane, keeping track of “factor 3 and factor 6” to track his moods and reactions. I thought at first he was on some kind of treatment, but seems it’s more do-it-yourself neuropsychiatric analysis. His wife, Carolyn, is the character I did dislike; she’s at her most evil when she aligns the kids against Gary.

Denise, the daughter, makes some bad romantic choices, but again, she seems sympathetic to me, maybe because she’s pretty much ignored, and she’s given Chip a lot of money to keep him afloat. She’s a chef, and starts a high-end restaurant based on… sauerkraut. This harkens back to the nuclear family: there’s a great dinnertime scene when the boys were children – Denise wasn’t even born yet – with Chip refusing to eat his liver soaked in the juice from rutabagas and beet greens. I don’t blame him. But this becomes pivotal later, when Alfred and Enid have sex during her pregnancy with Denise:

Worst was the image of the little girl curled up inside her, a girl not much larger than a large bug but already a witness to such harm. Witness to a totally engorged little brain that dipped in and out beyond the cervix and then, with a quick double spasm that could hardly be considered adequate warning, spat thick alkaline webs of spunk into her private room. Not even born and already drenched in sticky knowledge.
Alfred lay catching his breath and repenting his defiling of the baby. A last child was a last opportunity to learn from ones mistakes and make corrections, and he resolved to seize this opportunity. From the day she was born he would treat her more gently than he’d treated Gary or Chipper. Relax the law for her, indulge her outright, even, and never once force her to sit at the table after everyone was gone.
But he squirted such filth on her when she was helpless. She’d witnessed such scenes of marriage, and so of course, when she was older, she betrayed him.
What made correction possible also doomed it.

Yeah, Alfred seems a little around the bend even then. Sort of like Gary, who mirrors him in a lot of ways.

Christmas somehow happens, mostly, and everyone has their revelation. Chip understands what’s wrong with his screenplay, Denise understands a sacrifice Alfred made for her a long time ago, and Gary realizes how sick his father actually is. But the threads, as both I and David Gates have noticed, don’t come together. The family is still mostly separate and apart, though there are some improvements.

The book ends with Enid at her most hopeful; I’m almost afraid for what might lie ahead for her, given how many times great expectations have turned to dust.

I’m glad I’ve finally read Franzen. No, I’m not going to go into the whole Oprah thing; at this point, it seems pretty tame. Thing is, he did the work. This isn’t some famous-for-being-famous vanity publication. If I’m less than awed, it’s maybe because the ground shifts so quickly these days. 2001 seems like a long time ago. So does 2008. And in a year, 2019 may seem long ago and far away. But at least I’ve read Franzen.

Jo Walton, Lent (Tor, 2019)

What keeps some things the same, while others change? If history is a tide sweeping down a river, and individuals are leaves being swept along on top of the current, what makes Isabella come back and the emperor stay at home? How much can be changed? Can all of it?

A bit of preliminary housekeeping: in order to write about my experience with this book, I need to include spoilers. Most professional reviews include some indication of what the book is about (or else how would we know whether we want to read it?), but I will go beyond what they reveal. So be forewarned: SPOILER ALERT.

Most of the aforementioned reviews will tell you it’s Dante-meets-Groundhog-Day, as Cory Doctorow put it in his LATimes review (I would add Milton to the mix). Girolamo Savonarola, the 15th century Florentine monk who is today famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities, lives his life, dies, goes to hell, and does it all over again, trying each time to find a way to stop the cycle. That’s a decent summary, and I impulsively decided to read it (it’s an addition to my summer reading list in the Religion category) since it includes several special interests of mine. Historical fiction meets religion via fantasy, you might call it. Or, “A historical fantasy set in Florence and Hell between 1492 and 1498, pretty much,” as Walton says in her introduction for Tor Books; “The first time through it’s pretty close to what really historically happened, give or take a few demons and the holy grail.” But the heart of the book is much deeper than this playfulness might indicate.

The Groundhog Day repetition is accomplished by structuring the book in Parts, alternating between Florence and Hell; each chapter within Parts One, Three, and Seven, the Florence parts, begins with a consecutive line from the Lord’s Prayer. The even Parts Two, Four, and Six, taking place in Hell, have only one short chapter each. The final Part Seven is a bit different, as it telescopes many, many iterations, and brings things to a conclusion, a single sentence that is climax and denouement. Given there are only two possible outcomes – the iterations continue indefinitely, or they terminate – there is a definitive resolution, yet many questions are left hanging.

Let me again say how much I enjoy a book that teaches me something, and I learned a great deal about the history of Renaissance Florence, her art, and theology from this read; I even created a very small Cerego set so I’d remember some of it. I actually studied a bit before I even started reading by finding a couple of academic lectures on Youtube about Florence and Savonarola (fortunately, I’d already taken a couple of moocs on Dante and Milton). Since the first 168 pages were historically accurate (excepting, as Walton mentions, demons and the Grail, and a few private conversations and a few characters who exist beyond the historical record), it was another read-at-my-computer session, as with Azazeel a few weeks ago. Savonarola, Lorenzo di Medici, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, and Camilla Rucellai (the Savonarola follower and seer, not the one obliquely related to the Mona Lisa, if I’m reading correctly) are the primary historically documented players, along with assorted religious and government people. The most important non-historical character is Isabella, who is something like a live-in girlfriend to Pico.

I have to admit I had some misgivings early on. I considered putting the book aside, in fact, but given that I’d just abandoned three Sinclair Lewis novels, I thought maybe I was in a bad pattern so just kept reading. I’m very glad I did; the more I read, the more I had to keep reading.

I learned about such things as the Medici Giraffe (which occasionally finds its way into art of the period as a tribute to Lorenzo) and the Pelican of Piety, a symbol used in Renaissance art of the charity of Christ. Then there’s Camilla’s prophecy that Pico would forswear his evil ways (besides a girlfriend, he had written 900 theses that were considered heretical) and take Dominican vows “in the time of lilies”; everyone thought she meant in Spring, which was good news since, in November he seemed to be dying. But he died anyway, as the French, with their fleur de lis flags, passed through Florence by the grace of negotiations and tribute towards other battles. It seems that story has been borrowed by several writers, most notably George Eliot.

Walton’s Girolamo is not at all the fanatical Savonarola that I had in the back of my mind. He disagrees with the Church in many instances, but on things that need disagreement, such as corruption, oppression, and the misbehavior of Popes who not only eschew celibacy but install their children in positions of power. As Walton presents it, the Bonfire of the Vanities was not his idea; it was recommended in a meeting (of all things – a meeting!) as a kind of energizing stunt, since the Medici Giraffe was no longer available. It’s based on a prior event by Bernardino of Siena. Girolamo is seen going over all books and art to determine if they should be rescued; he wavers over Boccaccio, but figures there are enough copies to allow one to burn. Botticelli and other artist donated pieces to the pyre, presumably because they had better works. And, in a fascinating little tribute to Shakespeare, on the night before the Bonfire, a merchant of Venice named Antonio shows up and offers Girolamo a great deal of money for all the items on the pile. The thought process Girolamo goes through before turning down the offer is quite reasonable. This is not an obsessed madman, but a thoughtful monk who appreciates art and literature and philosophy, but has a genuine set of principles.

The Grail comes into things early on as a small stone hidden in a book. Girolamo finds this, wonders about it, hangs onto it, but isn’t sure what it means. And it sits there for about 170 pages doing nothing. Don’t worry; it will come into its own in another lifetime.

In the final pages of Part One, Girolamo is hanged over fire, as he indeed was in history. The superstition is that those who are good, who are going to heaven, fall from the gallows onto the fire on their faces (prostrate before God, perhaps?) so do not feel the flames, while those who are destined for Hell fall backwards and feel everything. This moment after execution becomes a resonating trope opening every Return part. But it is here, in Part Two, that we first learn who – or what – Girolamo actually is (seriously, SPOILER ALERT, it’s the last time I’m telling you):

And the rope breaks, and he falls into the fire, not forward onto his face, like good people, but onto his back, like the damned.
He lands on his back, slamming into Hell with a force that would have knocked out the breath and broken all the bones of a living man. He knows he is not that, nor never has been…. He is a demon, beaked and bat-winged and foul; he was sent into the world to live without this knowledge only to make this moment of returning what it is: Hell.
It is the utmost imaginable anguish. Of course it is, for this is truly Hell, and torment is Hell’s only handicraft. This moment of utter knowledge and despair is his earned and well-deserved punishment for opposing God. For he had been an Angel, long ago, spending all his days praising God, in heaven. …and from that, he had, through his own will, fall into this.

Well, that was unexpected.

If this raises some questions, be assured that Girolamo will spend the rest of the book, his multiple iterations, asking the same questions. Few will be definitively answered, but some light will be shed on most. I’m left with many, but they are questions more of faith and interpretation than of fact; Walton’s answers wouldn’t be any more satisfying than my own.

One of the theological ideas presented again and again over time is apocatastasis, the theory that Hell is itself a kind of purgatory, and that all souls will eventually be purified and redeemed. This was rejected long before, however, by no less than St. Augustine. Apparently it survives in some sects, but in Girolamo’s time, it is considered untrue. Even if true, he doubts it applies to the demons, the fallen angels. Yet he hopes. “Hope hurts,” he says.

What stood out to me, given the whole Dante-does-Groundhog-Day prompting, was the difference between Dante’s Hell, and Walton’s. Dante constructed an elaborate system of punishments for various categories of sins, relating each punishment to the sin with exquisite specificity: wind, water, fire, ice, disembowelment, decapitation. In Girolamo’s Hell, there is only despair of everlasting separation from God. Now, many years ago, the Baptists and Pentecostals tried to sell us on fire and brimstone being metaphorical equivalents this separation, but given the prominence of the former and the occasional mention of the latter, I suspect they would be disappointed in Walton’s version (and tweens-teens are far more impressed by flames and screaming than by despair). However, she is extraordinarily good at conveying Girolamo’s pain, a pain that has little to do with physical discomfort and everything to do with loss and hopelessness:

He could summon up his own cell, as he has done before. Only the crucifix of his bedside he cannot summon, or the painted likeness of the Savior on the wall, or the faces of the Virgin or the Saints. He is filled with the emptiness of where those things should be.
He has done it before. He can do it again. Yet it is only now that he realizes the full horror of his predicament. He has been lent to earth again and again, and in endless iteration will go on being lent, be born again and to go through that same life of hope and ignorance, only to return again and again to this first appalling moment where he must face the fact that he has forever lost God, and all hope and possibility of God’s love.
That is what it means to be damned.

Notice also the punny twist on Lent. The odd-numbered Parts do begin, typically, in the spring, when Lent would fall, but now there is this other meaning.

Milton comes into play as well through the fallen angel thread, though Paradise Lost would not be written for over a century after Savonarola. For while Girolamo’s struggles on earth take up most of the book, it is this falling of angels that intrigues me the most. It’s a topic that’s always been addressed mostly in legend and speculative theology with only a few verses of biblical support. Milton started his poem with Satan, cast out, as an antihero, rebelling against a tyrannical God, then goes on to destroy humanity’s sacredness. As the poem evolves, he becomes less and less sympathetic, until at last God again is victorious over him by having the last word.

In Walton’s book, the details of the rebellion are unclear throughout, a technique I appreciate since more detail would necessarily entail its own theology. There’s a puzzling use of the name Asbiel, similar to Abdiel, one of the angels in Milton’s poem, the angel who tattled on Lucifer; I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be the same being, since that would create a pair of brothers who started the rebellion. My read at the moment is that Crookback (I’ll get there, don’t worry) is indeed Lucifer, Girolamo/Asbiel is his brother, and they were the initial troublemakers. The had “wanted a world without pain, when pain was just an intellectual concept.” They had pride, to believe they knew better than God.

As Bill Murray’s weatherman had to lose his cynical, narcissistic way of viewing everyone else as instrumental to his own needs in order to break out of his loop, so must Girolamo overcome his pride. And that involves his brother, who on earth is the mercenary soldier called Crookback (and sometimes Richard III), who sent the Grail to Florence where Girolamo finds it and discovers it unleashes his memories of past lives, deaths, and his demonic nature.

In addition to the Shakespeare references, I found a few others (and who knows what I missed through my own ignorance): my manuscript-hunting buddy from The Swerve, Poggio Bracciolini; and Michelangelo, who plays a bit part in a couple of Girolamo’s lifetimes:

Michelangelo Buonarroti comes over, a cup of wine in his hand. He is growing a beard. “I have it !” he says delightedly.
“What?” Girolamo asks, but Marsilio knows.
“That huge block of marble that’s been standing about for so long?“
“Yes. I am going to carve the prophet Amos, to go high up on the cathedral. I thought him with the face of brother Giovanni. What do you think? “
Isabella and Girolamo exchange a glance. Marsilio nods gravely. “I think that would be splendid,“ he says.
Michelangelo looks at the others. “And his body too,” he says, with a hint of defiance in his tone.

Yes, there is humor, probably more than I recognized. In one spot, Girolamo offers an apple to a beggar, and sheepishly tells his earthly companion, “I like apples.” In another spot, when a plan involving the Grail goes awry and it is lost to Crookback, Girolamo’s great friend Pico says, “Well, that went badly”, perhaps an anachronistic understatement, but one that, under the circumstances, made me laugh. Out loud.

But again, I come back to the religious component. See the comparison between Girolamo’s Heaven and Hell:

“Will there be poetry in heaven?“ [Angelo, the poet] asks, like a child, as he hands back the cup.
“I think there will be something better, “ Girolamo confides. “Something that poetry reminds us of, and that is why we are drawn to love it. I think loving all earthly beauty is a way to lead us to love heavenly beauty. So there will not be sunsets or poetry, but there will be something like them but even better.“

There is no relief in Hell, so he cannot weep for his innocence, his lost illusions. Will is power here, and he has his place in the ranks of power. That is all he has. … There is no fellowship in hell, the only relationship possible is that of tormenting one another. Spite, Hell’s closest approach to joy.

