I have been fascinated by this man, the philosopher Giordano Bruno – ex-monk, poet, playwright, fugitive, heretic, proto-scientist, magician, spy – for years, since I first stumbled across him in a book on Renaissance philosophy…. I’ve always admired Bruno for his willingness to defy the limitations placed on the imagination and intellectual curiosity by organised religion – he achieved the impressive feat of being tried for heresy by both the Catholic Church and the Calvinists.
… Bruno always struck me as a man at odds with his time, a man whose unusually progressive ideas set him apart from those around him. Excommunicated, exiled, permanently looking over his shoulder, Bruno is the perfect outsider, the perfect flawed hero for a detective or spy novel. The challenge was to make my fictional Bruno modern enough to be sympathetic to readers, and Renaissance enough to be plausible.
Stephanie Merrit (aka S. J. Parris), “Diary: Giordano Bruno, my hero” available online at The New Humanist
My fascination with historical novels is a recent development. I’ve discovered only in the past couple of years that I like reading fictional accounts of historical people, books I call “read in front of the computer books’ – I read a chapter, then look everything up to see what is historical and what is fiction. It takes time to read a book that way, but I find it very satisfying. I find it far more enlightening than reading academic history books, which tend to go into more detail than I care about and require some familiarity with the period and the players to read in the first place. I’m guessing the engagement level involved in looking things up to verify them helps as well.
Last May, one of my writer/readers mentioned in a blog post that he’d read a series of novels featuring Giordano Bruno. That got my attention. He was something of a shadowy figure to me, first coming across my radar screen via some mooc or other, I’m not sure which, then appearing as a ridiculous cartoon character in Neil Degrasse Tyson’s remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I wasn’t really able to get a bead on him, however. So when my blogger buddy recommended this series so highly – “high values of character and plot” – I thought I’d take a look.
Heresy, the first of the five-book series, covers a very brief period in Bruno’s life: a few weeks of his visit to Oxford University in 1583, where he participated in a disputation – a debate of sorts – with the Rector of Lincoln College. This is historically documented, as are his travelling companions, a Polish palatine and a rakish nobleman, Philip Sidney, whose connection to Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham created an opportunity for Bruno: check out any illicit Catholic activities at the college, as these were considered potentially traitorous and dangerous to Her Majesty.
Parris’ inspiration to write this series came from an academic work of history exploring the possibility that Bruno was, in fact, a spy: John Bossy’s Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair.
This book tells a story, and because it tells a story I cannot, dear reader, reveal to you here and now what happens in it. If you wish to find out what the story is you will have to read the book from beginning to end; which you may easily do, for it is not very long…. It deals with high matters of state, of public and private salvation. I should be inclined to classify it as tragi-comedy, and it could be said to have a moral.
Although many of these features would have qualified it, a few years later, to be put on the stage at Blackfriars or Bankside, the story differs from that of Hamlet or Measure For Measure in being true.
John Bossy: “To the Reader” from Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair
Given the direct connection, I read that book as well – or rather, skimmed it, since, as expected, it went into far more detail providing supporting evidence than I was interested in, and seemed far less a story than Bossy seemed to think. But it was enlightening for the difference in perspective it provided.
Parris’ fictional summary of Bruno’s mission:
So it was that I became part of what I later learned was a vast and complex network of informers that stretched from the colonies of the New World in the west to the land of the Turks in the east, all of us coming home to Walsingham holding our little offerings of secret knowledge as the dove returned to Noah bearing her olive branch…. Tomorrow I would see the great university city of Oxford, where I must ferret out two nuggets of gold: the secrets Walsingham wanted from the Oxford Catholics, and the book I now believed to be buried in one of its libraries.
The novel presents the disputation as the disaster for Bruno that history records: possibly his overblown rhetorical style developed in France, possibly his accent, possibly his support of Copernican astronomy replacing Aristotelian and Church-approved views, led to ridicule and rejection. He plans to spend the night sulking in his tent, and then will regroup in the morrow.
And it’s here, in Chapter 8 of 22, that the murder mystery takes over. It’s not that history is irrelevant from here on; it’s merely less prominent. The historical characters have already been laid out; the characters involved in the murder are fictional, since the murders are fictional. And the potential romance between Bruno and the Rector’s daughter, kindled over her interest in an ancient book he’s particularly interested in, is (presumably) entirely fictional: the Rector, James Underhill, was a historical person, and did have a daughter, but her name is not recorded anywhere I can find, much less her romantic leanings.
The murders take their cue from the historical tension between the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and her Catholic half-sister Mary, at this point imprisoned in the Tower of London. English Catholics viewed Elizabeth as illegitimate, both personally and as Queen, and elements in England, France, and Spain sought to assassinate or dethrone her and put the real Queen back on the throne, re-establishing the real religion. Any similarities to the present moment in the United States are, well, a bit of a stretch, but not as much as Parris might have imagined when she wrote this book in 2010.
I found the discussion about the ancient book to be the most interesting part of the book. A hundred years earlier, Marsilio Ficino (who I met in Jo Walton’s wonderful historical novel, Lent) had translated fourteen of fifteen books of the Corpus Hermeticum, a book blending magic and religion supposedly written by one Hermes Trismegistus in ancient Egypt, indicating the origins of Christianity as a corruption of the original true religion. This is not the first time Egypt has been proposed as the source of the Abrahamic religions, nor the last: in the 17th century, Athanasius Kircher would propose the language of Adam was recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphics. This Egyptophilia isn’t completely off-the-wall, since there’s significant evidence that the alphabet – all alphabets, from Hebrew to Greek to Latin – originated from the idea, though not the form, of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
It is this book, and the mysterious almost-presence of Hermes Trismegistus (who is not believed to be a real person but an amalgam of sources) that fascinated me most. It’s not entirely clear to me how this is related to the Picatrix, but I’m glad to have more exploring to do.
A bookseller and his bookshop form one of the more memorable scenes in the book:
In fact, the narrow shop smelled more like home than any place I had been since my arrival in Oxford, for it smelled of books; a warm scent of new leather and paper, with the mustier traces of old vellum and ink, a heady mixture that brought on a sudden pang of nostalgia for the scriptorium at San Domenico Maggiore where I had spent so many hours of my youth.
Carved wooden book stacks lined each side of the shop showing the bookbinder’s art: each was filled from floor to ceiling with volumes bound in colored leather and organized according to size, placed with their fore-edge outwards so that the brass clasps glinted under the darting flames of the candles. Along the bench where Jenkes now stood, rubbing his hands and looking from me to Florio with an expression of greedy anticipation, examples of different types of binding and format were ranged, from the old-fashioned wooden boards encased in calfskin that would keep a parchment manuscript from cockling, to the newer Paris bindings of double pasteboard for lighter books of paper, that needed no brass clasps but were tied together with leather thongs or ribbons. All were secured, like the books in Lincoln library, by a brass chain attached to a rod running beneath the bench.
To say exactly how would be a spoiler, but I’ll just mention that the bookseller becomes a rather crucial character later in the book.
As the mystery resolves and Bruno puts this adventure behind him, he reflects on his role as spy to the Secretary of State. Some people deserved their fate; others, nowhere near as guilty of actual crimes, became collateral damage as the result of his information. This leads to the grand epiphany of the book’s 460 pages:
Walsingham had warned me that this kind of choice was part of his service, and I needed to repay his faith in me if I were to have any hope of gaining the Queen’s patronage. Playing politics with the lives of others was part of the path to advancement, but that, as I was just beginning to understand, was the real heresy.
For the record, Pariss’ inspiration, historian John Bossy, has a different point of view:
Against Bruno’s virtues and talents, now revealed or confirmed, we have to set the discovery that he was not an honorable man. Spying is a dishonorable profession: contrary to an impression which has been put around, it always entails betraying your friends, or people you have caused to believe are your friends. Bruno appears to have no qualms about entering it. I am sure he went into it mainly for reasons of conviction, though he also went into it for the money, and probably for the thrills as well….
The single motive of everything we have discovered Bruno doing was the destruction of the papacy and all its works.
John Bossy: Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair
While historical fiction, obviously, should not be taken at face value, I find it a worthwhile way to engage with material that might be otherwise too complicated without some background. While I lost some interest as the murder mysteries took center stage, there was enough cultural commentary to keep me reading. Those who prefer mysteries to historical background will probably have the opposite experience.
Will I read the rest of the series? Not sure. The next book, also a murder mystery, concerns Queen Elizabeth herself, as well as her astrologer John Dee (a real historical person), and the Great Conjunction, an astronomical event such as we just witnessed a few months ago when Jupiter and Saturn snuggled up next to each other. In 1583, they took these things a lot more seriously. The third book also sounds interesting, involving a look back at Thomas Beckett, another piece of English history I’ve never been able to get straight. I’m somewhat tempted, but I have so much on my reading list!
At a certain point, dark social satire bleeds into horror. That can be powerful, but it can also very easily miss its target. Percival Everett’s new novel The Trees hits just the right mark. It’s a racial allegory grounded in history, shrouded in mystery, and dripping with blood. An incendiary device you don’t want to put down.
That’s a very good description: a detective novel layered onto a sort-of historical fiction book blended with horror and fantasy. It even works in a couple of minor references to Jaws and In The Heat of the Night, and probably a few other cultural items I didn’t recognize. But more than anything else, it’s about the continuing, and accelerating, reluctance of USAians to admit, much less apologize and atone for, our racist roots, and shows one way that particular raisin in the sun might explode.
The story opens in Money, Mississippi, with a gruesome double murder: one white man named Junior Junior Milam, and one unknown Black man. While the local police are asking questions, the Black man’s body goes missing from the morgue. Some ideas are tossed around – he wasn’t really dead seems to predominate – a second murder shows exactly the same pattern: a local white man, and… the same Black man who was dead and then disappeared. This time he’s clearly confirmed to be very, very dead, but again goes missing, under seemingly impossible circumstances. “I don’t know why he can’t stay dead,” says a deputy, in one of the most loaded statements of the book.
Bring in the state Bureau of Investigation. Alas, the two Special Agents are Black, which doesn’t sit particularly well with the local white sheriff, already feeling superseded.
That’s the basic setup. If you’ve ever read detective fiction, you know things get a lot more complicated. And if you’re familiar with the name Emmett Till, they get a lot darker.
Everett does some subtle things here, starting with that line “I don’t know why he can’t stay dead.” We see the town sheriff, upset about how things are going, at breakfast:
Red Jetty took a bite of toast and put it back on his plate. He sat at the table with his wife, Agnes. His dog, an American foxhound, stood behind him, his long snout resting on Jetty’s leg.
“You okay, Red?” Agnes asked.
“The only time Wallace puts his face in your lap like that is when you’re upset,” she said.
Now, there are a lot of Wallaces that could refer to: Mike, David Foster, Alfred Russell, Stevens. But in this context, my money’s on George “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Everett doesn’t hammer it home, just leaves it there. He does that a lot. Like when he takes us inside a Klan meeting – or what’s left of the Klan in Money, Mississippi – where someone complains that the same guy has been Grand Kleagle for a long time.
“We ain’t had no election because we ain’t had no gaddamn meetins,” from still another.
“That’s true, Jared,” Donald said.
“Used to be back when my daddy was alive, we had meetins all the time, every week,” Jared said.
“Elections too,” another man said. “They was always votin’ back in them days. Right?”
“And they used to have cross burnins a lot more and family picnics and softball games and all such,” said Donald. “I remember eatin’ cake next to that glowing cross. I loved my mama’s cake.”
“Yeah.” Several voiced their agreement.
“We don’t do nothin’ now,” a man complained. “I don’t even know where my hood is. I don’t even own a rope.”
Ah, heritage, so important to the (Confederate) flag-waving South. They hold an impromptu election – and elect the same guy. Who just happens to be the coroner, the Reverend Doctor Cad Fondle. Who is neither a doctor (very few non-urban coroners are) nor a Reverend of any official religion. And who ends up… well, guess.
Everett has a good time with names. Junior Junior, Digby, Red, Wheat, all local white boys in Money, Mississippi. But when the Black agents from the Missisippi Bureau of Investigation arrive, they’re named Ed and Jim. The FBI agent who eventually shows up, however, is a Black woman named Herberta “Herbie” Hind, so whites don’t have a monopoly on fun names.
If this all sounds a little like reverse racism dumping on dumb Southern whites, well, yeah, it is. I found it uncomfortable reading. None of the locals can put two sentences together without tripping over a racial epithet, and they get tied up in knots trying to talk to outsiders without giving away their DNA-deep racism, a racism that becomes more and more important as it becomes evident that the murdered white men are sons of the original group that lynched Emmett Till.
Still feel bad about those silly names? Because beneath the detective fiction and the horror story and the kind of goofy revenge fantasy it turns into, it’s a book about the thousands of people of color who were – and who continue to be, when you consider the kinds of murders going on today –lynched, and the lack of justice for such crimes.
And then we have other forms of injustice, summed up in the character of Damon Nathan Thruff, another oddly named Black character:
Damon Nathan Thruff was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. He held a PhD in molecular biology from Harvard, a PhD in psychobiology from Yale, and a PhD in Eastern philosophy from Columbia. He was twenty-seven years old. He had published three books on cellular regeneration, all issued by Cambridge University Press, and a two-volume work on the biological and philosophical origins of racial violence in the United States published by Harvard University Press. On this particular day, he was sitting at the desk in his tiny university office in the Department of Ethnic Studies (because they didn’t know where to put him), trying to compile a list of names of people who might write letters in support of his tenure bid. He had been denied tenure the year before but was being given a second chance, what the university administration was calling an affirmative reconsideration. The reason given for this denial of tenure was his productivity. The Dean told him, flatly, that no one really believed that he was capable of so much work of such quality so quickly. And so he was stuck with a one year appointment called the Phillis Wheatley Chair in Remedial Studies. Part of his second (gift) bid for tenure required that he not publish anything for a year. Such restraint from active scholarship might show the proper commitment to his proper place, was what the Dean told him.
Mama Z is one of the locals, an impossibly old Black woman who’s been keeping records of lynchings going back to the day she was born in, as she claims it, 1913, the same year her daddy was lynched. Her file room is a powerful image: twenty-three gray metal file cabinets. “The drawers were like those in a morgue,” thinks Jim when he sees them. And the Professor who wrote a book about racial violence, a book Mama Z knows well – “you were able to construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic without an ounce of outrage” – is so overcome by these twenty-three file cabinets, all full of racial violence, sits down and starts writing:
“When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few more seconds here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be real. Don’t they?”
Mama Z put her hand against the side of Damon’s face. “Why pencil?”
“When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.”
“Carry on, child,” the old woman said.
Say Their Names. And he intends to, every one of them, all twenty-three cabinets full.
This image is so powerful, it made its way to the book’s cover. It’s hard to see, but the deep-blue background is imprinted with what looks like a striped design – maybe mimicking the rows of file cabinets? – but is actually a list of names in just slightly lighter print. Pick a name (it takes some looking to read, but it can be done) and google it – Say Their Names – and you’ll find their stories. James Scott, accused of sexual assault on a 14-year-old white girl in 1923, was kidnapped from his jail cell in Columbia, MO and hanged by a white mob. William Miller, an Alabama coal miner and labor activist, was likewise dragged from his jail cell and hanged in 1903. Chee “Gene” Loong Tong, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, was one of seventeen Chinese men shot and hanged by a Los Angeles mob in 1871. Leo Lung Siang, one of twenty-eight Chinese murdered by white coal miners who burned down the houses of Chinese coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885. Then there are the names more familiar to us: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner. And perhaps most heartbreaking of all: the numerous “unknown male” entries.
Mama Z didn’t just collect names, however. Where possible, police and coroner’s reports are outlined as well. Such as:
The individual was found bound at the ankles and wrists with some kind of coated wire. The individual was found suspended from the large branch of an oak tree by a light brown rope tied in a loop around his neck. The individual was pronounced dead at the scene by the coroner. The cause of death was determined to be a self-inflicted knife wound to the neck.
Everett leaves it for us to compare that to the contemporary version:
An Arkansas medical examiner has ruled that Chavis Carter, the 21-year-old man killed by a gunshot wound to the head while handcuffed in the back of a police car, committed suicide….
CBS News, 2012
As the book goes on, things get more and more farcical, with similar murders happening in multiple cities. Finally we end up at the White House, where an unnamed President cowers under his desk and demands “my bunker.” As amusing as this might seem, I felt it derailed things. But I give Everett a lot of credit for capturing the voice perfectly: “Did you hear that screaming? That was the loudest screaming that anyone has ever heard. You wouldn’t believe how loud that screaming was.”
The novel returns at the end to the file room with all the central – that is, Black – characters, and Damon typing names. The last line is a question, a question maybe we should all be asking ourselves in this moment when school boards are prohibiting teaching history and literature that might upset white people, with no regard to how Black people might feel about it. “Should we stop him?”
The title puzzled me for a while. I’m pretty sure it refers to the song “Strange Fruit,” which is quoted in the text (as is “Mississippi Goddamn”):
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
“Strange Fruit,” Lyrics & Music by Abel Meerpool,1937
But are the trees, stained by the blood of lynching victims, crying out for justice – or were they complicit in the lynchings and thus are tainted by that same blood that marks guilt? It could go either way. I think the strongest argument by far uses the subject of the book – the lynching victims of the past centuries – as well as the biblical “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” as support for the first option. But it’s possible, given the present-day murders at least start out with descendants – the family trees – of the people who set up and lynched Emmett Till, to make a case for the second option.
I became aware of this book via the Five Books article on the short list for this year’s Booker prize. I don’t pay a lot of attention to prizes – I’m much happier when I look for content or style that interests me – but I took a look, as I do most of the Five Books lists. The description interested me: a detective novel about racism that included humor and fantasy. I’ve enjoyed several “Black satire” novels in the past few years, most recently Black Buck, so I investigated further and ended up ordering it. I liked Everett’s comment about his use of humor in his interview with the Booker Prize people:
There is, of course, a distinction to be made between irony and humor and absurdity; a distinction that does not make them mutually exclusive. If one can get someone laughing, then one can use that relaxed state to present other things.
I didn’t laugh much while reading the book, but that didn’t surprise me; historically I have a hard time with humor. But I didn’t need to be lulled into a state of acceptance to face the grim realities presented. I admired the subtlety with which Everett dropped certain references, and it makes me wonder how many I missed. The scariest part is not the future the book suggests, but the present, and how much like the past it continues to be – and how much more like the past it might become in the next few years.
Martin Eden (1909) is London’s most autobiographical novel. It describes his struggle for education and literary fame in his youth and his disillusion with success in his middle age. It mythologizes his rise from obscurity and prophecies his early death at forty. The author’s passionate identification with his hero, Martin Eden, creates the power and compulsion of the book, which remains today equaled only by Knut Hamsun’s Hunger as an archetypal study of the urge to write subordinating even the will to live.
Andrew Sinclair, Introduction
This post is dedicated to my two favorite angst-ridden writers (you know who you are), not because they share Martin Eden’s urgency and torment or his rise and fall, but because they will find some of the descriptions of his thoughts about writing to be hilarious, in ways Jack London couldn’t have intended.
But before I get into that, let’s look at the book as a whole, because it’s crammed with all kinds of social, political, and psychological drama.
Martin Eden was a perfectly content young man of twenty, taking turns on various sailing ships when he needed money, hanging around early 20th century San Francisco and living with his sister and her husband when he didn’t. One fateful day, however, he rescued a stranger from a violent encounter with hooligans, and was invited home to dine with Arthur and his family. He admires the art on the walls and the leather-bound books placed importantly around the parlor, becoming uncomfortable when he realizes just how elegant a family they are. His interaction with a painting sums up the entire novel:
An oil painting caught and held him. A heavy surf thundered and burst over an outjutting rock; lowering storm-clouds covered the sky; and, outside the line of surf, a pilot-schooner, close-hauled, heeled over till every detail of her deck was visible, was surging along against a stormy sunset sky. There was beauty, and it drew him irresistibly. He forgot his awkward walk and came closer to the painting, very close. The beauty faded out of the canvas. His face expressed his bepuzzlement. He stared at what seemed a careless daub of paint, then stepped away. Immediately all the beauty flashed back into the canvas. “A trick picture,” was his thought, as he dismissed it, though in the midst of the multitudinous impressions he was receiving he found time to feel a prod of indignation that so much beauty should be sacrificed to make a trick.
He promptly falls in love with Arthur’s sister, Ruth, as much for her sophistication and education – she’s a college student, studying English – as for her beauty.
Here was intellectual life, he thought, and here was beauty, warm and wonderful as he had never dreamed it could be. He forgot himself and stared at her with hungry eyes. Here was something to live for, to win to, to fight for – ay, and die for.
He realizes, of course, that he can never win over such a magnificent creature, seeing as he doesn’t speak well (he doesn’t even realize the half of how badly he speaks) and isn’t worthy to touch the hem of her garment. And about that biblical allusion: the text doesn’t fuss much with religion at all, but as editor and London biographer Andrew Sinclair mentions in his Introduction, the names are loaded with inference. Eden is, of course, the Paradise of innocence, from which Woman caused the expulsion of humanity. Martin Luther was the Disrupter Supreme of the medieval order. And Ruth is the picture of loyalty and steadfastness, whither thou goest I will go.
The fictional Ruth doesn’t quite live up to that billing, but as she gets to know Martin, she does wander into what for her is a strange land:
Her gaze rested for a moment on the muscular neck, heavy corded, almost bull-like, bronzed by the sun, spilling over with rugged health and strength. And though he sat there, blushing and humble, again she felt drawn to him. She was surprised by a wanton thought that rushed into her mind. It seemed to her that if she could lay her two hands upon that neck that all its strength and vigor would flow out to her. She was shocked by this thought. It seemed to reveal to her an undreamed depravity in her nature. Besides, strength to her was a gross and brutish thing. Her ideal of masculine beauty had always been slender gracefulness. Yet the thought still persisted. It bewildered her that she should desire to place her hands on that sunburned neck. In truth, she was far from robust, and the need of her body and mind was for strength. But she did not know it. She knew only that no man had ever affected her before as this one had, who shocked her from moment to moment with his awful grammar.
From there, the overall path is predictable: Martin struggles to raise himself to Ruth’s level, and educates himself right over her head, while she tries to get him to stop fooling around with his awful writing and follow the only path she knows: formal education, and a position in Daddy’s firm. Unable to change him into what she wants, and embarrassed by something of a smear campaign against him, Ruth ditches him – and of course then he finds the literary and financial success he was striving for, all on the writing Ruth so disparaged.
Political and social philosophy makes up a significant part of the book, but it’s all pretty bleak. Martin calls himself an Individualist in the vein of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. He discovers most educated people are dolts who can only parrot what they’ve been taught, but eventually finds a comparable, if opposing, mind in the ardent socialist Brissenden, and enjoys the rowdy discussions of a group of streetcorner philosophers. London, himself an ardent socialist and labor activist, seems to be making a point here: both Brissenden and Martin kill themselves, and the streetcorner philosophers are impotent in a society that still values breeding and conformity. Seems like a pretty bleak worldview to me. I know the feeling.
The last page of the book goes with Martin as he throws himself off the side of the ship, the ship that was ostensibly taking him to his own personal Shangri-La now that he has the money to set it up. Except he’s lost the girl, he’s lost the will to write, so he jumps into the ocean. It’s a beautiful passage:
The bubbles rubbed and bounded like tiny balloons against his cheeks and eyes as they took their upward flight. Then came pain and strangulation. This hurt was not death, was the thought that oscillated through his reeling consciousness. Death did not hurt. It was life, the pangs of life, this awful, suffocating feeling; it was the last blow life could deal him…
Colors and radiances surrounded him and bathed him and pervaded him. What was that? It seemed a lighthouse; but it was inside his brain—a flashing, bright white light. It flashed swifter and swifter. There was a long rumble of sound, and it seemed to him that he was falling down a vast and interminable stairway. And somewhere at the bottom he fell into darkness. That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.
Now, about that unintentionally hilarious plot thread about writing.
Martin is aware of the gulf between him and Ruth, and he starts a self-education project to make himself worthy of her. He even enlists her help in improving his grammar and manner of speaking, and his knowledge of what kinds of books there are to learn from. He makes some progress, then must go to sea again to earn money so he can afford to live on land; apparently sailoring pays pretty well. But he realizes speaking well won’t do it; he needs to become one of what he calls the bourgeoisie, and he can’t do that if he’s running off to the South Seas every few months to earn the rent.
The answer comes to him during one of his sea voyages:
Along with his humbleness because he knew so little, there arose a conviction of power. He felt a sharp gradation between himself and his shipmates, and was wise enough to realize that the difference lay in potentiality rather than achievement. What he could do,—they could do; but within him he felt a confused ferment working that told him there was more in him than he had done. He was tortured by the exquisite beauty of the world, and wished that Ruth were there to share it with him. He decided that he would describe to her many of the bits of South Sea beauty. The creative spirit in him flamed up at the thought and urged that he recreate this beauty for a wider audience than Ruth. And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write—everything—poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth.
No, no, no! screams everyone who’s ever logged in to Submittable. This is still early in his self-education project, so his naïveté, while heartbreakingly funny, isn’t as crazy as it seems. He had, after all, learned grammar and a bit of literature, and all along he’s been portrayed as an intelligent, if uneducated, person.
He begins his writing career with an article about his sea voyage, and sends it to the local newspaper, waiting eagerly for the next day when it will be published. Except… well, you know. He reads some literary magazines and sends stories to them, counting how much each will earn based on pay-per-word rates. Except… yeah.
Eventually we find out he didn’t realize he wasn’t supposed to be writing on both sides of the paper, and still later, that he should have typed his submissions, which requires renting a typewriter. It really makes me want to cry. The poor guy is writing all day, and reading all night, sleeping five hours a night (he tried to cut it back to four and a half, but it didn’t quite work), churning out material and painstakingly recording in his book where he submitted it and how much they’ll pay, then recording the rejection notices as they come in… does any of this sound familiar? It’s almost cruel to laugh at it, knowing the pain it represents, but it’s so predictable.
And then there’s Ruth in the background, telling him to go to school. High school. He would, but he failed the entrance exam. And he’s got a pretty coherent theory about self-education:
“Knowledge seems to me like a chart-room. Whenever I go into the library, I am impressed that way. The part played by teachers is to teach the student the contents of the chart-room in a systematic way. The teachers are guides to the chart-room, that’s all. It’s not something that they have in their own heads. They don’t make it up, don’t create it. It’s all in the chart-room and they know their way about in it, and it’s their business to show the place to strangers who might else get lost.
….Some persons need guides, most persons do; but I think I can get along without them. I’ve spent a lot of time in the chart-room now, and I’m on the edge of knowing my way about, what charts I want to refer to, what coasts I want to explore. And from the way I line it up, I’ll explore a whole lot more quickly by myself. The speed of a fleet, you know, is the speed of the slowest ship, and the speed of the teachers is affected the same way. They can’t go any faster than the ruck of their scholars, and I can set a faster pace for myself than they set for a whole schoolroom.”
“‘He travels the fastest who travels alone,’” she quoted at him.
But I’d travel faster with you just the same, was what he wanted to blurt out, as he caught a vision of a world without end of sunlit spaces and starry voids through which he drifted with her, his arm around her, her pale gold hair blowing about his face. In the same instant he was aware of the pitiful inadequacy of speech. God! If he could so frame words that she could see what he then saw! And he felt the stir in him, like a throe of yearning pain, of the desire to paint these visions that flashed unsummoned on the mirror of his mind. Ah, that was it! He caught at the hem of the secret. It was the very thing that the great writers and master-poets did. That was why they were giants. They knew how to express what they thought, and felt, and saw.
This leads to something of a breakthrough, and he sees his work as amateurish. He starts anew:
Twoscore of manuscripts were travelling the endless round of the magazines. How did the others do it? He spent long hours in the free reading-room, going over what others had written, studying their work eagerly and critically, comparing it with his own, and wondering, wondering, about the secret trick they had discovered which enabled them to sell their work.
Ask any contemporary writer. They’ve all been there.
We see him reading other published writings, copying “strong phrases” and noticing how the stories are structured. He studies “the tricks of narrative, of exposition, of style, the points of view, the contrasts, the epigrams; and of all these he made lists for study. He did not ape. He sought principles.” It’s a do-it-yourself MFA. I’m guessing it’s very much like how London taught himself to write, which is probably why all of this sounds so authentic, a century later.
One of the themes in the book is the mechanization of labor, not in the sense of machines replacing people, but in people treated as machines. You put work in, they produce. If you put more work in, they produce more. He goes through a period working in a laundry where, surrounded by machinery, he sees himself as just one more machine; a day’s work leaves him drained and unable to read or write, echoing Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness.”
This mechanization of men matches London’s labor activism, of course, but in this book, Martin sees it as part of writing as well:
He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and intrusted them to the machine. He folded them just so, put the proper stamps inside the long envelope along with the manuscript, sealed the envelope, put more stamps outside, and dropped it into the mail-box. It travelled across the continent, and after a certain lapse of time the postman returned him the manuscript in another long envelope, on the outside of which were the stamps he had enclosed. There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. It was like the slot machines wherein one dropped pennies, and, with a metallic whirl of machinery had delivered to him a stick of chewing-gum or a tablet of chocolate. It depended upon which slot one dropped the penny in, whether he got chocolate or gum. And so with the editorial machine. One slot brought checks and the other brought rejection slips. So far he had found only the latter slot.