Through Girolamo’s subsequent earthly lives, some details change a little, some a lot. He has different close allies each time; given that he is a demon and Hell has no relationships, his earthly relationships are wonderful, even as he bears the knowledge of his despair. He formulates plans to break the cycle, to harrow hell, as it were, to free the demons there. This is like Milton’s hell, not Dante’s: Girolamo’s Hell has only demons. Questions of atonement, of forgiveness, of salvation in the face of eternal damnation, of hope and despair, become more prominent as the cycles proceed. It’s truly wonderful. Girolamo may be a demon, but he’s a demon with a mission, and a heart of gold, just about the most sympathetic demon you could ever know.

I am, as I’ve said, left with questions. Where did the Grail come from? Sure, it’s a gift from the King of Hungary, and Girolamo discovers it by chance, but how did that happen? How does it have the power to harrow hell? How does the time looping work: does the entire world loop indefinitely? Does it go back to the day in April when he discovers the stone, or back to the beginning of the universe? If/when he stops looping, will that be the End of Time, or just the End of Hell? And then, not a question but an interpretation I wish I could verify: I see a strong parallelism between Christ harrowing people and Girolamo harrowing demons. Christ is the begotten of God, sent to live on earth, die, and redeem human souls. Girolamo is the brother of Lucifer (my interpretation; in any case he is the brother of a Prince of Hell) who is “lent” to earth to redeem the unredeemable, using the Key to the Kingdom Christ gave Peter. Why is it Girolamo who is the earthly figure for the demon Asbiel, instead of someone else, in another time or place?

None of these questions, or the others that flit by once in a while, are really answerable, since this is a fantasy based on religious imagery and story. I’ve never been comfortable with the category of fantasy, but I keep running into such wonderful examples such as this, and Helen Oyeyemi, and various authors from my Pushcart and BASS editions. And now, Jo Walton, an author new to me.

Given that I gave up on organized religion fifty years ago (though I do hang out in churches sometimes, because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the music is), it’s odd that I’m so drawn to these kinds of stories about holy forgiveness and damnation on such cosmic scales. That’s what story does: it brings us closer to what was far away. Girolamo, Pico, Angelo, Camilla, Isabella, they have all captivated me, and now that I have finished the book, I find I miss them. The good news is: I can come back to them any time, just by opening to page one.

Addendum: FMI, listen to the podcast about this book by Julie Davis and Scott Danielson at A Good Story is Hard to Find

A Sinclair Lewis sampler: Babbitt, Main Street, It Can’t Happen Here

“I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are selfish! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with 95 per cent of ‘em only thinking of self, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!
“What this country needs is Discipline! Peace is a great dream, but maybe sometimes it’s only a pipe dream! I’m not so sure—now this will shock you, but I want you to listen to one woman who will tell you the unadulterated hard truth instead of a lot of sentimental taffy, and I’m not sure but that we need to be in a real war again, in order to learn Discipline! We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That’s good enough in its way, but isn’t it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline—Will Power—Character!”

It Can’t Happen Here

A couple of years ago, It Can’t Happen Here was the hottest book in America. Written in 1935, it painted a satirical picture of the US to succumbing to the same fascism that was overtaking Europe. Hence its recent popularity.

I wanted to read it, but I also wanted to read some other Lewis works (and I’ll admit, I hoped this might help with my persistent tendency to confuse Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, as a minor side bonus). Because I’m fond of medical stuff, I initially thought of Arrowsmith, but from the description it seemed like medicine was a side detail, so I ruled that out. I decided against Elmer Gantry as being too familiar from more modern situations.

Babbitt was often cited as the book that earned Lewis the Nobel Prize, so that was high on my list. Main Street was one of the few books with a female protagonist, and has also been frequently mentioned in recent years, so that was a definite possibility. That gave me with three possibilities. I couldn’t decide on just one, so I checked all three out of the library.

I didn’t finish any of them. Hey, sometimes that’s how it goes.

It Can’t Happen Here had me pissed off by page 6 (thanks to passages like the one quoted above), and I realized I did not want to read an overtly political novel right now. I particularly didn’t want to read one that could have been taken from Twitter (I’ve muted nearly all the news-and-opinion people, and increased the art, humor, literature, and medicine, but it’s still like running a gauntlet some days). And I don’t need any convincing that of course it can happen here, particularly since it is happening here right now.

Babbitt went better, for a while.

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y. M. C. A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling:
“Course I don’t mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel….”

After 200 pages, ok, ok, I get it, they’re all hypocrites, decrying labor unions for forcing membership while insisting every business owner must be a Booster. They’re shallow, letting the Church and the Republican Party and whatever advertisement looks prettiest in the magazine determine what they believe, think, and buy. They measure the perfection of life by the possession of a sun-porch. And then there’s the racism, displayed when the porter on a train doesn’t know the exact time:

“They’re getting so they don’t have a single bit of respect for you. The old-fashioned coon was a fine old cuss—he knew his place—but these young dinges don’t want to be porters or cotton-pickers. Oh, no! They got to be lawyers and professors and Lord knows what all! I tell you, it’s becoming a pretty serious problem. We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place. Now, I haven’t got one particle of race-prejudice. I’m the first to be glad when a nigger succeeds—so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn’t try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man.”

But my main problem was one of boredom. I knew there would be a turning point, but I didn’t want to read another 150 pages to get there. So I stopped reading and found a quick-and-dirty summary that told me how Babbitt would fall out with the Right People and come to some kind of minor revelation about what freedom is and isn’t, culminating in the final page, a page that is almost worth reading the 400 pages before it, when his 18-year-old son, who Babbitt wants to be a lawyer, shows up married and skips college to work in mechanics. It’s a lovely scene, Babbitt’s “new voice, booming, authoritative, dominated the room.” I’m not typically in favor of a man telling his wife to shut the hell up, but in this case, it feels earned. “Babbitt crossed the floor slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old” to reach his son, and after a few faint protests, the changing of the guard is finally accomplished on several levels:

I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know ‘s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you’ll carry things on further. I don’t know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell ’em to go to the devil! I’ll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!”
Arms about each other’s shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.

Made me feel bad that I skipped 200 pages. But not bad enough to go back and read them.

I had much the same experience with Main Street. After enjoying the first 100 pages or so, I felt jerked around by the midpoint of the book. Carol feels defeated in her quest to liberalize Gopher Prairie; she feels content by some aspect of her life; oops, no, she’s down again; and no, here she is up. I had much the same back-and-forth with myself: as much as I appreciate her zeal for creativity and thought, I was annoyed by her Great White Savior attitude. I sympathized with it as well. I’ve never been able to find a group where I felt comfortable to be who I am; I’ve always struggled to fit in as what the group wanted me to be. Which is why I avoid groups. And even on the internet, I’m mostly alone, save for a few intersections. But that’s my comfort zone; I don’t have to change who I am, and neither does anyone else. And of course, I’m a lot older than Carol, so our approaches would naturally differ.

I see the same sort of irony as in the other books. Take for example, the scene where she’s trying to convey her frustration with small-town life to her husband:

This is an independent town, not like these Eastern holes where you have to watch your step all the time, and live up to fool demands and social customs, and a lot of old tabbies always busy criticizing. Everybody’s free here to do what he wants to.” He said it with a flourish, and Carol perceived that he believed it. She turned her breath of fury into a yawn.
“By the way, Carrie, while we’re talking of this: Of course I like to keep independent, and I don’t believe in this business of binding yourself to trade with the man that trades with you unless you really want to, but same time: I’d be just as glad if you dealt with Jenson or Ludelmeyer as much as you ran, instead of Howland & Gould, who go to Dr. Gould every last time, and the whole tribe of ’em the same way…”

But I still want to ask Carol, hey, you’re the one who married him, how could you not know this would be your life? That, when you tell him you want to “do something with life”, would reply, “What’s better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids and knowing nice only people?“

There’s a nicely done scene that shows, without telling, the exact relationship between husband and wife. When Carol comes home debating herself about whether she’s happily married or not, and does her best to convince herself she is, she finds her husband reading a magazine:

She dropped into his lap and (after he had jerked back his head to save his eye glasses, and removed the glasses, and settled her in a position less cramping to his legs, and casually cleared his throat ) he kissed her amiably ….

She starts up a kind of pre-affair relationship with Guy Pollock, a quiet man she sees as sympathetic. But then she realizes, “he had never been anything but a frame on which she had hung shining garments.” Everyone we meet is a frame on which we hang garments, some shining, some stained. And again I want to tell her, hey, you did the same thing with your husband, and now you’re disappointed, how could you not have known. And then I remember my own marriage. I didn’t know anything. So maybe I should give Carol a break.

I found some perverse enjoyment in the conflict between Carol and the townspeople. When Carol, having worked in the Minneapolis library herself, proposes to the Gopher Prairie librarian that the job of a librarian is to increase reading, Miss Villets disagrees: “The first duty of the conscientious librarian is to preserve the books.” Carol likes that shopkeepers pay attention to her preferences, “even if they weren’t worth fulfilling.”

One thing that struck me while reading this was Carol’s tendency to think, I must go on, I will go on, lending a slight Beckettsian flavor to the novel. Beckett was decades later, of course, but it’s an interesting link. Yet I got bored about halfway through. That’s my pattern for all three books: I feel like, about halfway through, I’m done, it’s time to skip to the end. In Carol’s case, that’s less the minor revelation of George Babbitt, and more the sense of “resistance is futile” as she resigns herself to Gopher Prairie. I think it’d be interesting to see her twenty years hence, as another young, eager-to-reform ingenue moves into town.

I think one reason I had so much trouble with these books is what I call the “Pope and Shakespeare problem”. A wag in a former English class joked, “Alexander Pope has to stop writing in clichés”, the joke being they weren’t clichés when he wrote the them. It’s nearly impossible to read the Hamlet speech, or portions of Romeo and Juliet, or entire Shakespearean sonnets, and really hear the words; the impressions of repetitions over the years make the words a kind of trigger for recollection, rather than an aesthetic encounter. Lewis is credited with writing about small towns, about conservatism, in a less idealistic way (to say the least); since his heyday, so many others have covered this field (especially in the 50s), it’s hard to read him as original. It’s like taking a kid to see the first Star Wars, Episode IV: they don’t understand what a big deal it was – the light sabers, the saloon scene, The Force – back in 1977.

It’s one thing to know a Babbitt is a “a materialistic, complacent, and conformist businessman”; it’s another to have experienced just how hypocritical and boring he is, and to have witnessed the potential for change. This reading was a necessary and positive experience, even if I didn’t finish any of the books. It accomplished what I’d intended: to see more of what is the American canon, to better understand when these works serve as reference points for other works.

Youssef Ziedan, Azazeel (translation, Atlantic 2012)

Where should I begin my narrative? The beginnings are intertwined, teeming in my head. Perhaps, as my old teacher Syriana used to say, beginnings are merely delusions we believe in, for the beginning and the ending exist only along a straight line, and there are no straight lines except in our imagination or on the scraps of paper where we trace our delusions. In life and in all creation, however, everything is circular, returning to where it began, interwoven with whatever is connected. There is in reality no beginning and no ending, only an unbroken succession. In the universe the connections never break, the weft never unravels, and the branching never ceases, nor the filling and the emptying.

I know exactly what he means. I’ve spent a couple of days now staring at my computer screen, or mulling over how to write about this book, and I still don’t know. The theme of writing is, indeed, part of the book, but it’s a book that has many themes, and which one stands out at any moment is likely to be more about the reader than the book itself.

Like most stories, this one is told out of order. Let’s start with the basic plotline: a 5th century Egyptian monk/physician who refers to himself as Hypa (we never learn his given name; he renames himself after Hypatia of Alexandria) leaves his Coptic monastery/school and travels to Alexandria to study medicine, in the hopes of returning to his homeland. He runs into some trouble in Alexandria, but eventually settles in, then runs into more catastrophic trouble, at which point he heads eastward in despair. He spends a few years wandering the Holy Land in the footsteps of Christ, then makes his way to a monastery in Jerusalem, where he meets up with the priest Nestorius. At his urging, he heads towards a monastery between Aleppo and Antioch, where things go fine until they don’t. After a fevered illness, he writes up the story of his travels, buries the manuscript in a chest, and heads off for who knows where. The manuscript, which is the novel itself, is discovered in a 1994 archaeological dig, though occasional margin notes indicate someone writing in an Arabic script of the 10th century had found the manuscript, and reburied it with the notation: “I will rebury this treasure, because it is not yet time for it to appear.”

So this gives us several levels of storytelling: we have the monk Hypa writing his autobiography; we have a 10th century commentator; we have a fictional contemporary translator presenting the work; and we have the reader and the book in reality (or what passes for it these days). The novel opens with a “Translator’s Introduction”; this is the fictional translator, not the actual translator (the book was originally written in Arabic), whose translator note appears at the end.

I adopted a time-consuming but necessary reading process for most of the book: I’d read 20 or 30 pages, then spend an hour or two at my computer, looking up references for the people, places, and events referenced. I’ve had some introduction to all of this through a variety of moocs, but I wanted to be sure I understood what I was reading. Several of the characters and events are historical, some (including Hypa himself) are fictional.

I also wanted to figure out the timeline, since the story starts in Jerusalem and refers back to some horror in Alexandria for the first half, then proceeds more or less chronologically, referring forward to a character named Martha who will have some major impact later. I still don’t feel confident about the timeline. Hypa seems to be 20 years old in Alexandria, 30 in Jerusalem, and 40 at the end, but don’t quote me on that. And then there’s all the fifth-century ecclesiastical and political history. Oh, and philosophy: knowledge of Plotinus (and the fine points of Catholic Christology) helpful.

See why it took a while to read? But oh, I enjoyed it. It’s a book that’s going to require several readings over time to really nail down.

Let’s go back to a basic question: who or what is Azazeel? Those who paid attention in Sunday School might recognize it as a word for the devil, but it’s a lot more complicated than that, and there’s little agreement. The Bible mentions Azazel (one e) in Leviticus as part of an annual cleansing of sin from the Hebrews wandering around the Sinai after escaping Egypt:

6 And Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats, and set them before the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting; 8 and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Aza′zel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Aza′zel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Aza′zel.

Leviticus 16:6-10 RSV

The King James Version translates the word to scapegoat (the goat that escapes with the sins of the people). So it isn’t the goat itself that’s evil, but the sins of humanity placed on it. Other material shows the goat was led to a cliff, where it was hurled to its death, and it was the cliff that was called Azazel.

In the non-canonical (to most religions) Book of Enoch, Azazel comes up again, this time more clearly as a person, angel, or demon who teaches people to make weapons, and jewelry: “And there arose much godlessness… and they were led astray and became corrupt in all their ways.” Yep, you throw weapons and money into the mix, that’s gonna happen. Devil knows how to corrupt.

I advise a grain of salt here since I have no idea of the reliability of this source, but I’m very taken with one particular interpretation, as it relates extraordinarily well to Hypa:

Each goat represents one type of person. The goat selected for YHWH represents the obedient servant who is committed to God; this one sacrifices his life to serve before YHWH. The other goat represents the haughty and proud who is free to live his life his own way, separate from YHWH and sent out into the wilderness.
While it would seem that the goat released into the wilderness has the better deal, this is not true, the goat that is sacrificed to YHWH is completely dedicated to YHWH while the other is sent out into the wilderness, probably to die from starvation. The Jewish tradition actually says that the goat was taken to a high place, a cliff, and thrown over it.

Jeff A. Benner, Ancient Hebrew Research Center

This is Hypa’s primary dilemma, the choice between the monastic life and the joys of the world, which range from sex to philosophy to music. This conflict is made more real by his conversations with an imaginary voice in his head who he comes to call Azazeel, a voice that can only be from a part of Hypa himself; a repressed subconscious, if you will. It is this voice that expresses doubts and alternate interpretations, and eventually tells Hypa to write his story. But it is his own voice that raises questions like, Was Jesus really crucified? And, did Mary truly bear this child? Throughout there are references that could be interpreted as biblical allusions: the walk across the Sinai out of Egypt, the three temptations over his life, and, of course, this conversation with the devil.

All of this plays out in a time when not only was the Church of Alexandria on the warpath against pagans (several slaughters in the book are historical events), but divided in itself over the fine points of the nature of Christ: homoousios or homoiousios. Priests and bishops were excommunicated as heretics, even murdered, over that one letter, this fine point over whether Jesus was begotten or created, as the lyrics of “O Come All Ye Faithful” put it. Nestorius, Hypa’s eventual friend and confidant, rejects the doctrine of Theotokos, Mother of God, in favor of Christotokos, mother of Christ, and thus is one of those cast out. This final loss breaks Hypa.

Several characters refer to this conflict over insanely small details – which lasted for the first thousand years of the Church, by the way, and eventually caused the Great Schism in the 11th century – as motivated more by power than by the love of God. Nestorius, for example, privately denounces both events in Alexandria, and the Council of Nicaea of 325, to Hypa:

The truth is, Hypa, that it is all a fraud. Satan was the driving force behind everything that happened one hundred years ago at the council of Niceae. By Satan I mean the devil in the form of temporal power, which goes to people’s heads. Then they challenge the authority of the Lord and tear each other to pieces, then they lose heart and are scattered to the wind. Their passions overwhelm them and they act foolishly and violate the spirit of the faith in seeking to obtain the vanities of the transient world. What happened in Nicaea, Hypa, was null and void through and through.

This fictional conversation is particularly interesting, since I have read in several places that Nestorius was in fact vigorously anti-Arian. I don’t have the background to assess the issue, but I wonder why Ziedan would include it, possibly to further underline the confusion of the time. Towards the end of the book, when Nestorius is proclaimed Bishop of Constantinople, Hypa finds many of the reports he hears of his edicts to be disturbing and not at all in keeping with the priest he came to admire and consider a mentor of sorts.

A very interesting language trick caught my attention. Remember, the book was originally in Arabic, so I have no idea if this language is in the original: during a particularly important murderous rampage, the Christians shout, “We will cleanse the land of the Lord” as their rallying cry. Notice this can be read two different ways: We will cleanse (the land of the Lord), that is, we will cleanse Alexandria, OR We will clean the Lord out of Alexandria. It’s a particularly brilliant turn of phrase at a particularly important moment in the book. And, by the way, the rampage follows a particularly vicious sermon preached by Cyril which blamed pagans as the root of all sorts of trouble; historians vary on how much blame falls on him for the subsequent murders. Nestorius will later tell Hypa that an investigation found no fault with anyone. “The people of Alexandria have no mercy and do not fear punishment for their deeds,” says Hypa. It’s interesting to read a novel, written by an Egyptian scholar of Islamic manuscripts and set 1500 years ago, that seems so terrifyingly relevant to today’s America.

Another theme, mentioned a couple of times, is the association of ignorance and bliss. Hypa puzzles over this:

Why was the Lord angry when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge? …. Why in the first place did God want man to remain ignorant? Was the knowledge that Adam obtained a prelude to him obtaining eternal life? Who are those about whom the Lord said that Adam had become one of them? If Adam and Eve had remained ignorant, would they have lived forever in the Garden of Eden? Is it right that immortality should go along with ignorance and disregard for nature?

Theologists through the ages have had various answers for that one. Again, it rings so true with the contemporary climate, where history and philosophy and art are being forsaken for computer science, where truth itself is what power says it is.

It’s something of a niche book. I don’t remember where I came across it, but I would have been attracted to the historical aspect. It was awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 (a division of the Booker prizes), and created quite a bit of controversy in Egypt where Cyril is regarded as a saint in the Coptic Church. To be fair, we have to remember many early Christians were slaughtered by the Romans, so it isn’t completely unexpected that they would become bloodthirsty once power was obtained.

I’ve often said that I’m never happier when a book teaches me something. I did a lot of extra reading while reading this book, and I think I’ve at least gained some idea of the breadth of what there is to learn, even if my learning is still incomplete. I’m glad I got to know Hypa, and I will know him better next time I read this book. He vanishes from our sight with the last sentence of his manuscript; I hope he found some measure of peace.

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (Vintage reprint, 2007)

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different…. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, “Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.”

Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes… Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve read so many analyses, adaptations, and references to this book, I felt as if I’d read it. But reading about a book is not the same as reading it. I have a history of reading about instead of reading, of studying instead of experiencing, and I’ve been trying to reverse that somewhat, so I chose to sit down and read the book I’ve been reading about for so long. I can’t say it was a completely new experience, and I have to admit, a lecture and an interview still came into play, but I’m glad to have finally had the experience.

The book was on my mind because I’d encountered what I felt were oblique references to it in two recent readings. To my surprise, I discovered a third reference, though it was several years ago.

The popularity of the key idea – that beauty is something imposed from outside by the powerful, more akin to conformity with an ideal than an aesthetic evaluation – is not surprising. That this supposed ideal is used to exclude and devalue is pretty much a given. It goes way beyond eye color, but that particular symbol was the genesis of the book: Morrison has told the story several times about a childhood friend, a black girl, who longed for blue eyes, though that wish was from nowhere near as devastated a place as Pecola’s. Still, it started Morrison on a train of thought:

When I began writing The Bluest Eye, I was interested in something else. Not resistance to the contempt of others, ways to deflect it, but the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident. I knew that some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over. Others surrender their identity, melt into a structure that delivers the strong persona they lack. Most others, however, grow beyond it. But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it. They are invisible. The death of self-esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has “legs,” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to self-destruction is sealed.

Foreword, Toni Morrison

Since thousands of commentaries on this book are easily available, written by authors from highest academics to ninth-graders (and I will make use of at least one of these), I’ll focus on its relevance to the recent references that snagged my interest.

The first was the novel The Come In All Colors by Malcolm Hansen, a story about a mixed-race boy kept in the dark about his heritage until it becomes cruelly relevant to the white folks of the Georgia town in which he lives. His mother, a light-skinned black woman, is named Peola, the same name as the black child in the Fanny Hurst novel, Imitation of Life, who tries to pass as white as a teen and adult. The high-yellow character in Morrison’s novel, Maureen Peal, notices the similarity in names, though she incorrectly identifies Hurst’s character as Pecola. All of this activity swirling around these names, all of this attention by light-skinned black women! Maureen has the relative privilege of lighter skin, her family line having worked hard to preserve it over generations. Hansen’s Peola serves as a bewildering figure to her son, who isn’t sure who’s what. Hurst’s Peola makes the most of her coloring, turning her back on even her mother. And then we have Pecola, who just yearns for blue eyes, eyes that she somehow believes would counteract the black skin that makes her unlovable. She is, of course, unable to realize that she is not unlovable; it is her parents, and the world at large, who are unloving; the friendship offered by Claudia, Frieda, and Maureen is not enough to undo parental disregard and societal shaming.

Those echoes of whiteness’ attributed beauty indicate why Morrison would name the character Pecola, but why Polly Breedlove would choose the name Pecola for her daughter is never addressed. Hurst’s novel wasn’t yet written when Pecola was born. With my meager research skills, I can’t find anything beyond unauthenticated internet nonsense about the name, and I see nothing that would have been readily available to Polly in the Ohio of the late 20s.

The second reference was the short story “The Whitest Girl” by Brenda Peynado from Pushcart XLIII, 2019. It’s something of a reversal of color roles in a predominantly Latinx high school. Terry is The Whitest Girl who shows up and is seen as both “too good and too white”, a kind of love-hate thing, envy turned into rage implicit in some Morrison characters, most notably Cholly. In Peynado’s story, Terry is much like Pecola: she fades into the woodwork and barely speaks. The Latinx girls seem mostly resentful of her lack of effort to modify her whiteness, as other Anglo girls at the school with their tans and their choices in hair and clothing.

The reciprocal need to modify one’s blackness to more imitate whiteness is also part of Morrison’s book, exemplified by the character Geraldine whose son torments Pecola over a cat.

Here they learn the rest of the lesson begun in those soft houses with porch swings and pots of bleeding heart: how to behave. The careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners. In short, how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.
Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies. They fight this battle all the way to the grave. The laugh that is a little too loud; the enunciation a little to round; the gesture a little too generous. They hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free; when they wear lipstick, they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair.

This is another insidious expression of racism: the demand that black people become as white as possible, if not in skin color, in behavior. It’s behind a great deal of “respectability politics” and the disregard for unarmed black youth shot dead by police. Music, clothing, food, dance, language, art; to the white power structure, it isn’t just a preference, it all ends up tainted by association with blackness. The demand to assimilate requires complete subjugation to white standards, and even then, will only go so far.

I was surprised to find a third reference from almost eight years ago in an unexpected source: in her paper on second person narratives, Monika Fludernik referenced The Bluest Eye as a form of skaz narrative, a traditionally Russian form, adapted, she claims, by black women like Morrison:

Skaz narration, as a fictional technique that pretends to reinstitute a specious orality, recuperates the original communal character of oral storytelling, with the effect of subverting the by now established separation of narration and narrated in terms of fictional worlds. Second person fiction utilizes this subversive potential for creating an unsettling effect – that of involving the actual reader of fiction, not only in the tale, but additionally in the world of fiction itself, an eerie effect that can be put to very strategic political use. The technique has been widely applied, for instance, in recent black women’s writing where it allows the fictional narrator both to evoke the familiar setting for the community-internal reader and to draw readers from different cultural backgrounds into the fictional world of the black community, thereby increasing potential empathy values and forcing an in-group consciousness on the (factually) out-group reader. Examples for the extremely successful
application of this rhetorical skaz strategy can be located, e.g., in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula…

Monika Fludernik, “Second Person Fiction”

I’m a little hazy on the boundaries of skaz narration, and the book has several narrators, including an omniscient third person and Pecola’s voice in her own head. But I believe this refers to the child Claudia revealing Pecola’s life and circumstances with a kind of closeness a third-person narrator couldn’t match. We also hear from an adult Claudia near the end, in one of the most powerful moments of the book: the acknowledgement that the black community failed Pecola, failed itself.

While I was wandering around just seeing what was out there on this book, I came across a lecture by Prof. Amy Hungerford from the Open Yale Course “The American Novel since 1945” which made several points I would have missed. One in particular (around the 43-minute mark) addresses the potentially malignant effect of reading and writing, which Hungerford sees associated with rape.

Her analysis begins with the scene in which Soaphead Church prepares the poisoned meat for Pecola to feed the neighbor’s dog, as a sign that God will grant her blue eyes. It is this event that finally pushes her into a kind of psychosis, so it’s a pivotal scene. We can be forgiven for almost overlooking the casual line, “A bottle of ink was on the same shelf that held the poison.”

But that line, in combination with the Dick and Jane primer that has been showcased repeatedly throughout the book, a primer telling a story that must seem bizarre to children like Pecola, a primer inculcating the White Ideal in young kids who might not be able to understand why their worlds do not look like Dick and Jane’s: this is the poison. “If you are a young black girl learning to read, you are bringing into yourself a deadly kind of poison” says Hungerford. This is echoed in the “talking to herself” scene at the end of the novel, where Pecola reveals, to herself and the reader, she was raped a second time while she was reading. Reading is, or at least can be, a kind of penetration, of the most intimate kind.