It was the rejection slips that completed the horrible machinelikeness of the process. These slips were printed in stereotyped forms and he had received hundreds of them—as many as a dozen or more on each of his earlier manuscripts. If he had received one line, one personal line, along with one rejection of all his rejections, he would have been cheered. But not one editor had given that proof of existence. And he could conclude only that there were no warm human men at the other end, only mere cogs, well oiled and running beautifully in the machine.
Just yesterday, one of my favorite angst-ridden writers tweeted something remarkably close to this:
Do any of you writers have a journal that just has it in for you? Quick, form rejections every time? I’ve definitely noticed two that I think must have written scripts to auto-form-reject me. Sorry to anyone who submits to them and has my same name.
I’ve said over and over that this is unintentionally funny, but as I read it now, it’s monstrously painful. It’s even more painful for Martin because he’s desperately poor, barely eating, pawning everything he owns so he can keep his typewriter and buy stamps and envelopes. Labor hasn’t changed much, and neither has writing.
He finally does get an acceptance, but the terms in the publication are illusory: not only do they pay less than a tenth of what they advertised, but they pay on publication, not acceptance, and, as Martin finds out, they really don’t pay at all. This eventually leads to a scene where he literally shakes some of the money out of a couple of editors – and a replay at another magazine, where a younger staff throws him down the stairs, then goes out drinking with him.
But take heart, Angst-Ridden Writers everywhere, Martin does eventually find success, and suddenly everything he’s written is worth a king’s ransom and he’s in demand at every turn. He never writes another word; it’s all his old stuff, stuff that’s been rejected, even his truly bad first writings which are now collected as “early work.” The irony, the hypocrisy, the shallowness starts to reverberate in his head under the phrase “work performed”:
Invitations to dinner poured in on Martin; and the more they poured, the more he puzzled. He sat, the guest of honor, at an Arden Club banquet, with men of note whom he had heard about and read about all his life; and they told him how, when they had read “The Ring of Bells” in the Transcontinental, and “The Peri and the Pearl” in The Hornet, they had immediately picked him for a winner. My God! and I was hungry and in rags, he thought to himself. Why didn’t you give me a dinner then? Then was the time. It was work performed. If you are feeding me now for work performed, why did you not feed me then when I needed it? Not one word in “The Ring of Bells,” nor in “The Peri and the Pearl” has been changed. No; you’re not feeding me now for work performed. You are feeding me because everybody else is feeding me and because it is an honor to feed me. You are feeding me now because you are herd animals; because you are part of the mob; because the one blind, automatic thought in the mob-mind just now is to feed me.
The reader could’ve stopped with the paragraph about the painting on the third page: the closer you get to your heart’s desire, the uglier it gets.
I confess, I had no idea Jack London wrote fifty books, many of them on sociopolitical themes and several with autobiographical elements. I didn’t know he wrote anything besides his adventure books. I’m not sure if that’s an indictment of our education system (I have a BA in English, after all; shouldn’t I have encountered him before this?) or a failure of effort on my part. I discovered this book via Zena Hitz’s book on autodidacticism, Lost in Thought, which piqued my interest by acknowledging the dark side of self-education (I’m always drawn to the dark sides of everything):
Eden’s development exposes a rift between the carefully policed gentility of the educated middle classes and the wild and open possibilities of intellectual development. His progress into a suicidal disillusionment also points to a danger of a life of learning: an alienation that breeds arrogance and contempt for others.
Jack London achieved his breakthrough success in 1903 with Call of the Wild; this book was published in 1909. He died in 1916 at the age of forty. I might need to look into some of his other work sometime.
I really wrote from the heart, from my soul, for me, but also for Black women. I wanted other Black women, not just ones who have worked in these environments, to see themselves in the hair references, the obscure music references, the TV references. It’s been really fun seeing Black women respond to this book, seeing the different things we take away from it. What I want non-Black readers to know is we’re not a monolith. We have very different views on things, we deserve to be heard, and we deserve to be there. There needs to be more of us. We should be in more places, we should be valued for all kinds of things, writing about all kinds of things.
I really hope that this book will show that to the publishing world that thinks, “Readers won’t be into this,” what could be possible. I want there to be more Black books. I want there to be other books that get the attention that they deserve. I want there to be comps in the future. When I was querying my agent, I was trying to think of books that were in a similar space, and it was hard. I just want there to be more.
Zakiya Dalila Harris, Interview with Arriel Vinson at Electric Literature: “The Horror of Being the Other Black Girl in the Workplace”
Comps. You probably know the concept, even if, like me, you aren’t familiar with the term. Comparable titles, meant to lure readers who liked a particular book with the promise of more of the same. A hilarious example from the book is “Pride and Prejudice meets I, Robot.” I’ve been trying to figure that one out for days now, since “I, Robot” was originally the title of a short story by Otto Binder, then the title of a short story collection by Isaac Asimov, and finally a movie having little in common with either.
Cosmo called this book “The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out,” not a bad description but lacking some major themes. I wanted to read the book because I thought it might be something like Black Buck transposed from the only Black man in the sales department to the only Black woman in a publishing house, with a darker, more mysterious thriller subplot. That isn’t a bad description, either, come to think of it. But the mystery is front and center from the epigraph and the prologue, so if you’re looking for a cute rom-com where everything turns out all right in the end, look elsewhere. This book raises big questions. I’m not sure it raises them as effectively as it could – I found the thriller subplot distracting, wished it had been less up front, and by the time the reveal happened, I’d somewhat lost interest – but at least it raises them.
She overheard a couple of Wagner employees in the kitchen chatting about the idea of being forced to hire non-white people. “Let’s just go and do exactly that,” Kevin in digital marketing had said indignantly. “Exactly that. And then let’s watch what Richard does when we start hiring unqualified people here, and things start getting screwed up. I’m sure he’ll change his song then.”
… [E]ven if they have seen her, Nella sensed that neither would have said anything differently. Her colleagues, strangely, had made it clear very early on that they didn’t see her as a young Black woman, but as a young woman who just happened to be Black – as though her college degree had washed all of the melanin away. In their eyes, she was the exception. She was “qualified.” An Obama of publishing, so to speak.
Nella is an editorial assistant at Wagner Publishing, and the only Black professional, until Hazel shows up. She’d tried to lead a series of diversity meetings, but they petered out, so she’s surprised and thrilled to smell Brown Buttah, a hair product popular with Black women, waft into her cubicle. It turns out Hazel isn’t going to be her BFF as she’d hoped. Then the notes warning her to leave the company start appearing on her desk.
There are several threads running through the book: professional rivalry, the whiteness of the publishing industry and weak diversity efforts, the hypersensitivity of white authors to criticism about depictions of Black characters, and, amusingly, coworkers who keep mixing up the two Black women, though they are clearly distinguishable even from a distance by hairstyle and height alone. And hair. It may seem surprising that hair is one of them. Black hair has been a social and political flash point for years, regulated to varying degrees by some schools, law enforcement, and the US military. It’s use as a central image here is very clever.
While the workplace is the tinder, the fire comes from the thriller plot. It resolves in a most unsettling way (we’re getting a bit spoilery here, so skip to the last paragraph if you want to avoid that):
There were so many things she never had enough energy for – so many social interactions she’d gotten so incredibly wrong – because Wagner had sucked her dry of her confidence and her sense of self.
“Is that what you want? To feel overextended? To feel worn down by every microaggression you experience in the office, and every injustice you see on the news? Are those the kinds of things that make you feel like you?…. Once you stop fighting – once you let this wave wash over you – you’ll see. It’ll wash over you so quickly, you won’t even feel it. You won’t feel the pain, the white supremacy. You read those articles, watch the police footage, then go to work the next morning without feeling like another part of you has died. That heavy anvil of genetic trauma that’s been strapped to your ankle for all these years… gone. You’ll swim to the top and be free. You’ll be you. This is Black Girl Magic in its purest form.”
This paints a pretty bleak picture of the choice Black workers face: success, or social consciousness. I thought of Toni Morrison’s quote from 1975 – yes, from nearly fifty years ago:
The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
Toni Morrison, 1975 speech at Portland State University
While the workplace drama is fun, this is the heart of the book: how do you counter this drag in the workplace, how do you free your energy so you can achieve success and inspire others? I’m disturbed by the implication of the solution presented, but I think it’s meant to be disturbing. This isn’t a case of ‘Hey, here’s the solution,’ but ‘Hey, look how big this problem is, can we figure out some way to deal with it that isn’t insane?’
Harris worked in publishing for several years and incorporates both her knowledge of the field, and her experience as the only Black woman in the room. What I like most about the book is that it’s written for Black readers. If you don’t know what 4C hair is, or who Ntozake Shange is, well, that’s what Google is for, Harris doesn’t waste space and drag down the story explaining every detail for readers less likely to be familiar with aspects of Black culture beyond MLK and Harriet Tubman. Likewise with the publishing industry details: the context give a lot of help, but she’s not going to give a mini-course on an editorial assistant’s function. I like it when writers assume readers can figure things out for themselves. This is Harris’ debut novel; I’m interested to see what she comes up with next.
I see that Hulu is making this into a comedy series. I’m dubious – we’re way beyond The Devil Wears Prada here – but we’ll have to see how that works out.
What he ultimately is, I think, is a writer who’s trying to record what post-modernism does to people in everyday life, what it’s like to live in a post-modern society. So that’s the way his fiction I think is both post-modern and realist. It treats everyday life in the same way that realism does, but its topic is how does living in a postmodern, consumer society of simulacra, of people who can’t have faith in grand narratives, how does this affect people’s everyday lives.
John Pistelli, University of Minnesota, Lecture #30, Contemporary American Literature, Spring 2021
…[T]he novel’s most immediately appealing quality is its humor: it’s simply a very funny book.
…DeLillo dramatizes the omnipresence of TV and consumerism by punctuating the scenes with disembodied electronic voices and lists of brand names. Simultaneously attesting to the novel’s highly textured realism and violating it by reminding us of the author’s controlling presence, these mysterious, often acerbic insertions are one reason the novel has been called “postmodern”.
Introduction to this edition, Mark Osteen
Welcome to another edition of Karen Reads A Book Too Big For Her. Not in size – it’s a perfectly manageable 326 pages, with, in this particular form, another hundred-plus pages of reviews, essays, and criticisms, a handy feature since I knew I’d need some help. I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time since it, or at least Delillo, keeps coming up in other areas I’ve investigated, but kept deferring it. A few months ago I heard Netflix was making it into a movie (true: I saw the trailer today). Even more recently, a writer/teacher I follow on Twitter mentioned he was reading it, and I thought, hey, if not now, when. How much harder can it be than Iris Murdoch? Turns out it was a lot more enjoyable than Murdoch, and, with a bit of research, more understandable as well.
I decided to do a semi-naïve reading, meaning I read the introduction but no other material before reading the book. I came across a lot of scary words like post-modernism, simulacrum, and hyperreality, and was warned about possible plotlessness, but I also got a preview of coming events: “the deleterious effects of capitalism, the power of electronic images, the tyrannical authority and dangerous byproducts of science, the unholy alliance of consumerism and violence, and the quest for sacredness in a secularized world.” And, oh, the breakdown of academia as a source of wisdom. And this book was written in 1985. Pre-Internet, pre-Tik-Tok, pre-Smartphone. Turns out it doesn’t matter much; so much of the TV material transfers neatly, if more expansively, to contemporary electronic media.
When I finished it all, my sense was that it wasn’t plotless at all; it had a simple plot about the fear of death stretched out and draped on philosophizing about the horrors of contemporary life as listed above. It was the kind of book where every other page had something amazing on it, and there were numerous scenes I found fascinating.
Take, for instance, the airport scene. Our protagonist, professor of Hitler Studies (yes, that’s right) Jack Gladney completes a child-swap so familiar to the hybrid families of today by picking up his daughter in the airport. An earlier plane arrives with passengers showing signs of distress. One of the passengers recounts the near-crash they had just been through:
Certain elements in the crew had decided to pretend that it was not a crash but a crash landing that was seconds away. After all, the difference between the two is only one word. Didn’t this suggest that the two forms of flight termination were more or less interchangeable? … By the time the narrator reached this point in his account, many people were crowded around, not only people who just emerged from the tunnel but also those who have been among the first to disembark. They’d come back to listen. They were not yet ready to disperse, through reading habit their earthbound bodies, but wanted to linger with their terror, keep it separate and intact for just a while longer. More people drifted toward us, milled about, close to the entire planeload. They were content to let the capped unvested man speak on their behalf. No one disputed his account or tried to add individual testimony. It was as though they were being told of an event they hadn’t personally been involved in. They were interested in what he said, even curious, but also clearly detached. They trusted him to tell them what they had said and felt.
.… “Where’s the media?” [Jack’s daughter] said.
“There is no media in Iron City.”
“They went through that all that for nothing?”
The ultimate Pictures or it didn’t happen? A lost opportunity for fame?
Death is never far from Jack’s thoughts, He occasionally finds himself lectured to by his fellow academic, Murray (naturally enough, a professor of American culture who longs to set up an Elvis Studies program using Jack’s Hitler Studies as a model). Murray’s explanation of violence:
“I believe, Jack, that there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don’t have the disposition, the rage or whatever it’s it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it’s like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain a life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions.”
“Are you saying that men have tried throughout history to cure themselves of death by killing others?”
This provides an interesting fulcrum towards the end of the book as Jack contemplates switching sides.
Another of my favorite scenes also comes towards the end of the book – in fact, the end of the book is one loaded scene after another – as Jack gets schooled by a nun on the subject of faith:
“It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously period to abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody bold things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.”
“Of course pretend. Do you think we are stupid? Get out from here.”
“You don’t believe in heaven? A nun?”
“If you don’t, why should I?”
“If you did, maybe I would.”
“If I did, you would not have to.”
“All the old models and quirks,” I said. “Faith, religion, life everlasting. The great old human gullibilities. Are you saying you don’t take them seriously? Your dedication is a pretense?”
“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believed…. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible….”
As someone who’s read a great deal about religious belief over the past several years, I found this confusing but amazing. I can’t even grasp it, but it’s brilliant.
I wasn’t sure what “white noise” referred to. Was it the constant buzz of media, of consumerism, surrounding people, blurring out the experiences of our lives to the point where, as we’ll see in few paragraphs, children mutter brand names in their sleep? Or was it the fear of death that underlies life, blurring out the experience of that life – or creating tension that constantly underlies it? I was glad to read in Cornel Bonca’s “Don Delillo’s White Noise: The Natural Language of the Species,” one of the critical essays included in this edition of the book, that it wasn’t a stupid question:
… I want to flush out what “white noise” means in this novel, since I think a limited idea of the term has kept many readers from appreciating the full range of Delillo’s exploration of postmodern culture. We can begin with the obvious. White noise is media noise, the techno static of a consumer culture that penetrates our homes and our minds…
….[But] White noise manifests itself in much subtler ways, in ways that have little to do with consumerism, mass media, or high technology. It isn’t merely imposed from without by socioeconomic or communication systems, but emerges from sources originating within the characters, from the same organismic death fear that we find operating in The Names. White noise, therefore, encompasses a wide variety of human utterance, both denotative and not. Examples are everywhere: the melancholy “homemade signs concerning lost dogs and cats, sometimes written in the handwriting of children”;… the “love babble and buzzing flesh” that Jack imagines went on when Babette slept with Willie Mink. What all these phenomena share is a passion for utterance to “bridge the lonely distances,” to “establish a structure against the terror of our souls.” It is language as the denial of death, as the evasion of what cannot be evaded. “Pain, death, reality,” Murray Jay Siskind will say: “We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise, and disguise. This is how we survive in the universe. This is the natural language of the species.”
Cornel Bonca: “Don Delillo’s White Noise: The Natural Language of the Species” (1996) available online
So he sees it as both, a kind of sandwiching of the human between two forces. No wonder we’re all a little crazy in one way or another. Still, after my naïve read, I wasn’t sure how the recurring theme of the fear of death related to the cultural and socioeconomic pressure – but that’s what online essays and YouTube lectures are for.
I started with some brief lessons on post-modernism and Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulation, simulacra, and hyperreality. No, I didn’t read the source material, which makes me part of the irony, and I could have used more academic sources like Stanford’s online philosophy encyclopedia, but I was looking for a starter set, not a graduate course. A media teacher from England (who better to teach this stuff) and Carneades.org, an open philosophy website for the masses, were quite helpful in the crash course, pointing out, among other things, how cultural representation went from simulating reality to simulating itself so that we can’t tell what’s real and what’s simulation: “Audiences can’t decide on truth.” Gee, where have I heard that lately. If you’ll forgive a mishmash of paraphrases and snippets of quotations from both sources:
Premodern culture consisted of high arts, based on the Church and associated Grand Narratives, which indicated What is Good and How People Should Live; people had direct contact with reality, knew how to build their tools for farming and hunting, how to find and prepare their own food.
Modern culture introduced media that became simulations of reality, and emphasized science, ideas beyond those of the Grand Narratives, and, eventually, consumerism as the means of prosperity
Postmodernism, in the late 20th century, saw reality made up of cultural representation rather than reality itself; culture is no longer based on reality, but on cultural products. Since we are surrounded by media and believe it is reality, new cultural creations reference existing cultural representations until the difference between reality and simulations of simulations (simulacra) make it impossible to understand reality outside of cultural representations.
Baudrillard’s simulacra are imitations that fail to make reference to the original. A hyperreal simulacra “instead of representing something real in the world, only represents a web of other simulacra.”
The Media Insider: , Postmodernism explained for beginners! Jean Baudrillard Simulacra and Hyperreality explained.
John Pistelli’s brief lecture, which I’ve already referenced above (and he is an academic source, whew) was extremely helpful in connecting the book to these ideas. For example, he points out how the SIMUVAC team is designed to simulate emergency evacuations and is using a real emergency to practice its simulation function, perfectly illustrating the confusion between reality and simulacra. I think of the passenger in the airport, explaining to people who have just been through the event exactly what happened. They experienced the reality, but they need the media experience, the simulation, to understand it.
Pistelli also describes the anxiety at being so separated from our reality: we don’t know how to feed ourselves without supermarkets and stoves (or food delivery services). I realized that when I was a kid, maintaining your own car was a source of pride: changing oil, replacing spark plugs, and a lot of teenage boys loved to tinker, fix, listen, tune. As I understand it, today’s cars require computer equipment to do anything. Some people still do some backyard gardening, but it’s a rare family that can feed itself. This feeds into Jack’s anxiety about death, since life feels precarious.
I’m not sure I fully understand what Pistelli is getting at here, but this seems like it comes up over and over again in the book:
However, Delillo does see a way out that is not simply exiting the postmodern condition. He says that the postmodern condition provides resources in itself for its own transcendence and it comes in this form of learning to experience things like language as routes to the transcendent, to the mystical, to the divine… Delillo finds the spirituality in consumer culture…
John Pistelli, University of Minnesota, Lecture #30, Contemporary American Literature, Spring 2021
He connects this with the scene in Part II, the Airborne Toxic Event, when Jack hears his daughter muttering in her sleep:
I was convinced she was saying something, fitting together units of stable meaning. I watched her face, waited. Ten minutes passed. She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant. Toyota Celica.
A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered. But how could this be? A simple brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near nonsense words, murmured in a child’s restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence?…. Whatever its source, the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence.
I depend on my children for that.
I hope it’s supposed to make me sad that this is how Jack finds a way to experience the transcendent. Then again, for me it’s biology; I find transcendence in the Krebs cycle. But that’s because, as complicated as it is, it keeps us alive, somehow, just by physical properties of atoms and molecules. To find such wonder in the name of a car seems a lesser form of awe, to say the least.
A more sinister example of the use of words comes towards the end of the book, as Jack confronts the man who provided his wife with experimental medication intended to eradicate her fear of death, on the condition that she sleep with him. One of the side effects is heightened suggestibility. Imagine the fun you can have with something like that. And here is the scene where killer-dier reverses for Jack, his initial murderous intent evolving into this more spiritual form of torment:
I recalled Babette’s remarks about the side effects of the medication. I said, as a test, “Falling plane.”
He looked at me, gripping the arms of the chair, the first signs of panic building in his eyes.
“Plunging aircraft,” I said, pronouncing the words crisply, authoritatively.
He kicked off his sandals, folded himself over into the recommended crash position, head well forward, hands clasped behind his knees….
I was ready to kill him now. But I didn’t want to compromise the plan…. I said to him gently, “Hail of bullets.” Keeping my hand in my pocket.
He hit the floor, began crawling toward the bathroom, looking back over his shoulder, childlike, miming, using principles of heightened design but showing real terror, brilliant cringing fear.
Words as weapons. We often use them that way, though not usually so literally, and not with so much glee.
The glaringly depleted concept of spirituality comes through in other ways (and I say this as someone who is pretty skeptical of, sometimes hostile to, most traditional forms of spirituality). The parents watch TV with their children once a week. The idea is that the kids will decide TV is something boring old people do, but it doesn’t seem to be working that way. What it reminds me of is church.
And of course there’s that amazing conversation with the nun, whose sacrifice is spending her life faking belief so others can go on not believing. Again, I don’t quite get it, but it’s chill-inducing.
I keep seeing aspects, or what I imagine in my beginners-level grasp of this as aspects, of this book everywhere now that I’m aware of it. I’ve been bingeing on old Top Chef episodes recently; in one, Tom Colicchio advises a contestant to travel, if only to nearby restaurants serving authentic cuisines, to learn more about the flavors and dishes associated with an ethnicity or location. “But I have books for that!” she said, and it was like lightning struck. “You don’t learn to cook from books, you learn from experience!” scolded Tom. Actually, most of us learn from Food Network and YouTube these days. Experience? What a concept!
Then just the other day, I tweeted out after ordering another group of books from Thriftbooks: “I think I get almost as much enjoyment from ordering used books – finding suitable copies at the lowest price, tracking the shipments, anticipating their arrival – as I do from reading them. This is disturbing.” I wasn’t consciously thinking of this book at all, but there it is: my love of reading tied in with my love of consumerism.
This is only a shallow, first-pass look at what’s going on here, a way to be able to follow conversations that will surely arise when the film is released. I recognize something from the trailer already: as the family drives out of their contaminated town per the evacuation order, the daughter keeps trying to see what people in other cars look like: are they happy, scared? Why? “So I know how scared to be.” I don’t remember if that line is in the book or not, but it’s perfect.
I’d say there are three or four meanings to Buck. There’s the fact that right, he’s a dude who gets the name Buck and he’s Black. That he worked at Starbucks is number two. Number three, it’s a representation of Black wealth, Black bucks, you know, obviously talking about cash and bread and the idea that what Darren does and how he changes the game, even if only for a moment in time, will help more Black and Brown people make money and hopefully uplift their families and their communities. And this is obviously bold, but maybe beyond the way to be attaining some real wealth. And then the fourth way is the historical meaning of Black buck, right? What it means to be a Black buck. As you know, they were the unruly, big, wild, enslaved people who these white masters, these enslavers, believed were going to burn down the plantation, steal their wives, kill the animals, kill them.
And when I thought about that and I meditated on it deeply, I said, you know what, that’s the energy that I’m bringing to this book as the writer and the energy that Buck is bringing to the world of Black Buck himself…. And sorry, the last thing I’ll say is we see that Buck pays for it, for bucking against the system. And we see how that plays out.
Mateo Askaripour, interview at Electric Literature
Rising Action. It’s the part of the novel where, once you have the basics of setting, protagonist, antagonist, and conflict laid out, things get complicated. Actions have unexpected consequences; random events throw obstacles in the protagonist’s path; people make mistakes and, maybe, try to fix them; deep dark secrets come to light and change our view of what’s happening. It’s what pushes a novel beyond the publisher’s summaries and the blurbs. It’s what can land a reader in a very different place than what was anticipated. It’s what can scare you, confuse you, anger you, break your reading heart, then show you how to heal.
A lot of previews cite this as a satirical look at racism in corporate America. Ok, that’s definitely part of it, and a fun part it is. But Askaripour had more in mind. Add in a mom who works for Clorox and owns her Bed-Stuy brownstone. Add a downstairs tenant who’s almost part of the family now. Add a couple of lifelong buddies from the neighborhood, guys who aren’t doing quite as well as Buck. Add a girlfriend he’s known half his life and her family. Add one of the Starbucks workers who’s an odd duck, who Buck’s taken under his wing and protected for a few years. Give them all their own trajectories. Set it all in the White World of Business, in the sales department for absurd online platform, where a lot of I’m-not-racist people really don’t hate black people, they’ve just never really known any, other than the famous ones on TV and in the news. Add a company crisis, and a solution only a Black man can provide, for tinder. Then add a genuine white supremacist to light a fuse, and see what happens to the I’m-not-racist crowd. But more than that, see what happens to the kid from Starbucks who was born to be a salesman. Now that’s rising action.
It all starts at that Starbucks, when Darren Vender decides, for no particular reason other than fate, to convince a regular customer to get something other than his regular coffee.
Just give him his regular. Stop fucking around. But I didn’t listen. What I said next had to be divine intervention because I didn’t know where it came from.
“That’s what the last five customers also said to me, until I gave them another option that solved a problem they didn’t know they had.”
He clenched his jaw and leaned toward me like he was going to Tyson my ear off.
“Because,” I continued, too committed to stop, “believe it or not, when you come here and order something, you are not ordering a drink, you’re ordering a solution. A solution to fatigue, irritability, and anything else that a lack of coffee means to you. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’m confident that the Nitro Cold Brew with Sweet Cream is what you actually want. It has ten grams less sugar than your regular, forty fewer calories, and one hundred forty milligrams more caffeine. But at the end of the day, those are just numbers. So if you buy the Nitro Cold Brew and don’t like it, you can come back, and I’ll give you your regular free of charge. What do you think?”
Silence. Ten full seconds of silence. If you don’t think ten seconds of silence is long, just count it out while picturing a grown man staring directly into your eyes as if he’s going to snatch the black off you. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. I was tempted to tell him to forget it, that it was my bad, but something told me not to. I just stared back into his eyes until he said, “Did you just try to reverse close me?” he relaxed his jaw and his eyes softened with curiosity.
And so Darren, nicknamed Buck, becomes a fledgling sales rep for Sumwun (I’m embarrassed to admit it took me half the book to realize it’s pronounced “someone”). “We help people,” says Rhett, Buck’s recruiter, avoiding exactly what the company does for a very long time. I used to work for a long-term-care insurance salesman. He’d never call himself that; he’d announce he helped people protect their assets. In fact, a lot of what I learned on that job (I was the office manager – sales is nowhere near my strength – but I paid attention) was represented in the book. Turns out, Askaripour spent a few years as a high-end sales rep, so he knows the drill. And he makes some very interesting writer’s choices throughout.
Take the whole “we help people” claim. Buck turns that into real help, not for unseen random people, but for his friends and then, as things expand, for Black people, by teaching them how to sell. And by teaching them how useful sales skills are in selling oneself. But go out still another layer: the whole book is written as a self-help book, a sales training manual.
It caught me by surprise, coming in right off the bat. “Author’s Note”, I read, right after the title page and epigram. I was expecting some kind of ‘this is a work of fiction’ disclaimer, or acknowledgment page, by Askaripour. “There’s nothing like a Black man on a mission,” it starts, then amends that to “Black salesman.” It goes on, and eventually I realized it’s not Askaripour writing, it’s Buck. Or, an amalgam of both. It’s a unique entry into a book, ending,
And if I am successful in teaching you how to sell and fix the game, I ask that you buy another copy of my book and give it to the friend who needs it most. Who is stuck like I was and in need of a way out. Who is blind to the game but has potential, just like you. Does that sound fair? If so, and if you can do the three things I outlined above, then we have a deal. And if we have a deal, it’s time for you to do one last thing.
Turn the page.
Happy selling, Buck
It’s kind of amazing how many levels that goes for. In the context of the book, it’s character exposition, and gives you a hint of where the story goes. It’s also a recognition that this is, in fact, Askaripour’s idea of a self-help book, that it should be read that way. And it’s also an author selling his book. Sales. Ain’t it amazing.
Pithy sales tips appear throughout, integrated into key moments in the text:
That session with Eddie was the day’s silver lining. I learned that “no one’s going to stay on the line with someone as interesting as C-SPAN,” that “what and how you pitch depends on who you’re pitching to,” and that the point of speaking with someone is to have a conversation, not to conduct an interrogation. But best of all, I learned how to have fun on the phone. Reader: all of that is critical advice. No one is going to listen to someone who sounds like they’d rather be doing something else. And when you’re trying to convince someone of anything, you need to tailor your message to the person you’re speaking with so it resonates as powerfully as possible.
Reader: Ending up pitch with “Sound fair?” is a common sales tactic. Most people don’t want to be viewed as unfair or unreasonable, so they’re more likely to give in, especially when what someone is pitching does sound fair enough. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
And how about:
Reader: Salespeople are often separated into two camps: those who love to win and to those who hate to lose. Before joining Sumwun, I was one of the latter. But once you taste what it feels like to win, to really win something meaningful – like your spot on the dream team – you will do everything to protect that feeling. Be careful of winning, it’s one of the most dangerous things you can ever do.