I seem to have turned this into a reading-about-the-book, but at least I started with reading the book. By the way, it’s one of the most challenged books in America, in terms of library and school bans. I was in school when it was released, and I don’t remember hearing anything about it, but that was in Florida. I looked up the original NYT review, and it was very positive, predicting a glowing career for Morrison; little did they know how she would exceed their expectations. But at least they got it right, in a time when they could very easily have gotten it wrong.

Jordan Ellenberg: The Grasshopper King (Coffee House Press, 2003)

I think it’s best that I begin with a legend – a mostly true one.
It goes like this: in 1871, a luckless prospector and aesthete named Tip Chandler, lost in the desert, his mules weakening and his canteen two days empty, came to the edge of a tremendous mesa. Seeing that he Could travel no farther, and knowing that no salvation lay behind him, he fell to his knees and resigned himself to death. But at that moment, a spring of fresh water gushed out from the desiccated ground. Chandler threw himself down, pressed his lips to the earth, and drank; and when, at last, bloated and drenched, he allowed himself to lift his head and breathe, he was overtaken by a vision. He saw, he wrote later, “a splendid City , replete with and dedicated to the sundry pursuits of Knowledge, Art, and Faith; a truly second Athens through whose avenues progressed Architects, Mathematicians, Clergyman, Poets, and Scientists of all sorts; and having in it a great College, which stood up on the Cliffside, a Testament to the Power of Reason whose Beacon shined forth unto the savage and uncomprehending Plain!”

We all have those magnificent visions; maybe not of splendid Cities, but of achievement, love, success, having it all. Ellenberg’s book is here to remind us, in a hilarious way, that we often follow the wrong track in our pursuit of happiness. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to realize it in time to start over. And sometimes not.

The first 50 pages or so are – well, I keep wanting to use the word “rollicking”, though that isn’t really my kind of word. It fits, though. Fast-paced, funny, a little weird without being absurd, Part 1 of the three-part novel takes us from the genesis of Chandler University, a place that never rose to anywhere near the heights envisioned by founder Tip Chandler, through the career of Stanley Higgs, founder of the study of Gravinics. If you’ve never heard of Gravinics, don’t worry; it’s a fictional Eastern European culture (presumably based on the very real Gravettian culture that produced so many ancient Venus figures, carvings of women with enormously enlarged breasts and buttocks) that survived from paleolithic times remarkably unsullied by outside influences.

Higg’s career began when, as a Columbia grad student in comparative literature, he discovered a book in a trash bin. Wiping off the mayonnaise, Higgs uncovers the heretofore unknown poetry collection Poems Against the Enemies Both Surrounding and Pervading Us by Henderson (who must have a first name, but I don’t remember and can’t find it) proclaiming sentiments like “the hectoring of the vendors of spoiled fish/is equal in offensiveness to/the/hideous coughing of my mother. /Berlin is dying/of syphilis and I/ am its rotting nose.” More blog entry than Pound’s “old bitch gone in the teeth.” But it’s the very lack of poetic value that seems to attract Higgs.

Henderson, in his hatred for the reader, for the female sex, for his adopted Germany – really, for everyone – had arrived at a sort of perfection of which ordinary and good poets could not be capable. His work was cleansed entirely of affect, wit, and sense. And so, as he read, was Higgs. He had to lean on a wall; he was shell-shocked; he could smell the evenings fog coming in, and the fish. It was like a glimpse of a world where all laws were suspended: not just human laws but natural selection, the relation of energy to mass, gravity.

His academic career soars when he comes to Chandler to found the Gravinics department, marries the Dean’s daughter, and proves to be an eloquent lecturer. The basketball team becomes infatuated with Gravinics for some reason, and, for a possibly unrelated reason, they start winning games. The school sees this scholar of terrible poetry as a cash cow, attracting better quality students, grant money, the Henderson Society now funded by a Japanese electronics giant, basketball championships, and all those things school truly value when knowledge doesn’t pay the bills. But after a brief Golden Age, things start to sour, until Higgs retreats into his home, refusing to speak.

Enter Sam Grapearbor, our first-person narrator who has until now merely recounted history. And, by the way, we’re only on page 47; this rollicking thing keeps us moving along. In fact, on first read, my impression was that the middle of the book sagged, but after a second read I realize that’s more a matter of comparison; it’s more like it settles down into more of a usual reading pace.

It’s kind of an interesting structure for a novel: start with 50 pages of backstory (take that, in media res) and finishes off with 40 pages of denouement, sandwiching ~150 pages of plot progression, ending in a Marx-Brothers-meet-Mel-Brooks climax, in between. The closing scene, a flashback, ends as we began, with gushing water. Having just done some minor research for a BASS story into Moses striking the rock – on two occasions, with very different outcomes – to bring forth water, I have to steer myself away from overinterpretation. By the way, this whole novel would make a really fun movie, between cinematic scenes, awkward romance, and generous helpings of goofiness; someone slip a copy to a movie producer, ok?

My source text was the sentence, “I kicked the dog.” McTaggert’s idea was that I would acquaint myself with the mechanics of Gravinic by producing a complete list of possible translations.. The tally would run into the tens of thousands. One had to know, first of all, what sort of kick was involved – was it a field-goal swing, a sidewise foot-shove, a horizontal sweep involving the entire leg? All these, and more, called for different verbs. Was the kicking of the dog habitual, or a one-time action? Does the speaker mean to imply that the kick is apt to be repeated? And whose dog is it?
My initial interest in the language had by now transmuted itself into something like awe. Gravinic was a perfected vehicle for meaning – exact meaning.

It’s a tightly woven story, all the parts fitting together. In his “Twenty Questions” interview with Rain Taxi, Ellenberg – a child math prodigy who, at the time of publication in 2003, was teaching math at Princeton, and is now a math professor at UW-Madison – said he didn’t originally think the novel was mathematical, then he saw a causal unity driving the characters. I, a mathphobe who’s been taking and retaking high school math for, oh, 40 years now, trying to get the jokes, see it as highly mathematical in the same way Bach is described as mathematical: each element, each detail is part of a network and ties to other elements and details to create a strong but flexible cloth, with no excess or loose threads. Oh, and there are a couple of geometric terms – parallelepiped and frustum, for instance – that I have a feeling Sam never encountered, unless they happen to be hot topics in Gravinic poetry. But it’s the language as a vehicle for “exact meaning” that really tips it off.

Some of the more interesting threads connect Sam and other characters. Henderson’s parents were British ex-pats who settled in Gravine before moving on to Berlin; Sam’s parents ran a restaurant in NYC before moving to Chandler City, partly because they felt the counterculture movement they loved was selling out, and partly because his mother read an article about Tip Chandler: “I think she had some idea that, born in the West, I would grow up steely, level-voiced, inclined to swift action. My mother is a woman of passionate opinion, and has been wrong about many things; but never, I believe, more wrong than in this.” Both Higgs and Sam find the documents that begin their academic careers in trash bins, covered with mayonnaise (a particularly amusing leitmotif loaded with significance). And both meet women who moved from more prestigious institutions of higher learning to Chandler, though for different reasons.

In my travels I ran across a 2015 blog post by one Holden Lee, a PhD student in mathematics at Princeton on his way to an academic career; his post is a great synopsis and analysis. He felt the novel captured the journey through academia perfectly. I never got beyond a BA at a third-rate state school, so I’ll have to take his word for it. But he highlighted a particular passage of the novel that struck me in light of another article I’d read recently.

Behind each rectangle of light there was a chemist, a dramatist, a creative writer, an anthropologist, or something else. Our Babel, this welter of disciplines, our own bituminous tower. Something had gone wrong; the confounding of the tongues had proceeded on schedule but the victims had failed to scatter, as intended, across the span of the earth.

A few weeks before, I’d read an article by Kamil Ahsan mourning the kind of super-specialization his PhD in biology had required. He’d been initially inspired by what today would be called science communicators: scientists who write for the general audience in a way that catches on, in Ahsan’s case, Stephen J. Gould (I myself bought Eight Little Piggies by mistake and was similarly, though not so practically, captivated, so I get this). But his academic career didn’t do the science communicators justice:

…until one day you will realize that every single ambitious colleague with whom you entered graduate school who wanted to be a tenured professor in biology actually swore off academia quite some time ago, and is now unsure about what to do next, and embarrassed about it, because what do you do next when there is nothing you have been trained to do well enough except inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years, and then you will finally realize the dark humor in your conundrum, that it wasn’t just this awful, exploitative system of apprenticeship, but also a false reading on your part, a sense of certainty you developed somewhere along the line, and that you do—as a matter of fact—bear some responsibility for this crisis.

We didn’t quite know then that the average length of an apprenticeship in academia—ostensibly to develop the mere ability to study something—has gotten bigger and bigger, just as the prospects become dimmer and dimmer. But we only seem to find out once it’s too late.

I get that, too, though it cost me a lot less in time and money. I spent twelve weeks taking a fantastic MIT mooc on molecular biology which focused on DNA replication and repair, yet declined to take parts II and III on transcription and RNA processing because, not being headed towards true academic study of biology, I had other things I wanted to study over the remainder of the year, and the intensity of the biomoocs would have limited my ability to do that.

But, even at my level, I get what he’s saying about how academia narrows your focus, and does create a kind of Babel with biologists over here, mathematicians over there, and Gravinics in another wing. It’s necessary, to some degree, at this point; the low-hanging fruit has been picked, it’s not a matter of growing peas in your back yard any more. So as Higgs – and Sam, and pretty much everyone else in universities – focus more and more on less and less, there’s great value added to knowledge, yes, but there’s also a loss of cross-pollination. That’s why I appreciate mathematicians who can write really good novels (and, by the way, this wasn’t a casual undertaking; Ellenberg studied fiction with people like Robert Stone and Stephen Dixon at Johns Hopkins). And doctor/poets and engineer/artists and all the other marvellous combinations that are possible.

The other theme that shines through the book is that of relationships. This was mentioned in Ellenberg’s aforementioned Rain Taxi interview, as he alludes to the Great American Nerd Novel in response to a question about the trouble the men in the book have with women. Remembering that this book was published in 2003, I was brought up short by a small scene in which Julia, attending a department function with Sam, sees all these socially awkward men trying to have normal conversations and asks, “Where are the wives?” The question today would be, “Where are the female professors?” but that’s beyond the pale for this time and place; that there are no wives speaks to the woman-blindness pretty dramatically.

Sam’s relationship with Julia is another network thread, mirroring Higg’s relationship with his wife, Ellen. I would imagine Julia sees this as her possible future, and she’s not going to let it go there. Sam is less astute.

She must never have imagined we would stay together so long. I think her idea, conscious or not, was to do something about my awfulness; and that, by now, she had accomplished. But something made her stay. I do not want to exaggerate my charms. It may be that I was still more awful than I thought.
Thinking back now, it seems to me that those dog-kicking weeks were the happiest time I have known.

I do have one criticism (hey, it keeps me honest, the more I like a read, the harder I look for a reason to complain about it): Charlie Hascomb. He’s a minor character who plays a crucial role in the climax based on two qualities. Those qualities seem rather shoehorned in, revealed by bald narration with little context explaining their revelation, rather than by character development. I think this is a product of the book’s streamlined economy; it’s the only place it bothers me.

So how did I come to read a fifteen-year-old, relatively obscure title – by which I mean it’s not likely to be showing up on the Millions’ Year in Reading list (to their detriment)? It started with Ben Orlin’s recent fun-math book, Math with Bad Drawings, which I posted about a few weeks ago. When I ordered it last fall, it occurred to me I could to a little cluster of fun-math books, so I added in Ellenberg’s How Not To be Wrong; I follow him on Twitter as part of my mathphobia-recovery program. Sadly, it was not to be; I lost the thread fairly early on, which is what usually happens with me and fun-math books (I still have hope for Eugenia Cheng’s How to Bake Pi, but it’s going to have to wait ‘til after Pushcart season). I felt so bad at my failure, I checked to see if he’d written anything else, and discovered this novel. A novel about academia, no less, one of my favorite subjects. I was, as I’ve said, hooked by the middle of page 1, and I felt a lot better.

See? Sometimes a wrong start can steer you into the place you were meant to be, all along.

Curtis Sittenfeld: Prep (Random House, 2005)

Ault had been my idea. I’d researched boarding schools at the public library and written away for catalogs myself. Their glossy pages showed photographs of teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equation written across the chalkboard. I had traded away my family for this glossiness. I’d pretended it was about academics, but it never had been….I imiagined that if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.

Lee Fiora, originally from South Bend, Indiana, transplanted to a high-end boarding school in Massachusetts, might just be the most unknowable first-person narrator I’ve ever read. Many of her comments ring so true to me, but somehow I still don’t get her; I feel a much stronger emotional connection with Gene from A Separate Peace, and was far more involved in Huey’s development as I read They Come in All Colors, even though my worldspace is much closer to Lee’s. After 400 pages of listening to her thoughts and seeing her actions, I still have no idea who she is.

A great example of this comes from the beginning of her sophomore year, about a third of the way through the book. Her English teacher has assigned an essay: write about something you care about, and take a stand. Lee writes an adequate essay about school prayer, but asterisks the title: “This is not an issue I truly care about but I believe it fulfills the assignment.” Girl could give master classes in passive aggressiveness. “You’re a cipher,” the teacher tells her, noting that other students want to be friends with her but she seems completely unengaged in anything. And, though it makes for somewhat frustrating reading, I can understand. I know what it is to feel like – and notice, that’s an interpretation, not reality – anything you say will just draw boredom, scorn, or rebuke. Thing is, she seems to be able to make friends – it’s just that they aren’t the friends she’s interested in.