As you may suspect, a lot of these aphorisms have meanings beyond Sales 101; they reach into the story, and beyond. Particularly some of the later advice, like:
Reader: Life, like sales, comes with an endless amount of opportunities to do the wrong thing to win. But understand that whether you take those opportunities or not, consequences still follow. And they won’t always be in your favor.
That’s one of the strengths of the book: Buck doesn’t come through unscathed. Victory has it’s costs, and freedom isn’t free, all that.
I found a lot to appreciate in Buck’s experience as the only Black man in a White company. He recognizes a lot of his coworkers, since he’s been serving their coffee for four years; but no one recognizes him. They all say, “Hey, anyone ever tell you how much you look like [insert name of the only famous Black man they can think of]?” MLK, Sidney Poitier, Malcolm X. Who, obviously, look nothing alike. The marketing teams are named after Black rap groups, giving Buck a “this is what happens when you have no Black employees.” On the final day of his “Hell Week” training, Buck wears a Starbucks apron under his clothes, to remind him of how successful and confident he was in that setting – and to give us the Superman vibe all over again. I only regret that he never ripped off his shirt and showed it, but that probably would’ve been too much. Then there’s the moment when a teenaged Sumwun user is murdered: “Platforms don’t kill people,” says Rhett, Buck’s recruiter and boss. How to refuse responsibility, transplanted.
A couple of moments seem very interesting to me in how they might be read differently by readers of different races.
I took a step into the crosswalk, then felt a firm hand on my wrist. When I turned around, Rhett was shaking like he was going to cry. “I meant what I said, Buck. Whether you like it or not, when you walk into the office, you will be Sumwun’s director of sales, and you will give more time and attention to the company. It’s the least you can do for everything I’ve done for you. For picking you over Clyde. Understand?”
I stared at his white knuckles tightening their grip on my wrist, burning in the late winter’s chill. “Yeah, my bad. Thanks for always looking out for me, Rhett.”
“White knuckles” might signify anxiety to a White reader, but to a Black reader, white knuckles gripping the wrist of a Black man might seem like a lot more of a threat, of ownership, especially in the context of Rhett’s comment. And by the way, naming a New York sales exec “Rhett” is kind of brilliant as a way of speaking without speaking.
Askaripour’s introduction of a character led me to examine my own reading assumptions:
A commercial flashed across the screen and then I saw it: a news clip featuring the photo of a smiling young girl with braces. I froze. The screen cut to another of an older Chinese man with a straight face and oversized glasses. The types you see pedophiles wearing in their mug shots.
In books by White authors, written primarily for White readers, characters are assumed to be White unless otherwise specified. We get this girl’s name a few sentences later – Donesha – which is a pretty strong hint that she’s Black, but that isn’t confirmed until pages later. A White author would have specified it, or given some other clue in her description. It makes perfect sense for Askaripour, who’s writing primarily for a Black readership, to let the assumption swing the other way. And it raises some interesting questions for White readers. I wonder if his editor brought it up.
I admit that some of the quintessential sales moments don’t ring as true to me, as genuinely convincingly, as that initial scene in Starbucks. And some of the training games he uses in his own version of Hell Week seem downright dangerous and don’t make a lot of sense to me. But those are not terribly significant in an otherwise engrossing, entertaining, and thought-provoking book, one where I couldn’t help but root for the sales guy, despite my predisposition to view sales people with suspicion. See, it’s possible to overcome prejudices. You just have to be willing to try.
I happened to dedicate to Mr. Bentley, in those distant days, a book called “The Man Who Was Thursday”; it was a very melodramatic sort of moonshine, but it had a kind of notion in it; and the point is that it described, first a band of the last champions of order fighting against what appeared to be a world of anarchy; and then the discovery that the mysterious master both of the anarchy and the order was the same sort of elemental elf; who had appeared to be rather too like a pantomime ogre. This line of logic, or lunacy, led many to infer that this equivocal being was meant for a serious description of the Deity; and my work even enjoyed a temporary respect among those who like the Deity to be so described. But this error was entirely due to the same cause; that they had read the book but had not read the title-page. In my case, it is true, it was a question of a sub-title rather than a title. The book was called “The Man Who Was Thursday: a Nightmare.” It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.
G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London Times, June 13, 1936
I’m reading above my pay grade again, as I sometimes do; but how else to increase one’s pay grade by stretching beyond its limits? I’ve found numerous sources to help me with this book, and hope that somewhere I’ve stumbled into something that is close to accurate. But this post is mostly a marker, or a seed, which further reading may modify or expand. As such, it’s more of a collection of information about the book, part draft for a high school term paper, part reader’s diary; it’s unlikely to interest casual readers. For those wondering if they would enjoy reading the book, there are numerous reviews (by actual professionals who know how to review) available online; for those looking for answers to homework questions, I don’t guarantee the academic acceptability of anything here, so I suggest you look elsewhere. I’m assuming familiarity with the book, and not worrying about spoilers. You’ve been warned!
(That should get rid of just about everyone; now I can get to work)
It’s a book by an author whose basic beliefs – conservativism, the superiority of Christianity over any secular interpretation of morality, and as an objective and absolute source of order and authority – are contrary to my own general leanings. So why would I read such a book? I read a great many things to get a sense of the roadmap, not to adopt as my personal creed. But mostly, I kept running into this book and author.
First (that I clearly recall, at any rate) was this past March, when I was reading Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. The edition of Wonderland and Looking Glass was annotated by Martin Gardner, who included this note in his introduction:
The vision of monstrous mindlessness of the cosmos (“Off with its head!”) can be grim and disturbing, as it is in Kafka and the Book of Job, or light-hearted comedy, as in Alice or Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday…. it is a vision that can lead to despair and suicide, to the laughter that closes Jean Paul Sarte’s story “The Wall,” to the humanist’s resolve to carry on bravely in the face of ultimate darkness. Curiously, it can also suggest the wild hypothesis that there may be a light behind the darkness.
Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice
Chesterton’s name and the book’s title seemed vaguely familiar to me. I gave them a casual google, didn’t see anything I recognized, but it stuck with me: something connecting Kafka, Job, and Alice might be worth reading. The “light behind the darkness” comment sounded a lot like something I might have heard in a mooc on existentialism. But I was busy, I had a pile of books to read already, so I plugged on.
A few days later, a professor from a philosophy mooc I took (I follow as many of my mooc professors as I can find) tweeted a reference to the same book, comparing Jordan Peterson to the Philosophical Policeman. I had no idea what this meant – I know very little about Peterson and knew nothing at the time about the character being referenced – but it occurred to me, frequency illusion be damned, that the universe might be telling me I should read this book. I ordered a used copy, a random edition, and put it on my TBR shelf, not sure if I’d get to it this year or not.
Then yet another former mooc professor mentioned the book in passing, as one of the many books he’d used as a kind of “warm up” in his 8 am classes. His description: “philosophical spy novel about bomb-throwing anarchists. seriously hilarious.” Apparently his students really took to this particular warm-up. His description tickled me so I moved it to “next up.”
For such a short book – 143 pages in the Wordsworth Classics edition (it’s in the public domain, so editions abound, including online text and audio) – it took a lot of reading. I’ve been obsessed with it, reading it over and over – four, five, six times at least – as well as reading about it, for three weeks now. There’s a lot in the small details. For example, I’d initially considered the first chapter to be rather unimportant, a scene-setter, but over time I started to see phrases and moments that made it far more important than I’d originally thought.
I found a reference to a poem that preceded the text, a poem that was annoyingly omitted from the edition I’d bought. While hunting down that poem, I discovered another edition of the book is annotated by – guess who, Martin Gardner. I ordered that edition, and found a wealth of material that helped me better understand what was going on. The footnotes are mostly information on the London and language of Chesterton’s day, but there are a few gems, and the Introduction and Appendix are excellent resources.
(Is she ever going to get to the book, you wonder? I warned you – this is more of a personal diary entry than a post aimed at the public, but yes, she is).
This particular evening, if it is remembered for nothing else, will be remembered in that place for its strange sunset. It looked like the end of the world. All the heaven seemed covered with a quite vivid and palpable plumage; you could only say that the sky was full of feathers, and of feathers that almost brushed the face. Across the great part of the dome they were grey, with the strangest tints of violet and mauve and an unnatural pink or pale green; but towards the west the whole grew past description, transparent and passionate, and the last red-hot plumes of it covered up the sun like something too good to be seen. The whole was so close about the earth, as to express nothing but a violent secrecy. The very empyrean seemed to be a secret. It expressed that splendid smallness which is the soul of local patriotism. The very sky seemed small.
I say that there are some inhabitants who may remember the evening if only by that oppressive sky. There are others who may remember it because it marked the first appearance in the place of the second poet of Saffron Park. For a long time the red-haired revolutionary had reigned without a rival; it was upon the night of the sunset that his solitude suddenly ended. The new poet, who introduced himself by the name of Gabriel Syme was a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair, pointed beard and faint, yellow hair. But an impression grew that he was less meek than he looked. He signalised his entrance by differing with the established poet, Gregory, upon the whole nature of poetry. He said that he (Syme) was poet of law, a poet of order; nay, he said he was a poet of respectability. So all the Saffron Parkers looked at him as if he had that moment fallen out of that impossible sky.
In fact, Mr. Lucian Gregory, the anarchic poet, connected the two events.
One of the (many) disadvantages I faced going into this book was a lack of knowledge of the period Chesterton was reacting to: the very late 19th and very early 20th centuries in Great Britain. Some of the materials in Gardner’s annotations helped, but not much. It’s tempting to map this onto the period of my own lifetime, which began in an era of conformity before exploding into controversy and what many saw as degeneracy and a see-saw between the two that has been playing out for the past half-century, but I’m not competent to do that.
That leaves me, for the moment, with the discussion of poetry in the opening chapter: is poetry a force of order, or chaos? This is what I saw, in my first read, as the primary conflict of the book: the established order vs modernity. Modernity is a tricky term. In different contexts it can refer to anything from the 17th to the 20th century. Since poetry is the specific vehicle, and since modern poetry, which moved beyond common forms, themes, and viewpoints in favor of a more subjective art under the banner “Make it New”, was in its nascent form at the time Chesterton wrote the book (it wouldn’t fully emerge for a couple of decades) I used that as an anchor. It’s also interesting that at one point in the book the point-of-view character, Syme, also brings in art: “He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.” I would think post-impressionism would be more germane both thematically and temporally, but again, I’m tap dancing way above my head here.
The point is, I focused on a reaction to a period of frightening transition from order – social, political, religious – to chaos, as seen by a devotee of order.
It gets much more serious than that, however, when Syme asks his new anarchist poet friend just what he wants:
“First of all, what is it really all about? What is it you object to? You want to abolish Government?”
“To abolish God!” said Gregory, opening the eyes of a fanatic. “We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but it is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong.”
By the end of the book (and after a couple of readings), it becomes apparent that the names are important here: Gabriel Syme, and Lucien Gregory. Gabriel is the name of one of the archangels, considered a messenger of God; Lucien is interestingly close to Lucifer, the fallen angel, Satan. This is about more than poetry or post-impressionism, or even the more general order and chaos.
An overall idea that struck me after first read is the change that comes over the Council during the course of the book. At the first meeting, it’s a group of (supposed) anarchists: the goal is destruction. The final time they come together at the very end of the book, they are dressed as the days of Creation. That they were never truly about destruction, but each at first believed he might be the only one trying to prevent it, might be one of the points that Chesterton makes in an article he wrote years after writing the book:
Mind you, I think it is well that we should not know all about those around us, that we should fight in the dark, while having the faith that most men are on the right side, for to possess courage the soul of man must be lonely until at last it knows all.
G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated Sunday Herald, January 24th, 1926
One thing (hah, of many) that puzzles me about this initial chapter is the question of where the dream starts. Is it intended that from word one we are in Syme’s dream? The sunset I quoted earlier certainly seems like it might be part of a dream. But a few pages later there’s another spot that seems quite likely as a starting place for a dream: Syme has just met Gregory’s sister, Rosamond, and spends time chatting with her:
Syme strolled with her to a seat in the corner of the garden, and continued to pour out his opinions…
He stared and talked at the girl’s red hair and amused face for what seemed to be a few minutes; and then, feeling that the groups in such a place should mix, rose to his feet. To his astonishment, he discovered the whole garden empty. Everyone had gone long ago, and he went himself with a rather hurried apology. He left with a sense of champagne in his head, which he could not afterwards explain. In the wild events which were to follow this girl had no part at all; he never saw her again until all his tale was over. And yet, in some indescribable way, she kept recurring like a motive in music through all his mad adventures afterwards, and the glory of her strange hair ran like a red thread through those dark and ill-drawn tapestries of the night. For what followed was so improbable, that it might well have been a dream.
I missed this the first several times I read it, probably because I wasn’t paying proper attention, but it does seem like an appropriate break to start the dream. I also missed how the color red is indeed woven through the book, mostly in skies. In his note, Gardner puts forth the idea that Rosamond is a stand-in for Chesterton’s wife Frances, as Syme is for Chesterton himself. It seems Chesterton met his wife in Bedford Park, which in the book becomes Saffron Park.
It’s evident that Syme is interested in Rosamond. She is the final vision of the book: “There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl.” I confess I have no idea what the “great unconscious gravity” is, but it’s a nice phrase. It’s amusing that a book about order and chaos and God and Nature ends as a love story. I do find it odd that Rosamond would be the sister of Lucien, whom Chesterton described bluntly as the only villain of the piece. But he is merely a poet with pretentions of anarchy before the dream, and only becomes a villain in the dream itself; perhaps that is the way to reconcile it.
The next twelve chapters are the main action of the book, and surprisingly, for all the talk of art and God and anarchy, suddenly it’s a hilarious page-turner. Lucien takes Syme to a meeting of the local Anarchists Council (and yes, there’s some irony to anarchists being so organized) on the promise that he won’t reveal anything to anyone. Just as they’re about to go in, Syme casually mentions, “I am a police detective.” But he reassures Lucien:
“Don’t you see we’ve checkmated each other?” cried Syme. “I can’t tell the police you are an anarchist. You can’t tell the anarchists I’m a policeman. I can only watch you, knowing what you are; you can only watch me, knowing what I am. In short, it’s a lonely, intellectual duel, my head against yours. I’m a policeman deprived of the help of the police. You, my poor fellow, are an anarchist deprived of the help of that law and organisation which is so essential to anarchy. The one solitary difference is in your favour. You are not surrounded by inquisitive policemen; I am surrounded by inquisitive anarchists. I cannot betray you, but I might betray myself.
These folks take their promises seriously, it seems. Suspend some disbelief.
What follows is a jolly good time as the six members of the Council, headed by the President, Sunday, find out one by one that they are all police detectives, recruited by a Philosophical Policeman and approved by a Man in a Dark Room, infiltrating an organization of anarchists where there are no actual anarchists. The wonderful motif of each member bringing out his blue card – received when accepted into the detective’s division and sent undercover – repeats over and over, until with the last reveal, one member exposed earlier shows how routine it’s become: “’Oh, don’t show it us,’ he said wearily; ‘we’ve got enough of them to equip a paper-chase.’”
One of the difficulties I had with the first couple of reads was keeping the six characters straight. They all have code names of the days of the week; then they have their common names, which may be fictitious, so some have real names as well. I ended up making a chart, albeit in text form, so I could remember that the Marquis is Wednesday but he’s actually Inspector Ratcliffe, and Professor de Worms is Friday though he’s really an actor named Wilkes who has been impersonating the actual German nihilist Prof. De Worms for so long, he’s regarded as the authentic one so his given name is never used.
I also included in this chart the physical oddities each member exhibited, a features Syme notes at the first meeting of the Council:
He had thought at first that they were all of common stature and costume, with the evident exception of the hairy Gogol. But as he looked at the others, he began to see in each of them exactly what he had seen in the man by the river, a demoniac detail somewhere. That lop-sided laugh, which would suddenly disfigure the fine face of his original guide, was typical of all these types. Each man had something about him, perceived perhaps at the tenth or twentieth glance, which was not normal, and which seemed hardly human. The only metaphor he could think of was this, that they all looked as men of fashion and presence would look, with the additional twist given in a false and curved mirror.
The Secretary has an uneven smile; Gogol is wildly hairy; Bull wears black glasses that give him a sinister cast; the Professor is extremely old and debilitated; the Marquis has exceptionally dark black hair. With the exception of the Secretary, all of these are disguises, but they are distinguishing characteristics that play into the revelation that each is a detective.
I also included in this chart the characters’ impressions of Sunday, the messages he tosses them as he leads them in a merry chase, and their last comments to him. I haven’t been able to construct any information from this data, but putting it together was helpful in distinguishing each person.
And oh, the chases! Three hilarious episodes, each one showing an escalation within, while the three scenes separately show an escalation of absurdity and urgency. When Lit101 professors talk about narrative drive, this is what they mean: you have to keep reading to see how each one turns out, then to see what happens next.
The first chase occurs after the first meeting at which Gogol was exposed as a detective by Sunday himself, leaving Syme (and, unknown to him, the others as well) relieved that he is still, for the moment, undetected. Syme goes to a pub and notices the ancient Professor is there, drinking a glass of milk. Syme is worried that Sunday may be having him followed, so he leaves and goes to a café, where… the Professor shows up again. Syme is surprised, since the man is so old (how can he get from place to place so fast?) but he did dawdle a bit, so he runs to yet another establishment – only to find the Professor joins him again! Now he dashes out in the snow, takes a roundabout route to an autobus, and guess who turns up. By the time Syme corners the old man in an alley, he’s convinced his life is in danger, but the Professor takes out his blue card…
The second chase is far more elaborate. I won’t even try to describe it except to say both the chasee and the chaser expand in numbers and transportation in a kind of arms race. It both begins and ends with the showing of a blue card, and the line between anarchists and detectives keeps switching back and forth, depending on who you’re asking and when you’re asking them. It’s delightful. And yet there’s thematic import as well, in the form of an antique lantern.
The third chase begins with the six confronting Sunday, who is still a mystery. Is he an anarchist? Does he know they are detectives? Just what is going on with this Anarchist Council that contains no anarchists? Sunday gives his first oration:
…“As far as I can make out, you want me to tell you what I am, and what you are, and what this table is, and what this Council is, and what this world is for all I know. Well, I will go so far as to rend the veil of one mystery. If you want to know what you are, you are a set of highly well-intentioned young jackasses.”
“And you,” said Syme, leaning forward, “what are you?”
“I? What am I?” roared the President, and he rose slowly to an incredible height, like some enormous wave about to arch above them and break. “You want to know what I am, do you? Bull, you are a man of science. Grub in the roots of those trees and find out the truth about them. Syme, you are a poet. Stare at those morning clouds. But I tell you this, that you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the top-most cloud before the truth about me. You will understand the sea, and I shall be still a riddle; you shall know what the stars are, and not know what I am. Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf—kings and sages, and poets and lawgivers, all the churches, and all the philosophies. But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay. I have given them a good run for their money, and I will now.”
…“There’s one thing I’ll tell you though about who I am. I am the man in the dark room, who made you all policemen.”
With this, Sunday hops over the balcony – no small feat for such a big man – and we have a chase that includes a cart, a fire truck, an elephant, and a hot-air balloon, all from which Sunday throws senseless messages for each detective. The chase ends in a field where an agent is waiting with six elegant carriages to take the anarchists-turned-detectives to a party at a large estate: “They had all become inured to things going roughly; but things suddenly going smoothly swamped them.”
This begins what I think of as the third part of the book. I wouldn’t say questions are answered, but the questions themselves clarify the purpose of it all. The detectives are given costumes representing the days of creation, and as the party winds down, the text turns reminiscent of the Book of Job. They confront Sunday with their complaints and he answers without answering. I’d just read a bit about Job a few weeks ago when I read Jack Miles’ God: A Biography, and the similarity struck me immediately; I was gratified to find out I wasn’t wrong. But it’s confusing; Chesterton has insisted that Sunday is not God, so who is this bombast talking to the philosophers, Job, and, eventually, Satan?
“We will eat and drink later,” he said. “Let us remain together a little, we who have loved each other so sadly, and have fought so long. I seem to remember only centuries of heroic war, in which you were always heroes—epic on epic, iliad on iliad, and you always brothers in arms. Whether it was but recently (for time is nothing), or at the beginning of the world, I sent you out to war. I sat in the darkness, where there is not any created thing, and to you I was only a voice commanding valour and an unnatural virtue. You heard the voice in the dark, and you never heard it again. The sun in heaven denied it, the earth and sky denied it, all human wisdom denied it. And when I met you in the daylight I denied it myself.”
Syme stirred sharply in his seat, but otherwise there was silence, and the incomprehensible went on.
“But you were men. You did not forget your secret honour, though the whole cosmos turned an engine of torture to tear it out of you. I knew how near you were to hell. I know how you, Thursday, crossed swords with King Satan, and how you, Wednesday, named me in the hour without hope.”
There was complete silence in the starlit garden, and then the black-browed Secretary, implacable, turned in his chair towards Sunday, and said in a harsh voice—
“Who and what are you?”
“I am the Sabbath,” said the other without moving. “I am the peace of God.”
The detectives have one last shot to speak. The Secretary is still angry; Gogol wants to know why he was hurt so badly, which strikes me as incredibly sweet and sad; and Syme just wants to know:
I do not feel fierce like that. I am grateful to you, not only for wine and hospitality here, but for many a fine scamper and free fight. But I should like to know. My soul and heart are as happy and quiet here as this old garden, but my reason is still crying out. I should like to know.”
I’m not sure how to read that. This is the poet, and the voice of reason? The human quest to understand that which is inexplicable? A pre-leap Kierkegaardian view, the attempt to justify faith through rationality? Or is he answered when he wakes and finds himself watching Rosamond gather lilacs? In any case, it’s an urge I sympathize with, as someone whose capacity for understanding is often not equal to the desire to understand.
Importantly, Lucien Gregory shows up. The title of this final chapter is “The Accuser” which I have discovered is a literal translation of “Satan.” He argues with God and with Syme, accusing all seven of never having suffered. Syme answers that – “We were complaining of unforgettable miseries even at the very moment when this man entered insolently to accuse us of happiness” – then asks Sunday, “Have you ever suffered?” Sunday has an answer for that: “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?” This was Jesus’ question to his disciples when they promised to be loyal, not realizing what a serious commitment that would be. This brings me back to the scene where Syme meets the Man in the Dark Room – who, it turns out, is Sunday – to apply for his position as detective of anarchy:
“Are you the new recruit?” said the invisible chief, who seemed to have heard all about it. “All right. You are engaged.”
Syme, quite swept off his feet, made a feeble fight against this irrevocable phrase.
“I really have no experience,” he began.
“No one has any experience,” said the other, “of the Battle of Armageddon.”
“But I am really unfit—”
“You are willing, that is enough,” said the unknown.
“Well, really,” said Syme, “I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.”
“I do,” said the other—“martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day.”
It’s an interesting answer to the question of suffering, one I’m not equipped to analyze beyond the obvious connections.
And then Syme wakes up, or rather comes to in Saffron Park in the morning: “He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.” Those of us who misspent our youth in Sunday schools recognize that ‘good news’ is the literal translation of ‘gospel.’ The phrase is used one other time in the text, when Bull gives his impression, as they all do in turn during the balloon chase, of his first meeting with Sunday:
“And somehow,” concluded Bull, “that’s why I can’t help liking old Sunday. No, it’s not an admiration of force, or any silly thing like that. There is a kind of gaiety in the thing, as if he were bursting with some good news. Haven’t you sometimes felt it on a spring day? You know Nature plays tricks, but somehow that day proves they are good-natured tricks. I never read the Bible myself, but that part they laugh at is literal truth, ‘Why leap ye, ye high hills?’ The hills do leap—at least, they try to…. Why do I like Sunday?… how can I tell you?… because he’s such a Bounder.”
One insignificant detail I found interesting is that reference to leaping hills. It turns out the KJV is the verse quoted here, but other translations use different verbs that convey the hills not leaping, but looking with envy on Jerusalem as the site of God’s temple, and the psalmist telling them to knock it off because that is what God wants. Maybe that’s a sign that Bull indeed doesn’t read the Bible (interesting though that he has that obscure verse ready) or maybe it’s just the traditional reading and I’m being a fussbudget.
Here, in this third and far more philosophical part of the book, I found I needed more help. It turns out there are many opinions. A lot of people teaching this as part of religious education stick to Sunday as God, though, let’s remind ourselves again, Chesterton said several times over a couple of decades that was not his intent (oh, yes, let’s keep in mind Death of the Author, shall we). I’ll admit, it makes the most sense to me, first, because of the entire Job scene: who else would argue with man and Satan about suffering? But I’m also interested in the idea of Sunday being seen as evil and foreboding from the back, but benevolent from the front. I keep thinking of that as having God’s back to one, that is, rejecting God, and finding evil in his absence.
But Martin Gardner has a different idea, one that I like as well, and obviously one from a far more educated place than I can claim. First he deals with the overall conflict, which I kept seeing as a world shifting from Order to Chaos (or what would seem like Chaos to those fond of the existing Order; it might seem like liberation to those who are oppressed by Order, hmmm?):
In Chesterton’s comic fantasy, which he calls on the title page “A Nightmare,” free will is symbolized by anarchism. Man’s freedom to do wicked things, as Augustine and so many other theologians of all faiths have said, is the price we pay for freedom. If our behavior were entirely determined by how our brain is wired by heredity and environment, then we would anymore mere autonomous automatons with no more genuine free will or self-awareness – two names for the same thing – than a vacuum cleaner. But we are not automatons. We have a knowledge of good and evil and of freedom to choose, within limits, of course, between the two.
Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Man Who Was Thursday
This is the argument for an external morality imposed by a Deity, or in other interpretations, Tradition, or Law. The view is that people are simply not capable of being moral on their own, and morality must come from somewhere else. We can play with the idea that deities, traditions, and laws are generated by people and become external over time (yes, as a Deist-leaning agnostic with persistent echoes of Christianity from a misspent youth as a fundamentalist and a more recently-developed fondness for certain aspects of Daoism and Buddhism, I’m more of the man-created-God school than the God-created-man one) or we can discard law and tradition and that leaves the Deity as the only source of morality.
Then Gardner goes in another interesting direction, the indifference of Nature, tempered by a loving Deity:
…And this takes us to the other deep mystery of Chesterton’s nightmare, the mystery of natural evil. Of course, this is no mystery for an atheist. It’s just the way the world is. But for a theist of any faith it is the most terrifying of all riddles. How can an all-powerful, benevolent God permit so much needless pain? As Gogol asks Sunday, like a small child questioning his mother, “I wish I knew why I was hurt so much.”
…The only possible way a theist can escape from the atheist’s charge – either God is malevolent or there is no God – is to view Nature as the back of reality. Beyond what Lord Dunsany liked to call “the fields we know” there is a larger, wholly other unseen realm. Logic cannot prove its existence, and science is helpless in efforts to penetrate it, but by a leap of faith we can escape despair by looking forward to a life beyond the grave where God will in some manner, utterly beyond our understanding, rectify the mad injustices of the fields we know. This is the great hope that glows at the heart of theism and at the core of Chesterton’s melodrama.
…Sunday, like Nature, has a front and a back side. From the back he resembles what Chesterton calls in The Uses Of Diversity (Chap. 9) a “semi-supernatural monster.” From the front he looks like an angel. Nature lavishes on us a thousand gifts that make us happy and grateful to be alive, yet the same nature can destroy entire cities with seemingly random earthquakes. It can drown us with floods, kill us with tornadoes and diseases. Ultimately it will execute us.
Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Man Who Was Thursday
I’m not 100% sure I understand what’s being claimed here, but the general drift intrigues me. What has always intrigued me is how hard theists work to make excuses for God. Or, more accurately, to justify their particular vision of God.
Gardner has some other interesting insights. One that puzzles me: he seems to think the party is a ‘dream within a dream.’ I don’t know how he gets that; it’s probably in the text somewhere, and maybe the seventh or eighth time I read it, I’ll find it.
One of his most delightful, if slightly off-topic, footnotes involves a sketch by Chesterton showing eight characters from Thursday.
He went to great pains to identify them, admitting “their appearances are not wholly consistent with their descriptions in the novel.” Apparently, if you have a first edition of Gardner’s book, this is all you get. Those of us who came late to the game get the following addition:
After writing the above note for this book first printing, I was informed by John Peterson that Tony Evans had concocted a playful hoax. Maisie Ward, in her book Return to Chesterton, opposite page 180, reproduced a sketch by GK that he had made of ten imaginary suitors seeking the hand of a young woman he knew. Evans removed two of the men, then rearranged the remaining eight to resemble characters from Thursday!
Martin Gardner, footnote, The Man Who Was Thursday
I love that he includes his original comments with this explanation/retraction rather than just eliminating it all from future editions. As to the original hoax, I’m still not sure of the extent of the foul, but it seems pretty foul to me.
It’s time for me to move on, at least for now. I’ve probably spent more time, page for page, on this book than any other that I’ve posted about here (and it was worth every minute). I spent months on Don Quixote, ditto with Dante, and quite a while on Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, but those were much longer books to begin with. I might have come close with Jo Walton’s Lent, but again, that was longer.
I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of narrative, humor, and thought that was involved here. I still have some things to figure out, but when I run across references in the future, I’ll come back and, I hope, come closer to understanding the book.
She kept trying to argue that the other novels lacked the qualities that characterized a work of literature: “depth, beauty, structural integrity, and an ability to revive our tired imaginations with the precision of its language”.
The poor woman didn’t seem to realize that what counted in the adult world was working out compromises between actual members of a committee that reflected the forces at work in the wider society, like Parliament in relation to the nation as a whole. Vanessa had taken on the role of a doomed backbencher, making speeches to an empty chamber about values that simply had no place in the modern world.
The Booker Prize seems to have thrived on controversy for quite a while. As I read the list of the dozen biggest oopsies provided by The Daily Beast, I recognized quite a few missteps that St. Aubyn has included in this comic novel about the fictional Elysian Prize: the origins of the prize in an industry of less-than-ethical origins, last minute decisions changed in the last quarter-minute, a long-list book criticized for vulgarity, judges who don’t bother to read the submitted books at all, a book that was viewed as not really a novel at all, a leaked result, a short list criticized as “too readable.” Not to mention the infighting and politicking that’s taken for granted in any high-end competition. Whether or not the bedhopping St. Aubyn sprinkles into the Elysian story happens IRL is … no, not gonna go there.
If you read the Goodreads reviews, you’ll find a lot of disappointed readers. Some dismiss it as a formulaic romp with standard characters, or as toothless satire. Most point out that St. Aubyn’s prior works were far more substantial; more literary, if you will. Life imitates art indeed; it reads very much like comments characters make about the books up for the Elysian Prize. Those Goodreads criticisms may be deserved: Is it Literature? On a par with St. Aubyn’s earlier works? How would I know – I doubt it, but it was fun to read, and I’m not in the business of awarding prizes for literary merit so let me have a good time.
I’ll agree that it’s formulaic. The ensemble book – let’s follow a group of graduates, work colleagues, kids who grew up together, club members, whatever – always features a variety of characters different enough to be instantly recognizable and associated with expected viewpoints. Each one gets a quirk or two in some other aspect of their lives – family, libido, career – to round them out a bit.
Here, we have two such ensembles: the Elysian Prize judges, and writers who have some connection to the prize, either as nominees or wannabes. These ensembles intermix in various ways and push the story of one year’s Elysian prize forward, from submission, to Long List, to Short List, to the Awards Dinner, via the narrative question, Who will win? It’s not just a question of which writer will win, but which judge, as well.
St. Aubyn has admitted in interviews that Sam Black is his doppelganger: a writer torn by the twin forks of doubt and urgency:
He marveled at the speed with which elation had turned into anxiety. Ever since he had found that The Frozen Torrent was on the Long List, he had been torn between a superstitious need to avoid anticipating any further success, and a neurotic need to plan, in case further success came his way….
One thing was clear: he was going to have to drop the topic of art. In England, art was much less likely to be mentioned in polite society then sexual perversions or methods of torture; the word ‘elitist’ could be spat out with the same confident contempt as ‘coward’ at a court martial.
He’s written the most literary book under consideration, and is championed by Vanessa, an Oxbridge academic who defends Literature and dismisses everything else. And she has a lot to dismiss: a cookbook that, unknown to the judges, was submitted by mistake; a thriller about Enigma (that seems to resemble The Imitation Game); a historical novel about Shakespeare (that reminds me of Shakespeare in Love); and a book in vulgar Scottish vernacular (modeled after, I’m guessing, Trainspotting, from what I read in the Daily Beast article), favored by the committee chairman, a politician who lost a post in Scotland some years before when he made an ill-timed remark.
Yes, all of that is great fun, but there is substance here in the form of discussions on literature, and the role of literary prizes. I’ll grant that the opinions of these characters aren’t new or particularly incisive, but they sum up, in a captivating way, different ways of considering what it is we read, and why we read it. And it’s quite possible that not everyone who might read this book has spent a lot of time studying literary criticism.
Malcolm, the chairman who favors the Scottish books, seems to consider the purpose of the prize as financial and sociopolitical:
“We have eighty thousand pounds at our disposal, as well as the promise of several hundred thousand pounds which the winner can expect to earn over the next few years, and to me it’s of paramount importance that the money goes to someone who really needs it.”
….“We want to take the marginalized, and the politically repressed voices from the periphery,” said Malcolm, ignoring the spat between the ladies, “from what we might call the Outer Hebrides of the literary scene, and bring them center stage. Now, as we know, there are a lot of vested interests that have got used to the idea that the literary scene belongs to them, and when we reclaim it for the ordinary readers of this country, let’s not pretend they’re going to thank us for it.”
How much discussion of literature today revolves around marginalized and suppressed voices? And how often does this lead to accusations of reverse racism by, shall we say, one of the most widely published (white) writers in the world? But look again: That Malcolm stands to benefit from his pick winning by perhaps getting another chance at his post in Edinburgh is the not-terribly-subtle subtext of his advocacy. Be forewarned: no matter how much you agree with a character’s opinion, there’s something about them you’ll find less agreeable.
Vanessa Shaw, the Oxbridge academic, seems to have a rather sterile view of what makes a novel literature, until we see her fretting because her anorexic daughter has asked her to edit an essay for a pro-anorexia website:
She felt a violent desire to tear the bird feeder off its branch, and then she realized she was thinking of King Lear after Cordelia’s death. Why should a bird have life when Poppy…
And then she found herself wondering why any book should win this fucking prize she had become involved with unless it had a chance of doing what had just happened: coming back to a person when she wanted to cry but couldn’t, or wanted to think but couldn’t think clearly, or wanted to laugh but saw no reason to.
Isn’t this why classics become classics? From Odysseus’ long journey home, to Othello’s self-destructive jealousy, to Celie’s recapturing of hope, aren’t these moments what we remember, and keep for use when we need them ourselves? Would a police procedural with a feisty heroine comfort us in our despair or remind us to keep our eyes on the prize?
As for those genre novels: Penny, in the process of writing the second of a trilogy of spy thrillers, is more interested in realism and authentic details: “[A]part from anything else, one actually learned something from such a well-researched book, which was more than could be said of the neurotic musings of a lot of writers stuck at home, reading, writing, and thinking about literature. Why didn’t they get out and do something for a change?” How many times have I said how much I love a book that teaches me something? It was a bit alarming to see that sentiment here, in this character who uses an app called Ghost Writer to generate sentences for her genre novels. But it holds.
Tobias, a popular actor now touring in “a hip-hop version of Waiting for Godot” (wouldn’t you love to see about twenty minutes of that?), who rarely shows up for meetings and hasn’t read anything, makes a point as well when he praises the transgressive novel as “a welcome change from a novel about a failing marriage in Hampstead…” And again, how many times have I sneered at domestic realism and proposed the BASS Bingo Card including “a sensitive tale of a decaying marriage”? As with Penny, I’m a bit embarrassed to see myself reflected in Tobias, who clearly has little interest in literature beyond the roles it provides him.
And then there’s Auntie, whose privately published Indian cookbook was accidentally submitted instead of the literary novel that was supposed to win it all. Auntie, as elitist as she is around the heritage of her Indian family (descended from Krishna himself), keeps insisting it’s a cookbook – and she didn’t even write it, as she explains to the agent (John Elton – really? REALLY? I just learned the other day, via Jeopardy!, that when Elton John was knighted by the Queen, the Lord who announced him reversed his name) who’s considering buying the publishing rights for the UK if he can present it in the right way:
“I simply sent my secretary to ask our old cook in Badanpur, who naturally can’t write, to recite the recipes that have been passed down through the generations.”
John Elton let out a gust of confident laughter, as if he were starring in an advertisement for a new mouthwash. There was no doubt that Auntie’s supercilious manner would have to be carefully managed. Just as Magritte hid his surrealism under the uniform of the Belgian Bourgeoisie, India’s Laurence Sterne takes a mischievous pleasure in playing the grand dame. She appears to get her secretary to “write” a “cookbook” in order to challenge our expectations about the nature of authorship – something like that might work.
“I hope you can keep this up in the interviews,” he said. “It’s superb: the illiteracy that engenders literature; the rhetoric that denies rhetoric; ‘I will a round unvarnished tale deliver, as Othello says, before speaking some of the most beautiful English ever written. And the narrative frames: the secretary who interviews the cook – the man on the quayside who knows a story about the Congo; the man on the coach who could tell you a tale about the Caucasus. Superb!”
“I’m not following you,” said Auntie, irritably.
And for the third time I’m embarrassed: Elton’s bullshit interpretation is right up my alley. I’m always intrigued by the ongoing issue of authorial intent (and yes, “Death of the Author” is mentioned in the book): just because Auntie says it’s a cookbook, does that mean it is one? Do I, veteran of so many cooking competitions that refer to a meal as a story, to cuisine as culture, agree with Jo, the columnist who defends the choice against Oxbridge’s dismissal:
In any case, Jo turned out to have an impressive command of all the right jargon.
“I’m surprised that you don’t recognize its qualities,” she said to Vanessa. “You claim to be an expert on contemporary fiction and yet, faced with a ludic, postmodern, multi-media masterpiece, you naively deny that it’s a novel at all.”
“It’s not a novel,” said Vanessa, “it’s a cookbook. It’s called The Palace Cookbook because it’s a cookbook.” She let out a growl of childish fury.
“It tells the story of a family,” said Jo, admirably calm under fire, “through cooking. What could be more universal, after all, then the language of food?”
“Inuit, Catalan, Gaelic, any fucking language,” said Vanessa, “because food isn’t a language, it’s something you you eat.”
Or am I going to side with Vanessa, who, remember, knows something about anorexia, which is a pretty dramatic way of using food to communicate? Don’t tell me this novel is fluff. It may rely on commonplaces, but it has some hidden corners where treasures are tucked.
Towards the end, we meet Mr. Wo. He’s just purchased the Elysian company, inheriting the Prize sponsorship in the deal. When asked about his view of the purpose of the Prize, he speaks what just might be the truest truth about the absurdity of big literary prizes.
“It’s a prize for literature,” said Mr. Wo. “I hope it will go in the direction of literature. My wife takes a great interest in these things. Personally, I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize,” Mr. Wo couldn’t help laughing.
Jo didn’t know where to begin. She disagreed with everything that Mr. Wo had said, as well as with the assumptions behind everything he had said, but she was temporarily paralyzed by the abundance of potential targets.
Is a literary competition about art, and thus nonsensical? Or is it about something else: craft, maybe, or catching the public imagination, or making a point in a way that stands a chance of being heard? Is it about supporting writers on the way up, about rewarding those who’ve consistently done great work? If the judges aren’t trained in literary arts, just what is it they’re judging?
The cover of the book – at least the edition I got – includes a little jest as well. A gold disc encompassing the words “A Novel” is similar to those emblems declaring a book to have won a Pulitzer or some other prize.
So my apologies to those who were disappointed with this book because it wasn’t more like St. Aubry’s more literary books. I use a Whitman quote on my Twitter profile: “And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else.” It’s not a Booker-winning book (St. Aubry was on the short list for one of his more literary novels, but didn’t win). It’s familiar rather than innovative. It’s fun rather than profound. And every once in a while it works in something thought-provoking. I loved it for what it was.
Another question I’ve been regularly asked over the past year is what models I had in mind when writing Curious Incident. Was it To Kill a Mockingbird? Was it Catcher in the Rye?
In fact, the book most often in my mind was Pride and Prejudice.
Jane Austen was writing about boring people with desperately limited lives…. Her heroines were bound by iron rules about what they could do, where they could go and what they could say. Their futures depended on the single question of who they would marry. Was it going to be the baronet? Or were they going to fall for a cad in tight red trousers and be discarded in a boarding house in Bath?
Yet Jane Austen writes about these humdrum lives with such empathy that they seem endlessly fascinating. And her first act of empathy is to write about them in the kind of book these woman would themselves read – the romantic novel.
This was what I was trying to do in Curious Incident. To take a life that seemed horribly constrained, to write about it in the kind of book that the hero would read – a murder mystery – and hopefully show that if you viewed this life with sufficient imagination it would seem infinite.
I read this book back when it was first released, nearly twenty years ago, to a flurry of praise. I don’t really remember my impressions, other than I loved the opening, lost interest during the train ride, but loved it again at the end. This reading was very different, which is why I’ve included several re-reads in these In-Between periods. Not only have I become a better reader, but what interests me has also changed. Expanded, I believe. It’s a wonderful book, and I was delighted, and still am, that it became so popular.
One of the better-reader things that stood out to me this time around was the self-reflexive nature of the book; that is, the book is written by the character Christopher. Obviously there was an author who exists in our reality, but it’s a great way to emphasize, even beyond the first-person narration, that this is all through Christopher’s point of view. I always wonder when I read first-person: why is the narrator telling this story now? That’s not often answered; here, it’s part of the story. And not just a minor part: Christopher’s losing the book, and looking for it, kicks the primary conflict into high gear and generates the rest of the book.
Not just that, but he discusses how he’s writing while he’s writing. For instance, he wants to write about a proof he has to do for his math exam. His teacher (or social worker, her precise role isn’t clear) Siobhan mentions that some readers won’t be interested in that kind of thing so he should put it in an appendix, and sure enough, there’s an appendix with the proof. Again, it’s part of the story, and emphasizes that this is Christopher’s book.
I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can’t tell lies.
…. A lie is when you say something happened which didn’t happen. But there is only ever one thing which happened at a particular time and a particular place. And there are an infinite number of things which didn’t happen catch that time and that place. And if I think about something which didn’t happen I started thinking about all the other things which didn’t happen.
For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milkshake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea I start thinking about Coco Pops and lemonade and porridge and Doctor Pepper and how I wasn’t eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room and father wasn’t wearing a diving suit and so on and even writing this makes me feel shaky and scared, like I do when I’m standing on top of a very tall building and there are thousands of houses and cars and people below me and my head is so full of all these things that I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to stand up straight and hang on to the rail and I’m going to fall over and be killed.
This is another reason why I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.
And this is why everything I have written here is true.
Christopher has a unique point of view and distinctive voice. Although no diagnosis is given in the book, it’s fair to say he’s somewhere on the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum. Haddon has remarked in interviews that he’d just as soon not get into specifics, but let the character have, as he mentions above, certain constraints. Through the course of the book, he finds ways around some of them. Like lying: he discovers the white lie, which he defines as not telling the whole truth, and doesn’t count it as a lie.
Another technique I might not have recognized the first time around was that many of Christopher’s digressions – or what seem like digressions – are thematically related to some part of the story. For example, he’s writing about his memory, which is extraordinarily detailed for most events from his life:
My memory is like a film. That is why I am really good at remembering things, like the conversations I have written down in this book, and what people were wearing, and what they smelled like, because my memory has a smell track which is like a soundtrack.
And when people ask me to remember something I can simply press Rewind and Fast Forward and Pause like on a video recorder, but more like a DVD player because I don’t have to rewind through everything in between to get to a memory of something along time ago. And there are no buttons, either, because it is happening in my head.
If someone says to me, “Christopher, tell me what your mother was like,” I can rewind to lots of different scenes and say what she was like in those scenes.
At this point he demonstrates his detailed recall and remembers a particular date and time. He was with his mother at the beach, and she dove under the water; he was afraid she’d been eaten by a shark but she came back up and comforted him. Christopher was told some time ago that his mother was dead; he might not be able to say, “I miss my mom” or cry, do, or say the things many fifteen-year-olds might do when their mother dies, but this conveys the same sense of loss and love.
And father said, ‘Christopher, do you know that I love you?”
And I said “Yes,” because loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble, and looking after them, and telling them the truth, and Father looks after me when I get into trouble, like coming to the police station, and he looks after me by cooking meals for me, and he always tells me the truth, which means that he loves me.
And then he held up his right hand and spread his fingers out in a fan and I held up my left hand and spread my fingers out in a fan and we made our fingers and thumbs touch each other.
This hand-touching is a substitute for hugging, which bothers Christopher. Again, it’s how he and his family have worked around a constraint. But what stood out to me here is his definition of his father’s love; this becomes crucial later when he discovers his father has indeed lied to him, and about something monumental.
I happened to be on a bus while reading the beginning of Christopher’s train ride. It was an unusually rough ride: the 9am bus never showed, so the 9:30 had more riders than usual. One explained the prior bus had an accident, so there was a lot of nervous excitement; one woman in particular was quite anxious, and it was contagious. All this as I read about Christopher’s anxiety in the train station. I could identify strongly with his confusion regarding the signs all blending together, people and noises; it was uncomfortable, but fascinating in retrospect.
I was aware that the novel had been adapted into a highly successful play. Since so much of it takes place in Christopher’s head, I wondered how that would work. I found some clips on YouTube; it’s almost film-like, and maintains his point of view while blending thought and action. No wonder it won so many awards.
I had no recollection of the ending of the book from my prior read. That’s surprising, because it’s beautiful:
And I went to a bookshop with Mother and I bought a book called Further Maths for A Level and Father told Mrs. Gascoyne that I was going to take A-level Further Maths next year and she said “OK.”
And I am going to pass it and get an A grade. And in two years’ time I am going to take A-level Physics and get an A grade.
And then, when I’ve done that, I am going to go to university in another town. And it doesn’t have to be in London because I don’t like London and there are universities in lots of places and not all of them are in big cities. And I can live in a flat with a garden and a proper toilet. And I can take Sandy and my books and my computer.
And then I will get a First Class Honors degree and I will become a scientist.
And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.
This way of packing Christopher’s just-the-facts voice with emotional content is brilliant. At no point does he get sentimental; he just writes down what he’s going to do, and wraps it up with what he did. He shows us he can do anything. Maybe not in the way readers would do it, maybe not in conventional or easy ways, but he will get around his constraints to get where he wants to be, one way or another.
I knew I loved this book twenty years ago; now I better understand why.
One thing I wanted to raise is that generally, when we interact with technology, we provide a lot of data about ourselves. And we do it without really thinking because it makes our lives more convenient. And then at a certain point, it’s almost like, there’s no way you could go about your days without Google Maps and without Amazon and without Netflix. In terms of online dating with the world that I created, online dating is really driven by data and algorithms and all that.
Because romance is so essential, finding your significant other is so essential to our conceptions of what we want our lives to be. And in order to have the best match possible, you actually want to get out as much data as you can about yourself to get a more accurate result. I don’t want to say that it’s like, definitely bad or good, but I do think it’s something worth thinking about in terms of what we put out there and what we get out of it.
Jane Pek, interview with Angela Qian at Hyphen Magazine
I became a Jane Pek fan when I read her two BASS stories – one in 2020 and one in 2021 – presenting female characters from Chinese mythology in a more positive light than the original tales held them. When I found out her debut novel was a mystery involving computer matchmaking, I was… ok, yeah, I’ll admit it, a little disappointed. But in the end, I went with my faith in her ability to weave story lines together and keep me reading. And guess what – faith works.
The book features Claudia Lin, verifier for a secretive company that checks out whether the person you’re chatting with on a computer dating site is telling the truth. A client has some unusual requests, which leads to several mysteries. I’m being obscure here because the pace of revelation is part of the pleasure of the book; Pek resolves one question only to raise another and keep us curious about what’s going on. Those who want more details can find plenty of reviews (I’ve never considered these posts reviews; I have no training for reviewing. I’m instead recording my reading experience so I can remember what was important to me years later) that provide a bit more without being spoilers.
At my verifier interview, when Komla explained what Veracity did and I said, maybe with a tad too much enthusiasm, “Like a detective agency?”, he looked faintly perturbed – which, I’ve come to realize with Komla Atsina, possibly meant he was one wrist flick away from consigning my résumé to the shred file. That man is harder to read than Finnegans Wake. A detective agency might seem like an obvious parallel, he said, but he tried to dissuade clients from viewing Veracity as such. The verifiers didn’t solve crimes, and they didn’t intervene in the course of events beyond reporting their findings to their clients. Think of us, he said, as a personal investment advisory firm.
A month into the job, it’s obvious to me that all our clients think of us as a detective agency.
I should make a confession here about one of my guilty pleasures: back in the 80s, 90s, into the aughts, I frequently read a small group of murder mystery series writers. It was mostly the hook on top of the mystery that got me interested: Jonathan Kellerman’s psychological and medical settings, Faye Kellerman’s exploration of Orthodox Judaism in contemporary life, Stephen White’s humor (which he dropped after the first two books, but thankfully resurrected later with an entry that had me giggling throughout) and psychological insight, Patricia Cornwell’s detailed explanations of the science used in postmortem exams and crime scene analysis (pre-CSI, by the way). But even the best series gets old after a while, or takes a wrong turn; I lost interest in them and never found replacements. Then I started reading literary short fiction seriously, and blogging, and taking moocs, and left the mysteries behind. Literally – they (along with other casual fiction) are stashed on a bottom shelf of the bookcase behind my bed, so they’re the last thing anyone looking at my books will find. One of these days I may post about them, just to atone for that.
So in a way, reading The Verifiers was nostalgic, a trip back in time. But better. Because even though the tone has a crisp factual modernity rather than the smooth emotive romanticism of her short fiction, I still love how Pek writes.
She does a lot with this book while keeping the mystery front and center. For example, a minor character is a writer. “Lionel writes the kind of story you read in The New Yorker, where nothing happens but the characters are all thrumming with anguish.” I read that passage within a few days of posting about Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child, about which I’d written, “a self-obsessed man basically muses about how miserable his life is for the first 100 of 400 pages. Then something happens, and we get some crucial story, but it’s back to 50 pages of navel-gazing and description before anything else happens.” (In my – and Murdoch’s – defense, I did find some academic papers that gave me a better understanding of all that nothing-happening).
Lionel isn’t having a good time of it: “The writer’s life, going by Lionel’s example, is a hamster wheel of submission and rejection. He’s told me he has an email folder labeled Dreamcrushers, where he archives all the rejection notes he has ever received.” Well, sure, even I have one of those. But it’s a kick to see how she works this into the overall story.
Lionel and Claudia tease each other about the stock phrases so many book reviewers use; “beautifully written,” “gorgeous sentences.” As it happens, I made a proposal years ago to my blogging buddy Jake Weber:
I keep thinking about the drinking game – take a shot every time someone… writes a sensitive coming-of-age scene with an age/race gap? Or eloquently portrays the end of a marriage? Nah…I don’t know, there’s something out there. Unnamed first person narrator. Unnamed third person protagonist (“the boy” or “the woman” – man, I hate that). Drawing blanks here, but I’m sure there’s a drinking game in there somewhere.
Me, in an email to Jake Weber
Every once in a while we still refer to it in one of our posts – in fact, Jake just gave me such a shoutout (“Karen! The drinking game begins with the first story!”) when he recently began his read/blog of BASS 2021. One of the reasons I so enjoyed this book was that it fit into my life so well.
Then there’s a wonderfully sly reference to writing in a scene at a Halloween party. She’s introduced to Rina, and they begin one of those conversations that in subtle ways has them both figuring out if they’re interested in each other. Claudia picks up on something:
That tangents us into a discussion of buttermilk versus ricotta, fluffy versus chewy, toppings versus fillings, and where to find the best pancakes in New York. Rena stakes all nine of her cat lives on a breakfast-only restaurant in Harlem called the Fitz. “When I lived up there I went every weekend,” she says. “I was on a mission to get through their entire menu.”
There’s a slight hitch in the rhythm of her statement, as if, maybe, she had been about to say when we lived up there. Now I get it. The Very Recently Single And Unhappy About It. Not any kind of situation I’d want to insert myself into; I’d be like the chapter in a novel that the author clearly wrote because their editor told them it needed some sort of transition between Exciting Event A and Exciting Event B.
What makes this particularly sly is that it’s in a transition section between one exciting event and another, between one discovery about character related to the murder and her confrontation with him. I just want to jump up and down and say, “I see what you did there!” That’s something I saw in one of her stories as well: she sneaks in Easter eggs everywhere, and I’m probably only noticing a fraction of them. And I just found another while writing this post: Claudia was recruited to Veracity via an online mystery game, which brings to mind the crossword puzzle used in the film The Imitation Game to recruit cryptography staff (a fictional technique, as it turns out).
She brings in literary references as well, channeling Chaucer’s Wife of Bath with advice on timing of romantic advances, and mentioning Jane Austen and Henry James. She has a lot of fun with Inspector Yuan mysteries, a (fictitious) detective from a mystery series set in the Ming dynasty. She recalls his techniques as she tries to solve the murder of a client. Sometimes they help her (“Right then it comes to me that I’m in the information-asymmetry scene in every Inspector Yuan novel where one out-of-the-loop character keeps asking questions so everyone else can reveal important information in a vaguely naturalistic way”); sometimes it’s more like “How come Inspector Yuan never had to worry about this?” That information-asymmetry is a real thing, by the way, from, of all things, economics.
One of the more emotional stir-ins concerns Claudia’s family, which has some psychodynamic similarities to the family of the woman whose murder she’s investigating. There’s an incredibly touching scene late in the book as she realizes her brother Charles had been fighting his own demons all along. He tells her he’s always acted in whatever way was expected, to prove to their mother that he was “an asset, not a liability” out of fear that she might escape with Claudia and leave him behind:
My brother loves me, I’m sure he does. I’ve felt it any number of times. When we are in his car and he brakes suddenly, he will fling his arm across the passenger seat like seatbelts are a scam and I’ll crash-dummy out through the windshield otherwise. Every time I’ve asked for help he showed up, making sure to nag me halfway to hell. But: what he said to me while we were driving through the hushed, late-night Queens, Symposium a melancholy sweetness through the speakers. You become something if you act that way for long enough. Maybe that’s the truth of why my brother loves me. And it might have made him a better version of the person he would have been otherwise, but the fact that he felt he had no choice but to be that way – it hollows everything out.
This leads Claudia to understand more about the key element in the mystery. But what strikes me is: This idea of becoming what you practice is straight out of Confucius. One of his most famous quotes is how he started to study at age 15, and by the time he was 80, he could act morally because he’d been practicing all his life and no longer wanted to act any other way. I’m no expert on Confucius, but Harvard’s Michael Puett is, and in his mooc “The Path to Happiness: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches Us About the Good Life” he says, “For Confucius, a ritual, in other words, is not a habit. It’s what breaks us from our habits and begins the possibility for us to become good….The ritual forces you to become a different person.” (This is also closely related to the Twelve-Step mantra, “Fake it ’til you make it.”) Claudia mentions Confucius a few times, and it turns out this is one key to understanding the motives behind the overall mystery: how to be our most authentic selves in order to connect with our best romantic partner.
I’m also impressed by what Pek doesn’t do.
I didn’t want this novel to be about what it means to be gay or what it means to be Asian, or what it means to be a gay Asian. It’s just the fact that Claudia is both gay and Asian, and she’s living her life in New York. There are some ways the world is shaped by those traits of hers, but there isn’t a deep dive into what either of those two things mean….I just wanted that to be part of the character, the same as how she works as an online-dating detective and she likes cycling and she likes reading mysteries.
Jane Pek, interview with Angela Qian at Hyphen Magazine
She doesn’t ignore those details – part of the tension of the family scenes comes from her not having told her mother she’s gay, and she both resents and uses the assumptions so often made about any “soft-spoken petite Asian female,” sometimes kicking back against it, sometimes allowing it to shield her from unwelcome scrutiny when she’s trying to fly under the radar. And, as I just mentioned, there’s Confucius. But it’s all presented as who Claudia is, not as a key to her conflicts or as any part of the mystery.
There’s a more technical aspect I’m wondering about, having to do more with stylistics than with content. More than halfway through the book, I tripped over this passage:
“Wait,” he says. “I… There’s something I would like to do for her.”
“The story she was working on. She thought it was about something important.” He sighs. “Enough to get back in touch with me.” He would like to complete it for her and have it published posthumously under her name. “Will you help me with that?”
And now I feel like an ass.
It strikes me as odd that in the third paragraph here, the discourse changes from direct speech to indirect speech (I’m a little hazy on the terminology, so forgive me – and please correct me – if I’ve got it wrong). That is, there’s a sentence in quotes, a sentence as narration, and a sentence in quotes. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it strikes me as unusual, particularly with single, fairly short sentences. I would normally think of this as being used to compress an idea that might be complicated to express in speech. But here, it would be just as simple to have the indirect sentence as “I would like to complete it…” and keep all three sentences in a single quote block.
This stuck with me so strongly, I went back after I finished the book to see if I’d overlooked other instances. I found a few other similar passages, but they had other elements that made the switching less unusual: an attribution, an explanation that required narration, and different position. I even re-read Pek’s short stories from BASS to see if this was just a writer’s quirk, but didn’t find much; those stories were in past tense and had less dialog, and in one, the dialog was presented as italics, so it was harder to figure out.