Some light is shed on this at the very end of the book, when she, as an adult, recalls Martha, her roommate and best – maybe only – friend for three years

I never understood when I was at Ault why she liked me as much as I liked her. Even now, I’m still not sure. I couldn’t give back half of what she gave me, and that fact should have knocked off the balance between us, but it didn’t, and I don’t know why not. Later, after Ault, I reinvented myself – not overnight but little by little. Also had taught me everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people, what the exact measurements ought to be of confidence and self-deprecation, humor, disclosure, inquisitiveness; even, finally, of enthusiasm. Also, Ault Had been the toughest audience I’d ever encounter, to the extent that sometimes afterward, I found winning people over disappointingly easy. If Martha and I had met when we were, say, twenty-two, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to believe she’d like me. But she had liked me before I became likable; that was the confusing part.

All the “what made me a success” stories I’ve ever read give great credence to these kinds of skills – not grades, or knowledge of any subject matter, or even popularity – and it seems Lee got a terrific education though she wasn’t able to apply it until much later.

The novel has a beads-on-a-string structure, one incident after another, with some resonance between them but not much. Within the beads there may be some tension and narrative drive, but there’s really no track on which the novel as a whole runs, other than the elapsing of four years of high school. I tried reading it as an observer novel – the story is about the other students – but that doesn’t work either, since we find out little about how they grow and change. No, the story is about Lee.

She feels awkward as a student, but in fact has fairly good social skills. She has friendly relations, if not friendships, with several students. She stumbles into a role cutting other students’ hair. She is the one called upon when a fellow student, her first-year roommate, attempts suicide. But it all seems far removed from her. Her closest relationship is with Martha, but only two extended conversations, bracketing the friendship, are revealed, making it seem like an arrangement of convenience rather than a close friendship. Even her eventual sexual relationship is something she enters into passively. Willingly, I should say, happily even, though it’s her partner who initiates and continues the relationship, who determines where and when – and, more importantly, where and when not.

Only one thing seems to really interest her: a classmate named Cross. She has an unexpected encounter with him as a freshman, then spends a couple of years thinking about him, avoiding looking like she’s paying any attention to him while focusing intently on everything he does.

One of the beads-on-a-string that interested me most was the game of Assassin, a kind of anonymous tag in which each student has to put a sticker on a target student, thus assassinating her and eliminating her from the game. Lee is really into this game (and maybe that’s why it stands out in my mind), and because she’s almost invisible to everyone, she does quite well at sneaking up on people. Eventually she finds a student, one of the boys, a challenge, and hides under a table to get close enough to tag him. Her entire motivation for his game, however, is the fantasy that she will eventually end up assassinating Cross. Her own assassination, what for anyone else would feel like a betrayal, is only a disappointment because she is out of the game before this happens.

The book is filled with great pithy observations that I might have said at some point along the way:

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.
 
The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn’t romantic, but I wasn’t sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people’s time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so fucking sure of my place in the world.
 
…nothing broke my heart like the slow death of a shared joke that had once seemed genuinely funny.
 
I believed then that if you had a good encounter with a person, it was best not to see them again for as long as possible lest you taint the previous interaction.
 
It struck me suddenly that my parents might be bewildered by me, the Ault version of me for whom it was a daring act to eat spaghetti.
 
…I had figured out early on how Aubrey liked me best: trying but not getting anything right. Or maybe not getting anything right but trying. Either way, the other person’s reaction was the only thing that ever counted to me…
 
The alcohol on his breath could have conjured up bus stations and old men with dirty clothes and bloodshot eyes, but because I was seventeen and a virgin and because I lived nine months a year on a campus of brick buildings and wooded hills and lovingly mown athletic fields, it’s conjured for me summer dances at country clubs, lives with wonderful secrets.
 
And then I realized that here, in sports, it was okay to show that something mattered to you.
 
My regret surged and billowed, as regret does in the middle of the night; everything had happened so quickly, the chance to have caused a different outcome was still so recent. … You had a window of opportunity. if you had used it, you probably would have embarrassed yourself, but it not using it, you wasted something irretrievable.

The last event of her senior year is the most emotionally packed and gripping: the school arranges for her, and a few other students not from the usual upper-crust prep school crowd, to give an individual interview to a NYT reporter. She thinks she’s just talking to an interested adult, and is shocked to see her words appear in the article as an indictment of boarding-school culture. Her first honest conversation in four years poisons her final week at a school; it’s telling that no one had any idea she felt isolated.

Although I had great sympathy for her – I once had a newspaper interview go bad, though nowhere near as bad and on a much smaller scale – I still kept thinking she was the one primarily responsible for her isolation. This, I think, is the reason for the disconnected-narrator approach: like her fellow students, I wanted to get to know her, but she, as narrator, kept me at arm’s distance.

I discovered this book through, of all things, the Odyssey. On Twitter, I follow classicist Prof. Emily Wilson, whose recent translation of Homer reveals much about other versions. She mentioned a blog post that looked at Odysseus as an unlikeable character. I went poking around that blog, written by Jaime Lustig and primarily focused on anime and manga, and found a delightful Favorite Books page. I recognized Sittenfeld’s name, since I’d recently read, and later came to more fully appreciate, her story “Gender Studies” in Pushcart. This is where I first got the idea to do a three-book “prep school” series, since I already had a recommendation for They Come in All Colors and was going to finish my planned summer reading with time to spare.

Of the novel, Jaime said, “It’s also the most perfect book about realizing that everything we thought was the fault of a world that doesn’t get us, is actually our fault and we missed so many opportunities to connect.” That’s a perfect description. And something for me to think about, as well.

Malcolm Hansen: They Come in All Colors (Atria, 2018)

I explained that the very notion of an immutable identity was a foreign concept to me. Everything was negotiable, and infinitely so. To be sure, I might have felt differently if the identity presently being forced on me conferred even a hint of admiration from my peers. But in point of fact, it was the subject of considerable derision. So I’d cast it off, and after having done so, I joined in on the fun. It came so easily to me precisely because I’d pulled that page right out of Mom’s old playbook. It was a time that she hardly cared to recall but that I remembered vividly. Ironically, she once recast herself as the person she needed to be to help me at a vulnerable moment in our lives, and now here I was doing pretty much the exact same thing. Now, come to find out, she’d had a crisis of conscience, albeit it too late to do me any good.

How does a child understand race? How does an eight-year-old understand racism when it’s part of his everyday life? How does he put together that 1) he tans easily but has wavy hair, 2) Mom is very tan and has curly hair, 3) Dad is white, and, and compute, What am I? in a world where “a person” just isn’t a good enough answer.

All Huey wanted was to go for a swim on a hot summer evening in Georgia, as he’d done in prior years. He didn’t know he’d turn the world upside down. He didn’t even know he was why the world was turned upside down, even as it flipped him on his head.

You are a bright boy, Huey. Tell me something. If the world went to hell in a handbasket tomorrow, does it make sense to you that it would all come down to this stupid little pool ?

This was not at all the book I expected it to be. Writer/reader/blogger Navidad Thelamour recommended it as follow-up to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I was expecting satire and prep school. As someone who seems to be somewhat tone-deaf to contemporary irony (I may be the only person who never understood what was so hilarious about Seinfeld), I have to take Navi’s word for it that this reads as satirical and ironic; to me, it’s straight-out grisly fact, unlike the wacky turns in Beatty’s novel. No, this was not the book I was expecting; the good news is, it’s a terrific book, and one I might have otherwise missed (thank you, Navi!).

Most of the story takes place in rural Georgia rather than the New York prep school that form the second timeline. In an informative interview with Thelamour, Hansen tells her he “initially underestimated the importance of the New York sections”; these were strengthened after encouragement from his editor.

It was very hard reading, both emotionally and cognitively. Emotionally, because of the confusion of 8-year-old Huey, and his later devastation as a teenager, over racism, pain which is so effectively protrayed it pervaded the air itself as I read. Cognitively, because crucial information is revealed with great subtlety. I must have doubled back to re-read in a half dozen places, thinking I’d missed something. This helps to understand the kind of confusion Huey lived in, overhearing things, being told one thing and seeing evidence for another. Although child narrators are always pretty unreliable, this one is doubly so, since truth has been obscured in an effort to protect him – until the town unobscures it for them.

I had no idea why Toby was with the people across the street. I was trying to figure it out. Aside from the obvious fact that he was colored and so were they. It felt like a betrayal – he’d known us just as long as he known any of them. He’s been with us for so, so long. And his father before him. Grandfather, too. After that, it’s got murky. Dad said people didn’t keep written accounts that far back. He made it sound like employment records were a modern invention.

And this is how we find out Dad’s people used to own Toby’s people; at least, that’s my interpretation, since very little is ever made explicit in this book. But it gets more complicated, because not only does Huey feel genuine affection for Toby, it turns out there’s a deeper connection, one that isn’t acknowledged until quite late in the book, and then is still a source of shame for the teenage Huey, still growing into his identity.

One of the many interesting subtexts of the book is that, while the racism of the South is more explicit, the racism of the North, even the sophisticated New York City, is just as deep. We begin at the fancy Claremont, a prep school eager to have Huey because he is “different, but not too different”. In other words, he counts as black for statistical purposes, but he isn’t scary-black. Huey’s mom, Peola, makes this more explicit: the only work she can find is cooking, cleaning, and child care for the rich family of a mattress mogul. We know she’s left Georgia behind, and has become more sociopolitically savvy – and more angry – as she’s found the same impediments to growth, but we don’t find out for quite a while exactly what precipitated the move.

Huey, on the other hand, is initially optimistic about his future during his first years at Claremont:

Zuk and I, on the other hand, had a different outlook. …Our job wasn’t to try to change the nature of things but to make sure we ended up on the winning side. ….I couldn’t fault Mom for being bitter about the opportunities she’d never had, but I wished that she could just be happy that all of that could be mine. We just had to let go of the past and embrace the golden future that being at a place like Claremont would ensure.
Oh. And race – well that just never seemed to come up. ….

Race never seems to come up, until it does, and then it turns out it was the elephant in the room all along.

The question of identity plays throughout. Is race a binary state? Must one be black or white? Is the “one drop rule” still in effect? The book is set in the 60s, which was before companies like 23AndMe or AncestryDNA could pin down exactly who has what blood. Turns out, white supremacists are using these tests to prove their purity, and have interesting ways ways of discounting results they don’t like. Huey has only what his parents tell him, what the people of Akersburg, GA tell him, and later, what his “friend” Ariel Zukowski tells him.

One side note: in Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel Imitation of Life, and the 1934 film of the same title, “Peola” was the name of the light-skinned daughter who tried to pass (that was the word for it then) as white, leaving her black mother behind, with tragic results. There’s a reference to this in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye by the character Pecola, a dark black girl who longs for whiteness, particularly blue eyes. In the film, the part of Peola was played by Fredi Washington, a biracial actress who refused to pass though her career suffered as a result. To travel a little further down the rabbit hole, when the film was remade in 1959, the character was renamed Sarah Jane and was played by Susan Kohner, generally considered “white” (whatever that means) though her mother was a Mexican-American actress. Whether Hansen deliberately incorporated this, I can’t be sure, but it fits so well I think he must have.

In one intense and pivotal scene late in the book, Peola tries to explain to Huey why he belongs at Claremont. She uses a metaphor new to me, one that I found immensely powerful as a response to the “hey, I never owned any slaves so don’t take it out on me” reaction to affirmative action:

It’s like one man steals a house from another man, and we say, fine. The authorities find the man guilty and send him to jail, and we say justice is served. But his son gets to keep the house. Okay? In short order, the son has a child and decides that he wants a second house. Except now, the man who’s had his house stolen finds himself competing for a home loan with guess who – the thief’s son. Only the thief’s son has a house to offer up as collateral against a second mortgage, and the man with whom he’s competing for the loan does not. Now, the banker doesn’t care one way or another about that first home. He only cares about getting his money back. And after all, the son didn’t steal the house that he lives in. His father did. So why should he be penalized unfairly? We all know that you can’t punish the son for the sins of the father. Which is why he gets to live in that first house. But I’ll be damned if he gets to use it to bootstrap his second home when there is still a man out there who has been robbed of his fair chance at his first!

Writing a book through the eyes of a child is tricky business. Sometimes Huey seems to be sophisticated beyond his years, while he remains clueless – perhaps willfully so – about race. Why doesn’t Mom ever come to the pool to see him swim? Why does Dad take him for ice cream so early in the morning, before anyone else is in the store? Who are these people on the bus, why are they here, what is SNCC, why do they want ice cream at that parlor so bad, why can’t they just go somewhere else? What really happened to Mr. Goolsbey’s shop, and what happened to Toby? I get the sense these are questions he isn’t sure he wants answered, adding to his cluelessness. Then he writes a poem, quite sophisticated for an eight year old, that evokes “Raisin in the Sun” – and reminded me that Plath’s poem, “Daddy”, was used as an epigraph – and shows why he might be selected for Claremont a few years later.

Yes, it’s hard to read. I kept thinking it reminded me a bit of my experience of reading Light in August several years ago during another hot, racist summer. But it’s very worth reading. I hope it finds the audience it deserves, the audience that deserves, that needs, it.

John Knowles: A Separate Peace (Harville Secker, 1959)

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn’t as well kept up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.

I’ve always had an unexpected fondness for prep-school novels and movies. No, I didn’t go to prep school or boarding school or anything but plain old public school, yet I find the concentrated atmosphere of these stories works for me.

I have a couple of contemporary examples in the works for the next weeks, so I thought I’d take another look at the granddaddy of them all. Do kids still read this? It was on my summer reading lists throughout school; I think I finally read it in my teens, probably in the late 60s – yes, I read some of the books on the summer reading list, mostly the ones having to do with death. But now that I’ve re-read it, I don’t think I finished it; I think I stopped after the tree incident, because I don’t remember the Winter Carnival, or Leper’s “escape”, or really much of the book at all.