Maybe it’s insane to obsess about 45 words out of a 350-page book, but is there some reason for the switch? I wonder if it’s meant to trip up the reader, cause us to slow down and pay attention, but I don’t really think so; it’s no more crucial than dozens of other spots. It also occurred to me it could be an editing artefact: a longer passage was cut down, but the quote structure wasn’t changed. That would be highly unusual for a fairly high-end publisher and a meticulous writer. Maybe it’s just how Pek hears it as she writes, the way I start a lot of sentences with conjunctions (yes, I know, that makes them incomplete sentences and when writing more formally I edit them out, but it’s how I hear what I’m writing).
As for the central mystery, I have to admit being less than horrified at the “oh, so that’s what’s going on” moment. It’s hard to discuss without revealing way too much, but I have a feeling my lack of concern reveals more about me than it does about the book – which is a really interesting point, by the way. I’m not sure if I’m particularly cynical about the standards being violated, or if I just have a pessimistic view of reality and feel less threatened by the irregularities. This all goes back to the interview quote I opened with: how do we evaluate what we put out there, and what we get from it – as well as what the risks are, particularly given the unstable political environment we find ourselves in. I’ve pretty much decided we’re doomed (by several present threats), but I’m old enough to not have to worry about it for that much longer.
The very ending of the novel is wonderful, bringing both a sense of resolution, and of the future. There’s an even that could be setup for what could be another mystery; Claudia, at home with her family for Christmas, texts her colleague, now partner in detecting, who warns her to stand down. Then she gets another text:
And this time if you do anything stupid, God help me, I am going to kiss you. *KILL YOU. Fucking predictive text. I mean: I am going to kill you.
One thing happens and then another. Maybe all of it means nothing, or maybe everything has already changed and the question is what happens next. I type my reply and hit send. Suddenly I can’t wait to find out.
What a great ending for this particular book! Autotext is frequently hilarious; switching kill to kiss would seem to be benign, but it’s followed by the all caps correction KILL YOU which is a lot less benign, and then the question of attraction is subtly sprinkled into the mix, completely accidentally. And of course it could, but doesn’t have to, serve as a springboard for another book – or just a reference point in a second book, linking it back to this one. Such a smart ending.
I’m quite delighted with the book. Sure, I would’ve liked more Chinese mythology, but I can see where that could get old, too, and as Pek writes it, this is not just another mystery. She’s mentioned in interviews that she’s working on something new, and isn’t saying what, but the idea of continuing with Claudia is something she’s considering. Will I be adding a new mystery series? Or finding something completely different? And suddenly, I can’t wait to find out, either.
At the heart of Murdoch’s moral vision is what she calls “unselfing,” something surely worth revisiting in the age of the selfie. As one might guess, this amounts to finding a way out of the claustrophobia of our self-regard by answering a call from outside…. For Murdoch, the life worth leading is a life that leads to others, to a beyond, to an other. The moral self is pierced, porous, opened.
This vision of unselfing is related to a second central theme in her work, something she appropriated from Simone Weil: the moral significance of attention. “If loving attention is bestowed on others,” Browning summarizes, “then the self is changed.” By attending to the world, to something outside of the self, the self is pulled outward, stretched, grows. Attention, as Murdoch describes it, is “a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.” And it is this, she says, that is the distinguishing mark of a “moral agent”—not will or intellect but the capacity to attend, to notice, which is its own kind of love.
James K. A. Smith: “The moral vision of Iris Murdoch” available online at America Magazine
I had a bad experience with Iris Murdoch in college. Or, rather, with her novel, The Severed Head. I don’t think I read more than 20 pages of it, but that was enough to hate it.
But Murdoch has been coming at me for the past couple of years, both as a philosopher and a novelist. I began to feel a little guilty about not reading the book, and thought, hey, she wrote 27 books, maybe I’ll like one of the others. Out of the group FiveBooks recommended, this one sounded the most interesting.
I finished it, but wasn’t terribly happy along the way: a self-obsessed man basically muses about how miserable his life is for the first 100 of 400 pages. Then something happens, and we get some crucial story, but it’s back to 50 pages of navel-gazing and description before anything else happens. I guess I’m just not a Murdoch fan. So I did what I do when I’m stuck: I consulted other sources, which, fortunately when it comes to Murdoch, are plentiful.
Interestingly, I found reading about the novel, and reading about Murdoch’s philosophy, to be fascinating. This is a problem I have: I prefer learning about to doing; in this case, I preferred reading about to reading. I suspect that’s why I was so fascinated: the particular philosophical particle at work here is unselfing, a technique Hilary sorely needed, and indeed perhaps makes some headway with, in the closing pages.
Let’s start with a basic outline of the story: Hilary Burde starts off life pretty badly, a veritable Oliver Twist of the 20th century. Miraculously, a teacher recognizes he had a talent for languages; he becomes a polyglot, setting him on course to an Oxford education and position. Hence the title: “I was not, except in some very broken-down sense of that ambiguous term, a love child. I was a word child….” Alas, he gets involved with the wife of his boss, and she ends up dead while trying to break it off. That’s the end of Oxford, the end of pretty much anything enjoyable, for Hilary; he spends the next twenty years making himself miserable.
He becomes a low-level civil servant in London. His sister – half-sister, as it turns out, Mom got around and didn’t keep track of fathers – accompanies him; they have some strange entangled relationship, which he insists, somewhat convincingly, is not at all incestuous. And now, twenty years later, the man he cuckolded, having left Oxford and dabbled in politics and government, is coming to London to be, again, his boss. And bringing his second wife. Guess what happens next… It’s a mark of Hilary’s moral growth that he doesn’t bang #2, even turns down her pleas for same. She dies in his presence anyway. The result is some surprising moral growth for Hilary.
A few days ago my blogging buddy Jake mentioned how delighted he was with a story “full of symbolic grist,” so I recommended this to him, where it turns out everything is symbolic: Big Ben, water, weather, the Circle Line, staircases, animals, food… let me repeat, I would not have gotten very far with this book had there not been a great deal of analysis floating about, pointing out all these symbols; I was too irritated to notice most of them.
Three articles in particular – two academic papers and one intellectual magazine piece – provided real insight into what I was reading and made it worthwhile, even for me.
The First Paper
In “The Misfortunes of a Word-Watcher: A Reading of Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child” Layla Raïd traces Murdoch’s philosophical interactions with Wittgenstein, the similarities and differences in their outlooks. She compares Wittgenstein’s transition from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where words are viewed as Hilary saw words in his early life, to the Philosophical Investigations, where words are seen in the context of their use. She compares this to Murdoch’s Hilary finding survival (escape from the orphanage and poverty, an academic career), but not salvation, in his early life as a Word Child; salvation came later (if it came at all) when he faced the messy realities and dealt with them, instead of just throwing up his hands and retreating into misery.
To make this comparison, I will describe Hilary Burde’s relations to words: how words were special for him, how he admired the order of language, and what could have been missing here. Then I will recall the path that Wittgenstein followed from the Tractatus to the Investigations…. The Investigations tell the story of how Wittgenstein came back from the temptation to see language as something pure and orderly to a sober examination of the innumerable, unclassifiable, different language-games in which we talk.
….Hilary’s first love was based on this confusion, as was the Tractarian vision of language. Hilary’s first love was an illusion, necessary for his survival, but to survive is not to live, and to live he had to give up his old vision.
The kind of salvation by words Murdoch refers to in her article is one which accepts the words in their relative disorder, and in their endless differences.
Lalya Raïd, 2019: “The Misfortunes of a Word-Watcher: A Reading of Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child” available online
Hilary’s affection for syntax over semantics provides one of the humorous moments (to me, at least) of the novel:
There were those who held that I was merely, in the narrowest and dullest sense, a linguist. “Burde reads poetry for the grammar,” was a mot of my college enemy, Stitchworthy, who had, I was of course rapidly informed, bitterly opposed my fellowship….
Stitchworthy, who was also a historian, had written an article for a learned journal concerning Cromwell, in which he had included a discussion of Marvell and a reference to Horace’s Epistles. He quoted a piece of Horace and made clear from his remarks that he had misconstrued it. When I spotted this I could hardly believe my luck. I wrote a short dry note designed for the journal in question, pointing out Stitchworthy’s howler, and concluding, “Grammarians may or may not read a poem adequately, but those ignorant of grammar are not reading it at all.”
This is one of those illustrations of the old saw, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low” (which even the intrepid Quote Investigator can’t attribute to an original source).
One of the key points in Raïd’s argument is the name of Hilary’s sister: Crystal. He sees her as perfection, though physically he knows she’s rather dumpy and plain. I’m never sure what it is that makes her so special to him. They didn’t grow up together as he was placed in an orphanage while their mother kept Crystal at home. Yet they are enmeshed in some way, and his idolization of her, his imperfect vision of her as perfect, is what is keeping her trapped, unable to marry and have the child she desperately wants to have. After the death of the second wife, Hilary decides he will reform and make Crystal happy:
This would now be my only task. Crystal was the only being whom I loved and I was fortunate to be able to express this love in innocence and fullness of heart and to devote to it what remained of my life. I would take her far away from London and find in some country place the very best paid job which my talents could command. And I would live with her in a cottage and she would have her garden and her animals and all her little hearts desires, and I would simulate with her a kind of peace, perhaps even a kind of joy, into which some of the reality of these things might merge at last. We two alone shall sing like birds in the cage.
Of course, this only keeps Crystal in the cage with him; he still has some growing to do.
Raïd points out that in Tractatus, Wittgenstein uses the word ‘crystal’ to describe thought, the order of language; then in the Investigations, he notes the discrepancy between “the crystalline purity of logic” and reality: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk.” It isn’t until Hilary gives up his imperfect vision of Crystal, and allows her to be a real person with a history that is separate from, though related to, his, that he is able to relinquish his hold on her.
The second paper
I also found “Inner Circles, Goodness, and Lies in ‘A Word Child’ by Iris Murdoch: A Cognitive Facet of Literary Analysis” by Liliia Tereshchenko and Tetiana Tkachuk to be very helpful in appreciating the book. [Off-topic: these authors were, in 2019, lecturers at a Ukranian university; I hope they are safe today] It takes a different approach, using a wide variety of tools and techniques from cognitive linguistics, a subject I’ve dabbled in via various moocs. In fact, one of their reference sources is Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics; I took his brief mooc based on that text back in 2014, and still follow him on Twitter.
And that’s a good place to start: Tereshchenko and Tkachuk use Stockwell’s description of ‘superforegrounding’ – emphasizing an organizing element of text by theme, repetition, vocabulary, or other textual element – as a way of describing the cycles found in A Word Child: “every cycle denotes situations that occur several times in the novel until a crucial moment breaks the cycle.” The cycles they discuss range from sentence-level to book-level.
On the sentence level, the authors do an amazing reconstruction of a short paragraph in which Hilary describes the office hierarchy:
I worked to a man called Duncan, now briefly seconded to the Home Office, who worked to a Mrs Frederickson, now on maternity leave, who worked to Freddie Impiatt, who worked to Clifford Larr, who worked to someone too exalted to be in question here, who worked to someone more exalted still, who worked to the head of the department Sir Brian Templar-Spence, who was now about to retire. Arthur Fisch worked to me. Nobody worked to Arthur.
This is the kind of paragraph I would have overlooked, only noting that Crystal’s boyfriend, Arthur, is at the bottom of the ladder, and Hilary is just one step above him. But Tereshchenko and Tkachuk assign codes to some of the words (most importantly, worked = a and Arthur = d) and show how the chain becomes a circle, with thematic consequence:
After restoring the logical sequence of relationships among the referents, we see that the chain is circular: in the interim between “Arthur Fisch worked to …”, and “Nobody worked to Arthur” the narrator mentions his own persona (me); so the previous information about the organizational hierarchy (I worked to …) can be easily incorporated here…. The symbolic meaning of this ‘locked chain’ can be related to the image of a convict kept in chains. This image, in its turn, activates the IMPRISONMENT concept. The concept is sustained further by the image of captives, which refers to the employees of the office: “In our daily bondage what can be more preoccupying and ultimately influential than the voices of our fellow captives? How they go on and on: nothing perhaps, in sheer quantity, so fills up the head” (ibid., p. 33). Thus, at the very beginning of the story we prospectively become aware of Hilary’s attitude to his drudging job as a form of captivity, or punishment, which – as we will learn later – is self-imposed and futile.
Liliia Tereshchenko and Tetiana Tkachuk, “Inner Circles, Goodness, and Lies in ‘A Word Child’ by Iris Murdoch: A Cognitive Facet of Literary Analysis” available online at LEGE ARTIS
One of the most obvious cycles for the reader meshes with the notion of his fondness for grammar, for structure: the “particular rigidity with which my life was arranged.” He has a weekly schedule, and visits certain people on certain days. Each chapter of the novel, until the very end, is titled with a day of the week.
The most dramatic cycle, of course, is the overall story itself. Hilary has a stable situation, he has an affair with the Don’s wife, disaster occurs. Twenty years later, the setup for the same situation occurs; however, things proceed differently, yet end at the same point. Is this an exoneration, or the start of yet another cycle? The authors recommend looking at the other cycles. Hilary’s rides on the Circle Line (the London subway loop that showed up in DeWitt’s The Last Samurai as well) are clearly a cyclical feature. Big Ben, its symbolic appearance changing with each iteration, makes another; I’m sure there’s a thesis out there (or someday will be) examining each appearance of Big Ben and relating it to Hilary’s state of mind.
Then we come to the crucial cycle: Hilary’s moral growth. Keep in mind, as Tereshchenko and Tkachuk point out, “There are three child figures in the book: Peter Pan is a child, Jesus Christ is persistently called the Christ Child, and Hilary considers himself a word child.”
We believe that the last cycle – Hilary’s spiritual life – is the most important because of the author’s philosophical concept that lies at the heart of the text. The images used to describe Hilary’s spiritual life – the underground man, Peter Pan, the Christ Child, Word, the Good – are actualised in multiple ways in the text. We believe that this system of images sustains the global coherence of the text by outlining its conceptual nucleus– the SPIRITUAL GROWTH concept.
Liliia Tereshchenko and Tetiana Tkachuk, “Inner Circles, Goodness, and Lies in ‘A Word Child’ by Iris Murdoch: A Cognitive Facet of Literary Analysis” available online at LEGE ARTIS
Hilary’s self-description as an underground man refers both to the Dostoyevsky character, and to his habit of riding the Underground. This is his state at the beginning of the novel, a state the authors of the paper call low spirituality and complete immaturity.
Peter Pan is also part of the story: the office staff plans to do a pantomime of the play, and frequently discuss the logistics and casting. Peter’s immaturity is also a subject for some discussion, including input from Gunnar that spells out his state of development:
Gunnar, who had either become pompous through being grand, or was now so out of nervousness, made a speech to Freddie to the effect that of course Peter Pan was about parents and being unwilling to grow up, but what made sinister was that childishness had been invested with spirituality. “The fragmentation of spirit is the problem of our age,” Gunnar informed Freddie. “Peter personifies a spirituality which is irrevocably caught in childhood and which yet cannot surrender its pretensions. Peter is essentially a being from elsewhere, the apotheosis of an immature spirituality.”
Thus Peter Pan embodies Hilary’s second stage: he has some idea of spirituality, but still is at a very immature level.
The Christ Child, symbolizing high spirituality and spiritual maturity, is hammered home by, of all things, chapter titles, as well as the setting of one of the final chapters. Throughout the book, each chapter is titled with a day of the week. This pattern is broken – always an important indicator – by the final two chapters, which are titled “Christmas Eve” (which takes place, in part, in a church) and “Christmas Day” and it is in them that Hilary achieves a more mature spirituality, evidenced by his willingness to let Crystal go, to witness her wedding and relinquish her to someone else who can give her the life she wants.
The third paper
“The moral vision of Iris Murdoch” by James K. A. Smith (who is the editor-in-chief of Image Journal, familiar to me from several Pushcart selections), does a very nice job of dealing with the secular philosophical themes and indicating where they might lead to religious considerations. A Word Child is not mentioned in the article at all, but I find the concept of un-selfing, as described in the opening quote above, to be central to Hilary’s spiritual growth. Smith quotes philosopher Charles Taylor who frames Murdoch’s basic moral question as “What is it good to be?” rather than “What is the good life?” and goes on to show how unselfing, triggered particularly by focusing on nature or art and beauty, or, though more problematically, religion, leads to this attending to others that is the crucial step for morality:
If one can learn to attend, unselfing can happen in the most unlikely of places, including places that do not look all that “moral.” In The Sovereignty of the Good, Murdoch starts with examples of nature slicing into one’s field of vision, like a hawk’s reflection carving across my iPhone’s screen, pulling my eyes up to the sky.
….Such experiences, she says, are preludes to morality, practice for attending to other people. She suggests the same can be true of art, since “beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love by instinct.” (Henri de Lubac, S.J., who emphasized our natural desire for the supernatural, might beg to differ.) Indeed, her definition of “good” art is what “affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent.” It kindles love in the highest part of the soul. In fact, “considered as a sacrament or a source of good energy,” art is “more edifying” than nature in this respect because attending to a work of art not only pulls me outside of myself, it also pulls me into a relationship with other people, with creators. In art, I encounter not only something not me but the product of someone not me. That is the beginning of the end of egoism.
James K. A. Smith: “The moral vision of Iris Murdoch” available online at America Magazine
I find two points of great interest here relating to A Word Child. One is the unselfing, which Murdoch has related to observation of beauty and/or nature, and religious fervor. Although he spends a great deal of time walking around in the rain and noticing animals, he’s always in his own head when he does so; there’s very little of any unselfing in Hilary’s life, until the very end when he sits in the church on Christmas Eve, at which point he attains the spiritual growth to at least release Crystal.
The other point is attention. It was the attention of the schoolteacher that first rescued him from the orphanage, that led to his own love of language and the possibility of a greater life. Yet attention, as the attention he pays to Crystal, can be damaging if it is not based in reality and the other but in the self. Two suicides occur in the later chapters of the novel; both of them could have been prevented, perhaps, with a bit of attention from Hilary. And he knows this, though he faces it obliquely:
Clifford had been carried away by the cold river and I had not stretched out my hand to him, not even touched his fingers.
…. Clifford had died differently, he had died of being unloved and uncared for, as if the door had been shut upon him on a cold night. I did not know, and would never know, how much he really cared for me…. And after a while I began thinking about Mr. Osmond, and how he had died alone, and how he had once taught me out of Kennedy’s Latin Primer to conjugate the verb of love, his shabby coat sleeve pressing gently against my arm.
What’s most interesting about Smith’s article is how captivating its description of an early Murdoch novel, The Bell, became to me. I have to remind myself how I have struggled with two Murdoch novels now, and how susceptible I am to reading about, rather than reading, or it might end up on next year’s In Between Reading list. It seems contemplating this 396-page work of art has brought me into a relationship with, if not Murdoch, then Smith, who has kindled in me a desire to read more by an author whose works I started out insisting I did not care for. Wouldn’t that be a strange irony.
And back to my own (sadly inadequate, in this case) devices
I have been told by those who’ve read my posts on BASS and Pushcart stories that I (sometimes) have a tendency to write in a style similar to the story I’m writing about. I find here that I’m taking after Hilary, writing about this book in a rather technical way, and not conveying how lovely the writing is in so many places. In spite of the tediousness, there are sentences and paragraphs that are beautiful; in fact, one of my first thoughts was that there were so many drop-dead sentences, I wondered if it defused them to have so many on the same page, rather than letting one shine on its own. So let me remedy my oversight now with several selections:
The wind was moodily rattling the windows, producing that odd not-unpleasant sense of solitude which winter winds evoke. After a long day in the office and undergoing my fellow men in the tube rush hour I felt tired and crumpled and begrimed with weariness. A hard monotonous life favors salvation, so the sages say. There must have been some other element, absent in my case. Oh the piercing sadness of life in the midst of its ordinariness!
Like an emo singer, Hilary is often at his most eloquent when he’s at his lowest:
But I was simply crushed, unmanned. I had lost my moral self-respect and with it my ability to control my life. Sin and despair are mixed and only repentance can change sin into pure pain. I could not clean the resentment out of my misery. Did I repent? That trouble question troubled me as the years went by. Can something half crushed and bleeding repent? Can that fearfully complex theological concept stoop down into the real horrors of human nature? Can it, without God, do so? I doubt it. Can sheer suffering redeem? It did not redeem me, it just weakened me further. I, who had so long cried out for justice, would have been willing to pay, only I had nothing to pay with and there was no one to receive the payment.
The general theme of repentance, atonement, penitence, redemption, forgiveness is a large part of the book. It’s a theme I gravitate towards. Hilary has spent twenty years in self-imposed suffering for his sin, but it has not brought him peace, nor moved him any closer to redemption. It’s only in this unselfing, this attending to what others need and being willing to provide it, that he may be moving towards some kind of resolution.
And yet the ending is ambiguous. He walks off with Tommy, off-again-on-again Tommy, returning her banter about marriage. Is this a hint towards his future? Or is he moving into another cycle, and in twenty years there will be yet a third confrontation to promote him towards spiritual maturity?
We are all muddlers. The thing is to see when one’s got to stop muddling.
Yes. It’s time to stop my muddling here. But it’s been a fun muddling, and not (I hope) totally useless.
It’s a very literal title. I woke up pretty much and said I’d like to write a story about a frozen rabbi [laughs]. The perennial question of where your ideas come from I’ve never been able to adequately answer — the angels speak to me [laughs again]. As you probably realize from my stuff, I read a lot of folklore and in folklore, Jewish folklore in particular, there always seemed to be this kind of supernatural element that is perfectly natural in that world, especially the world of Yiddish fiction. I sort of draw upon/steal from that on occasion. I grew up in a Reform congregation in Memphis that was trying its best to be invisible. I thought I was a Methodist until I was 35-years-old. Then I stumbled down a rabbit hole to Jewish folklore and mysticism. It was about coming around to a heritage that I never really owned before. It’s really one of those typical traditional born-again experiences that’s too corny to own up to.
Steve Stern, interview with Paul Griffith at Chapter 16
You could think of this as an adventure story about a slacker teen in Memphis, alienated from his own Judaism until his discovery of a nineteenth-century Hasidic rabbi in his parent’s freezer changes his life. You could also think of it as a saga of the late Jewish Diaspora, from the Polish shtetls to the cities to the US and Israel, from a mystical faith to a political one, or, sometimes, to no faith at all, and back again. You could think of it as a way to incorporate a century of backstory without losing the momentum of the present story. Or you could see it as a disconnected family saga.
However you see it, what you have is two alternating time lines: one in the present at the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and the other from the late nineteenth century until it catches up with the present. Chapters are helpfully labeled with dates to keep things straight.
And, oh, one other thing – it’s a lot of fun to read. I don’t say that about many books that wander through pogroms, thuggery, and loneliness, but somehow this manages to be fun even when it’s disgusting. Even the darkest moments feel less tragic than amusing, the way Mo, Larry, and Curly slapping each other around is funny rather than violent. Stern addresses this in his interview:
The humor generated from the Diaspora experience was bred in a language with a built-in sense of irony. You can hear it in the rhythms and inflections of every spoken phrase. Irony was a natural function of a language that evolved in a world defined on the one hand by oppression, persecution, and poverty, and on the other by a natural intimacy with the sacrosanct. To maintain one’s religious faith in the face of such a hostile environment is to preside over the marriage of irreconcilable opposites, a rocky relationship at best and one that seldom achieves wedded bliss.
It’s an absurd situation, really, when it isn’t tragic, and so every joke is marked by a fatalism never far from galgenhumor, gallows humor. It’s a world in which the schlemiel is Everyman.
Steve Stern, interview with Paul Griffith at Chapter 16
The book starts in 1999, with one Bernie Karp, a fifteen-year-old who’s just discovered Alexander Portnoy. Eager to try out some of Portnoy’s techniques, he goes rummaging through the family freezer, looking for a piece of liver (those who know, know; if you don’t know, google Portnoy and Liver but don’t blame me for what you get). He throws aside the Butterballs and pork loins – wait, pork loins? That casual reference gives you a good idea of what kind of Jewish family the Karps are, much like Stern’s family was prior to his discovery of Yiddish folklore.
Turns out, under the frozen peas lies a man frozen in a block of ice. Bernie isn’t sure what to do with that, but his urge to procreate with organ meats forgotten, he asks his parents about it at dinner that night. They’re pretty blasé about it: “Some people got taxidermy pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It’s a family tradition.” And he came with a book, but it’s written in Yiddish, which no one in the family can read. Which, again, tells you something about the level of ancestral curiosity in this family.
Then we go back to 1889, and the circumstances under which the Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, called the Boibiczer Prodigy for his early mastery of releasing his soul to visit heaven via concentration on holy language, became frozen in a pond on the outskirts of his shtetl in rural Poland. And we are introduced to his first caretaker, one Salo Frostbite, the name bestowed upon him for his attachment to the family ice house where the Rabbi is kept until a pogrom forces him to move to Lodz.
And it’s back to 1999, when Bernie’s parents take a weekend in Las Vegas, leaving Bernie alone with the Rabbi during a storm that knocks out power and … you can see where this is going, yes? Good, because we’re only on Page 17 of 370 and it gets more complicated from here, as we follow, in alternating sections, the transfer of the frozen Rabbi from Lodz to New York to Memphis via several intermediaries, and the adjustment of the unfrozen Rabbi to contemporary life:
In the omnipresent news broadcasts the old man showed little interest: The relentless advance of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse was already a stale subject on earth even before the rabbi had entered his suspended condition. But about the splenetic woman who conducted a daily din toyreh, splitting hairs over laws concerning two-timers and clip artists with the perspicacity of a Daniel; about the smug gentleman who encouraged public loshen horeh (gossip) and orchestrated encounters between parties of mutual betrayal; about the portly schwartze who invited intimate confessions from her guests and wept openly over their Job-like afflictions; about antic surgeons, garrulous chef, faithless couples, deceitful castaways, teenage exorcists, and the Jew repeatedly duped into fornication with shikses, old Eliezer was deeply inquisitive. He was especially interested to observe the willingness of citizens to air their indiscretions in public forums.
“If a man to other men will sell his wife,” he might ask in the crossbred Yinglish to which Bernie was starting to grow accustomed, “is not obliged Reb Springer to cleave open his breast and tear out his farkokte heart?” “When they shimmy, these daughters in their supple skins in the orgies of the MTV, do not their fathers say already Kaddish for them?”
It helps to have some familiarity, however vague, with Judaica, particularly Kabbalah, and/or the Yiddish folklore Stern mentions above. I didn’t recognize much beyond Yentl, and now I wish I’d read more Isaac Bashevis Singer; I may dive into Sholom Aleichem (who wrote the stories that formed the basis of Fiddler on the Roof) at some point. Those who have a broader background in this area probably pick up references that passed by me unnoticed. I’m not sure how this would read to someone completely unfamiliar with such topics. But it’s clear how some character traits are passed along – a head for business, a desire to understand the mystical parts of Judaism, a sense of shame and/or guilt – and whether you want to see those as pieces of the soul re-inhabiting another life to complete a mission (as in Gilgul), as Jungian collective unconscious, or some combination of necessity and coincidence, it works.
One of the more interesting (to me, at least) episodes of the frozen rabbi’s journey concerns his arrival in New York as the means to smuggle a shipment of black market caviar in the care of Max Feinshmeker, nee Jocheved, daughter of the original Salo, once a talented pushcart snowcone barista who has to leave Lodz after she is assaulted and thus shamed (because that’s how it was in those days). She figured it would be easier to survive as a man. Yes, shades of Yentl, as I said. And of course, this causes complications when the keeper of the New York ice house in which she stores the rabbi, one Schmerl Karpinski, a lad with a knack for mechanical invention, finds Max an enjoyable companion.
Another awkward moment for Max came when they stopped for a bowl of borscht at a dairy cafe, and Schmerl – digging into his knippl, the knot of cash he’d been hoarding since he’d become a hired hand – insisted on paying the tab. Having passed a dark season as the object of charity, the beggar now wished to be benefactor, despite having no material resources to speak of.
“It is for me my pleasure,” his host assured him, proud to be arm-in-arm with such a silken youth, so delicate-featured and slight of frame, attributes almost unseemly for a man. With a sigh Max had accepted the refreshment, just as later he learned to graciously accept the ticket to a Yiddish theater production of Hamlet, der yeshiva bocher, translated and improved for the edification of the general public, or the price of admission to a cabaret. For his part, Schmerl felt heartily beholden to his companion for allowing him to show them both a good time. How long he had waited for someone with whom to share his enthusiasm for the knockabout streets and the institutions he’d been too shy to enter alone. It was as if he finally belonged to the teeming neighborhood and had at last arrived in America.
As for Max, he still couldn’t quite believe that he’d fallen into such agreeable circumstances. For one thing, despite the forced physical intimacy of their digs, it was relatively effortless to hide Jocheved’s gender from his host….. In this environment Jocheved sometimes felt she might even relax a bit her tenacious secrecy; she might steal a peek on occasion from behind the mask of Max Feinshmeker, as if the world were not such a daunting place after all.
Having just read The Member of the Wedding, I also see a sprinkling of McCullers’ theme of belonging in there. All these loners who just happen to find themselves another loner to pair up with, courtesy of the man in ice.
In the present, the unfrozen rabbi has an idea, an idea as American as apple pie: he’s going to start a business, pandering to the basest needs of contemporary USAian society while wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of religion:
“I ain’t talking your zayde’s study house. I’m talking Rabbi ben Zephyr’s House of Enlightenment, where I’m dispensing on demand ecstasy.”
Mr. Karp went livid. “You mean like drugs?”
Now it was the rabbi’s turn to sigh. “Julius,” there was the patronizing note again, “today religion is good business. Give a look by the gentile revivalist with his double breast polyester in the stadium, and even the Jewish boys and girls, that they sacrifice to some barefoot swami all their possessions, who tells them, ‘Go dress in shmattes and dance in the street.’ And it ain’t even Simchat Torah! Wants to acquire everybody, along with the BVD and the satellite dish, a bissel the living God, but for the years discipline they ain’t got time. So now comes a tzaddik ha dor, which it’s yours truly, to give them a few easy steps a taste sublime.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you intend to pedal…” Mr. Karp searched without success for the word, which the rabbi supplied:
“Be-a-ti-tude,” tasting every syllable on his glaucous tongue. Then he allowed that he might also sell a few specialty items on the side – books and talismans, red strings to ward off the evil eye, everything marked up and elegantly packaged of course…
“Slow down!” says Mr. Karp. “What’s a two-hundred-year-old greenhorn know about markup?”
“You would be surprised how much business deals is in Talmud…..”
At the same time, Bernie is delving into Jewish lore, checking books out of the synagogue library that has the rabbi concerned. Then his soul starts taking spiritual flights from his body, which has his teachers concerned. But he meets a girl, who isn’t concerned at all; she wants him to take her with him.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the book, about the soul-swapping that seems to be going on, about the ending that may be a little too goofy or may be the only way to bring the novel to a close. But that I’m thinking about it, tells me it’s a book that works for me.
As I said in my introduction to this reading period, I hated the first Steve Stern story I read, because it seemed so mean, and loved the second because it was chock full of fascinating folklore and tradition. This book borrows from both. Parts of the book are so cinematic, and the book as a whole is so episodic, it’s make a great limited series. Not all of the characters are admirable, but it’s impossible not to cheer them on as they pass the rabbi along, all the while wondering how, given this history, it’s going to turn out. I’m a little uncertain about the ending;
I keep thinking about soul-swapping, and I’m not entirely sure I know exactly what happened. But the journey to get there is worth a little uncertainty.
I’ve read two of Stern’s stories via Pushcart; as I said in my intro to this In-Between Reading period, I hated the first, loved the second and reconsidered the first. I’m glad I added this to my read list, and now I’ve got my eye on some of his story collections.
I hadn’t thought about it in terms of social problems. I always think more in terms of human beings, and the basic theme is just the need to belong… to belong to something, to feel oneself a part of life.
….I think that the sources of creation are very mysterious, and I don’t think one can find them by just looking for them, I think they have to come from a window within you.
Carson McCullers, 1951 Ship’s Reporter interview with Jack Mangan at LitHub
I’m of two minds about this novel. On the one hand, I just want to let the snark fly: it’s more of a very long short story than a novel (it takes place in three days with a brief coda projecting a few months into the future); there’s barely a plot, which is evident when the climactic event is revealed in one hindsight paragraph; at least two important points are left frustratingly ambiguous; and even though I read it in early Spring with the temperature rarely getting out of the 40s, it always left me feeling hot and sweaty and drowning in humidity. I grew up in Florida, I know what August in the south feels like, I don’t need to read the gritty details.
But then I have to look at what McCullers has done: she’s taken a bare-bones plot and done a deep insightful character study touching on issues of belonging and coming of age in a slender 150 pages; she’s used some interesting techniques that emphasize, presumably, what she wanted to emphasize; she lets the reader be a partner in creating the story; and boy can she create a mood just by describing the environment in which her characters exist.
There was in the neighborhood a clubhouse, and Frankie was not a member. The members of the club were girls who were thirteen and fourteen and even fifteen years old period they had parties with boys on Saturday night. Frankie knew all of the club members, and until this summer she had been like a younger member of their crowd, but now they had this club and she was not a member. They had said she was too young and mean.
The basic story focuses on twelve-year-old Frankie, who feels like she doesn’t belong to anything or anyone. Some of her former friends have formed a club, but she can’t be in it because they’re a year of two older and she’s too young to talk about boys. The only belonging she has is with her housekeeper, Berenice, and John Henry, her six-year-old cousin, and that’s a group she’d rather not belong to. Her outlook changes when her brother, on leave from the Army, announces he’s going to marry his long-time girlfriend the next weekend. Frankie decides she’s going to go with them on their honeymoon, and get out of her stultifying town.
When I wrote about Marcus Spiegel’s Pushcart story “A Tale of Two Trolls,” I mentioned the phenomenon by which one assumes a plan will work simply because one has thought it up, and wants it badly enough. That’s Frankie’s concept of escaping with her brother and his bride. She’s very young, and she’s very naïve; the story is set in the 40s, before music videos, before R-rated movies (at least publicly available ones), before the internet, and twelve-year-olds were kept isolated from anything that might involve sex, so she doesn’t realize the absurdity of being a third wheel on a honeymoon.
Her sexual innocence is underlined in other ways in the story. The girls who won’t let her in their club presumably feel she has nothing to contribute to the subject of boys, and they seem to be right. She seems to have committed some kind of sin with a neighborhood boy, but she’s not sure how bad the “unknown sin that he had showed her” is. Interestingly, McCullers chooses not to reveal that to the reader, either; we’re so deep in Frankie’s head, we can’t get out, and she doesn’t seem to want to think about the specifics. I’ve seen guesses that it was a kiss, relating to her father’s kiss goodnight, which have recently been curtailed. Because of the phrasing, I wonder if it was a game of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours type of thing.
That she keeps it secret, that she can’t even think about it, is, however, the point; she can’t face growing up. This coincides with her father deciding she can’t sleep in his bed any more, and that feels like not-belonging. It feels like punishment. It’s practically expulsion from Eden, this rejection by the father. And she hasn’t figured out how to make the jump to the older girls’ clubhouse, where at least there are compensations, a different kind of belonging. She can’t grow up.
Her naivete isn’t just a quirk; it puts her in danger when she makes a date to meet a soldier at night, then goes with him to his room. It’s not clear what she’s expecting, but it is clear what he’s expecting.
These are the burdens of growing up: losing her place at her father’s side, dealing with sins she doesn’t understand, and fending off advances she doesn’t know are coming. No wonder she’s scared to grow up. But she doesn’t want to remain a child in the kitchen with Berenice and John Henry, either.
The structure of the book plays into Frankie’s learning process. Part 1 deals with her in her depression; the weather is likewise oppressive. But at the very end, she learns of her brother’s wedding, and that catapults her into a better mood: she has a plan for escape.
The long hundred miles did not make her sadder and make her feel more far away than the knowing that they were them and both together and she was only her and parted from them, by herself. And as she sickened with this feeling a thought and explanation suddenly came to her, so that she knew and almost said aloud: They are the we of me. Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All other people had a we to claim, all other except her. When Berenice said we, she meant Honey and Big Mama, her lodge, or her church. The we of her father was the store. All members of clubs have a we to belong to and talk about. The soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on chain-gangs. But the old Frankie had had no we to claim, unless it would be the terrible summer we of her and John Henry and Berenice—and that was the last we in the world she wanted. Now all this was suddenly over with and changed. There was her brother and the bride, and it was as though when first she saw them something she had known inside of her: They are the we of me. And that was why it made her feel so queer, for them to be away in Winter Hill while she was left all by herself; the hull of the old Frankie left there in the town alone.
In Part 2, she changes her name to F. Jasmine and visits the entire town telling anyone who’ll listen that her brother is taking her on his honeymoon. This is her attempt to be grown-up, but it’s clear she doesn’t understand what’s involved. Her flirtation with the soldier could have led to disaster, but turns out she’s pretty handy at defending herself. A piano tuner accents dinner with Berenice and John Henry. I wonder if there’s been a thesis on music, about sound in general, in the book, because it seemed quite pointed to me. But then there’s the incident with the soldier. Never mind, she’s going to the wedding.
The day before the wedding was not like any day that F. Jasmine had ever known. It was the Saturday she went into the town, and suddenly, after the closed blank summer, the town opened before her and in a new way she belonged. Because of the wedding, F. Jasmine felt connected with all she saw, and it was as a sudden member that on this Saturday she went around the town. She walked the streets and titled as a queen and mingled everywhere. It was the day when, from the beginning, the world seemed no longer separate from herself and when all at once she felt included.
Part 3 is brief. The events at the wedding are revealed in somewhat disjointed fashion, a brief narration, then a recollection in more depth. This almost cursory inclusion of what should be the climax of the story hints to me that it isn’t, in fact, the climax, that the story is not about the wedding at all. That would make the climax more about her realization, after the altercation with the soldier, that John Henry is a child and she no longer is: “It was impossible to understand his point of view. And he did not understand her either.”
The wedding, in Part 3, certainly has its moment:
She wanted to speak to her brother and the bride, to talk to them and tell them of her plans, the three of them alone together. But they were never once alone….
She stood in the corner of the bride’s room, wanting to say: I love the two of you so much and you are the we of me. Please take me with you from the wedding, for we belong to be together. Or even if she could have said: may I trouble you to step into the next room, as I have something to reveal to you and Jarvis? And to get the three of them in a room alone together and somehow manage to explain. If only she had written it down on the typewriter in advance, so that she could hand it to them and they would read! But this she had not thought to do, and her tongue was heavy in her mouth and dumb. She could only speak in a voice that shook a little-to ask where was the veil?
This inability to speak is a change from Part 2, where she was telling everyone what she believed would happen, and now, faced with the reality, she’s struck dumb. It’s only as the newlyweds are getting into their car to leave that she finds her voice – “Take me! Take me!” – but of course it was never going to happen. Having lost her opportunity to escape, Frankie makes an abortive attempt to run away from home, but ends up back where she does, in fact, belong.
And then we close with the following Fall, the weather cooler and more manageable. She’s met a friend, Mary, to belong with, a friend a couple of years older, but nonetheless more on her level as a child. The wedding plan is replaced by a new plan, to tour Europe when they’re sixteen and eighteen, and she now calls herself Frances. And we see several things have changed: Berenice’s son has been arrested, and John Henry has died. Frances doesn’t seem to dwell on these losses; she focuses on her brother’s post cards from exotic places (Luxemborg!) and on her future trip to Europe.
The book ends with an enigma.
Dark, when it came, which come on quickly, as it does in winter time. “I am simply mad about – “ but the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.
Again, it’s sound that brings her out of her introspection. But what she’s just mad about we never know.
I read something of McCullers’ life along with some commentary on the book. It was pretty tragic: a young marriage that failed then was resumed; relationships that seem to indicate heterosexuality was not her comfort zone; illness and an early death. She only wrote four books; Heart was her first, and established her as a literary talent. Wedding was her second. I have to wonder if the order had been reversed, if her career might have gone differently.
I was assigned this book in college, as part of an adolescent literature class; I’m not sure I ever read it, since it’s not familiar to me at all. Maybe it just bored me at the time. Last year’s read, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, had a lot more to offer. Or maybe it just seems that way; for such a short book, there’s a lot packed in. It’s one of those books that I can’t say I enjoyed, but I can say I appreciate. McCullers adapted the book for the stage, and it was later written as a movie. Structurally and in terms of scenes, that makes sense, but so much of the book is internal to Frankie, it must have been a challenge. Still, I can see why it would be popular: who hasn’t felt the need to belong, and who didn’t, at some point, fear growing up with its burdens.
I attended Romancing the Wild Soul, by Geneen Hogan and Bill Plotkin, in northern wilds of Scotland. It was there I experienced and tried emotive writing, words coming directly from the experience of being in nature. I filled journals over the years but always struggled with questions about what this means, did I communicate my meaning etc.
The throat chakra is between the mind and the heart and is the source of your voice. I tried to speak through Pink, Claudius and Mina using my sweetest, deepest heart and mind to tell the story. This is probably the source of my discomfort as it is sometimes hard to understand the meaning as it flows. I write without knowing, without an outline, but with a daily plan to write from 8-10 each morning. The characters flow from my heart/head to the keyboard. This leaves me with the challenge of making a story out of it.
Sharon K. Grosh, email interview
About a year ago, Sharon – a reader and occasional commenter on this blog – asked if I’d be interested in writing about the books she’d written: the first, Lazarus Rising, an apocalyptic novel inspired by John Hersey’s Hiroshima, or the second, Capturing the Butterfly, bringing together three characters from different times. The second worked out best at this time; I’ve been feeling caught in an extended apocalypse for a while now, so I didn’t particularly want to read about one. Sharon offered me a free copy of the book, but I declined and purchased it myself, as I have with other acquaintances whose books I’ve written about.
The book opens in a cave with a pink bear whose hibernation is disturbed by the arrival of a young woman named Mina. She comes with a translating device which enables her to communicate with Pink, and explains she was, one minute, at her home in Hiroshima, preparing for the birth of her baby, and then was suddenly somehow transferred to another body, five years later. The transfer coincided with a strange event that most of us will recognize from history:
“That morning, I set the water to boil for tea and sat down to watch the wisteria branches flow in the wind. I rose out of my chair to bend down and pick up a few leaves that fell in the garden path. The red feather-like leaves seemed strange. My maple had a beautiful, delicate leaf shape that suddenly turned yellow on the underside and then white in my hands. This strange light grew across the whole garden that surrounded me. Then everything turned white, the fence, the house, blasting away all color, everywhere.
“I looked up at the perfect tomato bushes, pruned into uniform oblong bubbles, which now appeared like an array of round ice globes. Strangely, at that moment, I remembered the owner of the garden and wondered if he would blame us for the whitening of the trees and shrubs. The whole garden began dissolving before my eyes, breaking apart into separate points of light and then vanishing.
My last thought was fear. I heard voices screaming; from my husband, my mother-in-law, my neighbor? Water from the teapot sprayed across the room. This is the last point of memory I had of my life and my former body.”
Pink is concerned about the human intrusion, having been told by his mother to avoid people as they are dangerous, but he doesn’t see Mina as a threat. He’s unable to use the translating device at first, but he eventually figures out what words are and gets the hang of it. It’s the Winter Solstice, an important break in his hibernation, and he struggles to learn how words work, how to use the translating device, to communicate this to Mina before continuing his sleep:
Mother established a pattern to observe this day. This day turned everything over. My heart was just a little lighter, and it lifted my spirits. Everything around me, trees and small animals and raptors, all took note. This was the day the earth turned toward the light. The change was small, the feeling was barely noticed, but it was an important moment. The turn toward the sun was slow, but the hope for spring was there….
This was Mother’s Winter Solstice ritual. Most animals do not participate formally, but we were lucky as Mother presented us with this treat, in our first year. I added small things to the ritual after Mother disappeared. I’ve continued this ritual in hope I could connect with Lily, after she left me behind, following a large male bear. What is she doing right now? Does she continue this tradition?
I reached for the translator box. The following thought, passed on to me by mother, had to be translated to words for Mina to understand. Finally, I spoke these words.
Long nights of winter
Find your wild dreams
Peace and courage
When the hibernation is over, Mina tells Pink more about her strange transformation. They then discover another person near the cave. Claudius has an even stranger story: he’s very old, and claims to have caused, by his actions, the deaths of millions.
“I learned from a wise man, one whom you know, Mina. He said humans have two choices in life. One is to follow what the brain says. For example, does your brain tell you when to get married and who to marry? Do you marry someone for money with a high status in the village? The second choice is to follow your heart and instead of leaning on security to make your decision, you marry for love. Do you listen to your heart on the way to work? Do you walk the same way to work every day or do you change your route, a small meaningless decision that you make? Do you take the longer path, the scenic route, and do you get to your appointments on time even if your heart yearns to slow down a little? Do you make a meal for your family from the heart or do you make a meal on time? Following your heart is the simple key to the universal law for humanity.” He looked at me and added, “The animal kingdom as well, Pink. The animal kingdom does not always live making big decisions, but with many small ones. Instead of thinking with your brain, you can think with your heart, which is following its knowledge, which guides you through a different pathway through life. Heart-love is connecting to the greater good and will create wealth and success, more than any plan conceived by the brain. The brain is over-rated.”
From there, the book sorts out who these people are, and how they might change the present via the past. The title thus refers to the Chaos Effect, where a small change in the past – a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world – might have a big effect on the future. Mina and Claudius are part of the effort of a future time traveler to repair one rift in the history of the world; the story follows their efforts to do this.
I asked Sharon if I might include an email interview her about the book, since it was outside of my comfort zone and I wasn’t sure I was reading it properly. Her responses were comforting, in that I seem to have picked up on a few of the major issues, and they revealed her writing process and intent more fully:
1) KC: What inspired the story? You’ve told me your first book, Lazarus Rising, was inspired by John Hersey’s Hiroshima and followed the format. In Butterfly, you also have a character from Hiroshima, and follow several characters, though in a different way. Is this another inspiration, or is it more about the way you considered the book from the outset?
SKG: Pink, the character and the original name of the book, started at a retreat where we selected a clump of colored clay laying on a table, sat down and closed our eyes while moving the clay around in our hands. I moved my hands laterally, as multiple inner plates shifted between my palms. I looked down at the pink piece of clay I was moving and I saw a pink bear. I added a sea shell for his ears. Yes, an unusual way to start a story but it worked me. At some point I read David Abram and wrote a short story from the point of view of a young deer. There must not be many stories from that POV as everyone that read it said it was a Bambi moment for them. But that story helped me exercise my animal chops.
2) Who do you see as the audience for this book?
The audience is difficult. It’s also such a small book and I would be surprised anyone would pay $19 for it. Here are the genres that I provided the publisher.
BISAC code one – FIC009000 FICTION / Fantasy / General
BISAC code two – FIC061000 FICTION / Magical Realism
BISAC code three – FIC010000 FICTION / Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology
3) What kind of research did you do about the Butterfly effect and Chaos theory? At what point did you introduce the devices, the translator and orb? Were they something you knew you’d need from the start, or did it become evident as you wrote that you’d need them?
The research was very exciting. I delved into Hitler’s family tree, finding out that Klara was a servant in the household, became pregnant and then married. I did some calculations of when they were married and how old her first son was etc.
At least in my research, I did not see any mention of childhood bullying and an abusive father to explain Hitler’s personality. So I made that up. Me bad.
As with Lazarus, I don’t want to geek out into SciFi as much as I was to use it to enhance the character and solve problems. That’s a big admission but I’m sure I’m not the first story teller to do that. The blue Orb first appeared at Dr. N’s retreat center. I did try other approaches to time travel but the Blue Orb stuck.
4) I notice that the reader doesn’t find out if Claudius’ ultimate mission was successful or not, since we go back to Pink. This seems highly significant to me: nature doesn’t take notice of geography or war but just keeps living either way – though of course we know at this point that isn’t true, that politics alters nature dramatically as we’re about to find out. This indicated an ecological theme on top of changing the past: did you intend that?
In my heart, the story started with the protection of nature. I had to find a time when woods and forests were not touched by large numbers of humans. That was before snowmobiles! Regarding Claudius’ story, he went back in time and changed the nature of the parks in the US, and preserved Pink’s area, saving his mother. I wish I had added his final story, as you mentioned. I think my overall discomfort with the story is I had a deadline, which is always good but I might have wrapped it up too early.
If WWII did not happen, the population would have more smart people, population explosion would have been addressed earlier and hopefully a better awareness to save the planet. Isn’t writing fun?
5) Do you have a new writing project in mind?
Three of us designed the cover, my niece, an amazing graphic artist and myself. We had such a good time and they being seasoned advertising professionals, got it done on time with everyone giving input. I would like to get them back together and do this book or a newly created one for 5–8-year-olds. This project needs work from me e.g. storyboard 23 pages.
My next writing piece will be a collection of short stories with intention, brevity and a way to connect each story to the whole. I love short story titles and keep a running list. If you are person that says, “that sounds like a good name for a band,” that is me with short story titles.
6a) Is there anything you wish someone would ask you about the book, the process of writing it, or about you as an author?
Would you rather do read or write?
What is your favorite passage from the book?
6b) Lol, ok, so I’ll ask: Would you rather do read or write? And, What is your favorite passage from the book?
My favorite lines: Morning light held a magical atmosphere, created by drifts of snow enclosing the cave in stillness. The quiet was complemented by sunlight filtering through each crystal of ice, caked across the entrance. The curtain of light sparkled as it bounced against the cave wall. When I see light play against the cave walls, I want to stay motionless just to watch.
My smartass answer is, “Writing versus reading is like preferring to read War and Peace over watching Netflix.” I have thought about how I came to writing. I read a lot and wanted to be a writer and told my father. I guess I was asking him where do I start as he told me to start describing something in the room, like an apple. That sounded pretty dull so I did not do that. I wrote my first story and the teacher was so aghast she asked me to change it as it was too dark. I had a Steven King theme going. Therefore, I never started to write other than for school, college and work related things.
Now I think of myself as a reader’s writer, drawing on decades of reading.
I like to get outside of my comfort zone a couple of times a year, and this fit the bill. And it’s always good to support new writers. I’m so impressed (and more than a little envious) when someone I know writes a book. Or, in Sharon’s case, two books. Why can’t I do that? I don’t know, but I haven’t been able to.
It was both odd and unjust, said Gauss, a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. Each gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-à-vis the future.
Eugene nodded sleepily.
Even a mind like his own, said Gauss, would have been incapable of achieving anything in early human history or on the banks of the Orinoco, whereas in another two hundred years each and every idiot would be able to make fun of him and invent the most complete nonsense about his character.
Aha! Enter Daniel Kehlmann with his fictionalized biography – a dual biography, in fact, of both Gauss and Alexander Humboldt – ready to supplement history with a little fun, slipping in “complete nonsense” as well as sly meta-comments along the way. It’s great fun to read.
Alexander Humboldt and Carl Gauss: The two men were contemporaries, were both famous in Europe, and published vast works that established new fields of science and mathematics. Yet they were quite different. One was from a wealthy Prussian family, the godson of a Duke, and was made a Baron; the other was the son of a German gardener. One wanted nothing more than to explore and document the world; the other preferred to stay home and work in a room, reasoning out abstractions. One never married; the other took a second wife to make up for the loss he felt when his first wife died. And yet, by the end of the book, they have more in common than we might suppose.
I spent a lot of time initially trying to determine what was documented fact and what was fancy, but eventually gave that up. I found an article by an eminent Dutch mathematician (all links provided below) castigating Kehlmann for taking such liberties (I hope he never reads Irving Stone or watches Amadeus). Then I found a Harvard mathematician who was a lot more enthusiastic, particularly about the film made from the book.
One of the scenes that so irritated the Dutch professor concerned a balloon ride that almost certainly never happened, as it appears to have taken place after the balloonist died (in a balloon accident, tragically). It’s one of my favorite passages:
And seizing him partly by his collar, partly by his hair, he hauled Gauss up.
The curve of the earth in the distance….
This is how God sees the world, said Pilâtre.
He wanted to say something back, but he’d lost his voice. How fiercely the air was shaking them! And the
sun—why was it so much brighter up here? His eyes hurt, but he couldn’t close them. And space itself: a straight line from every point to every other point, from this roof to this cloud, to the sun, and back to the roof. Points making lines, lines making planes, planes making bodies, and that wasn’t all. The fine curve of space was almost visible from here. He felt Pilâtre’s hand on his shoulder. Never go down again. Up and then up further, until there would be no earth beneath them any more. One day this is what people would experience. Everyone would fly then, as if it were quite normal, but by then he would be dead. He peered excitedly into the sun, the light was changing. Dusk seemed to be rising in the still-bright sky like fog. A last flame or two, red on the horizon, then no more sun, then stars. Things never happened this fast down there.
We’ve started to drop, said Pilâtre.
No, he begged, not yet! There were so many of them, more every moment. Each one a dying sun. Every one
of them was decaying, and they were all following their own trajectories, and just as there were formulae for every planet that circled its own sun and every moon that circled its own planet, there was a formula, certainly infinitely complicated, but then again maybe not, perhaps hiding behind its own simplicity, that described all these movements, every revolution of every individual body around every other; maybe all you had to do was keep looking. His eyes smarted. It felt as if he hadn’t blinked for a long time. We’re about to land, said Pilâtre.
No, not yet! He rose on tiptoes, as if that could help, stared upward, and understood for the first time what
movement was, what a body was; most of all, what space was, the space that they stretched between them, and thatheld them all, even him, even Pilâtre and this basket, in its embrace. Space, that …
They crashed into the wooden frame of a haystack….
Now he knew, said Gauss.
That all parallel lines meet.
Fine, said Pilâtre.
His heart was racing. He wondered if he should explain to the man that all he would need was to add a
hanging rudder to the basket, and he could turn the air current to make the balloon move in any specific direction.
But he kept quiet. Nobody had asked him, and it wouldn’t be polite to force his ideas on these people. It took no stretch of the imagination, and one of them would think of it soon.
But now what this man wanted to see was a grateful child. With an effort, Gauss put a smile on his face,
stretched his arms wide, and bowed like a marionette. Pilâtre was happy, laughed, and stroked his head.
I’ve found several sources that credit Gauss with coining the term “non-Euclidean geometry” and conducting an exploration of the Fifth Postulate as a way into the curvature of space; he never published anything on these topics, apparently feeling it would seem too fanciful, but the ideas were passed down to others, culminating in Riemann and Einstein. So while this particular incident may never have happened, its point – that inspiration and insight, comes from many other sources other than the hard work credited with 99% of genius – is well-taken.
Kehlmann relates the more familiar story of the discovery of Gauss’ mathematical talent by a schoolteacher who, as punishment or pedagogy, who knows, has the young children add the numbers from 1 to 100. Gauss completes the task in moments, using the method that is now codified for summing consecutive integers, and is thus vaulted into serious mathematical study. Whether or not this tale, which exists in several versions, is true is debated; maybe it’s more like George Washington telling the truth about cutting down the cherry tree, a legend that has become so ingrained it’s inseparable from fact. In any case, it’s told charmingly. Humboldt’s childhood inspiration was a bit different:
Once they stumbled on a story about Aguirre the Mad, who had renounced his king and declared himself emperor. He and his men traveled the length of the Orinoco in a journey that was the stuff of nightmares… Hardly any scholars had ever penetrated this region, and there was no reliable map.
But he would, said the younger brother. He would make the journey.
Naturally, the elder brother replied.
He really meant it!
Yes he understood that, said the elder brother and summoned a servant to note down the day and the exact time. The day would come when they would be glad they had fixed this moment.
The chapters alternate between Gauss and Humboldt, proceeding chronologically after a brief opening section preparing us for their eventual meeting later in life. Possibly because Humboldt’s life reads like an adventure novel while his personal life was rather limited, we see a great deal of him travelling, particularly of his trip to Latin America, collecting samples, and, indeed, measuring the world. Gauss’ studies, once his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae was published in his early 20s, are more summarized than dramatized, at least until his work with Wilhelm Weber on magnetism later in his life.
Yet Kehlmann gives us a picture of him through various short scenes, such as the (presumably fictional) moment he met his first wife, Johanna, while working as a surveyor shortly after qualifying for his doctorate:
He climbed over a hedge and landed panting, sweating, and strewn with pine needles in front of two girls. Asked what he was doing here, he nervously expounded the technique of triangulation: if you knew one side and two angles of a triangle, you could work out the other sides and the unknown angle. So you picked a triangle somewhere out here on God’s good earth, measured the side that was most easily accessible,and then used this gadget to establish the angle of the third corner. He lifted the theodolite and turned it this way,and then this way, and do you see, like this, with awkward fingers, as if doing it for the first time. Then you fit together a whole series of these triangles. A Prussian scientist was in the process of doing exactly this among all the fabulous creatures in the New World.
But a landscape isn’t a flat surface, retorted the bigger of the two.
He stared at her. There had been no pause. As if she had needed no time to think it over. Certainly not, he
A triangle, she said, had one hundred and eighty degrees as the sum of its angles on a flat surface; but it was
on a sphere, so this was no longer true. Everything would stand or fall based on that.
He looked her up and down as if seeing her for the first time. She returned his look with raised eyebrows.
Yes, he said. So. In order to even things out, you had to scrunch the triangles, so to speak, after measuring them until they were infinitely small. In and of itself, a simple exercise in differentials. Although in this form …
He sat down on the ground and took out his pad. In this form, he murmured, as he began making notes, it’s never been worked out in this form yet. When he looked up, he was alone.
The Prussian scientist mentioned is, of course, Humboldt, off looking for the mysterious channel between the Orinoco and the Amazon. This was a culmination of sorts for him; we watched him attend the completion of the triangulation of longitude that defined the meter: “People wanted to name it ‘the meter.’ It always filled Humboldt with exultation when something was measured; this time he was drunk with enthusiasm.”
Both men had to search for funding for their projects, as much a major, if unpleasant, effort then as it is today. Kehlmann’s fiction has a lot of fun with some of this: as Humbolt is trying to charm sponsorship out Mariano de Irquijo, the minister of Madrid (who did initially sponsor him), he is mistaken for a physician there to provide the regent with an aphrodesiac (“His power over the land rested on his power over the queen. She was no longer a young woman, nor was he a young man now.”) Quick-thinking Humboldt starts listing ingredients from all over the world, and offers to collect them to make a superb remedy. “Never before had foreigners received such documents.”