I certainly don’t remember it as gay. And yeah, now, in 2018, it reads very repressed-and-unspoken gay, in a way it couldn’t have read to me in 1968. Putting aside Gene’s repressed sexuality, it’s a novel about jealousy, about wanting what someone else has, about the grass being greener and all those typical teenage themes that last into adulthood. Competition, the foundational drive. Ethical failure, the engine of so much modern literature. Guilt, the universal emotion.

It’s pretty much a classic structure: the tree scene, far from being the end of the book, is merely the inciting incident upon which complications pile up. A dramatic climax – second cousin to a courtroom scene – uses recollection of hazy memories to create a violence that explodes by accident. The denouement that follows includes a major shift in tone, even in the face of one final dramatic reveal. And I get the sense that we’re never really returned to the present, from where the novel started as a recollection. The past is always present, for many of us, even 15 years on.

One of the things I noticed is that all of Finny’s vaunted athletic trophies, the prizes on which his status in Gene’s eyes as a sports superhero, seem to be of the “most improved” variety. It’s expressly stated that he doesn’t have any records in his sports, but he has awards for sportsmanship and cooperation and effort. I get the impression Finny isn’t really as great an athlete as everyone thinks he is. Gene’s jealousy, sad under any circumstances, becomes sadder when based on a mirage. Is it possible to see Finny at all – or is he all image, all energy, all beholder-created impression?

It’s also very much a novel rooted in WWII. The “separate peace” metaphor has its reference in a move seen as a betrayal. During WWI, Russia signed a separate peace accord with Germany, removing itself from the Tripartite Pact. That there was a change in regime – from Czar Nicholas II to Bolshevik rule – tempered the outrage somewhat, but during WWII fears of another reversal, of Russia pursuing a separate peace with Germany in spite of the German betrayal, emerged in a more complex situation.

But the separate peace of the novel has to do with less global matters. After Finny breaks his leg, he decides the war is fake news, sort of a Wag the Dog situation. The boys are facing the draft by the following summer, and have the question of enlistment before them at all times, a question that creates excitement and adventure, yes, but also anxiety concealed out of shame. By creating a separate peace on his school campus, they feel some reprieve from the dramatic induction into adulthood. But for Finny, it means something else: because of his injury, he’s ineligible for the military, so it’s easier for him to not feel left out by ignoring it all.

Do kids reading it now have the understanding of what the war meant, what the draft meant? I first read the novel during Vietnam, a very different war with very different home fires burning. And now, kids would be reading it in yet another war time: a war time almost as ephemeral as Finny’s peace mirage. Very few people, outside of military families and news hounds, are even aware that we’ve been at war for 15 years, that we’re currently involved in a half dozen nasty conflicts with no clear sides and plenty of ambiguous, and not-so-ambiguous, collateral damage. Is it possible to read the book the same way now as then? Is it any wonder it’s easier to read it as a gay novel, than to find a way to put oneself in a mindset of a prior historical setting?

And again, context, my obsession over the past year, becomes central to reading. Does context alter the book, or is that a reader flaw? Can we be aware of the original authorial intent, and still see new ways old messages reveal themselves? Haven’t relationships like Gene and Finny’s always existed – and haven’t they always been the same, yet always current?

So I’ll leave the marble stairs and oak panelling and musty rooms of Devon for a prep school of the 60s, and one of the 21st century; will I find the same thing, in different light?

Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2008)

As for Madame Michel… how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I’ve been watching her…. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.

Nearly everyone in this book is trying to appear to be something other than what they are. That’s true of all of us, I suppose. As always, it’s the journey that forms the plot: from fear to joy, from despair to wonder, on the rails of art. With a lot of philosophy along the way.

The plot starts out at glacial speed, but ends up moving at breakneck pace. I wonder if that’s really the case, though, or if I’d just become accustomed to the pages and pages of exposition and textual thought bubbles between each tiptoe step forward. It isn’t until page 77 – almost a quarter of a way through the novel – that we come to “And that is when it all started”, and it takes nearly another hundred pages before the plot starts to develop. But what is in between is not mere padding; it’s all important, it all is drawn into the plot, though we have to be patient to find out how. And it’s fascinating to someone like me, who loves to learn about something new, whether it’s Francis Bacon or the camellia-on-moss imagery in the Yasujirō Ozu film The Munekata Sisters or her admiration for the writing style of the restaurant critic whose death, the subject of an earlier novel, begins the chain of events that make up the plot for this story.

We follow two narrators who take turns delivering short chapters. Reneé Michel is the concierge of a Parisian apartment building (a hôtel particulier, which, I take it, is something like an American luxury condominium – forgive me, my lack of familiarity with everyday life in France is showing). She’s in her 50s, dumpy and lumpy, and has had a lifelong passion for reading, art, films, philosophy, and the beauty of language. Yet she has a desperate need to hide her intelligence and extensive knowledge; we don’t find out exactly why until much later in the book.

The other narrator, Paloma Joss, is a 12-year-old girl, living with her family on the 5th floor. She, too, is hiding her intelligence, though her motivation is less complex: she just doesn’t want the burden of increased family expectations. She has decided that life is disappointing, and there is nothing in this world that is worth the effort, so she plans to kill herself on her 13th birthday if nothing convinces her otherwise. Her narration is in the form of a journal containing both Profound Thoughts, and Movement of the World.

…if I had more time to live, Art would be my whole life…. I’m referring to the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us. The Journal of the Movement of the World will be devoted therefore to the movement of people, bodies, or even – if there’s really nothing to say – things, and to finding whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning. Grace, beauty, harmony, intensity. If I find something, then I may rethink my options. If I find a body with beautiful movement or, failing that, a beautiful idea for the mind, well then maybe I’ll think that life is worth living after all.

For most of the book, these two characters don’t interact, barely seem aware of each other. Yet, their narrations bounce off each other. When Reneé considers, and eventually rejects, Husserl’s phenomenology (having struggled with phenomenology in several moocs on Consciousness, I can identify), Paloma separates her journal into thought and matter; they consider art in congruent chapters, coming to the conclusion that “Beauty is consonance”, a thought that persists throughout the book. And eventually, we realize they are quite aware of each other. It’s just that they’d rather rip into the other tenants in the building.

Scenes of great humor lighten up what could otherwise be a heavy text. Paloma observes two of her neighbors whose dogs, on their respective leashes, insist on smelling each others’ butts, as dogs do. The women are clearly uncomfortable, but “… they are incapable of doing the only truly practical thing in cases like this: acknowledge what is going on in order to prevent it.”

The complications begin when a new neighbor arrives to take over the apartment vacated by the family of the deceased restaurant critic. He’s a distinguished middle-aged Japanese gentleman, generating great curiosity from all the tenants. He’s very polite to all, yet seems uninterested in them at the same time. Until he meets Reneé, over another tenant’s (relatively minor) usage error of using “bring” instead of “take”, a violation of the structure and beauty of language that Reneé so appreciates in secret:

And yet, there is an element of tragedy: I flinched when she said bring and at that very moment Monsieur Something also flinched, and our eyes met. And since that infinitesimal nanosecond when – of this I’m sure – we were joined in linguistic solidarity by the shared pain that made our bodies shudder, Monsieur Something has been observing me with a very different gaze.
A watchful gaze.

She and the newcomer – whose name turns out to be Monsieur Ozu, connecting the plot to the exposition – trade the opening lines of Anna Karenina as casual conversation, and he asks the name of her cat: Leo. Unlike the other tenants in the building, this gentleman sees her for what she is, yet maintains her secret.

Their relationship ranges from hilarious to sublime. He invites her for dinner, causing a flurry of concern about dresses, hair, and so forth. When she arrives for the dinner, she agonizes over how to ask the location of the bathroom until matters are urgent. Her tendency to overthink is so familiar to me: how should I act? What do normal people expect me to do in a case like this? But when she is taken by surprise by the Confutatis that accompanies the flushing of the toilet – an event that would certainly take me by surprise – she discovers she can relax, that M. Ozu does not have any particular expectations about how one ought to behave. “Can’t everything always be this simple?” she wonders.

At that point, Paloma enters her life more directly, visiting during the day to have a cup of tea and chat. So our isolated, secretive concierge now has two people with whom she can be who she is, two friends.

The book ends in a way I found a bit disappointing, even manipulative, and possibly… lazy? As the pages dwindled to a precious few, I had three possible endings in my head, and this was one of them. Not the worst possibility, but still, considering Pushcart story endings regularly take me by surprise, I was hoping for something more imaginative. I have to admit, in view of the revelation of the reason for Reneé’s desperation to hide her inquisitive mind and self-learning from the world, it makes sense, and forms… ok, a consonance. I still feel there must have been a better resolution, but I’m not bright enough to offer one (I have never had to work hard to keep up a front of ignorance for the world).

It seems this novel was wildly popular in France when it was first published; it seems to have been less successful here. I greatly enjoyed it. Even though the first half is slow-moving, there isn’t a page that doesn’t contain something of interest to me.

I put this on my library “to be read” list several years ago, and I don’t really remember why. At this point, I was interested the descriptions of the protagonists, and the inclusion of so much philosophy and art (Barbery was a philosophy teacher, by the way, and lived in Japan for several years). In spite of my misgivings about the endings, I’m very glad I read it.

Paul Beatty: The Sellout (Picador, 2015)

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies….
But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, looks like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.
…Allegations in that summation accused me of everything from desecration of the Homeland to conspiracy to upset the apple cart just when things were going so well. Dumbfounded, I stood before the court, trying to figure out if there was a state of being between guilty and innocent. Why were those my only alternatives ?

There’s an anecdote told at the very end of the novel, a story about a black comic who throws a white couple out of the black club where he’s performing his routine, telling them, “This is our thing.” Although this leads to the deeper question of just what is “our thing”, it reminded me of the SNL skit that followed the release of Beyonce’s “Formation” video: a bunch of confused white people, shocked to discover that Beyonce is black, whispering, “Maybe the song isn’t for us?” with the reply, “But usually everything is!”

That’s how I felt when I began reading this book: slightly uncomfortable, like I wasn’t going to be able to get it, like it was meant for someone else. That may be true, but it was, indeed, hilarious and tragic at the same time, and while I may have not recognized some of the references, I was kept pretty busy with the ones that landed just fine.

Like the entire town of Dickens, I was my father’s child, a product of my environment, and nothing more. Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, and then my hometown, and suddenly I had no idea who I was , and no clue how to become myself.

This struggle of identity forms one major core of the novel. Our protagonist’s last name is Me; his given name is never revealed. We know him only through nicknames, some more positively intended than others, like BonBon and The Sellout. His dad was a sociologist who had some strange ideas about child rearing and education, and who was considered the town’s “nigger whisperer” since he’d talk people off the ledge, literally and figuratively, as needed. “Who am I? And how may I become myself?” were the two questions he relied on, and those questions are what BonBon – expected to fill his dad’s role when the man is shot dead by police for the usual non-reasons – asks himself over and over throughout the novel, culminating in the final, “what is our thing”?

If this sounds like a tough setup for a comic novel, well, yeah, it is, but remember, satire is a different form of comedy, and the laughter is deeply tinged with bitterness and sorrow.

The town of Dickens is based on an actual section of Compton called Richland Farms, where, odd as it may seem, there are indeed horses and pigs and growing produce right smack in the middle of one of the toughest places in the US. It can get lost in the flood of significance from the novel, but BonBon is one hell of a farmer: his plums are treasured for their blend of flavors, and he painstakingly cares for a satsuma tree to keep it from being overwatered during a freak onslaught of rain, producing gems with the perfect blend of sweet and sour. Beatty doesn’t let the chance for a great metaphor to pass by:

Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold on to power. I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.

This week was the anniversary of Eric Garland’s death by choke hold at the hands of police, ostensibly for the crime of selling loose cigarettes on the street. Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact”, written shortly after, came across my twitter feed, and connected immediately with Beatty’s metaphor, but I think there’s another context, that of HBCUs and some secondary schools for girls, which allow those often overlooked to shine in their own right. “How do you racially segregate an already segregated school?” Dickens suffers from the segregation of racism and power; BonBon tries to change it into a segregation of nurturance.

The overall story follows BonBon’s efforts to put Dickens back on the map, after it’s somehow removed. He starts with a simple thing: painting a white line around the town borders. Along the way he picks up a “slave” in the person of Hominy, a former child actor and the last surviving member of the Little Rascals cast who just shows up on the farm and declares himself a slave. This arc, interestingly, forms a secondary envelope for the story, as Hominy un-declares himself at the end, when his only desire is fulfilled: the reclamation of the “lost” episodes of the serial, the ones too racist even for the 30s, including outtakes which are where most of Hominy’s scenes ended up.

While most of the efforts to put Dickens back on the map are outrageously wild, a few are fairly tame, yet these too are played for all they’re worth and turned into satire. Take for example the choosing of sister cities, from among the abandoned and destroyed cities of the world – except for the last one:

But in the end we found it impossible to ignore the impassioned pleas of the Lost City Of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males).
It became impossible to walk the streets of the Lost City Of White Male Privilege, feeding your ego by reciting mythological truisms like “We built this country!” when all around you brown men were constantly hammering and nailing, cooking world-class French meals, and repairing your cars.

I’ve been hyperaware of context over the past few months in everything I read, and this is no exception. It was published in March, 2015, before the current administration was even a nightmarish possibility. It was a time of Black Lives Matter and the incongruous assurance that, thanks to the election of President Obama, we were now living in a post-racial America, even as the murderer of a 17-year-old kid named Trayvon Martin was exonerated since an adult in a truck armed with a gun is no match for a teenager standing on a sidewalk, a 12-year-old named Tamir Rice was murdered having been judged, after less than 2 seconds, to be a threat to the officer’s life, and a 22-year-old named John Crawford was buying a BB-gun in Walmart when he was murdered by a SWAT team. And this brings us to BonBon’s true crime: as he puts it, “Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”

The book is loaded with comebacks to some of the stuff that falls out of the mouths of people who aren’t racist at all.