This use of humor is, for Kehlmann, the point:
Some readers, he concedes, may have bought it because they were flattered to be reminded of Germany’s role in the Enlightenment’s avant garde.
In fact, he says, it was intended as the antithesis of that – “a comedy about German high culture, about the German cult of genius”. “I have met people who didn’t want to read Measuring the World because they thought it was a serious, educated, self-important book about intellectual history. It has gained an aura that is the very opposite of what it really is, and I do regret that a bit. I also think it’s problematic that it is now on the school syllabus, because, in reality, it’s a parody about how we deal with educational values.”
Interview in The Guardian with Philip Oltermann
One of the clearest examples of this poke at German genius comes from Humboldt’s measuring of a solar eclipse while in South America. His assistant/collaborator, Aimé Bonpland, was astounded by the fading light, the momentousness of it all. Humboldt was too busy taking measurements to pay attention. “Did one always have to be so German?” sighs Bonpland.
Some of that humor has an ironic bite. While discussing the miracle of a parrot who is the last surviving speaker of a tribal language, Bonpland asks the head of the mission where the scientists are staying what happened to the tribe, why it disappeared.
It happened, said Pater Zea.
Pater Zea stared at him with narrowed eyes. It was easy to be like that. A person came here and pitied anyone
who looked sad, and back home there would be bad stories to tell, but if that person suddenly found himself with fifty men ruling ten thousand savages, wondering every night what the voices in the forest meant, and being amazed each morning to find himself alive, perhaps he would judge things differently.
A misunderstanding, said Humboldt. Nobody had intended to criticize.
On a later stop in Mexico (New Spain at the time), Humboldt recommends to the Spanish overseer that the mine passages be repaired, to reduce accidents. “They had enough people, said Don Fernando. Anyone who died could be replaced. Humboldt asked if he’d read Kant.” This sly way of bringing up the categorical imperative to treat people as ends, not as means, doesn’t land for the overseer, but it does for the reader.
And also in Mexico:
Shortly afterward, as Humboldt packed up his instruments, he knew that on the day of the solstice, the sun when seen from the highway rose exactly over the top of the largest pyramid and went down over the top of the second-largest. The whole city was a calendar. Who had thought it up? How well had these people known the stars, and what had they wanted to convey? He was the first person in more than a thousand years who could read their message.
Why was he so depressed, asked Bonpland, awakened by the sound of the instruments being closed.
So much civilization and so much horror, said Humboldt. What a combination! The exact opposite of
everything that Germany stood for.
That Spain inflicted horror on the New World is without doubt, but those of us who are familiar with the 20th century, yet future to Humboldt, might find somber irony in his exclamation.
I’m impressed with Kehlmann’s ability to compress these ideas into short statements, but the best is yet to come. Towards the end of his life, Humboldt and his brother, always close, speak of destiny:
Nobody, said Humboldt, had a destiny. One simply decided to feign one until one came to believe in it
oneself. But so many things didn’t fit in with it, one had to really force oneself.
The elder brother leaned back and gave him a long look.
That exchange of five words carries great impact. Yes, biographers and scholars of Humboldt’s travels have assumed, with varying degrees of certainty, that he was gay. I keep thinking of a trope that runs through the Gauss chapters, how he recognizes, as in the first quote above, that the state of knowledge, and society,, is always in flux, and what we accept today will most likely be different in fifty or a hundred or two hundred years. Humboldt didn’t have the luxury of waiting around for acceptance; I think that underlines some of his obsessive work.
Last year I read Kehlmann’s more recent book, Tyll, and enjoyed it so much I decided to read this earlier book. I’m glad I did. While the august personages, mathematics and science might intimidate some readers, it’s not a problem. Of course, the more one knows, the more one gets out of it (I love recognizing things I’ve heard of), but Kehlmann makes a point of not worrying about explaining background, be it of the Thirty Years’ War in Tyll, or the discoveries of Gauss – or, for that matter, the Napoleonic Wars which play in the background as Gauss moves from one university town to the next in search of a position.
I feel like you can never leave out enough explanation. We humans are actually used to working with incomplete information, for all our lives, all the time.
Measuring the World was a novel about two German scientists. It did very well in Germany, but then foreign publishers said, “We need footnotes because in our country nobody knows Carl Friedrich Gauss.“ I said, “Very few people in Germany knew Carl Friedrich Gauss either!“ When I read Dostoevsky, there’s so much about the politics of nineteenth-century Russia that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter at all. I feel like we should always trust the reader to deal with incomplete information—because that’s what all of us do all day long anyway!
Interview in Bomb Magazine with Álvaro Enrigue
The book ends not with the deaths of the scientists, but with Gauss’ son, Eugen. Throughout the book, Gauss has dumped on the poor boy, disappointed that he had little facility for mathematics. In more historically accurate materials, he urged the boy to go into law rather than science, fearing he would not be able to uphold Gauss’ name. Eugen leaves Germany, travelling somewhat the same route as Humboldt many years ago, but missing the excitement the journey brought the naturalist; he clearly doesn’t measure up to either man. He ended up in America, and, in historical accounts, became quite a successful businessman. The last word of the book, in fact, is America. If one wishes to deduce a shift in polarity from this, from Gauss the father, German genius, to the son, American entrepreneur, one is free to do so.
But I found the emotional end of the book to be earlier: as they exchange letters towards the ends of their lives, they end up feeling sorry for each other. Gauss pities Humboldt because he can’t explore Russia with the degree of freedom he needs, and Humboldt feels bad that Gauss has seen so little of the world. Humboldt, who yearned for travel and direct experience to measure everything in existence; Gauss, who valued thinking through principles to find truth. Yet, like those parallel lines that intrigued Gauss from an early age: seemingly different, yet they meet.
Kehlmann’s book made me want to read more factual biographies of both men, and I can think of no greater compliment for fiction.
* * *
Philip Oltermann,The Guardian, 11/15/2014: Interview, “Daniel Kehlmann: ‘German writers have been taught to hide their humour'”
Every review of this book mentions it’s about Artificial Intelligence. And it is, of course. But to my surprise, I found it to be very much about the spiritual realm as well. I may add it to my under-construction Five Books list of Books about Relgion for People who Don’t Do Religion (to go with my existing list of Books about Math for People Who Don’t Do Math).
Our first-person narrator is Klara, an Artificial Friend available at the local department store. On the plus side, this allows us access to Klara’s reasoning process. On the minus side, it gives the novel a YA feel (we are dealing with a teenager, teenage love, teenage decisions, coming of age stuff) and it’s sometimes hard to understand what’s actually going on. I’m still not sure of the overall environment; it seems stratified by genetic manipulation, but some people have been “substituted” and there’s mention of fascism and white gangs and I’m not really clear on all that. However, I didn’t try very hard. I get enough of that on the news.
Klara is not one of the intellectually-brilliant-but-socially-inept androids science fiction so loves to throw into human chaos; in fact, it’s somewhat the opposite. She has what contemporary education theory might call emotional intelligence, the ability to read cues from people’s words and actions and know what they are feeling, what they want, what is expected of her. She’s quite attuned to relationships, to love and loneliness, and to motivations. But her logical processes are far less sophisticated when analyzing how the world works, showing – sometimes – a strong predeliction for post hoc ergo proptor hoc.
The pace of revelation is carefully controlled, allowing several important threads to develop both consecutively and simultaneously. Part 1 takes place entirely in the department store where Klara is for sale, allowing us to understand her view of the world. Yet it also introduces Josie, the teenager whose mother will buy Klara, and it will introduce two events Klara observes on the street: a woman and a man – the Coffee Cup woman and the Raincoat Man – meet coincidentally after what Klara surmises is a very long time, showing both joy at the reunion and sorrow at the time gone by; and the Begger Man and his dog seem to die (though they merely went to sleep in a doorway), but are brought back to life by the Sun.
The Sun was pouring his nourishment on to the street and into the buildings, and when I looked over to the spot where Beggar Man and the dog had died, I saw they weren’t dead at all – that a special kind of nourishment from the Sun had saved them…. They were both hungrily absorbing the Sun’s special nourishment and becoming stronger by the minute, and I saw that before long, perhaps even by that afternoon, Beggar Man would be on his feet again, cheerfully exchanging remarks as always from the blank doorway.
This can only be called Sun Worship: the attribution of both power and the will to use it to a Being who is out of the range of communication. Klara is dependent upon solar energy (as are we all) so assumes everyone is likewise energized by its rays. This becomes central to the overall story. I find it fascinating that, in a world that seems quite done with humanism, it’s a machine that re-invents God and faith, and that acts out of self-sacrifice for the benefit of another. Is that because she is not fully rational, or is it something programmed into her? A great deal of research is showing how algorithms that are supposed to be unbiased show precisely the bias of the people who wrote them; in a world where people are abandoning not just God but their own humanity, is it possible they have subconsciously re-recreated God through AI?
This religiosity goes beyond merely seeing the Sun as a god. To save Josie, Klara prays to the Sun, offering to perform a service she thinks will please It. It turns out this involves a rather large sacrifice on her part, but she gives it willingly. Alas, she discovers the task was a waste of time (very faulty logic, but a human joins her in this and he isn’t any wiser, while I’m shouting “There are other machines!” from my living room), so she prays again, this time relying on faith in the power of human love. This is in line with the Protestant catechism: we are not saved by anything we can do, for our actions are always insufficient; it is only by faith that we can please God and receive His salvation.
There is another course of action, and as we learn more about it, we come into the discussion of whether people have a soul. The word soul is never used, but it seems clear to me that’s what they’re talking about.
‘Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?…’
‘The heart you speak of,’ I said. ‘It might indeed be the hardest part of Josie to learn. It might be like a house with many rooms. Even so, a devoted AF, given time, could walk through each of those rooms, studying them carefully in turn, until they became like her own home.’
‘But then suppose you stepped into one of those rooms,’ he said, ‘and discovered another room within it. And inside that room, another room still. Rooms within rooms within rooms. Isn’t that how it might be, trying to learn Josie’s heart? No matter how long you wandered through those rooms, wouldn’t there always be others you’d not yet entered?’
I considered this for a moment, then said: ‘Of course, a human heart is bound to be complex. But it must be limited. Even if Mr Paul is talking in the poetic sense, there’ll be an end to what there is to learn…’
So even Klara, the most soul-conscious of the bunch, sees the heart, the soul, as finite. What if it isn’t? That Mr. Paul, an outcast in this society by virtue of having been substituted out of his job, is the advocate of an infinite human heart, which I am calling a soul, seems telling. This conversation takes place in a context that makes this more than just late-night dorm room stoned gab session, by the way; it’s central to the story, but I’m trying to be discreet about spoilers.
Several other powerful threads run through the book. The process of lifting apparently is only possible for children. There are benefits for both the child and the parents who make the decision, but there is also a significant risk. This brings guilt and forgiveness into the equation, and makes some interesting reading as we in the here and now struggle through the pandemic.
Then there’s the whole issue of Klara’s status as an AF. As readers, we naturally form an attachment to her, but she isn’t a person. Or is she? Forgive me if I lapse into ST:TNG for a moment (you knew I’d go there): “Data is a toaster.” There’s a reason art keeps creating machines and daring us not to care about them. Again, the question comes up: Can a person care about a machine? Does Klara have a soul? Can she even be likened to a service or sporting animal who is eventually retired? Do we owe her anything in that case? We just saw great outcry about military dogs in Afghanistan; does Klara, as a machine, earn that level of respect, or is she a toaster, to be thrown out when she’s no longer needed?
I was surprised by the book; it was less than I’d expected, even though I found the religious aspect compelling. I think I was put off by the voice. The only other Ishiguro I’ve read is The Consoled, and a short story “A Village After Dark” which turned out to be a practice piece for the dream-grammar of The Consoled. I wasn’t going to read Klara at all; I’d just read a Ted Chiang novella about AI and wasn’t really eager to read another. But I read a review or a comment somewhere that caught my attention, so I put it on my list; alas, I can’t remember what it was that interested me, or where I found it. I’m guessing it had something to do with religion.
But, in addition to thought-provoking threads already mentioned, it does have these drop-dead moments: the trip to Morgan’s Falls, which has all sorts of foreshadowing; the interaction meeting, a sort of social therapy group since no one goes to school any more, which gives a better idea of what kind of society this is; and, perhaps less importantly in the grand scheme of things, but just as dramatically, Klara’s impression of a bull in a field:
I was so alarmed by its appearance that I gave an exclamation and came to a halt. I’d never before seen anything that gave, all at once come up so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper. At that moment it felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun’s pattern at all, that this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.
I crammed this in to this post where it doesn’t belong because it gives me the chance to use the word chthonic, something that doesn’t come along every day. Where there is God, there must be Evil.
It might not be the first book I’d recommend, but with all the threads it contains, it’s worth reading.
* * *
A Very Particular Risk: Aimee Bender on Jane Campion and Kazuo Ishiguro at Literary Hub (lithub.com)
Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human – post by James Wallace Harris
Her phone rings, startling her. Unknown Caller, it says.
She answers with the speakerphone: “Hello?”
“Two things you must remember,” a voice says through some kind of speech-distortion machine. “Number one: you are not the first and you will certainly not be the last. Number two: remember, it’s not about the money—it’s about The Chain.” This has to be some sort of prank, one part of her brain is saying. But other, deeper, more ancient structures in her cerebellum are beginning to react with what can only be described as pure animal terror.
“I think you must have the wrong number,” she suggests.
The voice continues obliviously: “In five minutes, Rachel, you will be getting the most important phone call of your life. You are going to need to pull your car over to the shoulder. You’re going to need to have your wits about you. You will be getting detailed instructions. Make sure your phone is fully charged and make sure also that you have a pen and paper to write down these instructions. I am not going to pretend that things are going to be easy for you. The coming days will be very difficult, but The Chain will get you through.”
What would you do to save your child from a horrible death? Most parents immediately answer, Anything, of course, but what if it means acting so far outside your life experience you couldn’t have ever imagined it, if it means doing something unthinkable? What if it means killing someone else’s child?
These aren’t academic questions anymore for Rachel. After years of putting her husband through law school, then a divorce, then working while finishing her own education, then beating cancer, she thought she was home free. She and fourteen-year-old daughter Kylie were about to start a new chapter as she took up her first academic job, teaching philosophy at a local community college.
Then the Unknown Caller comes into her life, and plans go out the window.
Apparently there’s something called Mexican kidnapping which involves substituting one victim for another; McKinty got the idea for this book from that, but he developed it into something bigger. When Rachel’s child is kidnapped, she has to kidnap someone else in order to get her back. She has to hold her victim until those parents kidnap yet another child. The chain can’t be broken; if anything goes wrong, kill the victim and start over, or your child dies. And in the meantime, Unknown Caller has a secret army of former victims available for threats, enforcement… whatever it takes.
The book has three main parts. Kylie is the focus of the first, and longest, section. Then there’s a problem with the next link in the chain, and Rachel is commanded to fix it, or the secret army will come after her and her daughter; you’re never out of danger in The Chain. And finally, there’s a showdown, an attempt to out the Unknown Caller, because nightmares and crushing guilt are only the beginning, and there will be no end, as long as The Chain goes on.
This book won several prestigious awards – including the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, billed as Britain’s most prestigious crime novel award – and has a cover blurb from Stephen King. I heard about it through Five Books, where Anthony Franze put it on his list of Best Thrillers of 2020.
I’m afraid my reaction isn’t as enthusiastic. I found it tense rather than suspenseful. The brief conversations with the Unknown Caller should have created suspense, but it seemed like bad TV movie dialog to me. Fans of surveillance technology will probably appreciate the final sections, but I wasn’t interested. A character was added and removed, which seemed too random to me. The big question throughout the book is where did The Chain come from, who is running it, and why? The answer felt disappointing. Then again, it did underline the whole banality of evil thing pretty definitively. It’s not a bad book; the idea of the victim becoming victimizer is intriguing. There’s a particularly gripping scene as Rachel must decide if she’s going to let a child die in front of her, or get medical help that would undoubtedly risk the secrecy of her operation and Kylie’s life. A few side issues – a possible recurrence of breast cancer, a romance – grounded it in real life. It just wasn’t enough to keep me interested.
I have to admit to a personal bias: I never get, in kidnapping movies or TV shows or books, why no one goes to the police. Yes, of course, they’re told not to, and the stakes are very high, but it still seems strange to me. Then again, I have a tendency to overvalue institutions and authority; those more self-confident may well prefer to handle things themselves.
I used to read series thrillers back in the day – the Kellermans, Stephen White, Patricia Cornwell – but they all had a strong medical or psychological aspect to them that interested me. So this was an experiment. I’m not sorry I read it. I just can’t get excited about it.
Say you grow up in the type of place that is excited to be getting its first motel, moving from town to town as one motel is finished and another begun. You are naturally not enthralled by school and achieve a solid B- average. Presently you take Scholastic Aptitude Tests and astound everyone by a degree of scholastic aptitude which places the B- average in an entirely different light. Your teachers take the result as a personal insult. You apply to various colleges, who ask for references, and teachers who have reduced you to speechless torpor write complaining of apathy. You are interviewed on the basis of dazzling scholastic aptitude and you are asked about your interests and you have no interests. You have no extracurricular activities because the extracurricular activity was the Donny Osmond Fan Club. Everyone turns down your application on grounds of apathy.
One day you are lying on a bed in one of the motel rooms. Your mother is having a bad day: she is playing Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude for the 63rd time on the piano in the adjacent room. Your father is having a good day: a member of the Gideon Society has come to suggest placing Bibles in the rooms, and he has been able to state categorically that he is not having that piece of trash in his motel. Each bedside table, he explains, has a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species in the top drawer. In fact it’s a really good day because that very morning one of the guests stole the Origin of Species instead of a towel. You stare apathetically at the TV. They are showing A Yank at Oxford.
Suddenly you have an idea.
Surely Oxford, you reason, would not hold non-membership of the Donny Osmond Fan Club against you. Surely Oxford would not insist on mindless enthusiasm just to prove you can be enthusiastic about something. Surely Oxford would not accept hearsay as evidence. Surely Oxford wouldn’t hold a reference against you without knowing anything about the writer.
Why not apply?
I thought: I could leave Motelland and live among rational beings! I would never be bored again!
I had reckoned without Roemer.
Short version: I loved this book. And yes, this is going to be one of those posts that goes on and on to record some of what I saw in it – there are plenty of professional reviews around for those who need that sort of thing, I’ll provide links at the end – but let’s clear something up right now: it has NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH THE TOM CRUISE MOVIE. That should be evident from the above quoted passage, but I’m not taking chances.
It does have strong ties, however, to another film: Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which, sadly, I’ve never seen. Fortunately, Sybella, who found Oxford just as boring as Motelland, by the way, and her son David/Steven/Ludo, watch the movie obsessively, describe scenes in detail, and provide analysis as they find opportunity to apply the themes and processes of 16th century Japan to their own lives. The plot of the book turns into the film. And I understand, from those who know more than I about the movie and about cinema in general (again links provided below), the structure and style of the novel mirrors Kurosawa as well.
I just know I adore this book. It’s another one of those Why Hasn’t Someone Told Me About This Before books.
As with most complex things, it’s easy to state the general idea: A single mother educates her child – who may be a prodigy, a genius, or just an ordinary kid in the right circumstances – far more than anyone would believe possible, which prepares him, at age 11, to seek out his father. When he finds his father doesn’t meet his expectations, he seeks out a more suitable father. And as with most complex things, that overview should be thought of as a container for delicious wonders within, all of which are linked together in sometimes clear, sometimes hazy ways.
I’ve always said I love a book that teaches me something, and this book teaches me so many things I’ve lost count. In fact, it teaches about teaching, about learning.
What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise…. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius….
Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.
Brian Hurley, “Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’” available online at The Millions
I love that phrase, knowledge porn; it’s often applied to Rushdie or Wallace, or the Crown Prince of Knowledge Porn, Umberto Eco, and it fits here, too. Yes, that makes it challenging reading. But that’s one of the themes of the book: we’re all so fucking lazy we just play video games and watch reality TV when we could be learning Greek or Japanese or music or reading the foundational literature of humanity, or reading a book referencing diverse subjects we can always look up on our computers that are more than game devices, because it’s hard, it requires thinking. And we put our kids in front of Sesame Street because we think that’s age-appropriate, we don’t think they can learn languages until high school or college (which is completely backwards from any language acquisition research).
The thing is, they have to be curious, interested, as Ludo is. He wants to know what the funny letters in the big book are. And when he watches The Seven Samurai, with its subtitles, he wants to learn Japanese.
I tell L that in the autobiography Kurosawa has nothing but praise for the marvellous Mifune except possibly that he had a rather harsh way of talking which the microphones had trouble picking up. I say that it’s very charming the way the translators have translated the Japanese into Penguin.
L: What’s Penguin?
I: It’s what English translators translate into. Merely had a lot of fighting experience! Determined to follow you! As it happens most English speakers can understand Penguin even if they wouldn’t use it in daily life, but still.
L: Isn’t that what they say?
I: They may be speaking Penguin Japanese, we can only surmise. Kambei says Tada kassen ni wa zuibun deta ga, tada, just, kassen is battle or combat according to Halpern (but I wonder whether that isn’t just Penguin infiltrating the dictionary), ni in, wa topic particle, zuibun a lot, deta happened, ga another particle which we won’t go into now but which seems pretty common, it’s hard to believe it is giving the flavour of Penguin to the
L: When are you going to teach me Japanese?
I: I don’t know enough to teach you.
L: You could teach me what you know.
I: [NO NO NO NO] Well
Voice of Sweet Reason: You’ve started so many other things I think you should work on them more before you start something new.
L: How much more?
L: How much more?
The last thing I want is to be teaching a five-year-old a language I have not yet succeeded in teaching myself.
I: I’ll think about it.
HOW MUCH MORE?
HOW MUCH MORE?
HOW, MUCH, MORE?
I: Well if you read the Odyssey and Books 1–8 of the Metamorphoses and the whole Kalilah wa Dimnah and 30 of the Thousand and One Nights and I Samuel and the Book of Jonah and learn the cantillation and if you do 10 chapters in Algebra Made Easy then I will teach you as muuch as I can.
L: Then that’s what I’ll do.
I: All right.
L: I will.
L: You’ll see.
I: I know.
L: Will you teach me the alphabet while I’m working on the rest?
I: It doesn’t have an alphabet. It has two sets of syllabaries of 46 symbols apiece, 1,945 characters of Chinese derivation in common use since the Second World War and up to 50,000 characters used before then. I know the syllabaries and 262 characters which I keep forgetting which is precisely why I am not really qualified to teach it to you.
L: Then why don’t you get a Japanese to teach me?
This is a wonderful idea. I could get a benevolent Japanese male to act as an uncle substitute for L! A benevolent Mifune lookalike to come and talk about stamp collecting or football or his car in a language which would conceal the diabolical tedium of the subject. But he would probably want some money.
I: I don’t think we can afford it.
Please forgive the unusually long quotes; since it’s a 482-page book (don’t let that scare you off, it reads rather quickly and is highly engaging, if sometimes mysterious about what it’s doing), I feel like some excess is justified, and to cut it too much would be unfair. Also forgive the approximation of the typography; see the book for details, I have technical limitations on this blog.
I did leave out a part, as you may have noticed, which is one of those inserts that a thinking person sometimes runs through when doing something else, and includes another, thankfully briefer, theme of the book: “What I mean is that I have read books written 2,000 or even 2,500 years ago or 20 years ago and in 2,500 years they will need everything even Mozart explained and when once you start explaining there is no end to it.” Yes! Once you learn something, you realize you don’t know something else, so you have to go back and learn that, which requires learning yet another thing in a whole different discipline, and you have to stop at some point, but most of us stop way too soon.
And did you catch that Ludo is five years old in that quote? What’s amazing is that there’s the discourse pattern of a five year old – demanding, nagging, driving Mom crazy with his persistence – but the content is learning another language on top of the Greek he’s already learned.
We watch Ludo’s attempt at school, which goes about the way you’d expect and seems to last about a week. And we watch Sybella worry about how to teach him, yes, but also how to deal with the father issue. She’s read that a single mother needs to supply male role models for a boy, and here he is with no uncles or family friends to fit the bill. Oh, but wait –
I suddenly realise that everything is going to be all right, I am providing my fatherless uncleless boy not with 8 male role models (6 samurai 1 gatecrashing farmer’s son 1 fearless farmer) but 16 (8 characters 8 actors) 17 including Kurosawa who does not appear. Only one of the characters is a perfectionist in the practice of his art but all 8 actors & the director who does not appear show this terrible perfectionism making a total of 17 male role models (not including the extras)
There’s also a moment of self-referential meta-analysis as she contemplates the overall structure of Kurosawa’s film:
A striking peculiarity of the film is that though it is called Seven Samurai it is not really about seven samurai. Bandits are about to attack the village and only one farmer wants to fight; without him there would be no story.
I keep going back and forth as to whether Sybella, or Ludo, is analogous to the farmer.
The book starts with a Prologue that outlines the intellectual tragedy of Sybella’s father, cheated at age fifteen out of a Harvard scholarship to study the science he loved by his father, a minister, who talked him into going to a mediocre Divinity College in order to “give the other side a chance”. He spends most of his Divinity time playing pool, so he has some money when he finishes, but not much in the way of grades, and Harvard is no longer interested. So he builds a string of motels around the country.
We also have an Interlude – and I can’t verify this is accurate, but it seems to me “prologue” is primarily a literary term while “interlude” is more of a musical one, blending music and text – in which we learn about Sybella’s mother, a self-taught musician who managed to talk her way into an audition at Juilliard and is sent away with an exercise she is to play on the piano every day for four hours; she will then be allowed to return for a second audition. And of course that never happens, but her family is always there to say, “It’s not so bad being a secretary” and to her brother, “Is being an accountant so awful?” So Sybella comes from thwarted dreams and failed institutional educational practices.
It’s interesting that DeWitt (who, by the way, completed a Classics PhD at Oxford) uses this structure to convey Sybella’s background. They’re funny/sad chapters, captivating to read, and give us some idea of her motivation to learn everything important, and to instill a passion for rational thought and for learning in her son, without the limitations so many assume children must be subjected to.
When Ludo is still very young, Sybella takes him on the London subway to keep warm, since she can’t really afford to heat their flat all the time. It turns out the Tube is something like a precursor to Twitter: everyone has an opinion, and insists you hear it. In another of the more humorous moments of the book, Sybella keeps track of how many people think a five-year-old reading the Odyssey in Greek is 1) wonderful, 2) a great way to learn about spelling and grammar, 3) too hard for his age, etc. etc.
Faced with officious advice feel almost overwhelming temptation to say:
You know, I’ve been in a terrible quandary over this, I’ve been racking my brains for weeks trying to decide whether I was doing the right thing, finally this morning I thought—I know, I’ll take the Tube, somebody on the Tube will be able to advise me, & sure enough you were able to tell me just what to do. Thank you so much, I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come along—
So far have been able to resist temptation 34 times out of 35. Pas mal. When able to resist temptation I say (which is perfectly true) that I never meant this to happen.
Ludo’s amazing learning adventure does come about as something of a surprise, generated by the boy himself. Sybella only wants to teach him a word every day, an English word from Hop on Pop, but he starts demanding more, and it grows from there. This isn’t a case of an overzealous mother trying to live vicariously through her son; it’s a case of the son having an innate desire to learn and dragging his mother along with him. Is this inherited? Brought about by nurture and example? If she’d told him in the beginning, “No, you’ll learn to read when you go to school,” would he have retreated, or would he have found other ways to learn? If Ludo is gifted, It’s this desire to learn that is the gift, not points on an IQ test. I’m reminded of the quote paraphrased from The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” It isn’t a matter of skill drills or discipline, but a desire to know.
Ludo’s father first comes into the picture when Sybella, working as a secretary in a publishing house, goes to a party where he, a Famous Travel Writer, will be. She refers to him in the book as Liberace: more flash than substance, “slick, buttery arpeggios, the self-regarding virtuosity,” a kind of showman adored for his lack of intellectual rigor. I keep reading of their night together, because it’s hilarious: she kisses him because she wants to shut him up and that seems a non-rude way to do it, and sleeps with him for much the same reason. That, too, is a Liberace performance:
No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realised how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow, swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting
something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley.
The Medley came at last to an end and Liberace fell into a deep sleep.
I wanted to clear my head. I wanted strangeness and coldness and precision.
She decides to leave, but again worrying about appearing rude, decides to leave him a note, “to imply that we had had an interesting conversation.” That emphasized “imply” reinforces just how she feels about the guy. She hits on the idea of a Rosetta stone, something she’d mentioned in their conversation during the evening though he didn’t seem interested, but to follow up would, again, imply, that he was a person capable of appreciating such things. It takes her five hours. When Sybella writes a Rosetta stone, she doesn’t fool around.