You’d rather be here than in Africa. The trump card all narrow minded nativists play ….I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalising that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great-grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.

One of the judges BonBon comes before on his trip to the Supreme Court has a great metaphor for this “I don’t see race” thing: when people say they don’t care if someone’s black or white or purple, start painting them purple and see what they think. There’s a scene in Herman Wouk’s WWII epic, Winds of War that I’ve always remembered: a group of Warsaw embassy officials, in German hands on safe passage out of the city at the beginning of the war, resist disclosing who in the group in Jewish. The charge finally offers an exasperated solution: if it’s just for recordkeeping, count them all as Jews, at which point the group objects. Racial equality, even among the well-meaning, only goes so far.

By the way, we don’t seem to be having a lot of discussions about whether we live in a post-racial society now, do we?

I keep wanting to admire how unusual it is for a humorous book to make some of us uncomfortable yet leave us laughing, but… though many scenes are indeed hilarious, I’m not sure it’s going to leave anyone laughing. Satire isn’t laugh-out-loud humor; it’s like watching a food fight, but in your own kitchen. Satire makes the slapstick slap back. The better the satire – and the more real the thing that is being satirized – the harder the slap.

I chose to read this book because I read so many good things about it at the time. I was going to put his earlier book, White Boy Shuffle, on my list, but it seems to emphasize youth, surfing, and basketball, so maybe I’ll wait for the next one instead.

Guillermo Martínez: The Oxford Murders (MacAdam/Cage, 2005)

 
Now that the years have passed and everything’s being forgotten, and now that I’ve received a terse email from Scotland with the sad news of Seldom’s death, I feel I can break my silence (which he never asked for anyway) and tell the truth about events that reached the British papers in the summer of ‘93 with macabre snf sensationalist headlines, but to which Seldom and I always referred – perhaps due to the mathematical connotation – simply as the series, or the Oxford Series. Indeed, the deaths all occurred in Oxfordshire, at the beginning of my stay in England, and I had the dubious privilege of seeing the first at close range.
I was twenty-two, an age at which almost anything can still be excused. I just graduated from the University of Buenos Aires with a thesis in algebraic topology and was traveling to Oxford on a years scholarship, intending to move over to logic….

I’ve never particularly enjoyed the mystery genre – never read any Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie – but I used to have a very limited list of mystery writers I devoured. My tastes ran to “series” writers whose investigator had some kind of interesting twist: Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner, Jonathan Kellerman’s kiddie shrink, Stephen White’s adult shrink, Faye Kellerman’s tales set in a background of SoCal Orthodox Judaism.

This book came to my attention because it was presented as involving logic and mathematical philosophy, specifically, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. He proved there are aspects of mathematics that, while true, cannot be proved, and a complete collection of mathematical principles can not exist. If I sound like I know what I’m talking about, that’s purely coincidental, as this is all well over my head in spite of several diligent attempts over the years to follow explanations at varying levels of complexity. So if you are beginning to break out in a mathphobic cold sweat, don’t worry, the book doesn’t require much. Everything you need is included.

The unnamed narrator is a young mathematician from Argentina who comes to Oxford to study logic. Shortly after his arrival, his landlady is murdered, and he makes the acquaintance of an éminence grise named Seldom who has reason to believe the murder is the first of a series. They join forces to understand the series, and thus predict and prevent future murders. The police, of course, are doing the same thing, but by interviewing witnesses and tracking down leads, not by considering the ramifications of Wittgenstein and Gödel.

To wit:

“Think of any crime with only two possible suspects…. All too often there isn’t enough evidence to prove either one suspect’s guilt or the other suspect’s innocence. Basically, what Gödel showed in 1930 with his Incompleteness Theorem is that exactly the same occurs in mathematics. The mechanism for corroborating the truth that goes all the way back to Aristotle and Euclid, the proud machinery that starts from true statements, from irrefutable first principles, and advances in strictly logical steps towards a thesis – what we call the axiomatic method – is sometimes just as inadequate as the unreliable, approximative criteria applied by the law.”

There’s more, but that’s the basic connection. As for Wittgenstein’s Infinite Rule Paradox: “This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule”. The upshot is, no matter how many terms of a series are discovered, we can never be absolutely certain that we know the rule that generates the series, so we can never know for sure what the next term is. So, although they are mathematicians and so enjoy playing with this stuff, they don’t really think it’s going to help predict or prevent future murders. But they’re gonna give it a try anyway.

One small thing fascinated me. The first murder victim, the landlady, was clearly patterned after Joan Clarke, one of the few female cryptographers who worked on Enigma at Bletchley during the war. However, her recruitment is fictionalized:

During the war she’d been one of a small number of women who entered a national crossword competition, in all innocence, only to find that the prize was to be recruited and confined to an isolated little village, with the mission of helping Alan Turing and his team of mathematicians decipher the codes of the Nazis’ Enigma machine.

This is exactly the same little fictionalization that’s part of The Imitation Game. It makes a great story, and it’s a terrific scene in the film, but it seems it seems it never happened: Clarke was recommended by a professor, and there’s no evidence Turing had anything to do with the crossword contest (which was, indeed, used as a recruitment tool). That such a scene shows up in two different works makes me wonder if it’s an urban myth, or if it applied to someone and the exact facts have been changed by time and secrecy.

Most of us think of mathematics and philosophy as very different fields of endeavor: philosophers are over here, studying things like ethics and truth and beauty, and mathematicians are over there playing with numbers. I’ve discovered (through moocs that often went way over my head) that it’s more complicated than that, that there is a continuum, and the point where they intersect most clearly is logic, where our narrator and Seldom dwell.

(Warning: I’m about to go above my pay grade again, so please take this with a pound and a half of salt). And here, Seldom proposes that mathematics mimics physics, where the rules change once we get down to the quantum level. His hypothesis is that what keeps us out of the mathematical “uncertainty principle” zone – where unprovable statements lie – is the mathematician’s aesthetic appreciation of simplicity and elegance in proofs, an aesthetic in existence from the time of Pythagoras. In this way he unites beauty and truth, philosophy and mathematics, aesthetics and execution, quite neatly. The point at which he departs from actual mathematical theory, I have no idea.

The book reminded me somewhat of The Davinci Code; both were published the same year (and both were made into movies, neither of which I’ve seen, but the consensus seems to be that this movie was terrible). I found Brown’s book annoying; the cliffhangers-every-five-pages and “thriller” element putting various characters in jeopardy over and over. I prefer my thrills to come from less violent sources. In typical mystery style, subtly-suspicious characters wander in all over the place, and in classic Isaac Asimov “Black Widower” style, the eventual answer comes out of left field but makes perfect sense. I have to admit my interest was not terribly high until the end, at which point I had to read it over again.

That was possible because it’s a short book and a quick read. There really isn’t much to it at all, outside of the math and the resolution, but I found that enough to make me glad I read it. Martínez – a mathematician from Argentina, by the way, like his protagonist – has written several other books; I’m interested enough to consider reading another one some day.

Celeste Ng: Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin, 2017)

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday morning in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked.

No, it’s not a spoiler; it’s the first paragraph of the novel, leaving the reader to keep wondering, “Who is Mirabelle McCullough, why is she also known as May Ling Chow, and who is this Izzy who set the fire? It’s particularly interesting that these characters are barely mentioned for a good portion of the book, giving us time to absorb the setting and the players. But I only realized that after the fact, because there was so much to pay attention to in this story that asks questions like: Can we really not see race? Rules and reason, passion and art, which is the higher value, and can they coexist?

The setting is Shaker Heights in the 90s, where Ng grew up, and it really was, as explained in the book, inspired by the Shakers as a highly planned community. I’ve followed Ng on Twitter since I read her Pushcart-winning short story “Girls, at Play” (a story that’s still one of my favorites, a true powerhouse of teenage horror with nary a vampire in sight) and I remember her telling us about the “mini garbage trucks” that picked up trash from behind houses, so the street view would remain pristine even on trash day. Yet the Shaker Heights of the story – and of fact – was also a community that made positive efforts to encourage racial diversity. That’s the thing about this book: as Ng points out in her Salon interview, there really are no villains. As in real life, people are complicated, with good and bad elements, making good and bad choices. And often, it’s just a matter of preference as to which is which.

This forms one of the main axes of the book: order and rules vs freedom and spontaneity, or, more bluntly, economics or art.

All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never – could never – set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.

Elena Richardson believes in rules. I keep thinking of David Hume – “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” – but she’d reject that in favor of an orderly life. Unfortunately, an order-driven life can, and here does, cause intense frustration, as she learns when her house burns down. There must be room for little fires within the rules, flexibility rather than suppression, to prevent violent flare-ups.

Mia, on the other hand, has always followed her heart, which means she works odd jobs waitressing or housecleaning to pay the rent while working on her photographs. If she comes up with a good series, she can live off the sale of a series for a while and devote herself full-time to planning the next set. It’s an odd life, pulling up stakes frequently to find the next inspiration, getting to know every thrift shop in the region. “Why doesn’t your mom get a real job” a character asks Mia’s daughter, who is puzzled. “She has a real job… she’s an artist.” To Pearl, this way of life is as normal as the Richardsons consider theirs. To the Richardsons, it seems precarious.

Except for Izzy Richardson, the youngest Richardson, the one who has always struggled against the rules:

Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury. In the first week of school, after reading T. S. Eliot, she had tacked up signs on all the bulletin boards: I HAVE MEASURED OUT MY LIFE WITH COFFEE SPOONS… She had fantasies of students whispering in the halls – Those signs? Who put them up? What did they mean? – noticing them, thinking about them, waking up for God’s sake. But in the rush before first period everyone funneled past them up and down the stairwells, too busy passing notes and cramming for quizzes to even glance up at the bulletin boards, and after second period she found that some dour security guard had torn the signs down….

It isn’t until Mia comes into her life that she finds a focus for her chaotic energy beyond blind rebellion. This could be such a beautiful thing, a relationship welcoming growth. But the primary conflict of the story makes that impossible. And that brings us to a secondary axis: what does “the best interests of the child” mean?

It’s a custody battle between a well-established couple who have tried everything to conceive before turning to adoption, and a mother who, in a moment of despair and desperation, abandoned her baby at a fire station. Again, there are no villains here. Just as Izzy’s mother is not just a regimental tyrant (she has, or at least had, good reasons for her focus on Izzy), neither Bebe Chow nor the McCulloughs are evil, and in fact both followed the rules. Elena truly believes she could never be caught in a situation like Bebe’s, that she would have “made better choices” all along. What she can’t see is that some people don’t have all the choices other people get, and, while the rules can be harsh no matter how blessed you are financially, they can be even harsher to those who have few resources and no safety net.

Elena’s husband, the attorney for the McCulloughs, can see a bit farther than Elena:

For her it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.

I would only add that he might consider: who makes the rules? What assumptions – and what surreptitious goals and fears – underlie them?

I had some trouble with Mrs. McCullough, but that is a feature, not a bug. When asked if she would raise her adopted daughter with an understanding of her cultural heritage, she lists things like having purchased some Asian art and eating at a local Chinese-American restaurant. Ng herself calls it “cringeworthy” in her Guardian interview, but that’s by design: “I wanted the reader to have double vision at that point. To squirm, but also to see that she had good intentions and that the resources available to her were limited.”

And that’s pretty much how I reacted to it: first wondering if anyone was truly that stupid, then realizing I had no idea what an appropriate answer would be. “We want Mirabelle to grow up like a typical American girl” says Mrs. McCullough. But what is a typical American girl? How do you avoid “othering” is perhaps the root question – what do you say to her a few years down the road, when she notices that, while her friends look like their parents, she doesn’t look at all like Mom and Dad? Is the “I don’t see race” refrain – so popular with the Shaker Heights residents in the book – the way to go? Is it possible for us to not see race?

I’m quite fond of Rohan Maitzen’s take on her Novel Readings blog:

And though our family history is in one sense our heritage, there seemed something uncomfortably essentialist about the argument that May Ling / Mirabelle’s identity must be decided by her biology. I found myself wishing that the arguments within the book about these polarized views (“race should mean nothing”; “race means everything”) were more complicated–though perhaps what Ng wanted was for us to be dissatisfied with both answers, just as I think she leaves us feeling that there isn’t an obviously right answer about who should raise the baby.

Rohan Maitzen at Novel Readings

That’s the value in a novel like this: there’s plenty to think about, a stimulus for a great discussion with no easy answers. And it looks like that conversation is going to broaden: the book, already wildly popular (six months on Best Seller lists), will be made into a miniseries starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. I hope it generates in all of us the kind of thoughtful reflection, a willingness to see without judging, that I felt it was asking of me. We could use some of that right now.

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members (Doubleday, 2014)

Dear Ted,
 
Your memo of August 30 requests that we on the English faculty recommend some luckless colleague For the position of graduate studies. (You may have been surprised to find this position vacant upon your assumption of the chairmanship last month – if so, trust me, you will encounter many such surprises here.)
 
A quick aside, Ted: god knows what enticements were employed during the heat of summer to persuade you – a sociologist! – to accept the position of chair in a department not your own, an academic unit whose reputation for eccentricity and discord has inspired the upper echelon to punish us by withholding favors as if from a six-year-old at a birthday party: No raises or research funds for you, you ungovernable rascals! And no fudge before dinner! Perhaps, as the subject of a sociological study, you will find the problem of our dwindling status intriguing.

Meet Jason Fitger, tenured English professor at a not-very-prominent college. He started out as a red-hot literary talent (and, apparently, romantic talent) on the strength of his first novel, but that was a long time ago and his career (and his love life) has faltered since. We get to know him through an academic year’s worth of memos, emails, and, especially, letters of recommendation.