Eventually, of course, Ludo wants to know about his dad, and the puzzle she presents – figure out what’s wrong with three different artistic expressions, plus the hiding of an envelope “To be opened only in the event of my death” – reminds me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” the story that was the basis for 2001: A Space Odyssey (and given the prominence of the original Odyssey in the novel, this doesn’t strike me as too strange) in that an object was left on the moon to signal an advanced civilization that the beings of Earth had finally figured out how to get there. When Ludo has the rationality to either decipher her riddle, or find the envelope, he will be ready to meet his father, armed with enough intellect to resist being snowed by Liberace slickness.
When Ludo does meet his father, it’s five pages of rich dramatic irony, as the dolt keeps saying things that mean one thing to him, and another to Ludo, who keeps thinking, He knows. But he doesn’t. He assumes, when Ludo says he’s read all his books, that he did so because he liked them, while of course Ludo had another motivation. It’s wonderful.
I mentioned the blending of music and text. Music seemed very important to me throughout the book, though it was at times subtle. In fact, it forms what I see as the axis of the book. I’ve read that The Seven Samurai opens with three minutes of drums over the title card opening typical for Japanese films of the time. The Prologue might be seen as that kind of introduction, since it gives us the genesis of Sybella’s distrust of institutional wisdom, and drums are a crucial element sprinkled throughout the book. The Interlude again uses music in relating her mother’s intellectual trauma.
Then we have the subplot describing an erratic but brilliant pianist Yamamoto, one of the artists/heroes who Ludo sees as a mirror for the Samurai. This is another feature the book shares with the movie: Kurosawa tells little stories of all the Samurai while working his way through the main plot of rescuing the farmers from the bandits, and DeWitt also tells us stories of various artists and heroes through the book.
Specifically, Yamamoto was struggling with the idea of piano, his instrument, as percussion, whether the music of the piano should compensate for its percussive nature or revel in it. He reads a (fictional) book about an Australian’s visit to Africa:
The sun was near the horizon; at any moment it would be dark, for it sets quickly in the tropics. The sky was a deep dark blue. The men tilted the drums against wooden rests; they began to tap the drums very lightly with sticks, and the sound seemed to melt away over the lake. Then they stopped, and at a gesture from the leader they struck the drums a single louder blow. They stopped. Another beat. Another beat. Another beat. When they had struck the drums six times like this the sun vanished and they struck the drums once, very loudly, and stopped. Several seconds went by, until at last, from over the dark water, the sound of the drums came back. Again they struck the drums, and again the sound came back, and when this had happened seven times they laid down their sticks and walked away, and the women picked up the pallet and walked away, and McPherson saw that the boy was dead. In the morning the drums were gone.
This idea of the drums fading away and coming back – of people, of life, fading away and coming back – haunted me, and in retrospect I see it all over the book. It appears in broken form in Yamamoto’s own story, as his visit to Chad to hear the drums himself has a tragic end, a fading away without a coming back. Its not by accident that there is a fading away – and, blessedly, a return – more specific to Sybella in connection with a Yamamoto concert. It is Yamamoto’s segment that had me looking up Schoenberg’s opera, Moses Und Aron, to be sure I understood the description of Sprechgesang, the rough speaking voice of Moses; and by the way, Messiaen. Years ago I sang O Sacrum Convivium, a motet with nightmare harmonies, during one of my many choral adventures, but here we focus on his piano work Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, a study of “the dying sound.”
The idea of the musical axis, however, didn’t occur to me until the very end, when the book concludes with a kind of return, the echo of resurrection when Luco finds this Samurai. Sublime.
Although I’m no Ludo (if even Ludo is a Ludo), I found the book highly validating. I’ve often faced a sneering consternation in others when they find out so much of my time is spent taking moocs (I don’t have an accurate count, but it’s at least 163) in subjects that have no practical benefit whatsoever. Even mooc providers have moved on from 2012’s “Let’s Teach the World” to “Let’s Sell Certificates,” and the only people who will pay for certificates are those looking for work credentials, so not only are universities turning into Vocational Training Centers (a drum I’ve been beating since the 80s, and DeWitt’s Afterword somewhat echoes it) but now moocs are mostly business and computer courses. Me, I take anything but. Biology, of course – I mean, come on, our lives depend on something like 37 steps between glucose and the last oxygen being taken up by two hydrogens, it’s a miracle this happens at all, let alone at a pace that keeps us breathing, yet for some reason everyone’s studying cloud computing and how to come up with the next Angry Birds?? – and math, of course, as an instrument since that’s needed to understand the bio and chem, even though I’m a senior citizen and will never set foot in a lab but damn, this is amazing stuff. But let’s also do Balinese Gamelan music, or Kabbalah, or Codicology and Paleography of Medieval Manuscripts, and what about Icelandic Sagas? Sure, and when I ran into Njals Saga and the Althing on Ludo’s birthday I feel a kind of joy – hey, I know what those are! And of course the Greek literature courses gave me enough of the Odyssey to feel some kinship with him there as well, knowing why Sybella is helping him with the word for weaving and what the Cattle of the Sun had to do with HC’s climbing the mountain to save the outcast child.
And then there’s the math, oh, the math I took for years, trying to fix whatever damage I did to my math brain back in the 60s in high school. Why are you doing this to yourself, a friend said, when I cried because I could not do u-substitution. Why indeed, because I want to learn it – and then this book comes along, and one of the heroes/samurai stories concerns a mathematician/physicist whose plane crashes in the Amazon and he takes a boy under his wing, hoping to teach him mathematics though they can’t speak each others’ languages, and all is well until they get arrested and the only chance is to bring the British Consulate in to rescue both of them, presenting Pete, the boy, as a genius:
Sorabji looked at Pete. His head had fallen back, and the whites of his eyes were showing. He would die soon but that was not good enough. He could probably get a decent mark at O-level; it was a miracle of sorts but not good enough.
Sorabji said: He is a mathematical genius. I shall take him back to Cambridge.
The consul looked at Pete. If you are a consul people are constantly spinning you ridiculous stories and expecting you to believe them, but this was the most ridiculous he had ever heard. He said correctly: If he is a Brazilian national I’m afraid there is nothing—
Sorabji said: You. Stupid. Ignorant. Bureaucrat.
And he said: Newton is sitting in this cell. If I leave they will kill him. I shall not leave this place unless he goes with me.
But what exactly do you think I can—
Sorabji said: Do you have a piece of paper?
He was handed a piece of paper and a pen, and he wrote on it
and he said: How long do you think it would take you to add it up?
The consul hesitated—
That boy, said Sorabji very gravely, can add all the numbers between 1 and 500 in 20 seconds.
The consul said: Hm.
And if all this again reminds you at all of Kurosawa’s Samurai shaving his head to save a child, well, it does, doesn’t it. But I was talking about validation – and here, I forgot my faith, and was truly depressed, because this author was going to pass off a parlor trick, one I happened across in the Mathematical Thinking mooc that changed my way of looking at math (though it didn’t help with u-substitution), as genius. O ye of little faith, because the next sentence…
Sorabji was a Zoroastrian but he was not much of a believer, and he had been to chapel a lot at school but he believed even less in that, and yet he found himself saying Please Please Please Please. Please let him not know about Gauss please please please please please.
And again, I felt a kind of joy, like I had an answer to Why are you doing this to yourself? Because it’s what some of us do, and there’s so little reward, but here it is on this page. Ii know why he hopes the consul hasn’t heard of Gauss.
I’m getting carried away (the validation, it’s such a high), it must be time to stop, even though there’s so much more.
I’ll have to read this book again, of course; there’s way too much to get it on one read. I want to study the film first, something I should have done this time, but I wasn’t aware how central it was.
I don’t even remember how I discovered the book; somehow I came across a review proclaiming it a Best Book of something (the century?) and I was puzzled, since I was still thinking Tom Cruise, so I read a little about it. All I remember is something about an American woman in England, but it must have been more than that to find its way onto my list. I would assume I saw the Millions and Paris Review articles back in 2016, but dismissed them out of confusion with Tom Cruise (I’m surprised I don’t remember being puzzled back then, but maybe something else was going on).
It had a complicated publication history, which DeWitt explains in her Paris Review interview (link below): first published in 2000, it went out of print when the publisher got gobbled up in a merger, and it was hard enough convincing a publisher to tackle it the first time (all those languages!), but somehow that happened. I’m so grateful. And if you’re still here – I expect most people stopped reading a few sentences into the opening quote (oh no second person! Don’t worry, it’s just a few paragraphs) or by the first few sentences of my rambling – chances are you’ll be grateful as well.
* * *
The Trouble of Rational Thought: Miranda Popkey for Paris Review, June 10, 2016 “Trying to guess which contemporary novelist DeWitt might be eviscerating is one of the many delights of The Last Samurai.”
Helen DeWitt in the My First Time video series (Paris Review): “Different people liked different parts of the book, and so each person would feel that with some assistance I could be helped to make the whole book like the part that they liked, or maybe we could just get rid of all the parts they didn’t like and just keep what they liked.”
Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’ (Brian Hurley for The Millions): “As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.”
There it was again: shuffle, a voice, a quiet murmur, a presence. A disruption, a change. Something. This time Amanda was more certain. Her heart quickened. She felt sober, awake. She put her cup down on the marble counter, quietly—suddenly that seemed right, to move stealthily.
“I heard something.” She was whispering.
Such moments, Clay was called upon. He had to be the man. He didn’t mind it. Maybe he liked it. Maybe it made him feel necessary. From down the hall, he could almost hear Archie, snoring like a sleeping dog. “It’s probably just a deer in the front garden.”
“It’s something.” Amanda held up a hand to silence him. Her mouth was metallic with fear. “I know I heard something.”
There it was, undeniable: noise. A cough, a voice, a step, a hesitation, that uncategorizable animal knowledge that there’s another of the species nearby and the pause, pregnant, to see if they mean harm. There was a knock at the door. A knock at the door of this house, where no one knew they were, not even the global positioning system, this house near the ocean but also lost in farmland, this house of red bricks painted white, the very material the smartest little piggy chose because it would keep him safest. There was a knock at the door.
This was not at all the book I expected it to be. That’s not a complaint: I wasn’t sure how the book I expected could possibly live up to they hype I’d heard. Now I understand how: by being a different book.
Descriptions typically read something like: A white couple rents a vacation house, then an older black couple show up, say they’re the owners, and there’s been some sort of blackout in the city, can they stay in the house. Naturally this sets the scene for racial tensions. It sounded a bit like Six Degrees of Separation (which the book mentions). But no one would say much about anything else, though there were indications that something else was going on. Not since The Sixth Sense have I felt such a refusal to reveal. I was driven by curiosity more than anything else: what could possibly happen, given the initiating event, that would be so surprising?
Well, for one thing, there’s more than one initiating event, and the knock at the door is just the first one.
Granted, that knock leads to some interesting moments, including a bit of casual racism (“This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived. But what did she mean by that?”) and some class envy. For that matter, race and class run through the whole thing. But it’s not a dramatic version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (which the book also mentions, with a twinkle of humor). Nor does it disintegrate into a white-vs-black doubles match of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And no, I’m not going to tell you where it does go.
I will point out how all the usual markers, the guideposts we use to understand fiction, the details that set expectations, are confounded. It’s right there in the paragraph above: a red brick house painted white, near ocean but in farmland, and lost to GPS. Amanda: “….it was unclear whether she was guest or host. She liked clarity about the role she was meant to discharge.” But there is no clarity. And we, too, as readers, are off the literary grid. And as the story tells us, “The brain abets the eye; eventually your expectations of a thing supersede the thing itself”, but when those expectations are contorted by conflicting messages, how do you get your bearings? You just let the story be what it is, as uncomfortable as that may be.
In an interview with Emma Straub, Alam addressed this kind of open, rolling genre idea directly. He said he wanted to “push through the vacation novel (a very specific thing) into the political novel; to go through the domestic into the very big.” He definitely achieved that. He also talks about dropping in elements from genre fiction – horror, thriller, suspense – but not following the expectations. “If the narrative chooses to deal with that in a way that you are not necessarily expecting, it can feel electric, and weird, and fun.” Yes, it can. It can feel like you’ve lost your GPS, your Wi-Fi.
Rose saw a deer, with abbreviated velvet antlers and a cautious yet somehow also bored mien, considering her through dark, strangely human eyes.
She wanted to say “A deer” but there was no one there to hear her. She looked over her shoulder into the house and saw her parents talking. She wasn’t supposed to go in the pool, but she wasn’t going to go in the pool. She walked down the steps onto the damp grass and the deer just watched her, barely curious. She hadn’t even seen that there was another beside it – no more. There were five deer, there were seven; every time Rose adjusted her eyes to try to understand what she was seeing, she was seeing something new. There were dozens of deer. Had she been up higher, she’d have understood that there were hundreds, more than a thousand, more than that, even. She wanted to run inside and tell her parents, but she also wanted to just stand there and see it.
The narration has an interesting twist to it. Most of the time it’s head-hopping: close third-person from one character then another. But eventually, a broader view pops in, just for a moment in a few scattered places, which orients the main in a wider frame. In the quote above, this was the first occurrence of this that I noticed. While in this case the broader view is peculiar; later glances will be increasingly alarming. For me, this was reassuring; I was reading correctly, I wasn’t on some flight of fancy, and the narrator – the author – hadn’t left me behind.
To me, the book didn’t so much end as it just stopped. This would normally be a big flaw, but here it worked. And it’s maybe why so many readers are talking about it as the book that captures the off-GPS feeling of the pandemic, and the political tensions of the moment, though, published in the fall of 2020, it was obviously written before we were using words like pandemic and before the pro-life party turned out to be anti-public-health, before anyone dreamed the Capitol could be attacked and the party of law and order wouldn’t want to investigate the origins. The book has the same feeling as some of us have now: we’re waiting to get back to normal, or for a new normal, but normal is nowhere to be seen.
I’m still trying to figure out if I “liked” the book; I’m in something like a state of literary shock. I’m waiting to see if it comes back to me over the coming weeks and months, and in what ways, particularly this idea of being “not lost but not quite not lost.” That feels more important than “what a great read” anyway.
I’m very glad I read it, though not for the reasons I thought I would be. Who needs GPS, just look at the scenery and enjoy wherever you are.
I’ve always been a little embarrassed by my great fondness for this novel. It’s one of the books I used to read about once a year – all 773 pages – back before I started living on the internet, blogging, and taking moocs. When I put it on my re-read list for this year, I wondered: would I find it a bit silly, a kind of Dan-Brown-writes-Indiana-Jones thing, the historical and religious background material that so captivated me now recognized as trivial at best, invented at worst? Would the characters – a cantankerous alcoholic professor, having failed academically and personally, out to redeem himself but unable to get along with anyone, a young earnest grad student sent to track him down who becomes enmeshed in his project against his will and hers – annoy me as stereotypes rather than captivate me as flawed people doing their best to recapture their own faith?
When you put it that way, this sounds like a really stupid book.
But it isn’t. And, in fact, as I re-read it this time, I discovered something I couldn’t have seen when I last read it about ten years ago: it’s Kierkegaard. At least, it’s what I think of as Kierkegaard. Granted, I’m no expert – and I’ve barely scratched the surface for this particular philosopher – but the thought crept in about halfway through, only to be strengthened by the final sentences. I went looking for more info on Kierkegaard, particularly his views on subjective vs objective truth, on faith vs reason, and his complaints against the church as an institution vs religion as personal experience. And I become more convinced: this is Kierkegaard.
The overall story of the novel can be summed up quite simply: Patrick O’Hanrahan, a theology professor at the University of Chicago who’s been on the way down for a long time, is searching for a gospel rumored to be written in the first century, the earliest gospel recorded, written by an actual disciple rather than cobbled together from notes and letters a hundred years later. It’s been floating around for decades, but was considered untranslatable and/or heretical and/or dangerous, and bounced from one place to another between rich collectors and institutions academic and religious. A scholar-priest claimed to be deciphering it, but he met with an unfortunate, um, accident and the scroll disappeared. And now, it’s turned up again.
The problem is, O’Hanrahan has fallen off the radar screen since heading for Europe on his quest. The University sends Lucy Dantan, naïve and sheltered graduate student torn between her rigid Catholic background and academia, to find him. O’Hanrahan doesn’t particularly want to be found, especially by some dewy-eyed innocent. Nevertheless, she persisted, and found him. Then she decided to go home. Then she persisted again, then decided to go home, etc etc, and they travel through Northern Ireland, Italy, Greece, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Sudan over the course of a month or so, chasing the elusive Gospel and looking for research materials that will lead to its translation. And, in doing so, dealing with kidnappers, spies, mad monks, zealots, illness, and a language that will not yield to translation.
The gospel itself is embedded in the novel, a chapter preceding each change of venue.
Textual note: Throughout the gospel, the editor has arranged the text in paragraphs, punctuating as seemed reasonable, and using quotes in the dialogue for easier reading. The editor has endeavoured to retain a bit of the self-important and stilted tone of this confession, reminiscent of the Byzantine church historian Eusebius, but of an earlier era.
This is something of a self-spoiler – here is the Gospel, translated, edited, and notated, so someone must have had success finding and reading it – but there are other possibilities: what if it’s consigned to flames at the end, and what is recorded exists only in the minds of the participants? Or what it if’s discovered to be a forgery, all that work down the drain?
It doesn’t really matter, because the story I’ve outlined isn’t what the book is about; it’s merely the engine, how it gets to what it’s about. And it is, as the first line states, about finding one’s faith. The three main characters – O’Hanrahan, Lucy, and the writer of the gospel – all have lost different kinds of faiths in different ways, and the book is about how they find it again.
O’Hanrahan looked once more to the spires and would have prayed for a second chance to use his gifts anew, more wisely this time, more productively, if he thought such a prayer would be heard, let alone answered. Or if he thought prayer worked at all and wasn’t the vainest waste of words yet conceived.
(You have lost your faith, Patrick.)
“I have lost my faith,” he said aloud to the rain-soaked night.
Oh, wait – there is a fourth main character: God. Or, maybe more accurately, the Holy Spirit. It appears in parentheticals throughout the book, and as a literary device serves many functions: to point out a character’s misunderstanding or self-delusion, as foreshadowing, and sometimes as conversation. O’Hanrahan refers to “the voices,” indicating he’s heard them before, and engages in some back-and-forth. Lucy seems to be responding to something she interprets as her own thoughts, conscience, perhaps, though it’s unclear. What is clear is that these aren’t psychotic voices or delusions, since the Voice of God persists when no one hears it. And sometimes, it’s just to inject some humor. Yes, God has a sense of humor:
Lucy was a born worrier. Between the plane crashing and dealing with Dr. O’Hanrahan, whose ferocious presence she had witnessed in lecture halls a time or two, her body pumped and adrenaline of incessant worry….. [S]he looked out to see London in a soup of low-lying rain clouds. Oh thank you, Father, Jesus, and Holy Ghost, for delivering me safe and sound!
Although, then again, most planes crash on takeoff or landing.
(This is not the fighting spirit we might have hoped for, Lucy.)
With O’Hanrahan, the humor is more sophisticated, but he’s up to the challenge, as when he finds himself ill in Jerusalem, and discouraged because of the problems with getting his hands on the scroll, for one thing, and figuring out the undeciphered language it seems to contain:
… And now in the Holy City of Jerusalem in the middle of the night on a deserted street with goddam Mt. Ararat between me and my bottle of pills – no, not Ararat with the dove and olive branch, but Pisgah, Mt. Nebo! With the Promised Land of his worldly ambitions glimmering at him from the valley, unreachable! And the Lord said to O’Hanrahan, this is the scroll that I swore to those before thee, and I will give it to thy rivals. I have let thee see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not translate it and make a pile of money.
(Because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people at the waters of Jack Daniels, in the wilderness of Jamisons…)
God the Heckler, now. Catcalls from the cheap seats!
Refer to Deuteronomy 32; this is a variation of God’s punishment of Moses for his impatience 40 years before, by taking him to Pisgah to look at Canaan, but not to enter. And come to think of it, most of the times when O’Hanrahan and the Voice of God converse, it’s when the professor is ill.
Now, what does all this have to do with Kierkegaard?
I see two, possibly three or four, uses of his ideas, all of which relate to each other. First is his concern, written in his journal at age 22, about finding the purpose of his life:
What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.
Kierkegaard, Journal 1A
For O’Hanrahan, this comes up, as in the quote above, when he realizes he’s squandered his talents and produced little. As a young man, he translated a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls and made a name for himself, but hasn’t published since, and that “publish or perish” thing is taken quite seriously, even for those who have made a name. He later looks at the bookshelf of his friend the Rabbi Hersch, and thinks of the books he could have written, but didn’t.
The first-century gospelist also has a similar moment when he realizes he’s been on the wrong path all along. He has been publishing, writing, though his works have mostly been destroyed (one burned by Peter himself). His travels in search of faith take him to visit Peter; when he mournfully admits he can’t perform healings or other miracles, Peter attempts to console him, but the effect is anything but, as he records in his Gospel:
A moment later, upon reflection, Peter volunteered a confession to ease my feelings: “My brother… I’ve never spoken in tongues. Yes, John gets to jabbering and I nod along pretending I understand. I’m frankly embarrassed; it looks so silly. Even at the Pentecost, I didn’t learn anything that I already didn’t know. Some people get some gifts and others others. Like Paul. He’s never healed a sore joint, to my mind – ah, but the difference he has made to us! A Roman and fine scholar that he is!”
And then I understood.
O bitter my revelation!
I saw clearly that it was to be my lot to teach and evangelize, to take my fortune and travel with the Nazirene message to the Gentiles, to dictate epistles like Saul’s to be read throughout the Church, to be revered and studied. And I did not do it! And therefore our Lord and Master, impatient but resolute, appeared by the grace of Our Father and recruited someone else – Saul of Tarsus! Mine enemy! The man I reviled! He was but fulfilling the mission that I did not complete!
I found myself weeping hopelessly before Peter.
‘I am a failure in the eyes of God,” I told him.
“But so are we all, dear friend,” he replied.
Lucy’s dilemma is different, as she hasn’t yet begun her career and still isn’t sure what it is she is working towards. Her dissertation on changes in Greek alphabets is dragging; when she describes it, she assures O’Hanrahan it’s more interesting than she’s making it sound, and the Voice of God mutters, (Not really). But she doesn’t know what else to do. She still considers her teenage idea of becoming a Poor Clare, but isn’t sure that suits her, either. By the end of the book, she has a much clearer vision.
While her revelation is life-changing and inspiring, it’s a decision she makes in connection with it that bothers me as a reader (I’m being discreet in the interests of limiting spoilers). In a novel where necessity of decisions is dictated by motivations, this decision seems less necessary than the others. I feel a little authorial intrusion here, the author’s wish to include a particular resolution, rather than it springing from the character herself. Her changing attitude toward the catechism seems pushed a bit too far. That may or may not be an accurate impression. It is a new impression on this read; I didn’t give it a second thought in earlier reads.
The clearest (to me, at least) Kierkegaardian aspect uses his idea of subjective vs. objective truth as the key to faith. This is related to his “leap of faith” (which both the journal of the College Theological Society and the TV show The Good Place, as well as various other sources inside and outside of Academia) will tell you is better translated as “leap to faith”. Religious faith, he argues, is not found by reason; in fact, it’s the uncertainty that makes it faith.
When subjectivity is truth, the definition of truth must also contain in itself an expression of the antithesis to objectivity, a memento of that fork in the road, and this expression will at the same time indicate the resilience of the inwardness. Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person. At the point where the road swings off (and where that is cannot be stated objectively, since it is precisely subjectivity), objective knowledge is suspended. Objectively he then has only uncertainty, but this is precisely what intensifies the infinite passion of inwardness, and truth is precisely the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite. I observe nature in order to find God, and I do indeed see omnipotence and wisdom, but I also see much that troubles and disturbs. The summa summarum [sum total] of this is an objective uncertainty, but the inwardness is so very great, precisely because it grasps this objective uncertainty with all the passion of the infinite…But the definition of truth stated above is a paraphrasing of faith…Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and the objective uncertainty.
Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments
That’s a lot of verbiage (he tends to do that) so let me repeat the key point: “Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person.” Don’t get me started on “existing;” I’m already way above my pay grade.
It is our disciple from antiquity who makes the clearest case for this embrace of objective uncertainty with the strongest passion, in the final paragraphs of his Gospel. Having spent years writing the most objective and factual treatises in the interests of research, and at the end of his long journey that makes up the Gospel, having visited the other Disciples and found little to restore his faith, he at last comes to a life-or-death decision that forces him to decide between Fact and Faith, and chooses Faith:
I preferred, dear brother, in this final gesture, Faith to Truth.…
The Master Of The Universe’s gift to us is not Truth, which we clearly don’t have the capacity to perceive; it is instead the capacity for Faith. These past years I have allowed my obsession with what was true to lead me down faint, irrelevant paths. One cannot retrieve Faith by a world of proofs, facts, histories, and tracts, as if it were Truth one had lost.
I am leaving out a great deal here, since to reveal more would spoil the impact of the novel; as such, I’m afraid it seems weak and diluted. But trust me, the circumstances under which he declares this are goosebump-inducing, and brings me to tears every time I read it. This was the passage, late as it is in the book, that convinced me of the connection to Kierkegaard.
The book as a whole, however, embodies another of Kierkegaard’s themes. Even ten years ago, I described this novel as making fun of religion while still revering God and faith. Those who have strong beliefs in the tenets of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Catholicism in particular, might well find it an offensive book, as O’Hanrahan needles Lucy with tales of what people have done in the name of God: martyrs, Crusades, extremes of asceticism. Yet there’s that Voice of God, which keeps the focus on Something beyond all that, Something that wants more for us. It’s this Voice that recounts St. Francis of Assisi rejecting the trappings of his own ascendency:
His conscience led him to oppose his followers who raised a monastery in his honor – are the sick eased in their suffering? Will the poor be served? Francis was not listened to. So as Lucy and Gabriel and all the other children of Mine spend the night in serious thoughts, dreaming of the security of rules, orders, traditions, habits, the set routine from matins to nones, they would do well to consider the first Franciscan to resign his place in the order to continue the search for God: in 1220, St. Francis himself.
The tradition of mocking what people do with God goes back a long ways, even for Catholics.
This, too, was a Kierkegaardian theme. Philosophy professor and Existentialism scholar Robert Solomon sums it up in a lecture:
The problem with organized religion is it transfers what in fact is a very personal experience to something which is at its very heart purely institutional.
Now of course in this one can see Kierkegaard’s Protestantism reacting against essentially Catholicism, something which was a very common move of the day, but also he wants to move against Lutheranism itself, which, as far as he was concerned, had become much too herdlike, much too organized, and for all its talk about the inner spirit and the emphasis on individual freedom, nevertheless it was still much too impersonal, much too social, for his taste.
One can mock what people have made of God without mocking God, and here we have are 772 pages showing how.
The potential fourth aspect of Kierkegaard that shows up is his three levels of existence, from the Aesthetic to the Ethical to the Religious. I suspect O’Hanrahan is the symbol of the first, though, interestingly enough, he started out as a Jesuit priest, so his journey is convoluted. Lucy might display characteristics of the Ethical stage. And that leaves our Disciple, the ancient Gospelist, to show us Religious Existence, if only briefly. I’m too uncertain about the meanings of these terms to claim this, so only cite it as a possibility. Maybe in ten more years, I’ll have the understanding to go into more depth.
There’s something about absurdity as well. O’Hanrahan delights in recounting the crazy things done in the name of religion – self-mutilation, imaginary foreskins as wedding rings, sitting atop a tower for years – and I wonder if those things seem absurd from the outside, but are part of each individual’s construct of faith. But, like the notions of Existence, I’m groping in the dark here, and need to understand Kierkegaard’s use if the term better.
The net result of my re-read: I still love this book, it still makes me cry in spite of myself. Because I too find little for me in organized religion, but can’t help feeling there is Something that all of the religions point to, like the Blind Men and the Elephant. This book brings me closer to understanding that Something than the hours I spent in Sunday School and prayer meetings and worship services during my Misspent Youth as a Fundamentalist; and, by the way, O’Hanrahan’s mock etymology of the word “fundamentalist” is a special treat – and based on fact, to boot.
Our Gospelist confides to us while on his way to find Reason in the city of Meroe:
I confess to a brief, foolish flirtation with the adventures of my youth, my brother. I lay awake at night, in the camps of other travelers, looking at the desert night sky and imagining that I should go into the court of Meroe and perform miracles as Moses before Pharaoh, that I should win over a kingdom where Matthew before me had failed. And that finally my gospel alone would touch another man’s heart and that the world might change ever so slightly toward the good and then it would be my words and faith that engendered this inclination.
This fictional gospel touched at least two fictional lives in soul-changing ways, and perhaps, situated in this novel, has had other effects beyond the confines of the fictional world. I’ve quoted that opening line several times (once, in connection with a math mooc, of all things).
A Medievalist I follow on Twitter remarked back in May, “One thing I wish more people got about pre-modern history is how very *little* documentation usually survives and how little we actually know.” I wonder if that’s why religion in antiquity provides such a rich setting for fiction: it allows great leeway of fact while weaving among some of society’s most strongly-held beliefs.
I count this as a highly successful re-read. And I’m glad to realize I may have learned something from all those philosophy moocs.