We’ve all written (or been the subject of) those recommendation letters. We know how to write them as boilerplate, where “he’s a good candidate” means “Are you crazy? He’s a blithering idiot, why would you even think of hiring him!” and nothing below “outstanding candidate” is a real recommendation.

Jason Fitger is done with the academic boilerplate. So when he writes a recommendation letter – whether it’s for grad school, a professional job, or, more and more, jobs English majors end up settling for, like caterer or retail sales – he turns it into a work of art.

This letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student John Leszczynski, who completed the Junior/Senior Creative Writing Workshop three months ago. Mr. Leszczynski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an eleven-page short story about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster–a sort of fanged and copiously salivating octopus, if memory serves–is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin. Though chaotic and improbable even within the fantasy/horror genre, the story was solidly constructed: dialogue consisted primarily of agonized groans and screaming; the chronology was relentlessly clear.
Mr. Leszczynski attended class faithfully, arriving on time, and rarely succumbed to the undergraduate impulse to check his cell phone for messages or relentlessly zip and unzip his backpack in the final minutes of class.
Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea, but Mr. Leszczynski is an affable young man, reliable in his habits, and reasonably bright.
You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.

I chose to read this book because, first, I enjoy stories about writers and academia, and second, I wanted something that would make me laugh after so many weeks of soul-ripping poetry bouncing off soul-crushing current events. While it is humorous, it’s a kind of sad humor, because the collapse of education in favor of vocational training at the higher levels is something I’ve been railing against since the 80s. And while it was published in 2014, I think it becomes a slightly darker book when viewed through the post-November-2016, post-#MeToo lens. Or, more likely, I have become a darker reader, examining everything through a retrospectoscope fitted with a deconstructionist lens (oh, man, did I just type that? I really, really need to get out more).

Though it’s an epistolary novel, and humorous, it’s more than a collection of funny letters. Fitger’s first letter, full-on sincere, recommends his student, Darren Browles, for a prestigious resident fellowship: “his novel-in-progress, a retelling of Melville’s ‘Bartleby’ (but in which the eponymous character is hired to keep the books at a brothel, circa 1960, just outside Las Vegas), is both tender satire and blistering adaptation/homage.” Unfortunately, it turns out the decision-maker is just one of a string of women Fitger has cheated on, dumped, lied to, or put into one of his books, leaving Mr. Browles to look for other opportunities lower and lower on the academic food chain, until at last he falls off completely. This forms the backbone of the novel, outlining the slow decline, over the course of one academic year, of the teacher’s patience and the student’s hope.

Paralleling this is the literal dismantling, accompanied by dust and noise from wrecking balls and crosscut saws, the toxic air from uncovered asbestos and paint and polyurethane, of Fitger’s building as the floor inhabited by the Economics department, safely ensconced in another location, is refurbished while the English department, left behind, deals with rubbish and particulates and fumes.

Fitger is stuck in one concept of “good literature”, and it just happens to be, who could’ve guessed, the concept that best suits his talents: reality-based classic narrative. He sneers at the fantasy-laden stories his students write for class. Consider: at the same time he’s championing the Melville recast, he’s outraged by the success of another student who landed a lucrative book deal based on her work, also developed under his tutelage:

She began the novel as a memoir, writing about growing up in an immigrant family in California. I found the project to be a bit quiet (that is, dull), which may have led to the manuscript’s current confabulation—a pseudo autobiography in which the speaker portrays herself as a fifteen-year-old girl/cheetah amalgam. Ms. Zelles informs me that the human/animal blend mirrors the false distinction between fiction and fact and points to the necessity of the hybrid form. Whatever the hell she wants to call it – a mem-vel, a nov-oir – the new incarnation of the book is effectively startling, especially the scene in which the protagonist devours and then remorsefully regurgitates her little brother.

Whether he’s more outraged because of the classics vs fantasy element, or because he picked the wrong horse, I don’t know. Both treatments, ridiculous on their faces, have interesting concepts, but could go so, so badly, so we’re taking his word for their value. And that word on one of them shifts later in the book, as the stress of the year mounts.

I think Fitger is at heart more disgruntled with his unappreciated talent than with the way things are changing. I think maybe he sees himself as kin to Bartleby; yet, lost in a more narcissistic resentment, without the – courage? will? integrity? – to state baldly, “I would prefer not to”, he takes out his frustrations in written form, and even tries, however clumsily and self-servingly, to rebuild bridges others have long considered burned. It’s hard to dislike him. Eventually he comes the closest he’s able to come to facing himself, and it’s more engendering of sympathy than scorn that he just can’t make it any further.

It’s an amusing, quick read; those of us who, like me, fear we’ll soon be in a world full of iPhones and increasingly clever gadgets but without art, thought, or history, will find it often a bitter humor.

This struggle over the humanities has been going on for a long time. I previously had occasion to look at some excerpts from Concetta Carestia Greenfield’s Humanist and Scholastic Poetics: 1250-1500 (Bucknell University Press, 1981) tracing, among other things, the history of academic suppression in the late middle ages. The Enlightenment bucked that trend, but now we have schools where science is taught from a Creationist point of view, where history recasts slaves as immigrant workers, a “mistake” not caught until an outraged 8th grader and her mom challenged the textbook. In the 80s, a fellow student at the state university where I finally got enough credits for a degree told me that, as a business major, she resented the required Writing Proficiency Test: if she ever needed to write a letter, she’d have her secretary write it. I still wonder about her from time to time, if she found that entry-level job, armed with an undergrad degree from a third-rate system at a time when MBAs were gushing forth from the Ivies, that supplied her with a secretary who could write her letters for her. And I wonder about a vision of a world that requires secretaries to be better educated than their bosses.

I see there is a sequel, titled The Shakespeare Requirement, scheduled for release in August. The epistolary format is traded in for traditional narrative, probably a wise move since the format works better as a novelty than as a standard.

I’m undecided about reading the sequel. By coincidence, I took an online survey (I follow a lot of language academics, they’re always retweeting casual grad student surveys) about the emotional attachment to the last novel read, which in my case was this one. This wasn’t really an emotionally involving novel (a reason I chose to read it first after an emotionally draining Pushcart), and I realize that translates into, “Do I care enough about this character to find out how he deals with his new role as Chairman of a dying department?” No, not really. But I am impressed with Schumacher’s sense of humor and irony, so I just might go with it anyway. As I said in my “What’s Next” post, I’m gonna need more books to read.

Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You (Penguin, 2014)

“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”

On June 26, I showed up at Longfellow Books (my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller) within 10 minutes of opening to pick up this book as soon as it was released. “I’m so excited, it’s my friend’s first novel!” I told another customer and the store manager. Except… I’ve never met Celeste Ng. We’ve never been in the same room – or the same city, or the same state, for that matter – but we “met” when she somehow found my comments on her Pushcart- winning short story, “Girls, at Play” (which remains one of my all-time favorite short stories). I’ve been following the progress of this novel since then via Twitter, and she’s always been so gracious, natural and generous to me, a total stranger with no literary standing whatsoever, I’ve come to think of her as a friend. So of course, I was excited about her book being published, but also, nervous – what if I didn’t like it?

I should’ve had more faith. It’s a beautiful book, a sad, sweet read, and I enjoyed it greatly.

I put off reading it for a couple of months, because I was dealing with a fresh batch of MOOCs, and I really didn’t want to read it while my head was cluttered with Calculus and Mythology and the French Revolution and Music Theory. I avoided reading the reviews and interviews that scrolled through my Twitter feed (lots of talk about this book), wanting to form my own impressions, even after it showed up on list after list – Boston Globe‘s Summer Reading List, Amazon’s Best Book of July 2014, O Magazine’s “16 Books You Must Pick Up this August”, Vogue‘s “Summer’s Buzziest Beach Reads”, etc. etc. It was worth the wait.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

That’s quite a striking opening to a novel. It raises so many questions – Who is Lydia? How, when, why did she die? Do I, the reader, care? Am I sad, relieved, vindicated? – we can’t help but read on. It was also, perhaps, the shortest opening sentence strung from the ceiling at this year’s One Story Literary Debutante ball (Celeste earned her spot at the annual event with “What Passes Over” in Issue #86).

As Celeste explains in her interview with One Story, this wasn’t always the opening line; it took a while to emerge:

That first sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.

~~Celeste Ng, Interview with One Story

I love the thoughtfulness of this, the writerly consideration of the impact on readers and the overall purpose of the book. And I love the line.

Celeste told Kate Tuttle of The Boston Globe the inspiration for much of the plot came from a story her husband told her, about a boy pushing his sister into a lake. From there, the Lee family was fleshed out. In a charming video interview with Chris Schluep on Omnivoracious, Celeste talks about the other inspiration, her own childhood in the highly planned suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, including an amusing observation about the town’s fondness for hiding garbage and collecting it with golf-cart sized trucks; it seems this will serve as the central image for a future story. I can’t wait, already.

For me, the book was about the assumptions we make, the secrets we keep, and how we can all drown in the deep lakes they become. Chapter 4 knocked me out by weaving together a network of these assumptions (as Celeste puts it in her interview with Kirkus Review: “… the different ways that people interpret the same conversation or the same event or the same scene”), a web imprisoning the whole family as the narrative dances with the characters: Marilyn, a mother who put her dreams on hold, until, in the wake of her own mother’s death, she discovers a cookbook that becomes for her a symbol of her own wasted life; Lydia, the daughter who, eager to please, takes on the burden of her mother’s ambitions though they don’t mesh with her natural interests and abilities; James, a Chinese-American man so
desperate to fit in, he becomes a history professor specializing in cowboys; Nath, the son who regularly deals with racism at school and can’t tell who’s friend and who’s foe; and Jack, the neighborhood scapegoat bearing the stigma of his working, and divorced, mother. The stage is set for the development of these characters, as they continue to circulate around each other for the next ten years, acting in ways the assumptions and secrets of this scene dictate. Add in Hannah, the “lost child,” born a few years later, who sees all but doesn’t yet have the life experience to understand.

Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.

I found much that felt – something beyond identification with a character, more intense, as if Celeste read my mind, knew my life, and wrote in some things for me personally. Take Hannah’s attempts to make sense of what she sees, or her acceptance of the family code: “Don’t ask questions.” She learned this in the family cauldron; her parents’ adherence to the principle is starkly seen in Marilyn’s reaction to her own mother’s death: “So when James came home that night, she said simply, ‘My mother died.’ Then she turned back to the stove and added, ‘And the lawn needs mowing,’ and he understood: they would not talk about it.” I don’t know why so many of us think not talking about something will make it go away, but we do. My mother died when I was 9; she was never mentioned again, and I thought that meant it was something to be ashamed of. I understand Hannah.

Then there’s Lydia, willing receptacle for her mother’s deferred dreams but unsuited to the role, watching her brother preparing to leave for college, desperately afraid but unable to talk about it directly. So she plays Paul Simon’s “Only Living Boy in New York” over and over. I played the same song for the same reason, along with “Why Don’t You Write Me,” from the same album. I cried when I saw a line from that lyric in chapter 9. Like Lydia, it was the only way I could say, “Don’t go! I will miss you terribly!” since we didn’t talk about things like that. By the way, I uncovered something interesting in the course of googling around for this post (this is why I blog, it’s an excuse to research things I’d never waste time on otherwise): Simon wrote that song when Art Garfunkel (they were early on known as Tom & Jerry, hence the name Tom) flew to Mexico to appear in a movie. Turns out these guys couldn’t talk to each other, either. That may be why the song has such power. And now the book has the same power. This not-talking thing hits a deep chord for a lot of us.

Marilyn had given Lydia her first diary the Christmas she was five, a flowered one with gilt edges and a key lighter than a paper clip. Her daughter had unwrapped it and turned it over in over in her hands, touching the tiny keyhole, as if she didn’t know what it was for. “For writing down your secrets,” Marilyn had said with a smile, and Lydia had smiled back up at her and said, “But Mom, I don’t have any secrets.” … It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can… The first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank.

I found so much in this book to identify with, I’ve thus far neglected to mention a crucial sub-character: the constant presence of racism. But of course it would be a different book without the interracial marriage between Marilyn and James. A nasty comment made by Marilyn’s mother at their wedding resounds over the decades; James hears echoes of it regularly, along with echoes of a childhood spent being different, and of course it affects him. He doesn’t realize Marilyn’s dissatisfaction with her life has little to do with him, and nothing whatsoever to do with his race. But because no one in this family talks, he’s stuck with his assumptions, she with her secrets. For the entire family, every incident of racism they encounter becomes another confirmation of their fears. Celeste discusses this angle at length in her Code Switch interview with Arun Rath on NPR; it’s a topic that’s never far from the center of American life, but is particularly acute right now.

I felt a beautiful shift in tone in the last chapter, a lifting, a stirring. Maybe it wasn’t even in the text; maybe it’s just what I wanted to feel, following a particularly intense scene. It brought to mind a metaphor: Lydia surfacing instead of drowning, breaking into the air and taking an exuberant breath, a shift from the crushing pressure of the water, imprisonment, darkness, silence, to upward motion, freedom, release, the possibility of healing, even of joy. In looking for an image to express this (another good reason for blogging: looking for strange art) I realized, this is the inverse of the glistening surface of the water seen on the book’s jacket, on the title page. Instead of the surface being still and hiding what is beneath, as the family has for decades, the spirit of Lydia erupts from the water in an effervescent flurry, giving them all a new direction in the final chapter as they come to terms with what their family has become. Hannah’s revelation of a particular symbol begins this shift I felt – she doesn’t explain what it means, he doesn’t understand the significance, but it’s communication of a secret: someone’s talking, someone’s listening, and for this family, that’s a very good start.